Perspective: advancing the Gospel

Preached on: Sunday 10th January 2021
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. There is no Powerpoint pdf accompanying this sermon.
Bible references: Philippians 1:12-26
Location: Brightons Parish Church

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

In your opinion and from your perspective, how well does that describe our day and time? You could be forgiven for thinking that these words had been written fairly recently, yet they’re taken from the all-time best-selling book originally written in English Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities. I would imagine most of us were glad to see the end of 2020 and despite the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel with approval now of two vaccines, the introduction earlier this week of a further lockdown does not give much encouragement as we enter 2021. A lot of how we view this new year has a lot to do with our perspective. I’m not sure we realize this but our perspective on life is incredibly important because it either can make us or break us.

That’s what this text that we just read in Philippians 1 is all about. In verses 12 to 18 we learn from Paul to have a positive perspective in the midst of tough times. Paul is writing to the Church in Philippi, a church he had planted about 10 years before. But he’s writing it while he’s in prison in Rome and it’s obvious that he’s restricted, limited and quite literally in chains. There’s no freedom, almost no privacy and I doubt that the food was what you’d get from Marks and Spencers or some decent restaurant. Moreover, if we know anything at all about Paul, we know that instead of being stuck in a small one-room house in Rome chained to a succession of Roman palace guards, he wanted to travel to Spain to preach the gospel or roam from city to city in Greece and Asia minor to visit all the churches he started, or minister the love and grace of Christ to all the people that he’s won to the faith. And not only is he imprisoned but it’s clear that he’s got some enemies in the Church who are trying to shame him because of his arrest and impending trial before the emperor.

We don’t know who these people were but as he notes, they’re trying to cause him more pain and anguish as he suffers through the difficulties of his imprisonment if there was ever a person whose life illustrated that to be a follower of Jesus means taking up a cross to follow Him, it was Paul. He shows us that sometimes life is just plain tough! Life can be tough even for God’s people as it was for Paul and yet he transforms this tough time by turning his prison into a pulpit. I don’t know why but God has used prisons in enormously powerful ways. John Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress from Bedfordshire jail; Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote letters to his students and friends from Osnaburg prison in Nazi Germany Martin Luther King junior wrote his famous letters from the jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama; and Paul wrote this great letter to the Philippians from his prison in Rome, to give them a fresh perspective.

For starters, he focuses on the mission of God from verse 12 and the Gospel is advancing. The Pretorian guard knows he’s in prison for his religious beliefs not because he was an enemy of Caesar and his friends and his enemies are being motivated to share Christ, and people are coming to faith. Christ’s kingdom is advancing. The Gospel is expanding and as a result he can rejoice.

Our perspective on life is incredibly important because it can make us or break us, and Paul knew that so he was going to do everything he could to look for the providential work of the Sovereign Savior in the midst of tough times. So, let me ask you this: Do you see any way that the Sovereign Savior might be providentially at work in the midst of your circumstances to advance the gospel? As we begin 2021, without diminishing your pain, how is your perspective?

Paul felt the pain of his imprisonment but what’s really interesting and important for us is that he takes the perspective that God is doing some great things and then applies it to himself.

Look at the rest of 18-20. Paul is telling the Philippians that, through their prayers and the work of the Holy Spirit, God is providentially at work and so his imprisonment will work out for his best. If we go to Acts 25 Paul was on trial in Caesarea before the Roman Governor Felix and he leveraged his Roman citizenship and appealed to Caesar. So that’s what got him to this prison in Rome, but that meant that in the very near future he would go before Caesar and the emperor would decide his fate which would either be to release him or have him executed as an enemy of Rome. Caesar at that time was Nero. Nero was a compulsive, corrupt, wildly extravagant and violent man who ended up killing his own mother and one of his brothers. He was a genuinely dangerous and malevolent personality. So there’s a real chance that he could have given Paul a thumbs-down and sent him to the chopping block, and yet, in the face of that he’s rejoicing because he really believes that all this will work out for his best. Paul is not a naive optimist about life who’s in denial about the suffering that’s come his way, he’s not a pie-in-the-sky, by-and-by person who’s emotionally shut down in order to protect himself from more pain, he’s in prison under severe restrictions bothered by his enemies and there’s a very real possibility that he might be executed, and yet he’s thrilled excited and he is rejoicing. The reason he could do that was because his perspective on life and death had been Christianized.

