Advent 1 30 November, 1997 | Comments &Questions | Return to Templestowe Uniting Church|

Looking forward in hope and fear

Three years ago on this Sunday, which was my first Sunday in this parish, I took up the theme of looking forward in hope. Now again as we enter the Advent season I would still say look forward in hope, as we look to the coming of the Lord which we will celebrate at Christmas. I spoke three years ago of how our hope is based on belief in the One who comes to us, that it is in the nature of God to come to meet us just as the Father of the Prodigal Son ran down the road to welcome home his lost son. He who sent Jesus Christ into the world, because he loved the world, not only welcomes repentant sinners, but he comes to meet them. As I heard someone (Bruce Barber) say this week, if we take up the advent theme prepare the way of the Lord, it is not because he will follow us along a path that we prepare, but that he comes to meet us. He welcomes us into his future. That is the ground of our hope. Our hope is grounded on faith on God who came to us in the man born two thousand years ago, Jesus, the Christ, and still comes to welcome us when we look to him.

When I put that early emphasis on hope, I also took notice of changes in the community which appeared to give new opportunities for renewal, and I spoke of hope for renewal of church and society noting such things as the apparently increasing interest in things spiritual in Australian literature and popular media. It seemed that after the materialism of the nineteen eighties people might be more open to what the church had to offer although we would be only one voice among many. I was inclined then to think that a well organised, open adaptive strategy of outreach, of faithful witness and service in the community would produce a positive response. I had hoped that we might do many interesting things to take up the new opportunities. I think I should now, on this one occasion before I leave, review some of the hopes we had and see if there is something to be learned from their fulfilment or disappointment.

Amongst the things I hoped we might do then and later, as I got to know the situation here, were to begin an effective youth program led by a committed group of young adults, a revived Sunday School and family oriented children's program, the development of an alternative form of contemporary worship in parallel with the continuing but enriched form of traditional worship; I looked forward to study and action groups on questions of social justice, and a local outreach program of adult education in which our property was used not so much to make money to keep the parish going out of the accumulated assets of previous generations as for explicitly Christian teaching and joint activities with community groups. I had even thought that it might be possible for the congregation to grow with new members of a younger age group who would begin to take over the leadership and prepare for transition to a new generation as the older people who had built the church in their young days became less active; and I thought that I might in those circumstances be able to share ministry with a younger minister who might be able to do some of these things better than I could.

There was potential for such developments. I do not know how much my hopes were shared, although I believe I am not the only member who has been disappointed and feels some sense of failure in this ministry. For many of us who were here three years ago, our hopes have not been fulfilled; and the reality must be faced that the future of the parish is very much in the balance. It could go either way: either, achieving some of the things we had hoped for which are still possible, and strengthening some other good things which have happened and give grounds for hope; or, on the other hand, your next minister could be the last to serve here on a full time basis as the congregation ages, the gap to bridge in transition to a new generation becomes too great and there is insufficient energy to do the necessary work. At this stage the outcome is in the balance and there is no certainty about the result.

I do want to add quickly for the sake of the sizable number of new members who have joined the congregation in the past few years that your presence has been a blessing and an encouragement to rest of us; and I have appreciated the significant contributions of some of the long term members who have started new things and kept them going when it has not always been easy: for example, the choir is now a regular part of our worship and has continued to increase in its capacity to contribute to worship which now draws more effectively in our heritage of music, old and new; the Sunday School was restarted and has been maintained in the face of difficulties with considerable effort by a small number of dedicated people; the prayer group offers a most valuable ministry by another small group of committed members. Along with these developments I have been encouraged in my teaching ministry by the interest shown in my preaching, the use made of the printed copies of sermons, and last year we had a good experience in house groups of reviewing where we are and where we are going, as we drew up the parish mission statement and the actions plan for the current year. So good things have happened, and there has been objective improvement in some respects, even in the statistics: for example, in my first year I had over a dozen funerals while we looked to the past in the centenary year, before a single baptism towards the end of the year, and we had no confirmations for over two years, but this year there has been a reasonable mixture of thanksgiving for the past and celebration of new membership with new commitments in the faith.

It would not be honest not to acknowledge that the losses and lost opportunities have also been very serious. Some I believe have been due to internal weaknesses and some to external circumstances. Among the external factors has been the influence of fundamentalist groups who have attracted some of our members, mainly young adults, while being extremely critical of the Uniting Church. I find it very hard when I hear talk of us not believing and teaching the Biblical faith when I doubt that any of the critics base what they preach as much or as soundly on the Bible as I believe we should and hope I do. Oddly, some have been dissatisfied because of the Biblical emphasis I have made, preferring a social gospel of contemporary liberalism. Self seeking individualism, too, in both church and community has combined with a consumer approach to religion which undermines loyalty and commitment. But it must be acknowledged that the public image of the Uniting Church has not been helpful. That is partly due to the increasing hostility of the media to the churches and the Christian faith in general, and, let me speak frankly, partly to a serious failure of leadership in the Uniting Church.

