Vocation 5 – 1 Samuel 3

Dad, when I grow up I want to be a bin-man.

Ok son. Er, why would you like to be a bin man?

Well Dad, I’ve only seen them work once a week.

Mind you, you could say the same about Vicars. Not as bad though as the lady who asked her daughter: ‘What would you like to do when you’re big like Mummy?’ To which the child replied ‘Go on a diet’.

I wonder if any of the children here have an idea what they’d like to do when they grow up? Anyone like to tell us? Or what about the adults – can you remember what you wanted to be when you were a child and has that changed at all?

 of course, you often end up having several ideas: when I was at primary school I wanted to be a palaeontologist – which basically meant I wanted to be paid to dig up dinosaur bones. And when I was a student I thought I might go into forestry. But God had other plans

I wonder what hopes you’ve got for Sophie? What sort of job do you dream of her doing? I’m sure we all want her to be happy whatever she does. Would we hope that one day she might be a parent herself? Soon we’ll be making promises for her – and one of the things we hope for there is that she will have her own living faith in God.

The wonderful thing is that God has a plan for each one of us. God knows us better even than we know ourselves. On this Mothering Sunday we give thanks for the love of mothers – and we also remember that God loves us even more than the best parent could ever love their child. And God calls each one of us to know him and to follow Jesus. We call that Vocation and in during Lent we’re thinking about that in our sermon series

Whatever your age, whether you’re a little child or a great-grandparent, God has a role for you and a plan for your life. We hear about that in our reading from 1 Samuel 3v1-18.

Samuel was a miracle baby. He was an answer to prayer. So when Samuel was born his mother wanted him to serve God. She took him to the temple, which was where people worshipped God. Samuel lived there and the chief priest called Eli looked after him. It seems that Samuel actually slept in the temple, right next to the Ark of God.

In the middle of the night, Samuel heard a voice calling ‘Samuel, Samuel’. So he ran straight to Eli, who told him to go back to bed. Again, God called, Samuel ran to Eli, and Eli sent him back to bed.

I wonder why this happened? Why didn’t Samuel realise it was God? Any ideas? It seems he hadn’t heard God calling before. Maybe no one had told Samuel about God communicating. Certainly the reading says that the word of the Lord was rare in those days. Perhaps no-one imagined this kind of thing could happen. (spiritual state of the nation)

Eventually Eli worked out what was going on. He said to Samuel: ‘if he calls you, you shall say speak Lord for your servant is listening.’ And that is what happened. God spoke to Samuel. Samuel listened, and God gave Samuel a message for Eli and all Israel.

It’s a wonderful story. But what does it mean for us today? After all, when Christians read the Bible we believe it speaks to us and our lives now. What does it mean for you and me? 

If you’re a young person, it says that God can call you. Even if you’re very small God has a plan for you. There are special things that only you can do. That child who’s by themselves in the playground, you might be the only person who notices and can be friendly with them.

There are only a few people who can be like big cousins to Sophie. Older children she’ll look up to. That’s your job. 

If you’re a young person, this story says that God wants you to know him. As you are now, not waiting until you’re a grown up. It says that however young or old you are, you can hear God.

How do we hear God? We might not hear a voice calling like Samuel did. But if we take time to pray, it’s amazing what can happen. If you can be still and ask God questions, and leave time for him to answer, often an idea will pop into your head, or maybe you’ll imagine a picture. When we read the Bible and reflect on it, we often get a sense for what God wants us to do. Jesus tells us that when we seek God we will find him. 

What does the story of Samuel say to grown-ups? I think it tells us to be humble like Eli. Ready to listen to what children have to say. Able to hear wisdom and the nudging of God in the words of the very young. 

Children need help from adults in their spiritual development. Eli had to tell Samuel how to identify God’s voice; how to respond. Eli had to encourage Samuel to speak up and give the message.  

When God speaks to children, it’s so important that they have understanding and wise adults they can go to. People who aren’t going to dismiss their experiences. Who will take them seriously and encourage them.

I read a remarkable story. It was written by a mother about her child. The mother is an atheist and she brought up her daughter that way. But through assemblies in school the little girl began to develop a faith in God. The mother found this very strange – but she didn’t want to squish it. Mother encouraged daughter in what was important to her. Still an atheist, this loving mother spends Sundays dropping off her daughter to sing in the choir, and taking her to confirmation class.

