Today we begin a new series of Sundays under the title ‘Living as His Church’. We will be looking at who we are as we seek to follow Christ, not just what we do. Truly, what we do always comes out of who we are – for better or for worse as we all know so well!! So some Sundays, will be very practical yes. But our first weeks will be about trying to understand something of just who we are as we place our faith in Jesus Christ – to get this identity deep inside us.
The first image, one little spoken of to be honest, is how the Lord Jesus sees us as His Holy Bride. Revelation, the last book of the Bible, has these words: ‘I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.’ 
It’s a famous passage, you’ll know it when you hear it, about the day when ‘he will wipe every tear from their eyes’. But have you also heard in your heart when it says how God’s people will be presented to him as a pure and holy bride….? Today we’ll explore the truth of this image, and I pray it will affect you deep inside as to how you see yourself.
Today we will see many pictures, hear many stories from Jane who has come on behalf of TearFund to share with us. Looking beforehand at the images raised many questions for me. Yes, how can we help?
But deeper than that. How can the situations we see be changed longer term?
What creates the problems in the first place?
And perhaps above all, what place does faith in Jesus Christ have in all this?
What difference does that faith make?
Some of our own experiences in Tanzania in East Africa tell us that the answer to those last faith questions is – ENORMOUS! And we have heard tell of recent fresh initiatives by TearFund and others inviting Christians from these countries to call on the Lord by faith in their own situation to find ways forward…..
All 4 Gospels record the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. Why one wonders?
Perhaps because all those Gospel writers had seen for themselves the powerful works of God, of Jesus ’feeding many people’ – as the last verse of one of our songs today goes: I, the Lord of wind and flame, I will tend the poor and lame, I will set a feast for them – My hand will save. Finest bread I will provide Till their hearts are satisfied; I will give My life to them. But the final line is even more challenging as the Lord asks: ‘Whom shall I send?’
We read today of a special moment – when Mary & Joseph bring the baby Jesus up to present him to the Lord, indeed to dedicate him, in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. You may see yourself in the story we read, for there are people of all sorts there: the older generations, the parents, the tiny child…, the rich, the poor (Mary & Joseph bring the least expensive sacrifice as they can’t afford more). And why special? I’ve been asking myself that question. Perhaps because God is not seen, but is holy and with us nonetheless; perhaps because he has different people’s lives in his hands, even if they and we don’t understand. But above all because Jesus is come, brought by the faith of his parents yes, but as a gift to all of us – God with us, offering himself for us. Now, thinking honestly, do you find it easier to give or to receive? Truth be told most of us often find it more difficult to receive than to give! And yes, we will ask you today what you feel you can offer to the Lord of yourself; but in the first place Jesus has come for you so will also ask if you will receive from him – for he still longs to give to us, even if we find that harder. Yes, what we give to him delights him, but His gifts to us are treasures beyond measure, given at great cost by him, the Lord of love.
On Christmas Day we looked at how we all long for peace in our lives. We have now reached the point in our series, ‘From Longing to Finding – a Journey’, where we can now look at where we can find that peace. In John 14.7 Jesus says “I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.” Jesus is telling us that we can only get real peace from Him; anything that we can get from the world is not real peace, it comes and goes. My personal experience bears this out: when I first encountered Jesus I found a peace I had never experienced before. Many times since, when life has been full of trouble and pain, I have also found that peace to help me carry on. Sheila Walsh said, “Peace is not the absence of trouble, but the presence of Christ.” This peace is something we can pass on to each other, by prayer, it is something we can continually ask the Father for. After all it is a gift to all of us and who doesn’t want to use and share the gifts they are given? This peace comes from being in a relationship with Jesus and through Him the Father, it comes from knowing we are loved deeply. It comes from being seen as whole, complete and perfect, which only comes from our relationship with Christ.
Where, hand on heart, can you say you have found hope? Where and when has it been renewed?
I suspect the classic moments of New Year resolutions are not often firm ground for rebuilding hope! Looking round this congregation after many years, hand on heart I can say that many of you still tell me of moments of encounter with the Lord himself which have most changed your life and heart, have given hope often through many years. They may actually be quite small moments, but their effect is very long-lasting indeed and you remember them! As Jesus began his ministry at his baptism, do you notice how few words his Father in heaven had to speak over him? “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy”  . Heaven has opened, and the words are few, but bring great long-term effects! (not that Jesus didn’t spend many more times listening to his Father beyond that!). St Paul writes, ‘So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.’  I too have found my hope renewed for real when I walk in relationship with my Lord Jesus Christ. May we all find ways to do this in 2020.