“For me to live as Christ and to die is gain” – this is the key statement in this passage and Paul spells out in detail what he meant by this. let’s look at the first part in verse 22.

“If I go on living in the body this means fruitful labor for me.” Paul is arguing that since he centered his life in Christ the Sovereign Savior, if he’s allowed to live, that will mean fruitful labor for him.

It’s better to view life as a wheel with a series of spokes around the hub. To live as Christ means that we put Jesus at the center and let all the spokes of our lives be influenced by Him. That’s what Paul did. Christ was at the center of his life when he was making tents to pay bills, when he was traveling from place to place to preach the gospel, and when he was relating to both believers and unbelievers, and now here, when he was in prison and as a result of Christ, has transformed his perspective on life. If we place Jesus at the centre he will influence every part of our lives and like Paul, over time, will bear good fruit. We will see ourselves growing in grace and godliness and good character; we’ll have a positive impact on our family and friends and our co-workers; we’ll see the value of church and ministry; and we’ll reach out to our friends and neighbours in the love of Jesus.

Philippians 1 also impacts how we see death. Look at what Paul says into it verse 23 “I’m torn between the two a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.” Paul is teasing out his statement in this verse that to die is gain. He’s saying that when we die our souls go to be with the glorified Jesus and when we’re in His presence everything is peaceful and happy, as we wait for the day when Christ returns and we get our own resurrected bodies to live in the new heaven and the new earth. Death is an enemy but it’s an enemy that Christ has conquered and transformed for those who trust in Him and therefore it has become a means of gain for His people. Our perspective on life, especially when it goes south, is incredibly important because it can either make us or break us, and that’s why it’s so important that we develop a Philippians 1 perspective on life and death. This takes time. A Philippians 1 perspective where we look for the good in the midst of the bad takes time to develop because it’s not natural, it’s supernatural, and so we gain from this kind of perspective.

Let’s look again at verse 19 where Paul says I know that through your prayers and help given by the spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my best. He recognizes he needs God’s grace to maintain his perspective and that will come through their prayers and the Holy Spirit’s help. Paul is saying that through our prayers and God’s choreography on our lives, whatever happens will turn out for the best. We may not see it at this precise moment, we may not feel it in the middle of these tough times, but God will give grace to change our perspective so that, in due time, we can see the good things that have happened.

Finally, our perspective impacts other people. In the closing verses Paul has to go before the emperor for the legal decision on his case but he loves the Philippians and he wants what’s best for them and so, in faith, he makes a statement about remaining in the flesh so that he can be united with them again and minister to them again and everyone can be happy together. And, according to tradition, Paul was released by Nero and continued his ministry in the empire for another six or seven years and yet while he’s still there in prison Paul knew that how he saw his situation would impact everyone around him, the praetorian guards and anyone else he came into contact with. These verses go beyond Paul’s circumstances and his experience, they show us that our perspective on suffering life and death really influences those around us. if we have a Philippians 1 perspective, the perspective that Jesus our Sovereign Savior is actively at work in our lives and that he will more than take care of us in death, that will give us the energy, enthusiasm. A really Paul’s positive impact because a Philippians 1 perspective is really good for each of us and it’s good for all of those around us. Just imagine if every single person listening today by the grace of God developed a Philippians perspective, imagine the joy that we would all experience personally, and then imagine the happiness it would bring to our relationships, our families and our friends. Just imagine if we all prayed that God’s grace would descend on the political process and then the love of Christ we all stepped across the political wire and said we’re about something much, much bigger than perhaps elections or plans or things that need to be done. We are about spreading the Good News of the Gospel because it’s the hope of our nation and the hope of the world. I think that if, by the grace of God, we all did that, everyone around us would be amazed. The Good News of Jesus would expand much further than we can ever imagine or think of and we all would be much happier because Paul shows us that in our message today.