What a wonderful example of support and open-mindedness 

That’s why God gives us families – and the family of the church. Together we encourage one another in our faith. On this Mothering Sunday let’s give thanks for the whole church family and the way God uses us to support one another.


Sophie is going to need that as she grows up. She’ll need people who can encourage her in the faith. People who can nurture her spirituality and show her how to listen to God. This is particularly a role for parents and godparents, but it’s for all of us too. So I’ll ask you to turn to the order of service and join in with the first of the promises


That support would have been tested to its limit when Eli heard the message that Samuel gave. It was a message of judgement against a corrupt priesthood. Although Eli had been warned many times, he had done nothing to restrain his sons who were abusing their position. So God gives notice that the privileges of priesthood will be taken away from Eli’s family and given to others who will honour the role. 

At various points in the Old Testament, when people have received similar messages, they come to their senses. They repent: in other words they change their words and demonstrate their sorrow for their past behaviour. And when people respond like that, God relents. As it says in Ezekiel, he does not want the wicked to perish. He wants them to change their ways and live. So even the seemingly harshest words in the Old Testament are sent to bring life – they are final warnings to bring about a change of behaviour. 

In that light, Eli’s response in v.18 is so tragic. He doesn’t change. He doesn’t speak to his sons. He is resigned, spiritually numbed, saying ‘He is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him.’ Although he has heard the word of the Lord, Eli has not really listened. Eli is not discerning its true meaning; he needs to listen for the spiritual subtext. so as we listen for the voice of God, it’s so important that when it is discerned we act on it.

If we wish to hear the voice of God it is essential to cultivate the habit of obedience. As we do so, God’s guidance becomes more familiar, perhaps more readily discerned. God speaks to us in many and various ways. We hear his voice and hone it through one another. And when we hear, let us be ready to obey. Amen.



Religion – is it a comfort? Is it comforting to be religious? Or does faith, as someone once said about art ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable?’

I suppose it depends on what you mean by comfort. If I experienced the occasional strange heartbeat or fluttering sensation in my chest, I could no doubt look up any number of reassuring articles on the internet, Medonline.com would comfort me by saying it was due to coffee, or stress or even mealtimes. That would be comforting – as long as it’s true.

Or I could go and see the doctor. Problem with a doctor is, he might say, there’s a problem but we can address it with a pacemaker. Maybe that’s not such good news. But if it’s true, surely it’s better to take it seriously and get a problem fixed.

So comfort can be a superficial sort of thing where you hope for the best. Or comfort can be based on reality – when a genuine problem has been addressed. That sort of comfort can come as the result of hard words, or difficult decisions, but it is much more true. And it is the sort of comfort Jeremiah talks about in today’s reading.

It’s about 600 BC. Almost 150 years after the reading from Isaiah we heard last week. A lot has happened in that time. The small kingdom of Judah miraculously survived when its more powerful Northern neighbour Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. But now Judah has struggled on for a century, always under threat. Invasion is imminent.

God called Jeremiah to speak to his people. In Jeremiah’s prophecy he calls them to turn back to God, to do what’s right, and make peace with the Babylonians while there is time.

How do you think they reacted? The message was not appreciated. The people liked their country independent.  They wanted to keep their religious options open – just in case. And no-one likes to be told their behaviour isn’t up to scratch. So they made fun of Jeremiah, the people of Judah said he was trying to frighten them. At various times they got bored of him, ignored him, or locked him up. Still the prophet continued to speak, warning them that unless they changed, their society was doomed.

No-one likes the nay-sayer. But if I drive up to a Give Way sign, I don’t think to myself ‘Pedantic, bossy council’. I give way – because the juggernauts coming past won’t be stopping. If I see a sign saying ‘Danger  -electric fence’ I don’t think to myself ‘oh, the farmer’s just trying to frighten me’. I give it a wide berth.

