Sunday, 22 January 2012

Changed by serving - Zechariah's story

This sermon was preached in a united service with friends from St Luke's Church to mark the Week of Prayer for Christian unity.  It draws on readings and a theme put together by friends from the churches of Poland.

I always value slipping into an evening service at the end of a training weekend in Nottingham.  Last Sunday was no exception.  After a full training weekend with a wonderful set of people in Nottingham, I went over to Derby to join Cheryl and Graham for lunch and then go off to see Eric Burton, who had been here in Highbury in the 60’s and 70’s in hospital.  Though quite poorly after his stroke, Eric was on top form and we had a great conversation – great to share with him.  I came into church as the service was beginning and it was great to hear Robert speaking of the partnership we share with St Luke’s and St Micahel’s and hear him giving his greetings.

He explained how they have initiated a youth club at St Michael’s and they will be meeting this evening – they are very much in our prayers as we meet.  In a sense what he shared last Sunday evening goes with today in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity as we shared with him this morning at  St Luke’s.

Three things he said in his preaching touched me.  He began and ended with those wonderful words that mean so much to so many, and have resonated with me down through the years.

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:  Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:

“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.  That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

Those words spoke to me – how good to know that we may put our hand into the hand of God … no matter the darkness, that shall be to each one of us better than light and safer than a known way.

He spoke of the importance of prayer, and reflected on the wonderful sessions Carolyn had shared with us at Transformers on the Lord’s Prayer.  How precious that prayer for our lives.

And he spoke of the need for a vision … a vision to share of the future we look to.

As I was listening, I felt as if Robert had set the tone for some thoughts I wanted to take on into this evening’s service and beyond to the next couple of weeks as well.

In these opening weeks of the year Carolyn has prompted us to think about what it means to belong to Highbury, and what is special about our belonging.  She led us in a very gentle, but very thought provoking time at our Church Meeting to start the year thinking of words and phrases that sum up for us what it is that makes Highbury special.  We will be sharing those insights as the year unfolds.

We need to sense as a church family that we can put our hands into the hand of God and he will guide us.

We need to sense as a church family the vital importance of prayer.  This coming week John and Joan Barnes will be celebrating their Diamond Wedding – on Thursday.  John’s in Tewkesbury hospital and will be there.  Joan is in Dowty House.  But they plan to be together for their Wedding Anniversary.  So Joan will go over to John and in the Day room they will celebrate.

Ten years ago I asked them to share with our morning congregation their recipe for marriage and relationships.  I asked each to share again.  Without a hint of a pause John immediately said, No Secrets.  I then went to visit Joan and without a pause she told me exactly what John had just said.  They could have competed in that old quiz show, Mr and Mrs.  But Joan went on to say another couple of things too.  I rely on prayer, she said.  And she spoke of the importance of prayer to her.  And of the way she prayed for me, for my family for us as a church family  I thought that was something very special.  That’s the kind of prayer we value from the likes of Joan … and the kind of prayer we owe them as their Diamond Wedding anniversary approaches this week.

But thirdly we stand in need of a vision.  How vital it is to have a vision.  Without a vision, the Proverb says, the people die.

I was going to turn to Joel and the sons and the pouring out of the spirit on the sons and daughters, on the old men who dream dreams, on the young men who see visions on the male and the female slaves on whom the spirit is poured out.

But then I looked again. And with Robert I had looked at the prayers that have been published for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  I scanned through them and I spotted that for one of the days there’s a reading from Zechariah.

Now as it happens Zechariah was next on my list of the minor prophets to turn to.  Along with Haggai and Malachi Zechariah is one of the three minor prophets I link up with Ezekiel and the return from exile.

Zechariah begins with a challenge to the people to make an about turn and begin all over again.  The prayers for this week of prayer for Christian unity come from Poland and are built on the theme.  We will all be changed.  The prayers invite us to be people prepared to be changed as we put our faith into action.

Zechariah then shares a sequence of eight visions that speak of horsemen and candlesticks, of flying scrolls and olive trees.

