Sunday 28st July, 2019
Theme: Combined Worship
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
Bible Reading: Jeremiah 29:4-14
I once stumbled across this written prayer which I found challenging, it went… “Lord, let me make a difference which is utterly disproportionate to who I am.” What do you think of that? “Lord, let me make a difference which is utterly disproportionate to who I am.” Do you have that desire? Do you want to make a difference in your life, in this church, in your circles of influence, in this world which will last long after you have gone?
Today is a time for celebrating all that God has been doing in our church over the past 12 months and looking forward to what God is planning to do next. The theme of today is HOPE, so my question for you is … are you feeling hopeful?
Good. I think we can feel hopeful but I have heard that it has not always been this way. If I asked that same question 4 or 5 years ago the answer may not have been the same. Through no fault of anyone, some unpredictable factors and circumstances led this church into a tough period. Numbers dropped, finances dropped, familiar faces were no longer around and from what I hear, that although people will still giving their all, it was hard to feel hopeful.
Actually, there are many churches around – Uniting church and other denominations – who are really struggling. Society has changed. People are busy. The average age in churches are increasing. Churches are closing down or merging. It is hard to feel hopeful in tough situations.
In our bible reading from Jeremiah, the people of Israel struggling to find hope in a tough situation. How much do you know about the book of Jeremiah? The first 23 chapters occur in Israel, when the prophet Jeremiah is calling on the people to turn back to God. He was particularly harsh on the priests and leaders for not being good and godly leaders. Then in Chapter 24:1 – things got much worse. The Israelites were defeated and carried off to exile in Babylon … all hope was crushed. They were now in a strange land and felt abandoned by God.
But Jeremiah speaks of a promise. 24:6-7 … God will watch over them while in exile, and God will restore them back into the promised land. What an amazing promise and something they could be hopeful about. But they slipped into a bad habit of thinking that claiming this promise would be quick and easy. Just be hopeful and things will be all over in a couple of weeks – maybe a few months at the most.
In my preparation I found this quote by author Laine Taylor. She wrote “Hope can be a powerful force. Maybe there’s no actual magic in it, but when you know what you hope for most and hold it like a light, … things happen, almost like magic.” When I first heard it, I really liked the quote but I think that it can also give this impression that all we have to do is think hopeful thoughts and everything will work out. Which is exactly what was happening in Jeremiah. It’s not that simple and in our bible reading Jeremiah had some hard truths for the Israelites.
Jeremiah states that there is no quick fix to this exile … it was going to take some time, and it is going to require some hard work on their behalf. Claiming God’s promise is more than feeling hopeful, they had to participate in this restoration process. It is a bit like Claudia thinking she could fly, hoping she could fly but thoughts and hopes couldn’t actually make her fly.
And it is the same with us. If we want God to work in our church or in our lives, we must do more that just think hopeful thoughts. But the good news is that in our bible reading, Jeremiah gave the Israelites – and us – two key ways of doing this, two great pieces of wisdom of how to bring our hopes to reality:
1) There is a Spiritual aspect to our response.
In our kids talk, Claudia went to God and asked God what she needed to do. Jeremiah advises the same thing:
Jeremiah 29:12 – Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you…
Last week in our morning services we learnt that without Jesus we can do nothing. That to be fruitful we have to be connected to the vine, to be connected to Jesus. In our evening service we learnt that just as a surfer doesn’t make the waves … it is not us who makes things happen but rather we just look for what Jesus is already doing and join in.
Jeremiah is right … if we want to see the hopes we have for our church come alive, the first stop is to pray, to seek Jesus with all our hearts, to connect with Jesus. We gotta get this spiritual aspect right but it is more than just this …
2) There is a practice aspect to our response.
As already mentioned … being hopeful is not passive. To claim the promises of God we actually have to put in the hard work and participate. Jeremiah told the Israelites … build houses, plant crops, increase in number, seek peace, pray for those who have captured you … and note … this is not going to be a couple of weeks, this will be 70 years!
It is the same with us. Yes, let’s be hopeful about what God is doing but we also need to put in the hard work and participate. This is the way that God works.
