This is the text of Rev. Graham Crawford’s Sermon for the Morning Service at St James on 11 January 2015.
Well, I hope you have all had a good start to your New Year.
We certainly had a great time down in Pitlochry at our house.
2015 has arrived and I have no doubt that the world will be a very different place by the time it leaves.
A searching question
How the world changes, and what will happen in the world, we have very little influence over, but we can still ask a more searching question which is: How will you be different, how will I be different, and how will this church be different by the time 2016 rolls around?
Will we find that we are conforming more and more to the world or will we find ourselves more and more transformed by the Holy Spirit of God?
The erosion of Christianity
One thing I am sure about is that the secularists, humanists and atheists are going to continue to go after the church and people of faith demanding more and more privatisation of faith in spite of the fact that they are so vocal about their particular philosophy dominating the public sphere.
Sadly, some Christians (good, well-meaning Christians) have already given up.
They say that they are only giving in to the inevitable, that the erosion of Christianity in this country is unstoppable.
I do not happen to believe this, and I hope to encourage you by this sermon – but I do believe we have to pick our arguments carefully and not get distracted by going down blind alleys.
Science -v- religion
One discussion that those opposed to the Church started just before Christmas was that old chestnut of science versus religion – with attempts being made to separate people into two camps: either supporting creationism or evolution.
What so many people do not realise is that this is a non-issue.
It is a blind alley.
In “The Great Partnership – God, Science and the Search for Meaning”, Jonathan Sachs presents a thesis that: “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.”
Certainly, when Genesis was written, the authors had no clue about science and scientific method.
They had no interest in saying that the world was created in a particular fashion. Their interest was in finding meaning and purpose.
Let us hear the beginning of Genesis:-
1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
3 And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light ‘day’, and the darkness he called ‘night’. And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day.
The Bible does not discuss evolution. Let us make that quite clear.
Rather, its worldview assumes that God created the world. In the beginning: God.
The biblical view of creation is not in conflict with science; rather it is in conflict with any worldview that starts without a creator.
Equally-committed and sincere Christians have struggled with the subject of beginnings and come to differing conclusions.
This, of course, is to be expected because the evidence is very old and, due to the ravages of the ages, quite fragmented.
Students of the Bible must be very careful not to make the Bible say what it doesn’t say. And students of science must not make science say what it does not say.
Origin more important than process
The most important discussion is not the process of creation, but the origin of creation.
The Bible does not set out to tell us the process of creation.
The Middle Eastern mind-set of 3,000 years ago would not even have considered that.
It tells us that the world was created by God.
More importantly, the Bible then goes on to describe this God: his personality, his character and his plan for what he created.
It also reveals his greatest desire: to relate to and have a relationship with the people he created.
Two stories – first story
Let me tell you two stories:-
The first story:
“In the beginning, some 13.7 billion years ago, there was an unimaginably vast explosion of energy, out of which the universe emerged for no reason whatsoever.
In the course of time, the stars coalesced, then planets, then, 4.54 billion years ago, one particular planet capable of supporting life.
Seven hundred million years later, inanimate matter became animate. Cells began to reproduce. Life forms began to appear; first simple, then of ever-increasing complexity. Some of these survived. Others disappeared.
Eventually, a life form came into being capable of complex patterns of speech, among them the ability to ask questions.
For the first time, something in the universe existed that might not have done, and capable of asking ‘Why is it here? What are we here?'”
Two stories – second story
The second story:
“The universe was called into being by One outside the universe, fascinated by being, and with the desire-to-bring-things-into-being that we call love.
He brought many universes into being.
Some exploded into being, then collapsed. Others continued to grow so fast that nothing coalesced into stable concentrations of matter.
One, however, so closely fitted the parameters that stars and planets did form. Onne waited to see what would happen next. Eventually life formed and evolved, until one creature emerged capable of communication…
We may be dust of the earth, the debris of exploded stars, a concatenation of blindingly self-replicating genes, but within us is the breath of God.”
Two stories – discussion
Do these stories contradict each other?
No, they do two different things: one describes a process, the other describes the reason for the process.
To try to argue that they mean the same thing is pointless and it takes away from the things we should be discussing.
So what should we be discussing instead?
What matters is how much WE will change
One of the things we should be discussing, as the New Year begins, is this idea from my opening remarks about how we will change over this year.
You know, sometimes, even evangelists need to be evangelised.
Let me fill you in on a little background here.
There is always more to know about God
Apollos had come from Alexandria, one of the great centres of philosophical and theological learning.
He had embarked on an ambitious teaching tour to Ephesus in Asia Minor where we learn – in Acts 18 – that, despite being “a learned man with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures” who “taught about Jesus accurately”, nonetheless, he “only knew the baptism of John”.
It took careful instruction from Priscilla and Aquila in their home to “explain to him the way of God more adequately”.
The fact that Priscilla’s name is first, suggests that she may have been the theologian in that marriage.
