Zephaniah 3: 14-20. The themes of future promise and restoration course through this segment of Zephaniah
Philippians 4: 4-7. The classic New Testament passage about Joy and peace. This peace carries the force of the Hebrew "shalom", the total well being of which God is the only true source.
Luke 3: 7-18. John's baptism of repentance is forming a people based on the response of lives lived in a manner appropriate to God's call rather than on the basis of inherited descent. This repentance looks to the future inbreaking of God but manifests itself in the details of everyday life. People are told to be responsible and unself-interested.
In many ways the role of the church is just like the role of John the Baptist; We are continually pointing to Jesus as he did – “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” and we are also preparing the ground for His rule in people’s lives – “making His path straight.”
Our mission is to make sure that Jesus becomes the Lord of as many people’s lives as we can reach but how on earth do we prepare people so that they can make that firm commitment and turn to Christ?
The record of the church of England over the past century shows that we haven’t been very good at preparing that ground as our national decline bears stark witness.
There appears to be now in our secular culture a gulf of understanding between the “church” however one wants to define it and the great mass of the population.
If an unchurched person were to walk in to almost any Anglican church, they would have little idea what was going on and why and no clearly identifiable way of finding out either.
The questions would just flood out like a river bursting its banks; why robes? Why do we sing? What is prayer anyway? Why do we eat bread and drink wine? Why do we confess our sins – I’m a good person? What is a blessing? What and why is a creed? What is an altar? Why do you read from an old book? – that has all been disproved by science hasn’t it? What is that book anyway – who wrote it and why? Why do we shake hands in the middle of the service? And so on and so on.
If we want to re-assert the Christian view of humanity, our place in the world, our role, our purpose, where we come from and where we are going to, we have massive work to do.
The gulf is so great so we have to be fairly confident ourselves of our own understanding of the answers to those questions.
The biggest barrier is simply our most basic belief – that there is a God - this is no longer universally commonly accepted premise and not only that - that God actually entered human history as a human being.
That is before we start to say that He had to die obviously but that death won our freedom – how on earth does that work?
So I think our task is actually much harder than John the Baptist’s was. In the first century belief in God was a universally accepted fact which it is not now.
He was speaking into a vibrant Jewish culture that was primed to expect something. They were waiting for the Messiah. The type of Messiah God provided was a surprise, but they were expecting something.
We are speaking into a largely post Christian culture where Christianity is at best a tried and found wanting relic from the past in a pluralist culture where increasingly Christianity finds it hard to get a platform.
Educating people about the Christian point of view can’t be achieved in a morning service, it has to take place elsewhere.
This is the basic rationale of Alpha and every other similar course that has emerged in recent years; to try and meet people where they are and speak to them as one adult to another.
What has also been found is that the gulf in understanding does not just exist between the church and the people but between the church and their own congregations.
Wherever I have been, the most grateful recipients of Alpha has been the existing congregations who have always puzzled over all these questions also but never felt they had the opportunity to ask such questions or even believed that even asking a question cast doubt on their faith.
We all have questions and we all have doubts from time to time. We all have unanswered questions or half answered questions.
But before we have spread the gospel to others we need to be sure what it is ourselves.
We’ll never have all the answers but what we do have is a framework from which to ask difficult questions. Most people don’t even have the basic information or framework from which to start.
To make straight the way of the Lord in East Budleigh, or Budleigh or Otterton is a complex task that will take time.
No amount of extra or different styles of service will help very much on their own, nor will providing a broadly Christian education in our schools when it is also at odds with the prevailing culture.
Normalisation of the church and church activities is one obvious step we can take; that shows that we don’t have two heads at least; and that is definitely happening here at this church with all the new social events that have taken place.
Speaking sensitively and thoughtfully and truthfully about our own faith is the next step. Not complicated formulas about the Holy Trinity or the nature of Christ, but what our own faith means to us.
We can only give away what we have and what inspires us and keeps us going.
The road will be long and we will have successes and failures along the way but we’ll journey together, and we will pick up lots of our community along the way.
We shouldn’t be frightened of making mistakes. When you try things, it demonstrates our intent. Some things work; some things work for a while; some never get out of first gear; some things take flight and soar;
I’ve outlined some of the problems we face, but we also have massive resources.
First of all we have the power of God on our side; a God who is interested in our success ; who is interested in reaching the same people that we are trying to reach.
We have the knowledge and Joy of the salvation and love of God for all things and all people, not least ourselves to sustain us.
We have experience of a God who identified with us, knows our frailties, and our sufferings and our mortality.
In identifying ourselves with Him we know that as we share his death we will also share his resurrection, given as a gift, simply because he loves us.
We are never alone with Christ. As a Christian we are joined to God Himself by His Spirit, and through that Spirit also joined to every other Christian in the world.
However sophisticated we think we have become, and however far removed the culture has moved from the church, people still ask the same questions they always have; about the meaning and purpose of life and questions regarding good and evil, suffering and death.
We need to communicate our own views on these questions and explain why we are so optimistic and look with hope to the future?
We need to be able to help people to answer those questions or at least provide a framework for discussing them.
That is the best way we can prepare the way of the Lord and do what John the Baptist did 2000 years ago.
We need to pray and ask God for guidance in our joint venture; God and us together against an unbelieving world.