Friday, November 23, 2007

God my Saviour - the Magnificat

Thirty years on from our wedding it was great to take Trevor and Hazel’s wedding here at Highbury and then to go to Dresden for Andrea and Thomas’s wedding. It came as a real surprise when at the end of a Parade Service I thought I had so carefully planned Felicity presented me with a certificate from the Congregational Federation marking the 30th Anniversary of my Ordination. What a good excuse for a party, or at least a bring and share lunch! I found myself a week ago at another ordination, Andy Grice at Salem Baptist Church: it set me thinking about my own ordination.

For me it is no coincidence that my ordination followed on a month after my marriage, and that we should follow the celebration of our 30th wedding anniversary with a celebration of the 30th anniversary of ordination, for Felicity and I have always worked as a partnership in the ministry we have shared.

That commitment to ministry was renewed as we moved to Pontesbury and Minsterley and again here to Highbury.

On each occasion a highlight of the Ordination and later Induction services for me, both in my preparation for the service and in the service itself was the moment when I was asked to give an account of my faith and the Faith at the heart of my ministry of teaching, preaching and pastoral care.

In our Congregational way of being the church we do not ask people or our ministers to subscribe to a creedal statement. We ask of ministers in just the same way as any one else to make a very simple statement of faith in God and in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.

But that is not to say that you or your Minister can believe whatever you want to believe. We do have a set of words that encapsulates our faith – those words are contained in a single book that itself is made up of many books – the Bible.

The Faith at the Heart of My Ministry

The statement of faith that is the basis of my preaching, teaching and pastoral ministry I need to put into my own words in such a way that it is rooted in the words of the Bible, which communicates for us all The Word of God.

At my ordination in Harden, at my induction to the Congregational churches of Minsterley and Pontesbury and again here at Highbury I sought to put into my own words the faith at the heart of the ministry in a way that was true to the Word of God in the Bible.

I want to do that again today. What I am going to do is to take the passage which I had already chosen to preach on this morning and draw from that passage a statement of the faith I hold to in a preaching, teaching and pastoral ministry here at Highbury.

Mary’s song, the Magnificat does in so many ways ‘say it all’!

46 And Mary* said,‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

The Lord, God, the Mighty One … holy is his name.

That’s where my faith begins. With a sense of the greatness of God, awesome, beyond our comprehension, wonderful, mysterious, the creator of the world.

This God of creation has made me as I am. As it happens he’s made me with a questioning mind. I want to know the whys and wherefores. They are important to me. And I have a fellow feeling with others for whom the whys and wherefores are also important, a fellow feeling with others who have a questioning mind.

I find myself more and more drawn to explore the wonders of God’s world. It was a delight to take the cubs into the garden 10 days ago and help them spot the comet that’s been on view since the end of October; it was a thrill to go up on to Cleeve Hill in the dark of Monday evening and join the scouts and with them to spot a momentary parting of the clouds – and say there it is can you see it!

Great to go up on to Cleeve Hill and hold a fossilised shell fish from tropical waters in my hand, and then to look out over what 10,000 years ago was a sea to what 700 million years ago was a line of volcanoes we now call the Malvern Hills. Fascinating to watch Planet Earth last Tuesday night and learn more of the way in which the very planet’s existence is tied up with the activity of those volcanoes and others just like them in other parts of the world.

The thrill is not just in the magnificence of this remarkable world, but in the wonder of this amazing creation. To try to get my mind round the planet and its wonders, the universe and its marvels does not for me undermine my faith in God … it deepens it and fills it with even more wonder.

However great and mind-blowing the scale of what I see, the God I believe in is greater still … The Lord, God, the Mighty One … holy is his name.

But wait a moment. Look again at the passage. And there is one description of this God that I have omitted from Mary’s Magnificat.

46 And Mary* said,‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

The Lord, God, the Mighty One … holy is his name is none other than my saviour.

God My Saviour

The God I believe in is no impersonal God, some being beyond all being, far out there, beyond my comprehension. The God I believe in is the God of creation who is as close as can be to each and to every part of his creation, including me!

This world can be a scary place – things that have happened in my life are pretty scary too. Bereavements I have experienced have not all been lovely in God’s time, just right – as some bereavements are. Some of the bereavements I have experienced have been untimely, not right, not of the goodness of God. That’s scary. Things I’ve seen from the cold war, to post 9/11 confront me with a world that’s scary. I like to organise things … but sometimes things defy any kind of organisation and threaten to get out of hand.
Such a world can be a scary place.

The God I believe in is the God who is ‘my saviour’. He is there to rescue the situation, to save things and put them right, to make things whole … in his time, in his way, in the fullness of his glory.

46 And Mary* said,‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

Can I really say that? Yes, I can. And I find myself wanting to say it more the older I get. I can see how the hand of God has been in my life, in things that have happened that at the time seemed so wrong, and yet God has brought some good out of them. There unexpectedly to build up and restore.