We may wonder why so much of the Old Testament is full of warnings. But a parent who saw their toddler wandering into the sea and didn’t call them back would be a parent who lacked love, or responsibility, or both. In the Old Testament we see the Father heart of God who constantly warns his people about the consequences of their actions. He knows what is good for us, his laws are not arbitrary diktats, but the Maker’s instructions, the blueprint for life. Warning comes from love. We might note too that this is not just an Old Testament thing – in our Gospel reading Jesus told people to read the warnings around them.

One of the challenges of being a parent is knowing how much freedom to give. Do you give way to your seven year old who desperately wants to grate her own parmesan? Or do you refuse because you’re sure she’ll end up grating her fingers too? And how important is it that she finds out for herself? Are there times when you have to allow her to experience consequences so that she learns your advice is reliable?

God allows us a great deal of freedom because maturity cannot be forced. And love is not love if it is not given freely. But God does warn, a great deal. All the warnings in the Bible are there so that we can be protected if we choose to heed them. And if we do not, the warnings invite us to repent: to seek God’s forgiveness and turn back to him.

That’s why in v.29 of our reading, Jeremiah says that the Word of the Lord is like fire and a hammer breaking a rock in pieces. God’s Word has the intensity and power of fire. It is dangerous if not treated with respect, but when used as intended it warns, comforts and protects. It is like a hammer breaking rocks, smashing apart obstacles on the path and clearing a way so that people can move about in safety. God speaks to us so that we can know what is best for us, so we can find life in all its fullness as he designed it, so we can recognise wrong and turn from it, so we can find forgiveness when we have sinned.

Accepting that can be tough. The people of Judah wanted to go their own way, and they had plenty of other prophets who were only too happy to support them. These are the people God criticises in verse 25 – those who prophesy lies in His name. They are harking back to the glory days; dreaming that past influence will one day be restored; based on their own wishful thinking they promise that God will deliver them. This is God’s country, they say, we are his people. His temple is here, how could he possibly let it fall? You Jeremiah are prophesying dire things but God won’t actually let them come to pass.

Do they have faith? I suppose you could say they have a faith of sorts. It is a warm fuzzy optimism, don’t worry be happy, hang on to your faith and God will look after you, be true to yourself and everything will be ok. It is a religion of the plastic Jesus riding on the dashboard of my car, a tame and domesticated God. A dream that appeals to many today. But am I a God nearby, says the Lord in v.23, and not a God far off too?

Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? I know what you’re thinking. I can see what you’re doing. The false prophets had massively underestimated God.

Firstly, although they believed that God could deliver his people, they didn’t realise how different God’s plans could be. We can glean their message from the rest of Jeremiah. They said there would be no sword, nor famine, nor destruction of the temple. They taught that God would deliver everyone from danger.

But Jeremiah said: if you turn back to God, he will deliver you through all these dangers. Not from, but through. Troubles will come, that is the world we live in. Things will be very tough and you will pass through great hardship, but God will carry you.

I wonder, do you have an idea of how you’d like the future to be? Do you have a plan for your life, a dream of what would be good to happen? It’s good to have hopes and a vision – as long as we remember that anything can happen and that God can weave the surprises and accidents into the tapestry of our lives. God does not promise to protect us from the challenges of life – but he does promise that he will be with us through them. And he will ultimately deliver us too.

The second way the false prophets underestimated God is they didn’t realise how much he cares. They said to themselves: God is on our side, we are his people. The implication was ‘No matter what we do’. The result in verse 27 was that people were comfortable worshipping idols alongside God, that immoral practises did not get challenged.

Jeremiah said: God is a God of love. That means he loves passionately, he cares for all his people, especially those who are vulnerable. Love means God is holy and righteous. So if you oppress the poor, if you make slaves of your fellow countrymen, if you cheat and lie, why would you think God is on your side? He can see everything that goes on. He is not indifferent to what you do. God offers a universal invitation, he calls everyone into his kingdom, but we have to respond and show it with changed lives.

I wonder what this means for us? It calls me to remember that worship, prayer and sacrament are essential to living a Christian life, and so are care for the poor, service, and simple kindness. It challenges me to remember that religious duties do not substitute for compassion nor vice versa. That my whole life needs to be suffused with the grace of Christ, not just parts of it.