In the midst of these two pieces of advice, Jeremiah also reminds the Israelites of the nature of God. God has not abandoned them. God has a plan – a plan to give them a hope and a future. Yes, the plan might take some time and will require some hard work and sacrifice … but God has a plan.
I chose this bible reading for today because I think it speaks into our situation here at Turramurra. Yes, 5 years ago we might have been struggling to feel hopeful, but as a congregation you embraced these two pieces of wisdom from Jeremiah. You believed that God had a plan for TUC – a plan to give us a hope and a future.
Three years ago, the leadership team and the whole church here put together an amazing Vision – a divinely inspired plan. This framework spoke of a future where our church would be grounded in our faith in Jesus and our desire for discipleship. A church which wanted to grow in CYF and to care for all those across the generations (especially our seniors) and to create connections within the church and local community. God was stirring hope and I have heard stories about people stepping up into leadership position because they wanted to see God’s plan enacted.
By the time I came along, this framework was ready to be cast to the congregation and I had the honour and joy of doing that. Do you remember this document? This is not my plan, nor is it the plan of the leadership team who put it together … we believe this is God’s plan … a plan to give us a hope and a future. And over the last 18 months we have been blessed and are starting to see the fruit of this Vision, of God’s plan.
Our worship numbers are not dropping anymore. Actually, they are increasing in all three worship services! We are seeing familiar faces returning and new faces as well.
Our financial giving has increased. This is such a good news story. There is not many Uniting Churches around who could say that their giving has gone up by 18% over the past two years! We are seeing new initiatives starting – things like Playgroup, BUGZ, Alpha, YouthAlpha, the termly leadership development evenings.
And I have been particularly encouraged to see spiritual growth as well. People are engaging in worship. I have seen people growth through learning initiatives at Lent and Advent. People are becoming more committed to prayer because we know that this growth is only possible through the power of God. Without Jesus we can do nothing.
Are you feeling hopeful? You should be, it is exciting to see God at work, but we are not there yet. Yes, we are going in the right direction … but I feel a bit like Jeremiah and need to declare that there is still work to be done. Now is not the time to put our feet up. Let’s continue to focus on the plan, really roll up our shelves and keep the momentum going.
Yes, we have seen growth … but what does God need us to do so that we see even more growth? If I put out the challenge that we should try and increase our worship numbers by another 10 or 20 people over the next 12 months … how would we do that? We might have to think a bit differently. We might need to … shudder … invite our friends.
But it is not only in worship. How do we continue to encourage growth in all our groups and activities? I know that Jonty and I have had a goal of having an accumulative average of over 50 kids attend the 3 Friday groups each week. We are on the way but not there yet. Or what does it mean to grow our numbers in the Wednesday senior centre? How do we build upon the connections we already have to inspire more growth? I was excited to speak to the new directors at Turratots and hear how they want to build stronger connections with the church.
And how do we continue to encourage spiritual growth, to help people seek God with all their heart? We might need to explore what evangelism means in todays society and what approaches work in helping people discover Jesus. We might need to look for new and creative learning opportunities … for example a mid week teaching worship service. What does it mean to continue to grow the prayer ministry within TUC?
And what does it mean to grow our resources … continue to improve our property to enhance ministry and mission, grow our capacity to serve, grow our finances so that we can be a blessing to others.
And what does it mean to be a lighthouse church – a church that can not only bless us but bless and support and grow the other churches in our region. These are all good questions and I encourage us to work through them.
So … Are you feeling hopeful? You should be.
God has a plan for you and for our church.
A plan to give us a hope and a future.
We should be encouraged and … proud? … of what God has done within our church over the past 3 years but the plan has not yet finished, there is still more work to do.
Bottom line …
1) We need to seek God with all our heart (without Jesus we can do nothing)
2) We all – from the ministry team, to the leadership team to every one of us – needs to part of this. We need to find the best way for us to participate in this amazing plan that God has for us.
3) Embrace the Hope that God is stirring. In our Imagining Hope program that starts in 2 weeks the key verse is Ephesians 3:20, “Glory be to God, who by his mighty power at work within us is able to do immeasurably more than all we hope or imagine.”
We have gone through our time in the cacoon … now it is time to fly…