Can I really echo those words of Mary and make them my own?

Surely she is saying them because she is to give birth to the baby Jesus. Put it that way and it’s difficult to know how I can echo those words of Mary.

But I want to put it another way. Surely she is saying those words because she now knows that the Christ child is within her.

That’s the point for me as well. This God of Creation makes himself known to each and every part of his creation … but for us who bear the image of God and have that wonderful gift of a mind capable of seeking an understanding of the universe, God has made himself known in the most special of ways.

He has become as one of us. We can get to know this Jesus Christ, learn about his remarkable love for all and catch sight of the fact that this God of creation is actually the God of love. The teaching of Jesus is so demanding it can add to my feeling of inadequacy. But then I look to the cross of Chrsit and beyond to his resurrection and there I see the extent of God’s forgiving love in Christ, a forgiveness that reaches out to me and renews and restores me. For me it is not so much that Christ has died instead of me: rather the Christ who lived and died and rose again for me is the Christ whose life is within me. I am in Christ. And Christ is in me. That’s why I really can make these words of Mary my own.

I want to echo the words of Mary again.

50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

That’s it. That’s what counts. His mercy. This is the heart of the Christian faith for me. This is love. It is not that we love God – we can never do that enough. It is that he loved us and gave his son as the means by which our sins are forgiven.

God's Mercy at the Heart of It All

God’s mercy is at the heart of it all. A mercy that knows no bounds. A mercy that in gracious love always takes the initiative to reach out to each of us. And his mercy is for all who fear him. Turn away from all those inadequacies that weigh you down and give God the honour due his holy name, simply believe … and that releases within you the love that is already there in the gift of God’s grace.

This is wonderful. This is Good News. This is Salvation.

But don’t imagine that salvation is simply what gets you into heaven. I believe that salvation is what gets heaven into you, it’s what gets heaven, the kingdom of heaven and all its values into the here and now.

That’s why I want to move on in Mary’s song to something that is as much at the heart of the Christian faith that is important to me as the personal salvation I rejoice in and want to share.

51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

That’s powerful stuff.

The faith I believe in has implications for what you think and how you behave – the God I believe in is not just the God of personal salvation but he is the God who is involved with people at large. And as this God through Christ is deep within me, there is an imperative on me that I too be involved in this world.

There is something within all people that drags them down that pulls away from the goodness of God – you can see it in individuals, you see it even more when people get together in families and society at large. We get caught up in a web of destructive powers.

To come to faith in Christ for me involves a faith in the God who through Christ not only sets the individual right but seeks to set right things that are wrong in families, in communities, in nations, in society at large.

God takes sides!

He is with the humble and against the proud. He is with the lowly and against the powerful, with the hungry against the rich.

And that shows us where we should be too. That finds expression at the start of Advent in the gifts we shall share next week to buy presents for the Day Centre and then to give through Christian Aid – can we really fund solar panels for a clinic in Malawi or shall we settle for a little bit less. It’s in our hands! It finds expression in our Christmas Day collection for The Lilian Elizabeth Fund bringing better health care to the villagers of Sika in the Gambia.

More than that it finds expression in the commitment we make to serve others in our community and make a difference in our town. That’s why I have always considered it to be a part of my ministry to be involved in the wider community at the moment as Vice Chair of Governors at Pittville and through the Faiths Strategy Group working with the local authority.

And in all of this we are not alone.

The faith that is important to me is a faith that links me to other people in a church family that itself links me with other people in other parts of the world, and with other people down through the ages.

Mary catches that sense of continuity with the whole people of God in the last words of her song.

54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

I have a strong sense of solidarity with those who have gone before and with all who are part of God’s people today. The church is important to me. To belong to one church, for me now this one church is to belong to the whole church of God world-wide. Working with parrner churches in St Luke’s and St Michael’s and in the town is not an optional extra. It is part of what it means to be part of the church.

How is all of this possible? I want to take to heart the words of the angel to Mary as well … when the angel said in answer to Mary’s question, How can this be? “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

My faith directs me to the God of creation who is made real for me in Jesus Christ as Christ is in me and I am in Christ. Salvation doesn’t so much get me to heaven, rather it gets heaven into me. My faith calls me to live out the values of the kingdom of heaven in solidarity with all God’s people. That I can do not in my own strength but in the strength of God, that unseen yet very real presence that he releases into the depths of my being, the Holy Spirit.

This is the faith I profess. This is the faith I teach. This is the faith at the heart of the pastoral ministry God has called me to for thirty years and now a little bit more!

1 comment:

GJ said...

A nice bit of blogging! - interspersing words with pictures - well done! And an interesting personal (and, of course, political) reflection on the Magnificat. It is just an amazing song, which certainly captures so much. Good stuff.

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