St Mary’s, Puddletown
Sunday 31st December 2017
Isaiah 61.10-62.3; Luke 2.15-21
You may be very surprised to learn that one of my favourite verses in the Bible was in today’s Gospel reading: “And Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
It slightly surprises me too, but it seems to me that there is something quite profound in those words. Mary has undergone some amazing experiences in the past nine months, and takes time to ponder and reflect, rather than leaping into action and doing something.
We live in a society that prizes doing and having. It is partly why so many people get left behind. We live in a society that says fast is good, slow is bad. We are so used to wanting and getting things immediately.
Just think about those emails – how long is it before your anxiety levels rise when you haven’t had a response from someone?
We don’t know if the original never arrived, if it arrived and the response never returned, if the person at the other end has seen it or not, and if they have, why they’re not responding.
We live in a world where we order something on-line and it can be delivered the following day, or in certain parts of the country the same day. We have fast food, fast roads, fast lives, fast everything.
Our expectations are raised. We want everything now. If we have to wait for a doctor’s appointment or hospital test, we complain and get anxious. If we get stuck in a traffic jam, our stress levels rise. If we ring an urgent hotline and are kept waiting for ages listening to canned music, we get frustrated.
Speed is one of the curses of our 21st-century. If we’re not racing around being busy then something seems wrong or we are worried about how others will perceive us. If we’re taking life at a slower pace, then we’re seen not to be pulling our weight.
Around many of us there is an aura of dash, rush, do, which it can be hard to break through.
And for those who can no longer dash, rush, do, there is a sense of uselessness that can creep in. I’ve had many conversations with people frustrated because they can’t do what they used to do. Perhaps your one of those who feels like that.
Many people today see the search for happiness as a prime objective and yet as a society we become ever unhappier and our mental health is probably worse than at any other time in history, especially among young people.
What are we doing to ourselves? In the midst of our busy-ness, it is hard to hear the voice of God.
Mary knew the power of taking time to ponder and reflect, of getting her life back in balance after the amazing and wonderful events she had witnessed.
Mary knew the presence of God with her and was content to let God’s will be paramount.
Who directs our lives? God? Family? Work? Time? Friends? The golf club? I’m not sure what it is for each one of your gathered here today, but if it’s not God who has first place, then some questions need to be asked.
God’s presence is with us always, but we’re not always aware of it. I wonder what it is that distracts you and preoccupies you. What is it that stops you taking time to pray and read Scripture? What is it that stops you learning how to be a better disciple?
It will be different for each one of us, but what we’re talking about here is not just an act of will but of heart.
It was Mary’s heart that led her to treasure and ponder. At the end of 2017, where are our hearts? What leads us to gratitude to God for what has passed?
What in 2017 has given you life? What are those things for which you are truly thankful? St Paul urges us to give thanks in all circumstances. Sometimes that is easy if we take the time to recall all that is good in our lives, rather than rushing through it without a second thought.
But in all circumstances? I’m sure there were times when Mary struggled with the vocation that God had given her. Those words of Simeon when Jesus was presented in the temple that a sword would pierce her heart must have caused her grief. Or what about standing by the cross watching her Son hang there in agony?
The truth is that if we learn how to be with God in good times, we will be helped to stand firm in less good ones. There are still things we can thank God for even in the midst of pain and disaster.
Some are the outwards supports like family and friends, doctors and carers.
Some are the things in life that continue even when it feels as if our own worlds are falling apart: the sparrow, the sun, the grass, the kind word.
Some are more related to our pain: God is with us in it, we learn through difficulties, we gain perseverance. It may be only a prayer at the end of the day that says thank you God for getting me through, but that in itself is opening ourselves to God.
The best thing of all that we could do in the coming year is to make more space for God in our lives.
Even just five minutes a day set aside for doing nothing but being with God will make a difference. The hardest part is being there, making the space in our diaries to do just that. To sit with an open heart allowing God to do what God will with us.
Our minds will wander, which is why some people have a phrase to come back to each time they realise they’ve lost focus, such as “Come, Holy Spirit”; “Be still for the presence of the Lord” or “Open my heart to you, Lord”, or even just a word: Jesus, love, God. Just a simple word or two to bring ourselves back to the openness required. It’s not a mantra that is chanted, but a word to signal our renewed intention to be open to God with all our being.
Doing this may make us feel very vulnerable, because in being rather than doing we lose control. In opening up ourselves to God, we are saying that the future is in God’s hands not ours, that we are open to his guiding not our own direction.
If you’re worried about the time, do what I do – I have a timer which I set, and then I know that I can relax in God’s company, being not doing, until it rings. Otherwise I know I’d be constantly looking at my watch to see how much longer I have left.
This takes practice, but it is one of the best ways in which God can transform us because we’re not fighting against it but welcoming God into our hearts.
As we learn how to rest more in God through this kind of prayer, we will become more aware of God’s presence during the rest of our lives and our priorities will become more God-shaped and less me-shaped.
It’s a way of leaving our future and our past in God’s hands, and as we do that more and more, we find ourselves more and more at peace with God, with ourselves and with other people.
One of the problems facing the church at the moment – of which there are many as you will be aware – is that for many it has become more like a hobby than anything else. I go to church on Sundays, bridge in Mondays, tennis on Tuesdays and so on, and so on.
God is not a hobby for Christians but the life-giving heart of our lives. God is the be all and end all of everything.
Church is not an institution primarily but a community of love. A community of people like Mary seeking to do God’s will, being humble enough and open enough to allow God to shape us and show us what that will truly is, rather than for us to decide what we think it is.
We often hear how the Church of England is losing members, and we only have to look around at our benefice churches to see that is true. We live in a world where God has for many no place but where peace and love and joy would grow and flourish, if only people would turn back to God. Not in a lip-service way but in a true heart-serving way.
Our future is not in our own hands but in God’s. May the coming year be one of true transformation as we delight to spend more time being with God and less time doing our own thing.
God will bless us, but we may need help to ensure that our eyes are open to his glories, our ears to his calling and our hearts to his indwelling.