I sometimes imagine my life being like the rooms of a house. Some parts, like the hall and sitting room are kept reasonably well, presentable for visitors. Others, like the spare room and garage don’t get seen much – which is just as well as they’re full of rubbish. But if we’re going to spring clean, we’ve got to spring clean the whole lot. We can’t have parts of our lives where God is welcome, like church and home, and parts where he isn’t, like work or when you get together with certain friends. The joy and true life of Christianity needs to be incorporated into my whole life with transparent integrity.

Jeremiah urges us not to be like the false prophets and underestimate God. Not to think of God as a benign but distant force, uninterested in our daily activities. God is not a tribal deity, to be invoked by those whose ancestors have always served him. Nor is he a plastic Jesus, a good luck totem to carry me through life. God is far more loving, far closer than we can imagine – and that means that what we do matters to him.  He is passionate, involved, guiding and warning us. He wants what is best for us and longs that we may clearly hear his voice.

Hosea 1

I wonder how many households have a baby-name book? Quite a lot I suspect, because even if prospective parents don’t buy one themselves, they are likely to get given one. Chantal and I were solemnly presented with one soon after getting married – clearly ten months was seen as too long to wait.

Books like this are a mine of information – they tell you that Jonathan means ‘Gift of God’ and that Jemima was one of the daughters of Job after he emerged from his troubles. Names aren’t always significant, I once came unstuck at a baptism when I preached on the baby’s name – and found the parents had just chosen it because it sounded nice.

In some cultures, names carry great weight. My wife knew an Indian girl whose parents had wished for a boy, so they called her ‘Not wanted’. Imagine growing up being called that. But then ‘Not wanted’ came to Christ, discovered that God wanted her, and changed her name to Rebecca.

I rather feel for the children in today’s reading from Joel chapter 1. The Old Testament prophets often gave their children symbolic names. Isaiah’s son rejoiced in the name ‘Maher shalal hash baz’ –  presumably ‘baz’ for short. But we probably shouldn’t imagine his mum calling out ‘Swift to the plunder, come in, it’s time for supper’ – these prophetic names might have been extras, in the way that eldest sons today are sometimes given an ancestral family name as their middle name.

The point is the meaning. So in v.4 Jezreel refers to the place of a famous massacre, and on account of this the government will fall. And then poor little Lo-Ruhamah means ‘no pity’ because God’s judgement is coming on Israel. ‘Lo Ammi’ in v.9 means ‘not my people’ because God says ‘you are not my people and I am not your God’. It’s kind of like a broken family, the names are all wrong, they don’t speak of love because God is saying that his people have decided walk away from his family.

Last week we heard from Amos about the injustice in Israel, how the people had turned away through cruelty. Hosea’s point is different. It’s about faithfulness. God’s people have been unfaithful to him by turning to idols – and the astonishing about Hosea is that he enacts this by marrying a prostitute. He demonstrates what happening through his own family life.

The prophet marries a ‘wife of whoredom’ as our translation rather quaintly puts it. After a while she gets bored and returns to her old ways. Hosea has to go after her and pay a ransom to get her back.

As it explains in v.2 ‘the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord’. Quite often the Old Testament prophets use the picture of a failed, adulterous marriage to describe how Israel’s relationship with God has broken down. God had loved his people, committed himself to them, cared for them, but they had run off after other gods. Can we imagine how that might feel? Can we see how that speaks of a great passion and an immense pain in the heart of God?

These passages aren’t easy for us to read in the twenty-first century. We might notice that God is always imagined to be the man in the relationship, so unfaithful Israel is always a woman. And in that patriarchal society sometimes love and faithfulness are in view, at other times the woman is more like the property of the man.

But if we can get past that cultural setting, we’ll see that Hosea has a lot to say to us. Firstly he speaks of the passion of God. In this book, God is a husband, a lover. God is betrayed, let down, but love makes him forgive, makes him vulnerable. Hosea shows us that God passionately loves us Jesus told us the parable of the lost sheep – the shepherd going after the lost. But arguably Hosea goes a step further.

In our culture, God is often imagined as a distant, headmasterly figure. Many people think of God as strict but fair, respected from afar, enforcing his rules through a system of prefects. He isn’t that engaged with day to day life but if you are summoned to his study you tremble with fear.