Robert invited us to be a people of vision.

One of those visions sticks in my mind from long ago.  It meant a great deal to someone called Amy  Carmichael.  She was a Mother Theresa kind of character who gave her life to a life of selfless service of the most needy in India.  She sustained the incredible work she did by a life of prayer.  In one of those prayers she drew on the vision Zechariah has of four horns and four, as she recalled them carpenters.  As I recall the way she shared the vision she suggested that we each face things that knock us for six.  Those are the four horns.  They can at times come from any direction and every direction.  We are pulled this way and that.  In the face of the things that devastate we must hold on to the other side of Zechariah’s vision.  To each horn there is a carpenter.  For each of the ills that come up on us there is not just an antidote, not just a response, but one who will set things right, a carpenter.

My recollection of Amy Carmichael’s prayer as it has played on me is the thought in prayer that no matter what may befall God has a carpenter ready to make things right, to put things right.  Did not Jesus grow up as the son of a carpenter, is he not the carpenter who will set things right for us.

Zechariah’s visions over he has a wonderful promise he puts into words.  The greatest calamity of all that has befallen the people will be put right.  Jerusalem will be restored.  There’s a wonderful vision that echoes that Isaiah vision that comes in Isaiah 65 – Zechariah sees the streets of the city full of boys and girls playing its streets.  What a wonderful vision of restoration he has.

The people did return.  But there was something missing.  They did not regain their fine independence as a kingdom as they hoped.  They were under the thumb of the Persians, the Greeks, The Egyptians, the Syrians and worst of all the Romans.

By the time of John the Baptist and Jesus the city was in thrall to the Roman power.  And the people longed for freedom.   For one who would deliver them.  Jesus took to heart the climax to Zechariah’s vision for restoration and took it completely to heart as he made his final triumphant approach to the city on of all things a donkey.

He was shaping his kingdom exactly by the words of Zechariah …

We need a vision.  We need to look to a carpenter.  But we look to a new kind of kingdom – and we find it in Christ.  And what is this Jesus like …

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
   triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 
 will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
   and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
   and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
   and from the River to the ends of the earth. 

What a wonderful vision.  But the Christ who comes to us comes in humble service to command peace to the nations.  He is not the kind of king the world hankers after who demands subservience from his subjects.  He is a king who came to serve … 
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ 
This day in our prayers for Christian unity we are challenged by the churches of Poland to be prepared to be changed by serving.

If Jesus came not to be served but to serve.  How are we to seek to serve.  How can we serve … maybe in the life of the church, now is the time we invite people to be prepared to put themselves forward to act as Deacon.  I began talking about my visit to Eric, he liked to use the word ‘servant’ to speak of ‘the Deacons’  It is not that we want people to take decisions for us .. it is that we seek people ready to serve God.  Do pray about it – if you may be able to fulfil that calling – do pray for those who may be able to do that work in your prayers.  It is an important part of our church life.

The readings are followed by a reflection that suggest that we shall be open to be changed by serving if we are prepared to have a time of preparation so that we may be ready to be changed.  The reflection is followed by a prayer, the prayer on the order of service sheet.  Let me share the words of the reflection, then let’s say together the words on the order of Service sheet.

Preparation is the thing -
says the painter –
gathering resources,
sizing the task,
planning the job;
            then offering effort,
            using gifts,
giving self:
            decorating canvas or
conservatory -
change comes.

Preparation is the thing –
says the athlete –
scheduling training,
eating well,
warming up;
            then playing hard,
straining sinew,
giving self:
performing on pitch or track –
change comes.

Preparation is the thing –
says the psalmist –
eyes not raised too high,
thoughts not too elevated,
soul calmed and quieted;
            then service in worship,
            giving heart and mind,
            giving self:
praising in cottage or
cathedral –
change comes.


Gracious God,
we gather, united in praise,
longing for heavenly greatness in our
earthly lives:
serving one another in the way of Jesus,
finding the overflowing joy of unity,
and so to scatter, united in

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