I will praise (Psalm 16 Tuesday evening)

Preached on: Tuesday 28th April 2020
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 20-04-28-Tuesday-Evening-Sermon-PowerPoint.
Bible references: Psalm 16
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Text: Psalm 16 (NIV)
Tuesday 28th April 2020
Brightons Parish Church

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

In tonight’s sermon I’m going to focus much more on the remaining verses of the psalm, then come back to some of what I shared on Sunday because the all age message focused very much on verses 1, 2 and 7. Nevertheless, the theme of trusting God, even in the ‘dark nights’ (Psalm 16:7 EEV), will be the core of our reflecting tonight, because this psalm is all about trusting God, beginning in v1 and then detailing that through the other ten verses.

I think what this psalm teaches us, through the life and experience of David, is that trusting is having our identity in God, v3-6; trusting is also having our hope in God,… v8-11; and finally, trusting is living consciously before God, as we saw on Sunday.

So, let’s turn to v3-6, trusting is having our identity in God. This psalm is identified as a miktam, a form of prayer, and most of these have a description that tells us they were written whilst David was fleeing as a fugitive from Saul. So, it’s highly likely that this psalm too was written during this period of David’s life, a time when he had to live in the wilderness, far from home, far from the land of his forefathers.

Now, every Israelite clan was secure in their possession of a portion of land, with clear boundary lines determined by the throwing of the lot, and this was seen as their inheritance in the Promised Land. As such, we need to be mindful of this when we hear verses 5 and 6, which said:
‘Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.’

So, the language here would normally be understood in terms of the land and how it was apportioned and valued. But, remember the circumstances David finds himself in here – he is without land, without home, driven away. Normally, this should lead an Israelite to be mournful, destitute, feeling cast adrift and uncertain of their life and value because theirs was an identity tied to the land, much more than any affiliation we might have in our day to our land, whatever our nationality.
Yet, that is not what we see of David. Instead, we see someone who now sees the Lord as his portion; the Lord is his inheritance, and in this, in God, David delights, because trusting is having our identity in God. It is by losing that which would normally be of greatest value to an Israelite, that David is enabled to come into a deeper place with God, to have a greater depth of trust.

As such, we read of David’s resolve to trust only in the Lord, for he said:
‘Those who run after other gods will suffer more and more.
I will not pour out libations of blood to such gods or take up their names on my lips.’ (v4)

What ‘suffering’ David mentions is unclear, though it could refer to realising that these other ‘gods’ are impotent and unable to fulfil the wishful hopes of their followers.

Nevertheless, David’s resolve is to worship, to trust, only the Lord. He will not participate in the ritual pouring and drinking of sacrificial blood within the false worship of these other gods, neither will he call upon their names in prayer, ritual or rites. Instead, it is the name of the Lord, Yahweh, that will be upon David’s lips alone, even though, at this time of his life, those around him encourage otherwise. We reed about this in 1st Samuel: ‘They have driven me today from my share in the Lord’s inheritance and have said, “Go, serve other gods.”’
(1 Samuel 26:19)
But David will have none of this, for he trusts in the Lord alone, and in the journey of loosing his inheritance, this refugee, finds in the Lord a greater refuge and inheritance than he ever knew before.

In my devotions last week, the Lectio 365 app said this:
‘God’s greatest gift is always, ultimately, simply himself.’
(repeat) I wonder, is God so real to us, like He was to David, that we can affirm this notion, and so say with David, ‘Lord, You alone are my portion and my cup’, or as our version on Sunday said, ‘You, Lord, are all that I need…[You are my greatest gift].’ Have we come to that place, where trusting in God means we have found our identity in Him, that He is our truest and best inheritance?