The fact that Apollos was open to correction, and by a woman, speaks volumes for his humility and the respect for women within the early Christian community.
The evangelist was evangelised.
There is always more to know of God than we know already.
Paul teaches the Ephesian church about the baptism of Jesus
However, the fact that Apollos taught only the baptism of John, meant that there was a missing factor in the life of these believers at Ephesus.
Paul discovers that they have not heard about the Holy Spirit, let alone welcomed the Spirit into their lives.
Paul makes good this deficit by teaching them about Jesus and baptising them in the name of Jesus.
As he prays with them, they too receive the Holy Spirit, with some of the indicators that are common in the rest of the Acts narrative.
We learn this in Acts 19:-
19 While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when[a] you believed?’
They answered: ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’
3 So Paul asked: ‘Then what baptism did you receive?’
‘John’s baptism,’ they replied.
4 Paul said: ‘John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.’ 5 On hearing this, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues[b] and prophesied. 7 There were about twelve men in all.
The question of what baptism you have received is still relevant today.
For many people God is good and loving, but distant. For others, Jesus is an historical person and wonderful teacher, but distant.
The Holy Spirit is God coming to us up-close and personal; the legacy of Jesus to all who believe in him.
Paul addressed their desire for the Spirit, by speaking about Jesus.
By discovering Jesus as “the Christ”, the Anointed One, their intellectual believing became an experiential receiving – a movement from head to heart.
Christianity and spirituality
In our culture, where people are searching for spiritual reality in a myriad of ways, the door is open for us to speak openly about the experiential reality of the Holy Spirit.
In general terms, the word “spirituality” stands for the human quest for what lies “Beyond and Within”.
How do we bring focus to that inner aspiration?
Eugene Peterson suggests that we need a word like spirituality for the way that it “names something vaguely indefinable yet quite recognisable – transcendence vaguely intermingled with intimacy”.
Spirituality provides “a catch-all term that recognises an organic linkage to this Beyond and Within that is part of everyone’s experience.”
But Peterson goes on to say that it is “Jesus who gathers all the diffused vagueness into a tight, clear, light-filled focus… Jesus is the name that keeps us attentive to the God-defined, God-revealed life.”
In our current culture of spiritual exploration, where people may have encountered something of the Spirit of God, we might wonder if Paul would have asked a slightly different question: “Have you believed in Jesus since you encountered the Spirit?”
In his baptism, John always pointed ahead.
His baptism offered people a chance to make a new beginning of repentance and forgiveness.
That’s a great start by any standards, but he did not see it as the end point.
He pointed ahead to the coming of One who would be more powerful, and whose baptism would not be with water only, but with the Holy Spirit.
Just as people would be immersed in the water of the Jordan, they would be immersed in the life of God.
Only God can make God real to people. Only God can bring God’s life to us.
That’s the big difference.
The missing piece of the puzzle
When we are in Pitlochry, one of the things we do every year is a jigsaw puzzle.
My folks have a large collection of them, particularly round ones that were sold by the RSPB back in the seventies.
So often, when I pick Mum up from Dunblane to bring her up for New Year, I take one back and pick up the next one.
It is something we always look forward to doing over the New Year period.
However, it can be very frustrating, for (in spite of my mother’s insistence that the puzzles are complete) every once in a while there is a piece missing.
We do not realise it usually for a very long time – sometimes not until the very end – but then I wonder if that is not true for many of us.
We do not realise that there is a piece missing from our lives until the very end.
When I said that for many people God is good and loving, but distant did you sit there thinking, yes, that is me; or when I said that for others Jesus is an historical person and wonderful teacher, but distant, did you think, no, that one is me?
If so, then you do have a piece missing.
You have not asked for the Holy Spirit to come into your lives. You have not taken that crucial step which makes the distant God “Emmanuel: God with you”.
Opening up the third part of the Christmas package: Jesus
The Christmas decorations have come down.
As you vacuum the floor, you move the furniture. Under the sofa, you spot a small parcel. It is wrapped in paper you recognise. One of your Christmas presents was a big parcel with two smaller parcels inside. This parcel is in the same paper. You open it up and discover the third part of the Christmas gift. You had been given it. But you have only just opened it.
As we turn into this New Year, our Scripture readings invite us to open up that third part of the Christmas package: of the Lord Jesus Christ, the one that John the Baptist says will “baptise us with the Holy Spirit.”
Our Scripture readings have offered us images of how we might open this forgotten gift.
Take the opportunity: open the gift.
You will not regret it.
Lord, this year I want to change,
and I’ve said that in the past.
but now my prayer is different
’cause I understand at last.
I wanted my own way before,
I ignored your loving plans.
But now I’m putting everything
into your nail-scarred hands.
I promise to obey you
out of gratitude and love.
I won’t be giving orders
to my Father up above.
I finally realize the truth
and so I’ve changed my prayer.
The safest place for me to be
is in your gentle care.
Please be my shepherd, Jesus,
that’s all I ask of you.
In good times and in bad this year,
Take my hand and lead me through.