That is not the God of the Bible. Yes he is the awesome Creator, the judge of all the earth, and you must take off your sandals in his presence. But God also loves intensely with a great passion. He burns with desire for his people, he longs after the lost, he hates injustice because he loves so much.

Secondly, God wants to be with his people, he wishes to be Lord of our lives, he desires to know us and for us to know him. That’s why worship and prayer are so important – they are not sacrificial offerings to please a distant deity. They are given to us for a different reason.

Prayer and worship spend time in God’s presence, build our connection with him. Sometimes they are a duty – and we need duty to carry us through the dry periods – but they can be a joy because through worship and prayer we encounter God. It is so important to make them a priority.

Thirdly, because he loves us so much God hates it when we turn away to idols. How does it feel when you love someone but know they are giving their love to someone else? And when that someone else will not respect her, will not treat her well, but will ultimately let her down and cast her aside? That’s how God feels about idolatry – he knows that he alone can give us life but sees us giving our loyalty to lesser things.

Do we do that? Well I haven’t noticed gilded statues on the street corners of Sherston and I don’t imagine many of you have a shrine to the household gods back at home. Perhaps when on holiday someone might invite us to visit and join in the ceremonies at the local temple…Perhaps we might want to find out a bit about the RE curriculum – does learning about other religions ever turn into participating in their worship?

But idols are much more than graven images. An idol is anything which takes the place in our lives which rightly belongs to God. We commit idolatry when we place anything else at the centre, where God’s throne ought to be. The classic three examples are money, sex, and power. They often become idols, and people devote their lives to their pursuit.

Yet idols can be much more subtle. Money sex and power are blatant, have obvious potential to corrupt, whereas other idols can be harder to see. We can learn to recognise them though, by asking ourselves some questions: What are the good things to which we might be tempted to give too much importance? For often an idol is not bad in itself – it’s just that we’ve put it in God’s throne. It can be a good thing in the wrong place.

What do we pour resources into? Where does all the money go? … When we think about praying, what is it that pops into our minds instead? … What are the unquestioned assumptions in our society, the rules and structures and organisations that everyone sees as a good thing? …     What are you not allowed to speak against? What would we think most odd if someone said ‘that’s an idol’?

These are questions that take some time to discern. The temptations each of us face will be very different. So I suggest we could take some time in prayer reflecting on this and asking God to show us if there is any risk of idolatry in our lives. I did come up with some examples.

For instance, family. How can love for your family be an idolatry? It’s remarkable how many people say that their kids are their world, even their religion. That’s not a healthy expectation to put on them – the children won’t be able to live up to it. When we seek from any person the security, love and meaning that can only be found in God, then that is idolatry.

I’ve seen marriages fall apart under the strain of working long hours and shuttling kids here and there in the pursuit of the best education. Community can be like the Emperor claiming his pinch of incense when there is an overwhelming pressure for everyone to join in. Tolerance can be an effective way of shutting out the claims of Christ.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that family, education, community, tolerance are bad things. Far from it – all are positive assets to our society and God’s gifts in creation. But just as the people in Hosea’s time took wheat and cows and made gods out of them, so people today can take the best things and enthrone them in the place of God. Our ultimate security and identity should not be in our jobs or houses, but in God. Only God can be in God’s place, only he can bear that weight of being the foundation for the rest of our lives. If anything else, anyone else, no matter how good, occupies that place, that thing or person will eventually crumble under the load and let us down.

What then can we do? We could tear the idols down. They did that from time to time in the Old Testament – but it never lasted long. Something else always popped up in their place. And so it will, if God is not in the centre. That is the way to deal with idolatry, that is the way to ensure that everything occupies its proper place. If God is the foundation, then all the good things can be built up on that base. If we worship and trust in God alone, if we find our security and meaning in him, then everything else can be enjoyed in its right way. Let us pray



So, tell me Mum and Dad, why would you like your baby baptised? It’s great you’ve made a positive choice that this is what you’d like for little Jack – because not everyone does have their children christened nowadays. Can you tell me a bit about what the baptism means to you?

