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Sun, May 07, 2017

Meeting God alone

What does it mean to hear the voice of God? Third reading: St John 10: 1- 10.
Series:April - June 2017
Duration:15 mins 12 secs
Sermon  Sunday 7 May 2017
 
Lessons          Acts 2: 42 – 47           1 Peter 2: 19 – 23     St John 10: 1- 10
  
Prayer of Illumination
 
Let us pray.
 
Guide us our thoughts, O God.   Lead us to a place of peace, a moment of sacred rest, to the peace, the shalom, that only You can give.   Amen.
  
The spiritual writer and former vicar of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, David Adam encourages us to practise the Presence.   In one of his meditations, Adam quotes some verses from the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
                       
…….Earth’s crammed with heaven,
                        And every common bush afire with God:
                        But only he who sees, takes off his shoes;
                        The rest sit around it, and pluck the blackberries,
                        And daub their natural faces, unaware
                        More and more, from the first similitude.
 
 
In his meditation, Adam encourages us to practise the Presence wherever we are.   He says this:
 
            The God whom you seek is with you and seeking you in love.
            Remind yourself, ‘I am loved by God’.   The very place where
            you are at this moment is holy ground, for the Lord is with
            you.   Speak to God and affirm [God’s] presence.   You may like
            to say, ‘God You are here; you are here with me.’   Say it with
            meaning.   You may like to shorten the phrase and simply say
            ‘God You are’.   You can reduce the words once more and
            simply say, with love and adoration, ‘God’.
 
 
In our silent meditation, we can repeat this affirmation as often as we find it helpful.   In everyday life, we are bombarded with news and images and noise and activity to the extent that our minds cannot rest.   Insofar as we can, Adam encourages us to make space for God.   It could be a walk in the park or a moment alone at home but a moment of mental emptiness, mindful of the Presence.   Barrett Browning said, ‘Every common bush afire with God, but only he who sees, takes off his shoes.’  
 
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus spoke of the shepherd.   Jesus said, ‘The sheep follow [the shepherd] because they know his voice.’   The images of shepherd and sheep appear in the Book of Psalms and in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.   In Psalm 100, the psalmist wrote, ‘We are his folk, he doth us feed, And for his sheep he doth us take.’   In Psalm 23, we read, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.’   These are pastoral texts written to be pondered in the heart.  
 
Many Gospel stories draw their inspiration from stories in the Old Testament.   In the Book of Ezekiel, at chapter 34, we read of God as the true Shepherd.   The chapter begins with the prophet condemning the leaders of Israel for failing to be good shepherds, for failing to feed and care for their people.   Listen to God’s response.   God said, ‘I will rescue my sheep…..I will search for my sheep and will seek them out…..I will feed them with good pasture……I will seek the lost and bring back the strayed…..I will judge between the sheep and the goats….You are my sheep.’   I wonder if you heard in these words from the ancient text of Ezekiel the origin of the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats?   Jesus used the texts of Ezekiel for His own imaginative story-telling.   Pastorally, the prophet Ezekiel and later Jesus want us to understand that God is present, hears and feels our suffering, is at one with us and desires nothing more than for us to stop, turn towards God and hear God’s voice; hear God’s silence in our hearts.
 
The most familiar psalm in Scotland is Psalm 23.   The great Baptist preacher of the Victorian era, Charles Spurgeon, said that the most important word in the entire psalm is ‘my’:  ‘The LORD is my Shepherd.’   ‘If [the LORD] is a Shepherd to no one else, he is a Shepherd to me.’   In Hebrew, the rhythm of the opening verse is more staccato than we have in English:  it reads, ‘The LORD – my Shepherd!   For the psalmist, it is a moment of joyous revelation:  the psalmist has discovered as if for the very first time the LORD is his Shepherd:  my Shepherd!   It was on reading the Psalms that the greatest of the Early Church Fathers, St Augustine, said that his heart burned within him.  
 
Scripture is designed to be read and carried around within us, in the consciousness.   For most of the history of the Church, people did not have written copies of the sacred text.   In more recent centuries when Bibles were available to ordinary people, many people learned much of the text by heart.   Scripture was written for the heart, for wrestling within.  
 
The theologian and writer, the late Jim Cotter, offered his own translation of Psalm 23; what he called a divine song.   Drawing on the mystical insights of John’s Gospel, Cotter introduced a refrain into the psalm:  ‘Dwell in me that I may dwell in You.’   Listen with the heart.   Cotter wrote:
                                    Dear God, you sustain and feed me:
like a shepherd you guide me.
You lead me to an oasis of green,
to lie down by restful waters.
Quenching my thirst, you restore my life:
renewed and refreshed, I follow you,
a journey on the narrowest of paths.

                                    Even when cliffs loom out of the mist,
my step is steady because of my trust.
Even when I go through the deepest valley,
with the shadow of darkness and death,
I shall fear no evil or harm
For you are with me to give me strength,
your crook, your staff, at my side.
Dwell in me that I may dwell in you.
 
Even in the midst of my troubles,
with the murmurs of those who disturb me,
I know I can feast in your presence.
You spread a banquet before me,
you anoint my head with oil,
you stoop to wash my feet,
you fill my cup to the brim.
Dwell in me that I may dwell in you.
 
Your loving kindness and mercy
will meet me every day of my life.
By your Spirit you dwell within me,
and in the whole world around me,
and I shall abide in your house,
content in your presence for ever.
Dwell in me that I may dwell in you.
 
 
At times in life we are faced with troubles we did not think would come our way.   We are faced with brokenness, pain, fear or helplessness.   It is in such times that a lifetime of walking with Christ, listening for His voice, resting in His company, sitting with Jesus, that helps sustain us in our darkest moments.   Like the psalmist, like St Augustine, practising the Presence, we will know what it means to have God the true Shepherd walk with us.   At times, in our darkest moments, like Jesus, we may not be able to think straight, we may doubt the existence of God or feel God to be utterly absent, but God is in the darkness.  
 
Jesus said that He is the gate for the sheep.   In Jesus’ home town and throughout the Holy Land, the gate was the access to the courtyard in front of the house where the sheep sheltered overnight.   The gate was the sole access to the home for the sheep, the place of safety, comfort and rest.   It was times spent in the sheepfold, at rest, at home, that prepared them for the next day in the pasture.   It is our times of rest in God, our moments of silence and solitude which resource us for our everyday living, that we can live with Christ in our hearts.  
 
The poet and preacher George Matheson repeatedly drew the attention of his congregation to the many times that Jesus and the great figures of the Bible stepped aside from their everyday activity in order to be alone with God.    Matheson, wrote:
 
            Meet me alone, O Lord, meet me alone!   Let me feel for one
            moment the awful dignity of my own soul….Bring me out from
            the hiding place of the fig leaves!   Let me hear Your voice in
            the Garden speaking to me – to me alone!   Is it not written,
            ‘When they were alone, He expounded all things to His
            disciples’?  
 
            Meet me on my own threshold.   Meet me when the sun has
            gone down, when the crowd has melted, when the pulse of
            the city beats low.   Meet me in the stillness of my own heart,
            in the quiet of my own room, in the silence of my own
            reflective hour.   Reveal to me my greatness!   Flash your light
            upon the treasures hid in my field!   Show me the diamond in
            my dust!   Bring me the pearl from my sea!   When you have
            magnified my soul, I shall learn my need of You!
 
Amen.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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