This idea is echoed in the words of Robert Murray McCheyne who said: ‘what a man is on his knees before God, that he is and nothing more.’ McCheyne knew that this life is fleeting, what we have is here today and gone tomorrow, and so like David, he also knew that it is what we have in God that lasts and is of eternal value, we are what we are in that secret place before God. So, are we a people who have our identity in God? Is He our portion and our inheritance? Do we find our security in the Lord, or is our security dependant on things and circumstances? The words of David in this psalm testify that even at the most unstable and threatening moments of our lives – when all other forms of security fail and leave us without defence – even then, the Lord is still our portion, our cup, our future.

And in case that sounds a bit hard to believe, in case that sounds trite or fanciful, or a notion based on a comfortable Western, middle class life, then I encourage you to dig into the life and writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a Protestant Lutheran Pastor and theologian during the Second World War.

Due to his opposition to the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer was arrested and executed in a concentration camp in the last month of the war. It is said of Bonhoeffer, that ‘even during the privations of the concentration camp, [he] retained a deep spirituality which was evident to other prisoners. Bonhoeffer continued to minister to his fellow prisoners. Payne Best, a fellow inmate and officer of the British Army, wrote this observation of him: “Bonhoeffer was different, just quite calm and normal, seemingly perfectly at his ease…his soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison. He was one of the very few men I have ever met to whom God was real and ever close to him.”’
(https://www.biographyonline.net/spiritual/dietrich-bonhoeffer.html)

Bonhoeffer and David, trusted the Lord and part of that was finding their identity, their security, in the Lord, even in the most desperate of times, and so they would not turn from Him, though advice or circumstance might encourage otherwise. Because although their inheritance was unseen, it was not insecure, and though their portion was intangible, it was not unreal.

The Apostle Paul says something quite akin to this in his writings to the Philippians, he said:

‘What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ…’ (Philippians 3:8)

Friends, may we so grow in our trust of God, maybe especially in these times, these ‘dark nights’, that we too can reach that place with Paul, with David, with Bonhoeffer, that we also realise the worth, the inheritance, we have in knowing Christ Jesus, and so through that trust find our identity, our security, in Him.

Secondly, this example of trusting God involves having our hope in God. David wrote:
‘I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
With him at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
nor will you let your faithful one see decay. You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.’ (v8-11)

Trusting God is having our hope in God, maybe especially in the face of death. David speaks of ‘the realm of the dead’, in some translations this phrase is given its technical name from the Hebrew, Sheol. It sounds strange to us, but that’s because we may not realise that Israel’s understanding of what happened after death… was slowly revealed by God over time, there was progressive revelation.

Nevertheless they knew, even in David’s time, that death is the opposite of life, and God is the source of life, and so to die, they thought, was to loose God, to loose His presence and the pleasures of His presence; death wasn’t simply about losing our present existence. The Hebrew understanding of death and its aftermath held out little or no hope of resurrection into new life, regardless of whether they were judged righteous or wicked. That’s part of the reason why the Sadducees in Jesus’ day held to the idea that there was no resurrection, but Jesus put them right when He said, that ‘[God] is not the God of the dead but of the living.’ (Matthew 22:32)

Yet, here, is one of those signs that God by His Spirit was revealing something through David, was inspiring hope of a future beyond death. This allows David to speak of knowing the Lord at his own right hand during his earthly life, and so not being shaken and knowing deep gladness and contentment. What is more, in the same psalm, David speaks of a hope of knowing God beyond death, by being at God’s right hand for eternity, and so of knowing His presence and pleasures. Trusting is having hope in God, especially in the face of death.

