Service at Home on 11th April 2021
for Christ Church Ramsbottom
Welcome and Introduction
Welcome to this Sunday’s Service at Home.
This Sunday, those who are online at Christ Church will watch a videoed service provide by the North West Baptist Association, with a sermon by Phil Jump, which is below.
Gospel Reading: Matthew 6:19-34
Sermon by Rev. Phil Jump (NWBA)
“Seek first the Kingdom of God”
These words of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel (ch6 v33) are ones I believe we need to hear across our NWBA community – perhaps even beyond. I was first led to them in July of last year when we first imagined that we were coming out of lockdown. I believed then and I believe now that it’s really important that we don’t just see the whole experience of this worldwide pandemic as something to put behind us then get back to normal, but stop and ask what God might have taught us, what God might be saying to us through the experiences of those months. That looking forward, we seek God’s purposes, God’s priorities – or to use these words of Jesus that we “seek first the Kingdom of God.”
And we very much find ourselves in that place again. This is a time of year when we inevitably find ourselves looking forward. We are surrounded by the signs of spring and it is no accident that this is a time of year that we celebrate Easter. We use that natural cycle of new life to remind us of the new life that is ours in Jesus. But this year there is a further strand to that narrative – as we once again begin to see our way out of lockdown, and we do sense that after a couple of false dawns this really is it.
We need to recognise that this will bring its own challenges and complexities. For one thing as government scientists are continually reminding us – it is by no means a done deal. We don’t know how much infections will rise as each phase of the now famous roadmap is reached – we don’t know if there will yet be a new variant – we are hearing of issues in the supply chain of vaccines – we’re hearing concerns about side effects – we are even hearing warnings of a third wave - and we are certainly being told that many of the social distancing measures, that are becoming something of a fact of life now, will have to remain in place for a good while yet.
And even if all of that works out, we will have our own concerns – we will be embracing aspects of our life that we may not have engaged with for over a year. If we are involved in the running and opening of our church buildings, we might already be looking and asking when and whether we should open. Should we begin with smaller gatherings or wait until more restrictions are lifted? Is it better to stay online, when we can be at home and relax and simply focus on our worship – or do we want to gather, when we might then be so worried about making sure we comply with all the regulations, it won’t so much be a matter of sensing we are in God’s presence as being stressed out because we are in everyone else’s presence!
And what should our priority be? Is it to look outward to the needs of our community and consider whether our buildings need to be opened to offer support to everyone else who is on a similar journey – or do we need to re-group as a church first? There is no simple and straightforward answer to that question. And even within our church communities, we will have different ideas about that, which in turn might well generate its own tensions and struggles.
And let’s remember too that we are human beings, so while these might be significant issues for us in relation to our churches – we will have our own personal journeys ahead. I can only look at my own circumstances, and yours will be different, but I am a dad to two grown up children who we’ve hardly seen for over 12 months. We have a daughter who is desperate to show us her new house – I have a mum in a care home that again I haven’t seen for over a year. So we might well be juggling all of those expectations too. As families we will have events that we have put on hold, celebrations we are waiting to have and sadly for many, still waiting for the chance to properly come together and mourn those they have lost.
And we will all react in different ways. Some of us might be like coiled springs – we can’t wait to get our church activities started again, to come together again. But others of us might be really fearful of that. I heard a story from a church when there was an easing of lockdown last year, and a lady set off on Sunday morning, ready to return to Sunday worship, and she got to the end of her street and could simply go no further. It was the first time she’d been out, and she was suddenly overcome with anxiety. She wasn’t expecting that, it wasn’t at all how she usually reacted, but she realised that this was going to be a really difficult and challenging experience for her.
We also recognise that we have been able to connect in new and different ways over the last 12 months, and many don’t want to lose that, by simply going back to the way things were. And for the grieving families of well over 126000 people in UK alone, this is never going to be a return to normal as it was. And I know from my experience of losing my dad – a good few years ago now, that the most difficult thing I found in the immediate aftermath of that, was simply going back to normal. While our life was disrupted by his death, we kind of had what we needed to get us through it, it was that Monday morning when I stepped back into life as normal, that I found the most difficult.
