Posted by: owizblog | January 10, 2016

Setting Off, and Being Underway: Sermon, UCB 10 January 2016

Isaiah 43:1-7 



Here’s a question for you! Have you stopped saying “Happy New Year!” yet?

auld claes and purrage

We’re ten days into the New Year, so some of us probably will, and some of us certainly won’t. The experience of meeting people we haven’t seen since last year is getting less and less frequent, isn’t it? At what point do we realize that we’ve stopped saying “Happy New Year” because the year isn’t new any more?

Think about that…

It isn’t always easy to see the connection between a passage of Scripture, and where we are; between the experiences of real life, and of God in the midst of life, two thousand, or two and a half thousand, years ago, and the experience of real life, and of encountering God in real life – or even of looking for God, of wondering where God is, in our real life, in the twenty-first century.

How can the experiences of people who lived in a world so far away from our own make any sense to us of the world we live in?

Well, here’s an odd thing. I was pondering these questions – as I do preparing for every Sunday’s sermon – and specifically, I was pondering them in the light of today’s three readings; and suddenly, the three readings together put me, in my head, in a very specific place in Rothesay, watching something that we all see several times a day, something that we’re all completely familiar with, that’s a part of the fabric of our lives’ experience on Bute.


When I read these readings, in my mind’s eye I was standing watching the ferry leave. And I was in a very specific place. Not in our living-room in the manse. Not opposite the West Church on the front, where Carolyn and I stand defiantly eating an ice cream as late on in the year as the growing cold allows – November, this year – and I didn’t have to worry about my oyster melting in my hand either, let me tell you!)

No, the three readings today place me in Bishop Street, looking down the canyon of buildings that frame the ferry so closely


as she pulls away from the pier, then turns almost on the spot through a right-angle, turns her back to you, if you’re standing there,

in a way that looks almost as though she’s taken the huff and is stomping off – and then, as her azipods align, and their propellers whirr, she picks up speed in her new direction, and the business of clearing the pier is finished, and her journey to the mainland is underway.


I’ll say that last bit again, so that you can see what the connection is with our readings. Get that, and you have a way into them.

She picks up speed in her new direction, and the business of clearing the pier is finished, and her journey to the mainland is underway.

And we all know what that sequence is like if we are actually on the ferry. If we’re on the journey, if the journey is ours, that day.

Seconds after “Mr. Bing-Bong” starts his safety message: “Hello, everybody! Please listen to the following safety announcement…” the ferry inches sideways away from the pier, and the sense of movement quickly grows, and we sense the vessel turning – and we feel it, especially if we’re on our way back to our seat with a cup of coffee – but I don’t know that you get the full sense of what I’m talking about from anywhere as well as you do from that vantage-point in Bishop Street, the sense that the first few minutes of each sailing see the transition from the business of leaving to the business of being-underway.


Three readings this morning, all of which are to do with the transition between the business of leaving, and the business of being-underway, being-on-the-journey.

In the reading we just heard, the people of God, the exile community by the waters of Babylon, aren’t even underway yet. They haven’t even got to the point of leaving, of going home. Or rather, actually, they have, but they don’t realize it yet. They are just exactly at that point at which the announcement is being made that the journey is beginning, but – to flog the metaphor to death – they are staring at the pier, they haven’t fully grasped that they are not tied to it any more, and they can’t yet see the beginnings of movement away from it.

But the nameless prophet who promises them release is already talking to them about what comes next. Because beyond the process of leaving where we were is the journey. And if the process of leaving is exciting, the prospect of the journey is scary. If the prospect of setting out is suffused with the sense of liberation, and freedom, and possibility, the prospect of the journey mixes with that the sense of risk, and uncertainty, and the unknown, the things that might go wrong as well as the things that might go right – not so much if we’re on the ferry to Gourock with a car trip to Glasgow beyond it (though a big day can be daunting) but if we’re leaving to do a big thing, to go a big distance.

God’s people in the Old Testament had experienced this before, close to the very beginning of their story, under Moses, in the story of the Exodus– of suddenly realizing they were leaving, of turning slowly away from their ties to Egypt, of feeling the gathering thrill of movement as the process of leaving gathered pace – and then of having to face the rigours of the long journey through the barren land.

And for the people the Second Isaiah is speaking to in the passage we just heard, once again the community of God’s people is facing leaving the tedium and oppression of the slavery that they know, whose terms they understand, for a journey with God into the unknown. A journey into God, from where they are now. Beyond the excitement of the Exodus, in Moses’ people’s experience of the Exodus, lay the huge, terrifying, unknown of the wilderness. Beyond the thrill of the message of liberation – which they are just beginning to grasp, and the movement, the actuality of which they can’t yet detect – for the people of God by the waters of Babylon there lies ahead the utterly unknown, where the only certainty – if they can learn to trust – is God.


Can we enter into that experience? Can this way of looking at it make sense of your experience and mine of life in faith? Of life in the real world of 2016 in God?