It was a trust also echoed in Jesus, who said with His last breath, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ (Luke 23:46) It is a trust found in the writings of Paul, who again said to the Philippians, ‘For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.’ (Philippians 1:21) To live now is to know Christ by His Spirit, but to die is to go and be with Christ in person.

This hope is only secure because of Jesus. The early church recognised that the language used in Psalm 16 had to point beyond David, because Peter, in his first great sermon recounted to his fellow Israelites these words: ‘I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it.’
(Acts 2:29-32)
Jesus alone was not left in Sheol; by His resurrection, He alone was saved the corruption of His body. As such, Jesus our Lord, is preserved by God, given an eternal inheritance, and so He will never be moved nor shaken, for He is secured from death, and ushered into the presence of the Father where there is fullness of joy.

But because of Easter, through faith in Jesus, we too can share in the victory of Jesus, and so, the hope of Psalm 16 becomes our hope as well through Jesus, because trusting is having our hope in God.

This psalm is a really powerful, challenging prayer, spoken by a man under the influence of the Spirit, amidst uncertain times, dark nights, and yet it is infused with confidence and joy, because David has learnt that trusting God is having our identity in God, and it is having our hope in God as well.

But how do we cultivate and sustain that kind of trust? Well, clearly this psalm doesn’t have all the answers, yet as we saw on Sunday morning, it does give us some important ideas, which I’d like to draw on again tonight.

In the all-age message, I spoke of how thankfulness and praise help to keep our horizon filled with God, because as we realise all that we have from our good heavenly Father, and realise who He is and appreciate all that we have through Jesus, then with thankfulness and praise, we keep our focus on God and sustain our trusting in Him.

One commentator said this: ‘trust is not merely a warm feeling or a passing impulse in a time of trouble…it is a structure of acts and experiences that open one’s consciousness to the Lord as the supreme reality of life.’ (James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation)

That’s a bit of a weighty statement, but a meaty statement to feed our minds and build our faith. ‘Trust…is a structure of acts and experiences that open one’s consciousness’ – and we might say, keep open one’s consciousness. As we said on Sunday, thankfulness and praise keep God at the centre, they keep Him in focus, by keeping us open to Him and conscious of Him. The great and terrible deception of the enemy is to turn our minds from God, to darken them, and make us believe in no god, or that God is distant and uncaring…
But with thankfulness and praise we keep that from happening, we open and keep open our consciousness to God, so that we live consciously before Him and with Him, rather than God being an after thought or put in His box and kept for Sunday.

In the introduction to the reading on Sunday, I spoke of how Google searches for prayer are up significantly since the start of the pandemic. It would be good to pray that in the midst of this, people’s consciousness of God would open such that they find Him and come to trust in Him. Yet, let’s also pray, that their consciousness stays open, that they go on to live consciously with God for the rest of their lives, bearing a great harvest to His glory.

And let’s take note of that for ourselves as well, that we might be doers of the word and not only hear it, for thankfulness and praise are only a few ways given, to us by God, to help sustain this consciousness of God and keep Him at the centre of our horizon and outlook. If you’re looking for more ideas, you might want to review the sermon and material from 17th March last year, it’s still on our website by the way. In that service I spoke on spiritual temperaments, and if you review the material then you can figure out which temperaments match you, because each one of us will have ways that help us meet with God and keep us open to Him and centred upon Him. I would also encourage you though to try out the other temperaments, just in case you find a surprising new way of building your trust in God by living consciously before Him.

In all of this, it’s worth noting that David’s difficulties did not vanish as he said this prayer. The insecurities of everyday life still remained for him, and they do for us as well. Yet, as we weave in thankfulness and praise, to strengthen and deepen our trust in God, living consciously before Him, we are then empowered through Him to find the path of life, both within and through these painful times, even when we seem to approach the very gates of Sheol itself. I pray that we will be a people who keep trusting in these days, by having our identity and our hope in God as we weave a rhythm of thankfulness and praise into our lives.

May it be so. Amen.

