|SERMON for 4th Sunday before Advent Sunday 31st October 1999
ST BONIFACE, Bunbury
I have been thinking about buying a new PC. Greta can vouch for this as over the past few months I have raised the matter in conversation, casually so as not to arose too much hostility to the concept, hoping that eventually when I bring one home it wont cause too much angst.
Now I am not an impulsive buyer, on the contrary when I am considering spending money on electronic equipment I generally research the subject thoroughly. On this occasion this included talking to a couple of experts, Tom and George, to confirm my own views as to what represents value for money.
After looking into this subject in some depth I suspect owning the latest PC is one of those male things, a little bit like owning and driving a fast car such as a Porsche or Ferrari as a symbol of your virility. Certainly the advertisements in most Saturday's daily papers are targeted as if that was the case; with Compaq, Dell, Tiny and Gateway dazzling you with an array of specifications such as processor speed, random access memory size, hard disk size, monitor viewing area and refresh rates to name but a few.
The amazing thing about PCs is how quickly they have developed. It was as recently as 1981 that IBM introduced the first Personal Computer, a heavy machine with 2 floppy 5" disk drives and a mere 16 kilobytes of memory. At this time Microsoft was a 32 person company. Less than 20 years later, 29% of UK households possess a PC, and the standard operating system is a 450Mhz Pentium processor with at least 64 megabyte ram and 10 gigabyte of memory.
Now the problem with PCs is that you can't tell the capability of the machine by looking at the cabinet it is encased in. I have in front of me a monitor and key board part of my PC at home, a work laptop and Tom's PC. Refer to the switches on the monitor, speakers on the side - lighter weight of the portables.
If you didn't know better then you would assume that the largest machine has the most power. Unlike the Renault Clio advert, size doesn't matter. In fact my work PC is 3 times as fast, and over 10 times as large as my PC at home, which at the time I bought it was cutting edge technology.
In fact the part of the PC which is most important is the processor, as you can see it is no bigger than my ..... Appearances can be deceptive.
It governs the speed at which the computer operates, and without a processor your PC can't function. IBM eventually discovered that the Intel brand name was more powerful than their own, and other computer makers try and sell their machines on the back of Intel's reputation by stressing that there is an Intel processor inside.
In our gospel reading the disciples were impressed by the size and grandeur of the Temple, that is why they drew Jesus' attention to it as they were leaving the city. If you have ever visited Jerusalem, you can't help but be stunned by the sight of the sun glinting off the golden roof of the dome of the Rock, and I suspect in Jesus' time the temple dominated all around it in a similar way. Moreover it was certainly the centre of Jewish life, the place where people could come into God's presence, or more accurately where the High priest could enter the Holy of Holies once a year while the people remained outside.
However Jesus recognised that most of the ceremonies in the Temple were devoid of true worship. The Pharisees and Rulers of the Law had created a system which made God inaccessible. Furthermore the Temple courtyard had become a place where people who were trying to follow the Law were exploited by the money changers and traders.
The problem is that you can't judge a book by its cover. St. Boniface is a beautiful church building which was originally created as a witness to God in this community, and if you travel across the UK you will find many equally fine examples of man's craftsmanship. But a building is not a reflection of the state of a Church's spirituality, any more that the physical size of a PC is an indication of its capability. There are lively churches operating from small, non-descript buildings as well as from magnificent cathedrals. Conversely there are Churches with fabulous facilities in an idea location but their zeal for God has been extinguished.
Although the shape of a building can influence the life of a Church, it does not determine it. Nor can the blame be laid at the foot of the minister, or the wardens or PCC. No the true health of a Church is directly related to the spiritual health of those people, you and I, who comprise the Christian Church. As St. Paul reminded the Christians at Corinth
1 Corinthians Ch3 Vs.16. "Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you"
If our Christian faith is not based on firm Biblical foundations, or we fail to develop together, then the witness of this church in the local community is compromised. Just like a PC without a processor, a place of worship without the presence of God's spirit is powerless. The people may regularly attend services, help at coffee mornings, welcome visitors yet the Church will not advance because the Spirit is not blessing their work.
This observation could be made of many churches in the developed world. Much has been written, and many computer consultants have made a small fortune in trying to prevent economic meltdown as a consequence of the Y2K problem, which has arisen because computers were designed to show just the last two digits of the year in the date. The problem is that people do not know how computers will react when the digits change from 99 to double zero. Will they start running backwards, crash because their logic function can't cope, or run incorrect programmes. Any of these problems could be disastrous given the extent to which computers have become an integral part of our lives.
There are some 750,000 computer web sites dedicated to the problem, and companies have spent millions of pounds testing all their critical computer systems and those of their suppliers to reduce the risks of Y2K to their business. Many airlines have cancelled flights over the millenium and only last week Reuters stock price was marked down dramatically when it admitted that its revenues are threatened by the bug.