It’s interesting what responses I get in the baptism visit. Of course there are occasionally parents who say, well actually, it’s for Nan really, she feels they ought to be done. I even heard of a Gran somewhere who was going to cut all the grandchildren out of the will if they weren’t christened. And there was once somebody who came to see me rather anxious because Grandma had told her that you had to be baptised if you wanted an operation on the NHS! In those situations there’s a lot of reassuring and myth-busting that has to be done.

But most parents have thought about it and what it means to them. We’d like to give Jack the best possible start in life. Being brought up in a Christian home meant a lot to me and I want that for Emily too. We want her to be part of God’s family and brought up the right way. When you have a baby it makes you think about what really matters and we’ve decided this is important to us. Well actually, Vicar, Jamie had a really difficult start in life and we just want to give thanks that he’s here. We want to bring him into God’s house.

All these things are going on in the New Testament reading from Luke chapter 2, and a lot more besides. When Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple they start him off in Israel’s faith, with celebration. It is also about giving thanks for a safe delivery and enabling Mary to return to normal life after being isolated during childbirth. The fact that Jesus is her first-born son is also important: according the Old Testament Law the first male in the family belonged to God and had to be bought back or redeemed by presenting an animal for sacrifice instead.

There’s a telling little detail there in v. 24. They ‘offered a sacrifice of two turtle doves or young pigeons.’ It was supposed to be a lamb and a young pigeon. But a whole lamb is expensive, so the Law compassionately allowed the poor to give a second pigeon instead.

So Mary and Joseph did not have much. They lived in a household where every coin mattered and you had to watch what you spent. If getting by is difficult for any of us, remember that Jesus knows what it is like trying to make ends meet. And if we are better off, let us remember that Jesus’ words about generosity and the way that he lived, are all the more remarkable coming from someone of limited means.

In everything that he did, Jesus practiced what he preached. As an adult he lived by the Old Testament law. He didn’t do so grudgingly. He affirmed it wholeheartedly. Because he knew it was God’s will.


That’s important for us today – Jesus had a high regard for the Old Testament and so should we. It was his Bible, it was the culture he lived in. If we want to understand him, we should also get to grips with the Old Testament Scriptures he lived, breathed and recited every day.

Jesus did not come to tell the Jews ‘You’ve got the wrong idea and I’ll teach you the right way’. Yes, there were things that the Pharisees did that were over the top, legalistic and strict – but Jesus argued with them over their interpretation of the Law, he didn’t say the Law itself was wrong. Yes, many people in his time had forgotten that the promise of the Messiah was for all nations – but Jesus called them back to it, as Simeon does in v.32. Jesus didn’t abolish, he fulfilled.

Jesus did not say that the Old Testament was a ritual dead end. God did not have a Plan A Old Testament, and when that went wrong he came up with Plan B New Testament. Instead he fulfilled it, he brought it to completion, he shared its true meaning. That’s what we see in this reading, not the Old Testament set aside, but brought to completion.

Those of you who are married, do you remember what it was like being engaged? A time of promise, hope and expectation? Lots of organisation too. Now that you’re married, would you go back to being engaged? Probably not. Being married is better than being engaged. So does that mean that you now look back on the time of engagement and think of it as a dreadful time you’d rather forget about? Of course not! I remember romantic meals and much excitement. It was lovely.

Just because the engagement has been fulfilled in marriage, doesn’t mean you look at it as a useless time. Just because you wouldn’t want to go back doesn’t mean it was all dreadful. So why do many Christians think of the Old Testament like that? Why is two-thirds of our Bible a closed book to many? The Old Testament is like the engagement, and the New Testament like the marriage. The new brings completion to the old, the old lays foundation for the new. Both have their valuable place.

I passionately believe that the Old Testament is not archaic history for those who like that kind of thing. It is not something Christians can throw off with a hearty sigh of relief ‘thank goodness we don’t have to follow that kind of religion anymore’. Instead, the Old Testament is the background, the scaffolding, the foundation on which my faith is built. Jesus doesn’t make sense without the Bible he used.

That’s why, during this Lent, I’m going to be preaching a sermon series on big themes from the Old Testament. It’s why our Lent course will take the biggest Biblical ideas and tie them together – showing how Jesus fulfils what came before him.