Advent: invitation to life

Preached on:
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 19-12-08-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon.
Bible references: Luke 1:26-47
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Text: Luke 1:26-47
Sunday 8th December 2019
Brightons Parish Church

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Of all the seasons in our year, Christmas-time is probably the one that has the most traditions, is it not? More than Easter, more than birthdays and anniversaries, we all have expectations of how Christmas will go, we have set ideas of what should happen and when. You may have set ideas about who should go downstairs first to see if the presents have arrived, or when the presents should be opened, or what should be worn on the day. Then there’s the issue of when you will eat Christmas dinner – if you’re willing to participate, let’s do a quick straw poll by a show of hands: whose families eat between noon to 2pm; then 2pm to 4pm, then anyone around 4pm or later?
In my family, when to eat has been an issue in previous years because normally it would be about 2pm, but a few years ago, my middle sister asked for a later time because of seemingly important reasons like visiting the in-laws and wanting her kids to be awake for the meal. My youngest sister and I just about had a heart-attack over the idea of moving Christmas dinner back to three o’clock, so we eventually compromised on 2.30pm, and I had to change my set ideas on how Christmas should be, because sometimes our set ideas need to change.

Our reading today from Luke’s gospel is a familiar one to many of us: the angel Gabriel brings a message from God to Mary about the upcoming birth of Jesus. Even this early into Advent, I’ve told the story a number of times – so it’s easy to gloss over the dynamics of this event…
and to reduce it to something nice and familiar. But in all honesty, this isn’t a nice comfortable story, it is really quite unsettling, because Mary and Joseph are engaged – they have their plan, their set ideas, for how life will work out: I wonder if they were buzzing with excitement at being engaged, and if Joseph was busy building the house that they would live in together, and was Mary discussing with her friends what the wedding day would be like and what it would be like being married to Joseph and whether children might come along one day.

And then suddenly, out of the blue, they are asked to change their set ideas for how life will go. Gabriel arrives with a message that God wants to involve Mary and Joseph in His plans and purposes for the whole world. But the message from God is a challenging invitation…
– Mary is asked to carry a baby that will be called the Son of God, a baby that will be given the throne of David by the Lord God, and this baby will reign over a kingdom that will be eternal and all encompassing. This message from God is a really big ask – this message is going to thoroughly upend Mary and Joseph’s plans for their future.

What’s more, this invitation from God is going to result in Mary and Joseph facing scandal and humiliation, probably for the rest of their lives, because everyone will know that Mary was pregnant before the wedding day, and everyone will know she became pregnant after being away from Joseph for 3 months – that’s going to raise a lot of questions about the identity of the father. Their set ideas for life will be forever replaced if they accept this invitation from God.
So, this story is no nice, comfortable story. Sure, we let the kids think that, but in reality, it is both gut-wrenching and awe-inspiring. In the midst of a cosmic story about how God will set the world aright through the coming of His Son, the promised Messiah, we find a very moving invitation. And like I was saying last week, on every page of Scripture, we are invited to consider how the cosmic story of what God is up to in the world brings us an invitation for today as well.

So, let me ask you this: as we count down the weeks to Christmas and so approach the end of another year, what has God been saying to you these past months? The Christmas story clearly shows that God is the living, everpresent God, and as such He is frequently inviting us into His plans and purposes – He might have spoken to you during a church service, or a conversation with a friend, or something you read or experienced in recent months – but be assured, God has been speaking to you. And if we have been attentive, then we might have heard some of what He has been whispering to our hearts. So, what has God been speaking to you about? What has been His message to You this past year?

Or what about us as a congregation? Amidst the change, amidst the uncertainty of the future, what has God been saying to us collectively? Where has been the encouragement, where has been the challenge? What has God by His Spirit been impressing upon us as a congregation?