And by the light of that same star three wise men came from country far; to seek for a king was their intent, and to follow the star wherever it went. So goes a verse from the famous carol ‘The First Nowell’.
Many indeed find they need to travel far to find the Lord of Glory. But when He is found, ‘they were filled with indescribable joy’ as one version puts it about the Magi. Those who have bowed the knee in worship to the King of kings have found He is the One who brings joy beyond words. Those wise men had travelled long, met much difficulty and disturbance on the way, but finally found this joy.
There are many who have travelled far but then found Jesus Christ to be the joy-bringer: joy brought to those suffering, joy for those bereaved, joy in worship and finding His Presence with them, joy like no other. In Advent we spoke of our longings, including longing for joy. This Epiphany we speak of finding what we have longed for, finding in the person and presence of Jesus Christ. Perhaps you too will resolve to ‘follow the star’ leading you to Christ, wherever it goes. May you too then find His joy.
This Advent at Ascension we have been speaking of our longings – for many things, for joy, hope, love, truth. As we come to Christmas, and indeed think of our ‘steps’ into the new year beyond, we turn our thoughts to our longing for peace – and celebrate the coming of the One who was called ‘The Prince of Peace’  . The thing is, many have not only longed for, but through faith in Him have found the Christ-child to be the source of deepest peace. Over Christmas we’ll read about the ‘light in the darkness’, the one who is called the ‘Morning Star’, dawning with new hope for our lives. Glory be to God in the Highest for this Good News, which the angel said to the lowly shepherds, was ‘for all the people’. But my particular prayer for everyone who hears this good news this Christmas, is that you will find the ‘steps’ God himself is guiding you to take as you travel on from here. That you may discover the faithfulness and love of the Prince of Peace who really does want to guide you into his deep peace, whatever life throws at you. Will you listen to His voice, take the steps he is asking of you, and discover for yourself by putting faith in Him that this is no empty promise? The Lord God himself is calling out, and wants ‘….. to guide your feet into the way of Peace’.  Luke 1.79  Isaiah 9.6
Something most people want is to be loved and to have someone to love. Films like ‘Love Actually ‘ are popular because they show that anyone can find that love. In Genesis we find Jacob who searched for the right person to love (1), but the trouble is for a lot of us we do not feel that anyone will love us or even want us. Then there are people like the Samaritan woman (2) who is on her sixth man, sometimes we are just not happy with our choice of partner… Finding the love we long for isn’t easy and often very difficult, however there is one who has always loved you and always will. Jesus showed how much He loves you by giving up all he had and was, God-hood, so He could die for you. This is true love, the love we were all made for, it fulfils us, fills the hole in us by giving us someone to love as well. Romans 8.35 asks, ‘Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?’ I have found that when you know Christ’s love then you can find human love as well, because you are no longer driven to fill that hole.
Where does your hope come from, where does it lie? Or have you even given up on hope?
I hope not! They say hope is one of the things that eventually springs up in the human heart, even after years of being squashed down – rather like a dry seed that germinates after years of lying in a dark corner! The reason? I believe God has put hope in the human heart. But also that it is hope for something. I suddenly noticed, reading the famous Christmas passage again ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…’  , how many hopes then get a mention! Hopes of: ‘enlarging’ of the people, of rejoicing, of harvest, of yokes being broken and burdens lifted, of oppressors being destroyed. This list of hopes speaks to my heart, I expect it does to yours too. But here’s the thing, the promise is that all those hopes rest on, yes, a child: ‘For unto us a child is born’  . And a child through whom, God is with us no less (the meaning of the word ‘Immanuel’ as the angel explained to Joseph). This seems impossible. But I have found that a hope resting in this child Jesus is immensely powerful. As his Spirit moves among us, comes into our lives, we find genuine, deep steadfast hope arises – and then peace comes upon us sometimes even in the middle of great darkness (the bringer of peace will be at the centre our Christmas celebrations this year – so of this more later!). St Peter wrote, ‘pay close attention to what the prophets wrote, for their words are like a lamp shining in a dark place—until the Day dawns, and Christ the Morning Star shines in your hearts.’  May He rise in your heart and so re-fire your hope.  Isaiah 9.2  Isaiah 9.6  2 Peter 1.19