Have you stopped saying “Happy New Year!” yet? Have you lost the sense that the year is new? Hogmanay and Ne’erday, the beginning of that sense that the year is a blank slate on which we can write all sorts of new things, is fading. But that’s because the New Year is underway. Christmas is by, and with it our annual reliving of the beginning of the story of Jesus Christ. The Wise Men came, visited, and set off for home again, last Wednesday, and today’s Gospel reading is about Jesus, all grown up and a thirty-something, being baptized! Where did the time go? We’re well underway now. The beginnings are well behind us. The trimmings and tree are down, the wrapping paper thrown away, or, better, recycled. We’re back to “Auld claes and porage”…

So where’s God now?

Everything that Christmas and New Year were a distraction from, that’s all by. Ahead of us is January dreich, and February dreich, and dreich real life.

So where’s God now?

And that’s the question, isn’t it? For us, now, and for the people of God by the waters of Babylon, two and a half millennia ago.

Where’s God now?

Well, there’s a very powerful hint in the next two readings.

Acts 8:14-17

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22


In the poem-prophecy of the Second Isaiah, a people coming to terms with the fact that they aren’t tied to the pier of their past and present any more, that their voyage into their future has begun, are made to lift their eyes, and look at the journey ahead of them, and at the things they will have to face, and assured that when the exciting beginnings settle down into the anxieties, and challenges, and fears, and sheer drudgery of real life, God will be with them in it, and will bring them through all of it – if they will only trust.

In the strange little reading from Acts, the new Samaritan Christians, the first believers from outside the strictly-defined structures of the Jewish faith, are led on from the beginnings of their faith, in the oneness with Jesus that is baptism, to the presence of God with them through the Holy Spirit, which equips them for the journey that follows.

And now, Jesus, come to the Jordan, to John the Baptist. Try to get the picture in your mind. In so many places, and certainly here, this is how Scripture works.


It invites us to contemplate a picture. John, standing up to his ankles in the river – Leonardo probably got it right – an untidy queue of people coming down to be baptized, and there among them is Jesus. And Jesus steps down into the water, and down comes the Spirit, and comes back up from the Jordan, and the journey is underway, and everything that follows, the long voyage of short months across the ministry, the call of the disciples, the preaching, the teaching, the proclamation of the Kingdom, the healing, the forgiving, the journey from the Jordan to the cross, has already started.

It doesn’t take long. And the way the Church relives it, year by year, contracts it, squashes it all together, even more. It’s only twelve weeks on Friday to Good Friday. (Ironically, it was last Friday that I saw this year’s first Hot Cross Buns in the Co-Op!)

But that’s Jesus’ journey through the complex, shadowed, often lacerating and sometimes crucifying reality of real life in the real world. And that’s our assurance that, in everything that faces us in 2016, God is with us too, in the reality of real life in the real, twenty-first century world.


Beginnings are exciting. But beyond them comes the long haul. Beginnings are full of promise, but beyond the beginnings comes real life, in which there is uncertainty – the more uncertainty the further we peer – and no guarantees. Except this one. God will bring us through.

To the little community of exiles in Babylon, the unnamed prophet says “The beginning is beginning now. It will be exciting and thrilling, but beyond it lies a long journey and a whole lot of reality with its unexpected things, its challenges, its anxieties, sometimes the drudgery of just getting through the day, and what has to be done, sometimes the agonized wondering how you’re going to get through what lies in your way, how you are going to cope with things that seem beyond your capacity to cope with. And what you need is the assurance that God will go with you, and bring you through it all, and bring you to where you need to be, in ways you won’t expect, and can’t foresee, and can’t even imagine from where you are now. But when the excitement of new beginnings and liberation begins to fade, and you are back with auld claes and porage, that’s what you will need…

Can we identify with that as 2016 gets underway?

And can we trace a similar pattern – the same pattern – in the story of Jesus, come to John at the Jordan for his baptism, in Luke? The gorgeous story of Christmas is behind, for us a fortnight behind, for him three decades. And the three decades of silence… The long beginning is over. The ferry has turned, and the voyage is underway, as Jesus comes up from the water. And ahead lies what-lies-ahead.

I was going to spare you the Churchill quote, but I won’t. Christmas is over, and we’ve worked through the story of Christmas, but there’s more to the Gospel than that. “This is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning…”

And for the Gospel, there’s no “perhaps” about it.


And that’s where we are, you and I, today. That’s where we are, the community of faith, the people of God that is the UCB. That’s where all the people of God always are, with the beginnings behind them, and the uncertainties of the voyage, of real life in the real world, all around, and all we can see ahead.

And God. God with us in everything, God bringing us through everything, God there, even as we wonder where God is, where God could possibly be.

And that’s where you and I stand, just past the beginning of 2016, when we are starting to wonder if the year’s already too old to wish anyone a Happy New Year any more…

But our understanding, our faith, is shaped by what the story of Jesus’ baptism tells us. That our human story of us walking with God becomes the story of God-with-us. That Jesus of Nazareth is more than the symbol, of “Immanu-El” – God with us – because this is how God is with us. In the detail of life. As the long, patient walk of trust. As the path of open, vulnerable love. As the here-and-now weakness which in the long run, and in the light of eternity, is the only power that can reshape the world. The pattern of Jesus’ life is what tells us where God is in the world, at the margins, with the powerless, in the truth which power denies and insults, but can’t overthrow, in the love which hate cannot kill, in the light the world can’t overcome.

That’s where God is in 2016.

As always.

Happy New Year – even though it’s well underway!


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