Now, I realise I’m putting you on the spot with that question, but I’m not looking for an answer…
by the time you reach the door, which might be a relief to you. But maybe in these final weeks of the year, as we go about our set ideas for Christmas, as we ponder the Christmas message afresh, a message that brought encouragement, challenge, and an invitation, maybe we can take some time in these final weeks and reflect upon what God’s invitation to us has been.

Now, if you have something you’d like to share on that, particularly for us as a congregation, then please speak with me, or speak with one of our team conveners. We interviewed them a few weeks’ back for Guild Sunday and any one of us would be happy to hear you out.

Now as we ponder God’s invitation to us, and find Him challenging the set ideas for our individual and collective lives, then we’ll likely be faced with a choice akin to Mary’s, so how did Mary respond?

She said: ‘I am the Lord’s servant…May your word to me be fulfilled.’ (Luke 1:38) In other passages we see how Joseph reacts and the end product is similar: in both Mary and Joseph, we see an openness to the invitation of God, and a trust in His plans and power. They both evidence an open trust in God, an open trust in the invitation of God to be part of His plans and purposes for the world. This could show an open trust, such that they are willing to put aside their set ideas for life and embrace a new life from God.

And once again, we are invited to consider how the divine story affectsour story. God has been speaking to you this year, He has been whispering a particular message to you, and the question is – will we take up God’s invitation to a life we never anticipated? In this moment of choice, how will we respond? Will we be like Mary, with an open trust in God, in His plans and power?

Now as I outlined earlier, this is not simply a nice invitation from God, saying: “oh, would you like a baby?” Because Mary saying “yes” to God’s invitation would mean saying “yes” to ridicule and contempt for being pregnant whilst unmarried in a small town, a town probably as full of gossips as anywhere else. And Mary would have known this at the time of God’s invitation, yet she still said, “May your word to me be fulfilled.” It is surely one of the most courageous statements ever said…

to sign up to something that will bring heartache, even suffering. Her openness to pay such a price, to even lose some happiness, to lose something she valued; there’s part of me that can never get my head around that, to say “yes” to that particular invitation, is so very inspiring.

In comparison to that, are the things that God is asking of us, quite so hard? In light of Mary’s example, an example that would foreshadow her Son’s example, though His was of a magnitude much greater, but in light of Mary’s example, can we really still keep making excuses? Or will we embrace God’s invitation, no matter how it might change our set ideas for our lives?

I could give you any number of examples from my own life, either from over the years or from this past year… when I have made the wrong choice, when I was not prepared to pay the cost, but which now, looking back, I so wish that I had: that nudge from God to make sure that I prioritised time with Him, because when I didn’t I grew weary, hope dimmed, perspective blurred; or there’s that challenge from God, quite frequently, on how I parent or how I treat my wife, and the need then to apologise, to seek His wisdom, and commit to a different way of life all because I keep ignoring Him. Or there’s the invitation to speak about by faith to someone, and too often the times even I turn it down, and then the opportunity never arises again.

Friends, as I’ve said, God has been speaking to you. He communicates through His Word, through His people, by His Spirit and in the midst of the circumstances of life. If we have been attentive,…
we might have heard His invitation, but now the question is, what will we do with it – how will we respond? Will it be like Mary, with an open trust in the plans, the power and the love of God?

One final observation about Mary’s story. After Mary trusts God’s invitation, it leads her on to sing her own song, and it begins with these words: “My soul glorifies the
Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” (Luke 1: 46-47)

Some time has passed since that initial visit from the angel, and Mary has had time to dwell upon and maybe experience the effect of her trusting response in God’s invitation. Yet it feels like there’s a change in the dynamics now. Before, in the encounter with the angel,
Mary’s response was quite muted,…
not necessarily grudging, for there was an open trust, but maybe a little uncertainty because of all that’s going to happen.

Yet now, when Mary is with Elizabeth, and after some time has passed, there is a different tone, a different feel, to Mary – the trust is still clearly there, she still trusts in the goodness and purposes of God, but now, now, we see in her a joy that spills over into song, a song that will be written about and which will inspire music and drama in generations to come. God brought the invitation – Mary responded with open trust – and in time, joy came and an impact on future generations as well.