Now let me be clear, I cannot speak for you – your feelings and expectations will be your own – but I hope that at the very least you will recognise that whatever those feelings and expectations are – they are not going to be exactly the same for everyone else. And even if we feel we have the whole thing sorted out in our mind – it would be a very strange person who did not recognise that this will not be true for everyone, and therefore still looked to the future with a degree of uncertainty. There are so many different possibilities and scenarios that could face us, so many different priorities that we need to juggle, and each will generate its own anxieties and concerns.
It is in the face of all of that reality, that I believe God would have us hear these words of Jesus again “seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be added on to you.” And the first thing that we might notice is that Jesus first spoke these words to people who were themselves concerned and perplexed. (v25) (v27) (v28) (v31) (v34) all contain the word worry – I’m not sure there are many places in the Bible where it appears so many times. And yes – some of those things, like clothes and food might be what we would call material things, but others of them are very much the things that will inevitably concern us in the light of the recent pandemic. Jesus talks here about the length of our days, about our bodies and our wellbeing, about the basics like food and water; things that are very much in the spotlight at the moment.
We see echoes of that in the debate between protecting people’s physical health and protecting their jobs and livelihoods; the concern to balance the physical protection of lockdown with the mental wellbeing of being out and about and interacting with others. All echo the sorts of things that Jesus is describing people as being worried about. So it does feel that these words are particularly relevant to us, because they were perhaps spoken into very different outward circumstances but very similar human reactions.
And as we do recognise that, perhaps we should recognise too that Jesus does not dismiss these worries. He doesn’t say “seek first the Kingdom of God because these things don’t matter” – he says “they will be added unto you” or perhaps we might express that in our current circumstances as “they will fall into place”. He doesn’t dismiss them because the Father doesn’t dismiss them. Jesus points again and again to the natural world, lillies of the field, birds of the air, he looks back into the people’s history and reminds them of “Solomon in all his glory”. And the point it seems to me that Jesus is making is not that God isn’t interested, but that God is.
That is even emphasised when he challenges them with the phrase “ye of little faith”. Again he is not saying that such concerns distract us from faith, but we need to have faith that God has things in hand. And the contrast he makes between his followers and those he describes as Pagans is not that one have clothes, and food and wellbeing and the other don’t – but the pagans run after these things – they allow their concerns and their worries to set the agenda – which underlines again the power of this statement “Seek first the Kingdom of God” because if you follow God’s will and purpose, if you make that your priority, then these other things will fall into place behind.
And so I would argue that this is not a call to disregard all of those concerns that I’ve already outlined, but an invitation to bring them to God. God is not calling us to be a church that turns its backs on the struggles that people are facing, but rather invites us to let God make sense of them. It is not to see them as separating us from the things of God, but to re-understand them in the light of who God is.
But even without all of that – I suspect that most of us would have little trouble agreeing that we should seek first the Kingdom of God. But what does that actually mean? What does that mean for me, in the way that I go about my life tomorrow? It’s easy to agree that this should be our priority, but we have to acknowledge that these great phrases of our faith can at times become somewhat detached from their meaning. They can become a cliché that means something different to everyone. So this is not about signing up to a strapline and choosing to interpret it in whatever way we want. We are called to follow God in community - to become a body, a holy temple in which everyone has their part.
And there were plenty of people around at the time of Jesus who had their own understandings of what it meant to seek the Kingdom of God, who found themselves utterly at odds with Jesus and the things that he said and did. And for us as a Gospel people, a people called to make the message of Jesus known in the world of today, that is not simply a challenge to carefully consider what Jesus meant when he spoke of the Kingdom of God, but what that means for us, what that means for his Church in a world that is beginning find its way towards recovery from a worldwide pandemic.
There is a great deal we might say about the Kingdom of God, but let me offer three things that I sense begin to emerge from what Jesus says here and more broadly in the chapters that surround this statement.
A Kingdom that looks forward not backwards.
Jesus has already said in these chapters that he has not come to overthrow or alter God’s timeless law. And there were those who understood the Kingdom of God to be all about recreating those halcyon days when Solomon in all his splendour was decked like the lilies of the field. The Pharisees believed that Kingdom would come if only people would more rigorously obey God’s rules, the Sadducees believed it would come if they could reinstate the religious festivals and temples.
But Jesus began to say that my Kingdom is not an earthly Kingdom like that, and he taught us to pray “your Kingdom come”. So many of his stories, particularly in Matthew’s Gospel speak of a people in anticipation - bridesmaids waiting for the groom to arrive - servants waiting for their master to reappear. Jesus calls us to live in anticipation of God’s coming Kingdom.
