Scripture: Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17
“See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” – Isaiah 42:9
“Gone by 2040? Statistics report wake-up call to church, says primate” If you receive the Anglican Journal or you happened to read one here in our entryway before they were taken, you would have been confronted by this shocking headline, on the front page of our church’s national newspaper.
The article is a response to statistics which were recently released showing the sharp decline of the Anglican church since 1961, and the study’s author predicting that at the historic rate of decline there would not be a single member of the Anglican Church in Canada by the year 2040. Aside from the very important fact that the study and the article support some terrible methodology (rates of decline or increase never maintain the same rate indefinitely; the study neglected areas of the church that are in fact growing and more), the reality is nonetheless sobering.
It’s a reality that many of us gathered here today know well. Many of us have been a part of a church which has closed, a church which needed to amalgamate with others, a church which has seen their average age continue to climb with each passing year, a church’s whose offertory has shrunk as members die or move into assisted living, a church who no longer hears the vibrant cry of children worshipping or learning in Sunday School.
All of us know the reality which the article spoke of and I think many of us are afraid; we are afraid that the church and worship we love won’t be here very much longer, we are afraid that we won’t be able to meet our budget, we are afraid that we might have to amalgamate once again, we are afraid of the change required of us for things to be different.
Ultimately we are afraid that new life isn’t possible, for the church and even for ourselves – whether it is the rising threat of world war due to tensions between Iran and the US or the reality of ageing on your body, mind and budget, or the looming ecological crisis, or any myriad of threats real or imagined – it is easy to be afraid, it is easy to lose hope, it is easy resigning ourselves to a grim daily reality.
And yet God still speaks into this reality, he speaks into our darkness and despair with the words which are always the first words of the Gospel: Do not be afraid, do not fear for ‘see the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.’
These words were originally spoken by the prophet Isaiah to a people in exile. To a people experiencing separation from all that they had known, to a people experiencing what they saw as separation from or even abandonment by God, to a people that were afraid that their way of life, that their promised land was lost to them forever, a people who were beginning to settle in to their grim reality of existence in a foreign land, a people with little hope for a future.
And yet God spoke, God spoke to them of new life, God spoke to them of new possibilities opening up to them, God spoke to them of their role as light to the nations – not something one would expect in the midst of exile and despair, and yet God declared it to be true. God spoke of the wondrous possibilities and future the people of Israel would see: the blind receiving their sight, the prisoners being freed, the people in darkness seeing a great light. God declared to the people of Israel, that their current situation was not the how it would always be, that all was not lost – for God was always on their side, God was always working his good purposes for them even in the midst of trial and tribulation.
Today as we mark the Baptism of Jesus, the moment which essentially began his public ministry, we are reminded that it is in Jesus that these promises to Israel were ultimately fulfilled. In Jesus’ life and ministry, we see how God brings light and healing to this world. In Jesus’ death, we see how God destroyed the power of sin and death that separate us from the light and life of God. And in Jesus’ resurrection we see the possibility, nay we see the promise of new life even in the darkest depths of death and despair, we see the possibility of new life even in the direst situations in our personal lives and in the life of the Church.
In Jesus, we learn that new life is possible; we learn that as we take the risk of faith the darkness never has the last word, that God is continually pouring forth his spirit on to us and the world so that new life is always possible – whether you are 5 years old, 50 years old or even if you are 90 years old!
In Jesus we learn that new life is possible for our churches too – whether they are brand new, 10 years old or 100 years old or more. God is continually pouring forth the Holy Spirit to renew and even reinvigorate his church, even when all our worldly circumstances seem direst.
As we remember the baptism of Jesus, we are reminded of our own baptisms – long ago perhaps but still as effective as ever – where we were marked as Christ own forever; where we heard God declare that we along with Jesus were his beloved daughter or son in whom he is well pleased; where we remember the new life that God began in us that day whether we were an infant or an adult, whether we were aware of it or not. In our baptisms we get to participate in Jesus’ baptism, in his life, in his death and in his resurrection.
Remember this: that at your baptism each and every one of you was declared the beloved of God – the same God ‘who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out he earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it’ that God has called you beloved; at your baptism each and every one of you was welcomed into God’s family, the divine family through which everything around us was created. If you have not been baptised, don’t worry it is always open to you, God waits to declare you his beloved as well, just come speak to me after the service and we can figure out the process. (For more information on baptism at Grace Church click here)
While we are declared God’s beloved children, at our baptism we were also given a responsibility. We were given the same responsibility Isaiah proclaimed to the people of Israel, the same responsibility that Jesus took up in his life, death and resurrection. As the community of the baptized we are called to be a light to the world, we are called to break through the darkness and the grim reality which ensnares our hearts and our minds and participate in the new thing that God is doing in our midst.
We are called to speak words of life into the world, even as all around us in our communities and in our world we see more and more death and destruction.
We are called to seek peace and reconciliation even as we witness increased division and violence on our city streets and throughout the world.
We are called to take risks with our time, our talent and our treasure even when the safest thing to do would be to turtle in on ourselves and keep everything for ourselves and for the continuation of what we have always known.
We are called to live full and abundant lives for the sake of God and for others, even as our bodies ache and break down, even as our church buildings begin falling apart, even as our congregations seemingly dwindle, even as our budgets are stretched thinner and thinner each and every year.
We are called to love our neighbours – our atheist neighbour, our Muslim neighbour, our homeless neighbour, our racist neighbour, our LGBTQ neighbour, our African-Canadian neighbour, our loud neighbour, our rude neighbour, our addicted neighbour, our young neighbour, our old neighbour – no matter who they are we – we are called to love them with our words and deeds and expect nothing in return.
We are called to dare to believe and truly hope that a better future is possible and take meaningful steps to partner with God to make it happen, even when the little voice in our head tells us that the task is too big or too difficult.
Today as you hear Isaiah’s ancient words and you remember the Father’s words spoken over Jesus at his baptism, hear the Gospel truth that new life is possible for you right here and right now; new life is possible even if you feel spiritually dry or even spiritually dead; new life is possible even if you feel lost in the world not knowing where you fit in; new life is possible even if you or your life are falling apart.
Today we as Grace Church also need to hear that new life is possible for this church and for the whole Anglican Church of Canada, new life here in this congregation, here in this place, we are able to experience the new life of Christ as a community. We are able to experience the vibrancy and responsibility of being a light to our community. Even as the attendance declines, even as buildings fall apart, even as our budgets grow thinner – new life is possible, because God is always doing something new through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
It all begins with trusting in God who is faithful to us to the end, it begins with believing God’s promise that in Jesus and through the Holy Spirit we are not alone, that God is renewing us and re-igniting the flame. It all begins with our reclaiming our responsibility to be a light to the nations, a light of love and life to our surrounding community.
Today as we worship God in this place, let us taste the new life of Christ in our midst, and from here let us shine forth so that all the world may know that Jesus is Lord, today and forevermore.
Thanks be to God!
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