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Sermon for 18 December 2016


Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25

One of the great privileges that I have is getting to stand up here week by week to preach the gospel; to have a space on a regular basis in which I get to open up the Scriptures and share what God places on my heart. But of course, before I preach to all of you, I am first of all preaching to myself. Before I can stand here and say anything at all, I need to have checked out that I make sense to myself and that I am, to a reasonable degree, practising what I preach.

A couple of weeks ago I talked about practising the presence of God - I suggested that we might take an Advent challenge and I said this

'How about we practice believing that this Universe really is a safe place, in which we are watched over and loved, whatever is going on in our lives. And how about we tried to be aware of God’s presence with us, everywhere.' 

And I compared this with my experience of seeing someone about my dodgy posture, and how I am learning to notice when I am not standing up straight, and to lift my head, suck in my stomach and straighten my spine. And I suggested that we might do something similar with God’s presence, to notice that we’ve forgotten all about him, and to return to an awareness that we are in His presence - wherever we are and whatever we’re doing.

And we are told in both of the Scripture passages that we just heard that God’s great plan to save His creation is about to come to fruition, and it will be accomplished in a child, whose name will be Immanuel - which means God with us. Not God far away, not God who is only there when we say our prayers or come to church, not God who we have to screw our eyes up really tightly to believe in - but simply God with us.

And because I am preaching first of all to myself, and because this is the promise of Christmas, I thought I had better practice what I preach. So I have been deliberately and intentionally practising the presence of God these last 3 weeks - and I want to share what I am discovering. And perhaps some of you have been doing the same - and I would love to hear how it’s going for you too.

The first thing is; it’s hard. Just like with my dodgy posture, which has developed over many years and has become my default way of standing, so I have developed a thousand techniques and methods for ignoring God most of the time, and it’s hard to let go of them. What helps is to have some reminders that call you back - and for me, remembering to stand up straight has helped. Every time I remind myself to stand straight, I remember that I am in God’s presence, that I am safe and surrounded, and I find myself murmuring - Sorry I’ve been away Lord, I’m back now. What’s next?

It needn’t be that - it could be something you wear, a bracelet or ring that you use to remind yourself to come back to an awareness of God’s presence, or whenever you look at your watch, or your phone - anything that you can use to call you back when you have been distracted from the awareness that, whatever you are doing and wherever you are, you are in God’s presence.  

And what I’m finding is that it is possible to be immersed in what you’re doing, while also knowing that you are in God’s presence. It’s a bit like with an iPhone, for those of you who have one. You can be looking at your email, but other apps are also open in the background at the same time. I can be talking to someone, or cooking dinner or working at my desk, fully immersed in what I’m doing, but with God’s presence there as well, surrounding me, in the background, but open, alert and engaged. 

Here’s a second thing that I have noticed. I am much more aware of God in each moment of my everyday  life, when I am deliberate in taking time to stop and pray. If I am too busy in my head, and am not properly starting the day with a time of prayer and reading the bible, then I carry that busyness through the day, and it’s much harder to be aware that I am in God’s presence. Pushing the metaphor of learning to stand up straight a bit further - it helps to do some regular exercises that strengthen your core muscles and which teach your body the new posture, and regular, daily prayer is like that. It strengthens your core relationship with God, and it teaches you a new way of being.  When the day starts with God, it’s easier to stick with Him as the day unfolds.

A third thing. It changes the way that I see and interact with other people. St Paul writes to the church in Corinth that ‘from now on we regard no-one from a human point of view.’ When we notice that our interactions with others take place within God’s presence, we have to acknowledge very quickly that God is with them too! That He’s not just on my side, walking with me. That he doesn’t just love me and want the best for me - he wants the best for them too! And that kind of changes the way I want to interact with people. If that person who has got under my skin is just as much a child of God, one whose name is written on the palm of God’s hand, one that Jesus came to live, die and rise again to restore to full life - well perhaps that’s how I should treat them too. As precious and loved. 

And fourth, it also changes the way that I see my own actions and behaviours. I find that I am both much more aware both of the ways in which I mess up and much more aware of the gentleness and forgiveness that God offers. 

It is very easy for us - maybe this is just me - to make excuses for ourselves. To explain away that unkind action, or unloving word, or that choice not to do the kind thing. We might even be so good at it that we excuse ourselves before the choice to do the right thing is even in front of us. But if we are aware of making choices in God’s presence, those excuses are a bit harder to justify. I could go and see that person who I know is lonely and who would love me to come round for a cuppa, but I’m really busy, I’ve got loads to do and I have every reason to head home without bothering. That sounds rather less reasonable when thought through in God’s presence.  

And when we have messed up, when we’re in God’s presence there is a brighter light being shone, which makes us face up to reality. Those stories we tell about ourselves, the ways we justify our actions don’t stack up when we know that God is watching, and when we try them out, we might well find ourselves running…..out…of …excuses. 

But, in case you’re thinking - ‘that’s the last thing I need - a critical judge on my shoulder all the time. I carry enough guilt and shame around without God pointing out all my mess-ups’ - you will also find that God is much more gentle with you than you are with yourself. Those voices that tell you you’re useless, or unkind, or whatever it is (and we all have those voices) - they are also under the loving gaze of God - and he wants them to change as much as he does the bad choices that we might make. When we know that God is with us, we discover that the critical, harsh, judgemental voices within us are not His. His voice says - yes, you messed up and yes I see the hurt and pain you have caused, and yes you will have to sort that out - but I’m still here, I’m not leaving, I’m not about to shame you or pile on the guilt. Forgiveness is real. Do what you need to do and let it go.

And fifth, when I am aware that I am walking and talking and acting in God’s loving presence, my eyes are opened to see more of the possibilities and options that are before me at every moment. When I know that God’s energy and creativity are at work in the world all around, I start to see that there are no such things as coincidences, and that I am constantly being nudged and prompted to do God’s work. When I know that the Holy Spirit is active and alive right here and now, then the call of God’s kingdom becomes clearer. I don’t just need to do the same old, same old. I don’t need to be afraid of things. I don’t need to keep my head down in case things go wrong - the world is buzzing with God given potential, and I can be part of that. And then my priorities change and I want to do what God wants me to do.

And one final thing. One of the dominant voices in our culture is the one that tells us there is a technique available out there somewhere, that can bring you happiness and inner peace; if only you learn to love yourself, discover your inner child, reframe your internal narratives. And some of this stuff is useful, and a lot of it is junk. 

Practising the presence of God is not a technique. It’s not a way to discover inner peace or to avoid suffering. It is all about a relationship. Being aware of God in all things is simply responding to what God has done and longs for us to know - that He is there, waiting, hand outstretched, longing for us to take it and to step into a closer relationship with Him, in which we trust Him with more of ourselves, our life, our worries, our choices. In which we know that He really is Immanuel, God with us in everything.

Look the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Immanuel, which means God is with us

And he really is, you know. 


Posted: 19/12/2016 at 10:10
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