You can see it all through today’s passage. It’s incredibly symbolic. For instance, we’ve thought about why there was no lamb – because Mary and Joseph were poor. But there’s a symbolic level as well. There is no lamb because the Lamb of God himself is there. Jesus is the lamb.

He will give himself for our sins, just as the lambs were sacrificed to bring peace with God. The one who will replace the temple comes to the temple. The one through whom we meet God is presented to God.

It’s all of this that Simeon and Anna have been waiting for, all through their long years. They know that Messiah is coming, and now they have seen him. Our situation is not that different. One day we shall see Jesus. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, now we see as through a glass darkly, then we shall see face to face. We shall see him in glory.

I’ve heard a story of an old Methodist lay preacher who lay seriously ill in bed. The doctor came to him and gently broke the news that he was dying. The man was elated – at last he was going to see his Lord. Apparently he got so excited that he lasted several days longer than anyone expected!

If we have faith in Christ, like Simeon, one day we shall see him. The waiting will be over, the engagement passed. Term time will be finished and the holidays begun. Let us live in the light of that promise, so that we won’t have wasted our time here. Let’s stir up ourselves to faithfulness, long term persistence and courage like Simeon and Anna. Let’s strive to walk in Christ’s way, with his light shining upon us. Let us count all else but dross except for knowing Christ, so that we can truly say

‘Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,

according to thy word.

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation

Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people

To be a light to lighten the Gentiles

And to be the glory of thy people Israel.’



Was Indiana Jones right?

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark was right – in places. That film, and today’s Old Testament reading agree: God isn’t magical – his power can’t be used at human will. And while his presence brings great blessing to those who worship him, it can also be very dangerous for those who lack humility.

The Ark of the Covenant was a wooden box. In it were the tablets of stone on which were written the 10 Commandments. The box itself was overlaid with gold. Between two carved statues on the lid was a special spot – the mercy seat. On this place, once a year, the High Priest would put the blood from a sacrifice. That was the only time anybody was supposed to go near the Ark, which was kept in the Holy of Holies, at the heart of the temple.

That was because for the Jews the Ark was a focus for the presence of God. It reminded them that the God they worshipped wanted to dwell with them. It taught them that he was also a holy God and that sinful people could not take his power or love for granted.

But sadly people forget what symbols mean, or imagine that they can manipulate God. The Israelites took the ark into battle, thinking that would make God win the battle for them. They lost, the ark was captured, and after many adventures David decided to bring it back to Jerusalem.

Which is where we join the story. Although it’s thousands of years old, and comes from a completely different culture, there’s much it can teach us about worship. Christians do not have an Ark, because Christ has fulfilled its meaning. He is God with us. God’s holiness is shown to us through Christ’s cross. That’s how God is both holy and with us – because Jesus deals with our sin there. Christian worship is very different, yet I think you’ll agree, the principles are remarkably similar.

Worship is essential. David wanted the ark back because it was used in worshipping God. And worship makes us complete: as St Augustine said: ‘You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.’ In worship we draw close to God, we drink deeply from the water of life, we’re fed with the bread of heaven.

What does worship do you for you? Does it fill you up? Set you up for the week? Put everything else in perspective? Take you out of yourself into the presence of God? Worship is a human instinct: we observe that if people don’t worship God they often worship other things.

But the worship of God is a great blessing. It can be individual – think of David the shepherd boy composing psalms on the hillside. And worship can be a whole community – as we see in v.5 where the house of Israel join in.

For many of us that’s when worship is at its best. When the whole community joins together in worshipping God for a particular reason. Remembrance Day, a baptism. Times like that have a really special feel to them.

So should our Sunday worship be more of an occasion? Should we be looking for other themes or special events? Songs of Praise, or Sea Sunday? Certainly if we want to include the wider community we do need to think about the words we use – what does Sung Eucharist mean to the average parent?

And we need to think about how church worship relates to a culture which is increasingly informal, and café in style. On the one hand people are quite consumerist – not many come to church out of duty these days. But on the other hand few are content just to watch a spectacle up front – they want to be engaged and involved. So we need to think about how our worship evolves.

Think about the best celebrations you’ve been part of… I bet they involve food. We couldn’t say goodbye to Phil without having puddings and wine. Religions have always understood the connection between food, community and worship. In v. 19 the day ends with David giving everyone bread meat and raisins. Whether it’s Harvest Supper, or mince pies and mulled wine after Carols, or good coffee, food and drink speak of hospitality and shared life.

