Given on Sunday 28th November 2010 at Castleton Church by The Vicar, Canon Eric Woods
One of the most accessible and attractive communicators of the Christian Gospel today is an American freelance writer called Philip Yancey, who lives in Colorado and has written some twenty books. I haven’t read them all, not by a long way, but I would recommend to anyone his What’s so amazing about Grace? which has become a world-wide bestseller.
The book opens with a true story told to the author by a friend who works with those very much on the margins of life in Chicago - prostitutes, drug addicts, young tearaways. One day a young woman comes to him in a wretched state, homeless, sick, unable to care for herself or her two year old daughter. And she has led a wretched life - prostitution, drug abuse and the rest. He senses that much of her problem is spiritual, and asks her if she has ever thought of going to a church for help. The story continues:
I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face. ‘Church!’ she cried. ‘Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They'd just make me feel worse.’
The Church is good at trading in guilt. It's good at making people feel bad about themselves. I suspect it is for fear of that that so many people stay away. Sinners used to flee towards Jesus. They saw in him their refuge. Now they flee from the Church. They see it as their judge.
Jesus’ secret is to accept people as they are before making them what he would have them be. No, let's make that more personal. Jesus accepts us - you, me, everybody - as we are before making us what he would have us be. He engages with us before he changes us. He asks us to accept that we are accepted and then to become what we are.
I hope, I hope with all my heart, that that is why we are here – because our hearts have been touched by the love of God, and we have found the Lord. We are here because we know what it is to be touched by the finger of God, and to have our hearts strangely warmed. Perhaps it was a long time ago, and the memory of it has faded, but for a moment our eyes were opened and we glimpsed something of the glory or the majesty or the wonder or the infinite compassion of God. We understood something of the infinite and inexpressible things God has done for us - how he called us into being, redeemed us with sweat and blood and tears, opened his arms to us as a parent to a child. We realised that he was with us in all the hardest and most painful moments of life, and shared our joys and our sadnesses, our successes and our failures. We answered the call of Jesus, who came a little baby thing that made a woman cry, and died to break down all the barriers that separate us from the love of God. And perhaps we responded willingly and joyfully to Him in words not unlike those of Frances Havergal’s hymn:
Take my life, and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to thee;
Take my moments, and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my love; my Lord I pour
At thy feet its treasure-store;
Take myself, and I will be
Ever, only, all for thee.
Should we not all have known a time when that hymn could have been our prayer?
But hearts warmed by the love of God can grow cold again. They become closed and rational and sober. We talk of moderation and balance and keeping things in proportion – as if our Lord loved us in moderation and carefully calculated how much of himself he would give us. We constantly say, when invited to do this or that in the Church, ‘I really don’t want the commitment’ – as if our Lord never made the ultimate commitment of his life to us and for us.
Advent in the Christian Church has come to mean two things, a season of preparation for the celebration of Christ's coming on the first Christmas Day, and a looking forward to the day when he will return at the end of time. But in earlier Christian centuries it was a preparation not for Christmas, then not much celebrated, but for Epiphany – the manifestation of Christ to the world, the world of shepherds and wise men and servants at a wedding feast. The message of Advent is that Christ comes in, comes in to your world and mine. He comes in through acts of love and kindness, of service and generosity. That is why I always prefer to preach about love rather than duty, about grace rather than guilt. If our hearts are warm with the love of God, our giving of ourselves and our service, our time and talents and money, will all be a sacrifice of love and praise and thanksgiving; the joyful giving of warm and loving hearts. You can tell the spiritual temperature of a church by looking at the treasurer's books. And if our hearts are cold or, at best, lukewarm, our giving of ourselves will be cold and lukewarm too.
So, you see, there is a cost to Christian discipleship, a cost worked out first and foremost in the heart. For the love of God does not cool when our love for him cools, and if we will let him he will cause our hearts to burst into flame again.
As I’m sure you know, when you say ‘Amen’ at the end of a prayer, it means you are assenting to it and making that prayer your own. It also means that you are prepared to have the prayer answered by God, however challenging to you that answer may be. I am going to close with a prayer now, a prayer of John Wesley’s. I hope you will all be able to say ‘Amen’ at the end. But remember – you do so at your own risk.
I am no longer my own, but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty; let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the Covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.