And I simply acknowledge my own convictions and say that I believe God is challenging us as his people to look forwards and not back. I do not believe that our task is simply to restore everything to how it used to be, but to prayerfully consider where God is leading us now. There is so much we have learned, there is so much we have experienced, there are so many things we have been challenged to let go of. God’s Kingdom is a coming Kingdom – We celebrate the Jesus who came, but we also believe in a Jesus who will come again – God’s Kingdom is a forward-looking Kingdom and I believe the challenge for us all now is to seek to grasp whatever new future God has for us, not to reclaim the past.
A Kingdom where people matter more than structures.
There is a particularly challenging verse, which again we find in Matthew’s Gospel (ch 21 v 31) when Jesus is having one of his many run ins with the religious authorities and he says something that they would have found utterly outrageous. “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you”. Jesus is speaking here to the morally upright highly respected religious leaders of his day!
Jesus is not interested in the rituals or the structures of religion; he is not interested in religious office and status, he is interested in us as people, the people we are with all our faults and failings. He chooses the two groups of people that those holders of religious office were most likely to look down upon and announced that they would enter God’s Kingdom first. And that was because they were willing to follow him, not build structures or programmes or institutions that can somehow claim to have found it.
I believe that as we find our way forward, being a church that seeks the Kingdom of God is about helping as many as we can to find their way forward in a journey of discipleship. And if that happens to be people from our community who through this pandemic have become to ask questions about themselves and God – then let’s be a church that gives them the space to ask them. And if that happens to be people from our church community who have struggled through the last 12 months and feel broken and fragile, then perhaps we need to take our time and just let people re-discover themselves before we rush to ask them to join in everything they used to do.
And if that means we are deeply uncertain about where we go from here, then let’s be honest about that and create the space to seek God and discern together God’s will and purpose. And yes, if that returns us with a greater relish and enthusiasm to do the things that we have had to stop doing, then by all means let’s get them re-started. But let’s also stop to ask ourselves amidst that enthusiasm, are we truly seeking the Kingdom of God? As things get underway again whose interests are being served – ours or the purposes of God’s Kingdom? Let’s not forget that this is God’s Kingdom not ours! We are called to be faithful followers of Jesus, and in the midst of our very different lives and emotions in the months ahead, the question we need to ask ourselves again and again is how are we helping each other to remain faithful followers of Jesus, and whatever we do, how is it serving that end?
A Kingdom defined by values not place.
This is a message that I would argue threads its way through the whole Bible story. The Old Testament prophets particularly made this point when the focus of the nation was its land, and its temple, and its festivals – the message of the prophets was, “you are missing the point, we are not living out God’s values.” And that was exactly what Jesus repeated in the face of religious leaders who were so intent on doing everything properly but had forgotten that their primary calling was to be a people who lived in relationship with God, who reflected the nature of God. It was what Jesus said to his followers after his resurrection when, on the Emmaus road and the Day of Ascension, they still harboured hopes that he would “restore the Kingdom to Israel”.
A lot of our focus in the months ahead is inevitably going to be on place – our buildings, because the opening and closure of buildings has defined so much of our life in the last year. That’s why it is so important that we hear these words of Jesus – “seek the Kingdom” – because so much of our agenda going forward can so easily become a reaction to what our earthly government declares possible. Can I again stress that I do not believe there is any right or wrong in terms of how and why and when we open our buildings or re-start things. But I do think it is incumbent on us to ask – “are we following someone else’s roadmap or seeking the Kingdom of God?”
So yes, we may be looking to the future with hopeful imagination, but we are a long way yet from being certain about things. What we can determine is how our agenda will be set and the values and priorities that will infuse whatever we do next. In short, it’s a call to be like Jesus, to clothe ourselves in Christ as the apostle Paul puts it. And that is something we can do inside our buildings, outside our buildings, at home, at work wherever.
Yes, we are anxious. Yes, we are concerned. Yes, we are uncertain. And we will remain so if our only priority is to be clear and have everything worked out – if we are simply defined by our own determination to do what we think is right. I hear in these words of Jesus, more than anything else, a welcome release from such worries – take each day as it comes, embrace whatever circumstances emerge but in all things - seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
A prayer of blessing
Peace be with you, dear brothers and sisters, and may God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you love with faithfulness. May God’s grace be eternally upon all who love our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen (Ephesians 6: 23-24)