So we begin another year together. We look back over the past year. We anticipate the year ahead. And for us as a church, as we peer out into the coming year, much is shrouded in uncertainty.
Of course in some ways the future is always uncertain. We may think we know what is coming but the truth is that everything could change in the blink of an eye. I hope this won’t sound too much like a caricature of Donald Rumsfeld, but there are times when we know that we don’t know what the future holds and other times when we have an illusion of certainty and don’t know that we don’t know what the future holds.
But right now we know that we don’t know what the future holds for us as a church. The question of where we will worship on Sundays is still wide open. And by the time we say goodbye to Ed & Phyllis we will in the space of just one year have lost 7 North Americans who have been very much part of our community and we will need to find new paths without them.
So I’ve been trying to think of characters in the bible who experienced uncertainty and thinking about what we could learn from them.
And I thought of Moses in Exodus 3. Every time I read this passage I am struck by God’s response to Moses’ uncertainty and reluctance. "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" asks Moses plaintively. This isn’t Moses’ last question or objection by any means, and God gradually gives him more and more concrete reassurance, but just look at God’s first response: “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
That response asks a lot of Moses. “Just get on with doing the impossible task I’ve given you and after you’ve done it all you’ll be grateful and you’ll realise that I was with you all along.” It’s quite a different response from, for instance, the one Gideon gets when he sets up a series of elaborate tests to show him whether it was really God speaking to him and whether God would really rescue Israel from her enemies. (For those of you who may not know or remember those stories from Judges 6, God obligingly works through all the tests till Gideon is convinced.) And Moses does in due course get some much more specific encouragement and guidance.
But I think it is helpful for us to remember this strand of the story of how God interacts with the people he calls, the way God expects Moses just to do what he’s asked and let his questions be answered along the way. In a rather less frightening but surely more puzzling instruction, Jeremiah is told, with no explanation, to buy, wear and then bury a linen loincloth. Then some time later he is told to dig it up. Only then does God give him the prophecy for which the now rather manky loincloth will be the visual aid.
What I think this tells me is that it is OK if sometimes we don’t know what is going on or why. It doesn’t mean God isn’t with us and it doesn’t mean things will never make sense.
Now the most awake of you may be wanting to point out that even if Moses and Jeremiah didn’t know the full story, they both had very clear instructions from God to get to work on. It’s all very well saying that they just got on with doing what God had asked them and only much later had the certainty that God had been with them and that there was a point to it all, but they did have some basic direction. What if you don’t even have the clear instruction in the first place?
One of the things that I have found hard about the lengthy church decision process about where to worship on Sundays is that I couldn’t ever say for sure “this is what God wants us to do”. Over time I came to the view that we should ask to worship at the London Mennonite Centre for a variety of reasons but none was a clear instruction direct from the mouth of God. So if we’re a bit in the dark about how the future will pan out AND we don’t have a clear instruction from God, what are we supposed to do?
Well, I think one answer is simply to be faithful. It can be a real test of our faith finding the faithfulness and maturity to keep on seeking to serve God even when we’re not getting lots of exciting concrete instructions from God day by day, as perhaps some of us experienced in earlier days of our relationship with God. (Some of you will be aware of various ways of mapping the stages of faith and maybe the personality of this church is partly shaped by the fact that many of us have been Christians a long time and are in the later stages of faith.)
So even if we don’t have clear instructions from God on our worship location, there are some instructions that are clear. The sermon on the mount from which we heard an extract is just one example: “love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return”. Or there’s the “greatest commandment”, to love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength and your neighbour as yourself. In our sermon series on poetry and wisdom literature in the Old Testament, we looked at the book of Proverbs which Walter Brueggemann suggests is an exploration of how to be faithful in the routine of settled daily life once God is no longer putting on dazzling displays of intervention to establish Israel in the land or rescue her from her enemies. So Proverbs too may provide some guidance on faithful living.
So one response to uncertainty or to the apparent absence of particular leading from God is just to seek to live faithfully, just to put our heads down and get on with obedience in daily life.
But I think there is a risk here, and maybe the mention of Proverbs has already set some of you thinking along these lines too. Because I can’t help thinking of Proverbs as a largely conservative book with quite a small-scale, domestic vision. I wonder whether, as we press on faithfully, we are in danger of taking only the old familiar paths of obedience and missing new paths or even of viewing the new as a diversion from faithfulness.
We are a church that values tradition and our heritage as we see ourselves in the line of God’s people from ancient Israel, through Jesus and the early church to the 16th century Anabaptists and then those who were so influential in the founding and shaping of this particular community. But, whether this year we start to worship at the LMC or stay here and have to adjust to a new phase in our relationship with the LMC, we may need to forge some new traditions and some new ways of thinking and being.
We start the year by voicing again our commitment to God and each other in the words of the covenant and in communion. Though some questions are wide open, let us seek to follow faithfully God even in that uncertainty, in the dark as it were. Let us trust that in due course we will find that God was with us all along and has a purpose for us which we may not yet discern. And as we seek to follow faithfully, may we at the same time be free and willing to embrace the new as part of our faithful following of Jesus.
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, "I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up." When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am." Then he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." He said further, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt." But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" He said, "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain."
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?" Jesus answered, "The first is, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." Then the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that "he is one, and besides him there is no other'; and "to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and "to love one's neighbour as oneself,'—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."
Teach us Your ways, O Lord, and let us walk in Your truth.
We put behind us our stubborn independence, and turn again to You.
Now let us willingly fasten ourselves to the God of covenant:
That we be Christ’s, and Christ be ours.
Christ has many tasks for us. Some are easy; others are difficult.
Some bring honour; others bring reproach.
Some are to our liking, and coincide with our own inclinations,
and are in our immediate best interest; some are just the opposite.
In some we may please Christ and please ourselves;
In others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.
Yet the power to take on all of these is most definitely given us in Jesus;
for it is He who strengthens us, and comes to help us when we are weak.