I have tried not to be critical of the wider church in my local ministry, there have been more important thing to do here in any case, while I have fought a tough and often losing battle to maintain the essentials in the higher councils of the church; but it has been painful to lose ground at the local level for the very reasons that I been fighting against elsewhere. One of those debilitating and divisive issues concerns the authority of scripture in relation to the discussion of sexuality, on which I plan to speak directly before I leave, probably next Sunday. I should add, in regard to the state and national leadership of the Church, that I have seen signs of improvement recently and the choice of Professor James Haire as President-elect promises future national leadership soundly based on the scriptures and traditions of the universal church, less influenced by the currently dominant secular ideology; but no one should imagine that it will be easy to give a new direction in a few years time when there are still entrenched sectional interests keen to use the church for their own purposes. Nor should we think that the Uniting Church is in any more trouble over all than other churches, perhaps for some different reasons. In these circumstances a good deal of patience and commitment will be needed on the part of ordinary members who are prepared to say, "It is my church too!", and who will continue to love and serve this battered body of Christ. I still hope for renewal and recovery of the vision with which the Uniting Church was formed in such high hopes only twenty years ago.

You do not want to hear me say too much about internal weaknesses. Joan and I have been well looked after personally, we like the people here, as we have from the beginning. It has been a privilege to serve as pastor in the parish, and I do not wish to leave with words of failure and depression, though I know I have failed at important points. Today I want to return in conclusion to the general theme of hope, but before I do, I should share something about how I deliberately changed the emphasis in my ministry. I love to take initiatives and encourage people to try new things, such as new forms of organisation, to experiment with music and drama in worship and risk new approaches to social and political action in the community, but it became obvious that the tide was running out and that a much more fundamental change was needed. It was essential to rebuild the foundations of prayer, Bible study and personal commitment. Templestowe is not very different from many congregations which are also been struggling to survive, while others are growing, so it has not been our problem alone; although I think the typical problem of suburban churches at the end of this century is more acute here than in most.

Local churches like this might have prospered once as effective social organisations which are natural parts of their local communities forming friendship groups of parents and providing a safe environment for their children to develop social skills and perhaps learn a little of the tradition, but those days have long since past. Effective outreach for growth and development, today when the church is out of favour, is not just a matter of being more adventurous and well organised. When things get serious and we are really being tested, there is no point in trying energetically to reach out if your feet are not firmly planted on the ground. If you try reaching out too far without strong foundations you will simply fall over. So I have concentrated largely on teaching the essentials of the faith, expounding the scriptures, improving the quality of worship, drawing on the riches of Christian tradition, opening up some of the deeper mysteries of the things of God and, I hope, giving people an opportunity to see that while the gospel is essentially simple, there is much more to the faith with which we can better equipped for the future mission of the church.

In the process of doing this I have learned to appreciate more the faithfulness and the learning capacity of older people. Important as it is to have a strategy of effective work with young people, especially young families (if only a few more of them would stay long enough to encourage others!), there are times when God calls a different, perhaps unexpected, group to carry the precious gift of faith into the future. It was the grandmothers who kept the faith alive in Russia through the dark years of communist oppression, and things are not so very different in our capitalist society when the enormous resources of entertainment, education, employment, the media, and recently governments too, promote competing views of the world, as artistic, business and political leaders speak of the church with contempt. We might not have done all that we hoped, and some of those things we had hoped to do should still be done, but if you can continue to build up your deeper knowledge of the faith and strengthen your loyalty and commitment it is possible that God will tip the balance in favour of your survival as a congregation. While the future is still in the balance, you might be more effective in ministry than in the past, and with a new pastoral leader new hopes might be well founded.

One of the things we should all have had thoroughly reinforced out of our experience over the last three years, in so far as our hopes have been disappointed, is that it is very easy to say that our hope is founded on trust in God and not in humanity, but we are always inclined to imagine it is all our responsibility. We are recalled again and again to trust in God alone. When we do, blessings come in the most unexpected ways. It was the unexpected character of the coming of the Lord that Jesus spoke about in those parts of the gospel about the coming of the Kingdom such as we read this morning. We might say here it is, or there it is, or now is the time, but it happens in God's time. The Lord comes into our lives and into our world in ways that we do not expect. Especially when things look threatening, fearful, even overwhelming and hopeless, that is the very time when we can have hope. It was the Danish founder of existentialism, Kierkegaard who said, "We hope only when we cease to hope". Jesus said,

(Luke 21:26-28) People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. {27} Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. {28} Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

So have confidence, raise your heads because your hopes are being fulfilled at the very point when terrible signs of what is coming on the world make you afraid. The signs we see today of struggle in the life of the church, of distress and division in the world around us (and we will be saying special prayers for reconciliation later in this service), when it appears that the things of God are spurned and evil triumphs over good, those are signs of the great conflict in which the Lord must eventually prove triumphant. Those strange words about the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory, in what Luke reports of Jesus teaching about the end of the age (that is, the time of completion) bring back the words of the prophecy of Daniel who had a terrible vision of God as an Ancient One on a fiery throne served by a thousand thousand as he sat in judgment. This is strange stuff. Do not be afraid to let your imagination accept these dramatic symbols which convey a vision of hope.

(Daniel 7:13-14) As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being [lit. Son of Man] coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. {14} To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

Amen. So be it. All praise to you Lord Jesus Christ.

[David Beswick, Templestowe Uniting Church]

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