At church the other week a child came in clutching a piece of toast. It’s a rush for families to get going in the morning. So we’re going to offer breakfast before the Family Service as part of our welcome.

It will be a nice breakfast too. Because everything we do in worship should be our best. God deserves nothing less. When we come together to worship the Lord of all creation, our Saviour and Friend, how could we offer something half-baked or indifferent? God deserves the best.

And of course, the more we put in, the more we get out. Singing is a great example. If you stand up, lift your head and sing out, you feel good. And it’s a virtuous circle, singing up encourages others to be confident too and creates a good feel in worship. Particularly if we’re sitting close enough to each other to create a bit of volume!

Offering our best also makes worship more appealing to visitors. Nowadays we all expect increasingly high standards in every area of life. We might wonder, what chance has the average parish church got? How can we keep up with society’s expectations?

For people can sink into the cushioned seat of their car, and adjust their desired temperature to ½ a degree. They can drive down the M4 listening to Kings College Choir singing Tallis while the children amuse themselves in the back seat with an iPad. You can stop at Cribbs Causeway, do your Sunday shopping and order a double macchiato with hazelnut syrup and chocolate flakes.

How can the church compete with that? Well actually we can. Home made cakes are better than any café. Building projects can improve our facilities. But there is one thing that society values even more than choice and quality. That is integrity.

Flash and technique count for nothing if there is no heart or atmosphere behind them. So many talented people have been brought down because they were not seen as genuine. And that is where the church can shine. In the warmth of our welcome, the reality of our community. In generosity which seeks no return. In an honest sermon and the engagement of the children. If what we offer in our music and our prayers is the best we can do, then that will speak of genuineness, and God rejoices in our best.

Our best also includes obedience. Remember that the Ark of the Covenant represented the presence of God? Because the Jews knew that God is holy and people are sinners, there were very clear rules about moving the ark. It could only be done by priests, carrying poles which were slid through loops attached to the ark. No-one could touch it.

So when we read verses 3-6 it all seems a bit slapdash. The Israelites load the Ark onto a cart. When the oxen stumble, one of the two men leading the oxen reaches out to steady it, and pays the ultimate penalty for their lack of reverence. David is angry at God, and fearful, and they decide to leave the ark in the nearest home.

Three months later it is clear that God longs to bless his people. So the Israelites return and this time they do it properly, with a sacrifice too. It’s a challenging story, and it’s included in our Bibles as a reminder that, although we do not worship in that way, and Christ fulfils the Old Testament, God is a holy God.

We could misunderstand this. We could be anxious to get everything right in worship, or imagine that it must be very solemn. We must remember that this account is from the Old Testament where worship was ritualised and laid down in law.

For us, Christ has fulfilled the temple law, so it is no longer needed. Our worship remembers him and how he reconciled us with God. He paid for our sins so that we can enter into God’s presence freely. If the ark were here, we could touch it, because of Jesus. This story does not tell us that our worship should be fearful, or sombre, but it does remind us of the price Jesus paid so that we could come to God.

Of course, Christians do have ways of organising their worship. We have a particular way of laying out the communion vessels, a pattern to our service. It’s good to have a way of doing things, otherwise we’d be starting from scratch each time. It’s good for that way to be shared with other churches, so if you’re somewhere new you know what’s going on. But we must always remember: these things are human traditions, they change and evolve. It doesn’t matter if we make a mistake. Stuffiness is not a virtue – reverence, beauty, joy and informality can thrive together. The worship of God is not a performance that we have to get right.

What we do need to try and get right is our obedience. Throughout the Old Testament and the New, God tells us there is no point in having wonderful worship if we’re not living his way. In Amos 6:23 ‘Away with the noise of your songs, let justice flow like rivers’. In Psalm 40:6 ‘Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, I delight to do your will O God.’

Worship must change our lives. When we draw close to God we become more like him. His love fills us. When we hear God’s word we are challenged to put it into practice. When we worship God we are inspired by his love. His Spirit fills us, and sends us out through that door. Worship changes lives to make a difference in the world.