Friends, individually and corporately, God has brought
His invitation to us this year…
It could be a costly invitation, maybe not to the extent of Mary’s, but nonetheless still costly to us. And, as I’ve said, we then have a choice of how to respond – will we too respond with open trust? For if we are willing to trust, and only if we trust, then the joy and the impact that was Mary’s, can be ours as well.

Now, God doesn’t promise an easy life, He doesn’t promise that if we respond with open trust that the invitation won’t be costly or leave us with unanswered questions; after all, Mary was to go on and experience some degree of difficulty and hardship herself, even before Jesus went to the Cross; she still lost a husband, she still worried what her grown-up Son was doing; though the angel called her blessed she knew hardship.
But she also knew joy – and one day that joy…
would forever remain with her, as she placed her trust in the plans of God, in the very Person of God who was her Son, that babe who was also her Messiah and Saviour; she would place her trust in Him and in His invitation, and in Him she found a joy that could never be taken from her.

Friends, God issues His invitation – His invitation to a life you could never dream nor imagine, both individually and corporately. He is speaking, has spoken, and if we are to share in the joy of Mary, then we too must respond with open trust, we must make room for this Christ-child, just as Mary had to make room for Him in her life as well.

And let’s take a moment to think about that impact Mary had on future generations. Many of us would like to see our congregation and young people come to own the
Christian faith for themselves; we hope to have…
an impact upon them as well, just like Mary. But in today’s culture, we can’t simply talk at them or point to words on a page, because they simply do not care. Yet, when these words from Scripture are combined with your personal story of how it has made a difference, well then they might listen and heed what is shared.

Now, I don’t know all your stories much yet, but when on placement, it was so sad that few people could share their experience of what their faith had done in their life; they could tell me that they came to share for X number of years and what jobs they had done, but too few could share how their relationship with God had shaped their character, and what they had seen God do in their lives individually or collectively. Why was that? Why did they have so little testimony to share? Was it because of a lack of trust and response to God?

If we want to impact the next generation, then we must have testimony to share, stories of what God has done in and through us. And if we can’t share anything, then maybe it’s time to start asking why, and we might need to begin with this question: have you accepted Jesus as Your Saviour and Lord? Have you made room for Him in Your life?

I asked a question several times at the start of my time here, but I’ll keep asking it, just in case today is the day it finally sinks in for someone: Have you responded to Him with open trust? Have you accepted Him? Have you made room for Him to come into Your life?
Since coming here, I’ve heard of a few stories from folks in our congregation who were attending church for decades and were even members, but who had never actually responded to this question. So, how can we tell if we have accepted Jesus?

Well as Mary said, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” Can you truly say that of Jesus? Is Jesus real to you? Is He so real to you, and the relationship He offers you, is this so real that in the depth of your being your soul glories in God and rejoices in Him?

Can we say like Mary, ‘I am the Lord’s servant…May your word to me be fulfilled’? Is our heart for the Lord’s Kingdom and the Lord’s priorities, for the Lord’s will and word to be fulfilled?…
Because if your attitude to Jesus is a little bit ambivalent; if His will is not what you aspire to live out; if the core of your identity is something other than as a child of God, then maybe you still have some room to give over to Jesus?

This Christmas time, Jesus stands in our midst and He issues His invitation to come into our lives. He doesn’t promise an easily life; in fact, accepting His invitation may well lead to a more difficult life. But we’ll never know the joy of the Lord, or the impact upon generations that Mary made, if we keep Jesus at arms’ length and fail to make room for Him in every area of our individual and corporate lives. Friends, my hope, is that we will respond like Mary, allowing our set ideas for our lives to fall away if need be, and with an open trust, take up God’s invitation to a life, to a joy, to an impact, we could never have imagined. May it be so. Let us pray.