However this morning I want to draw your attention to my belief that the Christian Church in this country is facing a Y2K problem, something that few people have recognised and even fewer are prepared for. Perhaps it is best captured in the following quote.
"For most people today, a parish church means little more than a tapering spire rising above a skirt of trees and cottage roofs. It is a symbol of antiquity and conservatism, seldom entered and constantly in need of repair."
Simon Jenkins, The Times Weekend section 23rd October 1999.
In short the Church and its message is no longer relevant, it belongs to a bygone age.
Christians throughout the world are celebrating the Millenium as Christ's 2000th birthday, in this county there are notice boards testifying to this event outside many churches, but somehow the message appears stale. Jesus' birth and death is no longer regarded as important by the majority of the UK population, and the implications for them, if known are largely ignored.
Why do you think this has occurred? If you have the time to read Paul's letter to the Corinthians you will discover a Church where after a promising start, everything had gone wrong. There were divisions in the Church, with one group claiming allegiance to one teacher, others to another teacher : they were sharing in communion without recognising their unity in the body of Christ : members argued about the gifts of the spirit, elevating some gifts above others : overall spiritual concerns were secondary to wordly matters. As a result the witness of the church and its members in their community were compromised. It is a sobering thought, perhaps people are ignoring us because the example we set is not particularly attractive.
Should we be concerned about this? After all this is a free country and surely people are able to reach their own conclusions without us doing more than we are already. We held a mission 2 years ago, and people are very welcome to come along to any of our services.
Before answering this question, reflect again on the gospel reading in which Jesus warned the disciples what to expect in the last days before his return. There would be war, famines, and earthquakes. False prophets would appear trying to lead people astray, those who held to their faith would be persecuted. This is hardly a rallying cry to persuade others to join up. When you started enquiring about what becoming a Christian entails, did you realise what the consequences could be? Jesus was explicit with all those who sought to follow him.
When a teacher of the law came to him, promising to follow him wherever he went Jesus pointed out that
"Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head" Matthew ch8. Vs.20
Undoubtedly it would have been at the forefront of Matthew's thoughts when he wrote as by then the early Christian Church was already suffering persecution.
It would have been even more vivid for John the Apostle when he had his vision of the Final Days summarised in the Book of Revelation as 25 years earlier the Romans had sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.
Yet despite this, they and many other people in the early Christian Church turned their back on their former life because they were searching for something and what Jesus said made sense.
In each age there have been times when people have seen the events occurring around them and predicted that the End was nigh. The Plague in 17th Century England, harvest failures, comets and similar events which were incomprehensible could easily be used to support the view that Jesus was about to return.
Twenty Five year ago, Hal Lindsay wrote a book titled the Late Great Planet Earth in which he interpreted scripture in Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation in the light of modern history such as the return of Israel to the Promised Land, the formation of the European Community, and the growth of the Soviet Union to predict that mankind was entering the end game. He was very persuasive, and today if you browse through the shelves of your local Christian Book shop, or even W H Smiths you can find books along a similar line.
The media has latched onto well-publicised predictions that the world is going to end on a certain day from sects like the Jehovah Witnesses. For instance a certain Raymond Aguilea has detailed just under 1,000 prophecies, visions, occurrences and dreams which he has received in the 7 year period from 1990 - 1996. But when the day in question passes without incident, the prophecy is discredited.
As a result of all this hype it is easy to keep our heads down, to try and ignore Jesus' teachings in this area for fear of giving offence. Yet our reading is the first in a series in which Jesus talks to his disciples about his return.
Peter reminds us
2 Peter ch.3 vs. 8 -11 "With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow to keep his promise .... He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance ....
as importantly Peter adds
"You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming"
The modern view may well be that the message of the Christian Church is irrelevant in a world which has advanced so much over the past 100 years. Yet this is the same world where interest in the occult has increased dramatically, where more people are asking what is the point of life, looking for answers which helps put things in context.
Tomorrow is All Saints Day, when we remember all those who have lived and died in the Faith. 30 years ago an American Christian musician, Larry Norman, recorded a song which confronted people with the reality of the Cross and the resurrection of the Dead titled "I Wish We'd all Been Ready".
He was not part of the Establishment, rock music never was, and in Christian circles it was frowned on -
"Life was filled with guns and war
And everyone got trampled on the floor
I wish we'd all been ready
Children died, the days grew cold
A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold
I wish we'd all been ready
There's no time to change your mind
The Son has come and you've been left behind
A man and wife asleep in bed
She hears a noise and turns her head
I wish we'd all been ready
Two men walking up a hill
One disappears and one's left standing still
I wish we'd all been ready"
That is the reality of the gospel that Jesus preached
Simon Jenkins comments are an indictment of the ineffectiveness of the Church, how much more damning will it be when our friends and neighbours turn around to us on the Day of judgement and ask, "Why did you never explain it to me?"
Because although we do not know the day, we can be confident that Jesus will return again and call all those who love him to live with him forever.
Simon de Bell