Well, here it is, my last sermon at Bearwood Chapel. And the context is not only that this marks our last day with you but also we are coming to the end of one year, starting a new one. This new year will be very different for most people to previous ones. We usually enter a new year with hope and high expectations. 2020 was a year that many had been counting down to. There seemed to be something significant. In the symmetry of the year and its association with 2020 vision.
Yet for many of us, dreams, ambitions and visions have been crunched and simply to have got to the end of the year in one piece and survived feels like success. We look over into 2021 and I suspect there is a heavy dread hanging over us. Yes, there is a vaccine, yes there is better testing in place but at what cost? It still looks like lockdowns and restrictions will be with us until Easter at least. And many will have survived the physical affect of COVID-19 only to have be hit hard in other ways. The most obvious immediate cost has been economic. The country should have been emerging out of the other side of austerity about now but the cost of furlough schemes and special measurers has plunged us further into the red. The best efforts of the chancellor still could not protect against recession, redundancies and bankruptcies which are in turn likely to be followed by repossessions and homelessness.
There is the emotional cost. For many the fear of a pandemic and the resulting isolation and restrictions has increased anxiety and depression. Then there is the social cost on a society where isolation and distancing has been enforced breaking down some relationships through distance whilst at the same time other already troubled relationships and marriages have been put under strain as people have been forced to spend longer in close contact without any respite.
Meanwhile, if I could speak specifically to our congregation. There is of course the anxiety that change brings as people move on. Bearwood Chapel will not be alone in facing this. Other churches are going through challenging times too. What does the future hold?
So, I wanted to finish my time here by going to 2 Samuel 7:12-13
12 Samuel then took a large stone and placed it between the towns of Mizpah and Jeshanah.[a] He named it Ebenezer (which means “the stone of help”), for he said, “Up to this point the Lord has helped us!”
The context is that Israel has been under severe oppression from the Philistines. The corrupt sons of Eli the High Priest had led Israel badly. In one battle, the ark of the covenant had been captured. Now however it had been returned but no sooner had this symbol of hope come home then the Philistines attacked again and the people were terrified. Samuel had needed to rally the people and exhort them to depend upon God. The Lord had saved them and the Lord brought peace for a long period of time.
The stone stood there as a memorial, a reminder that the people could depend on God’s help. “Up to this point….” The stone was a call to look back and see what God had done. It is right to look back and be reminded of God’s faithfulness. This is what we have kept doing this year. So, let’s do this one last time in 2020.
We can look back over many years at Bearwood Chapel. You know, when you hear the history of the church you realise there have been challenging times in the past, times when there was a real fear that the doors might close for the last time. Yet God has looked after his witness here. There are also amazing stories of people going out from Bearwood to serve in mission. People like Rachel Newby and in recent years we’ve seen James and Hannes equipped for pastoral ministry. We’ve seen many OMers could and spend time with us before being involved in other aspects of mission. We’ve had the privilege of helping to plant Nueva Vida. God has been so, so good.
We’ve seen people put their faith in Christ and there have been baptisms. And yes, there have been people called home to be with the Lord as well as births and marriages.
Look back and see how thus far, God has been at work in you and through you for blessing.
Think about your personal testimony too. I can look back personally and think about how God put me in a family who loved Jesus and brought me up to hear the Gospel. Sarah can look back to a friend that God brought into her life who invited her to church. We can both look back at the many times we’ve prayed and seen prayers answered. I’m sure you can too. We now look back on this year too and whilst we look back at the sad times and the tough times. We also look back and see how God has been at work, protecting us, teaching us, working in our lives to refine us. We have learnt to cling onto Christ.
We can sing of the goodness of God “All my life you have been faithful, all my life you have been so so good…”
But more than that, look back and see God’s big salvation plan. We are just coming out of Christmas and this has been that time of year when we remember that God is love and his love is seen in his gift of his Son.
Ebenezer calls us to look back and to see how God has been faithful to us, and loved us thus far. It enables us to see his presence with us through the Holy Spirit right now. It also enables us to look forward and sing of the hope we have. God has always kept his promises to us and he always will until Christ returns.
I cannot make promises to you ahead of 2021. I don’t know what the year will bring. But I do know that the Lord will be with you. He is the one who is able to keep you from falling and present you spotless before the father.
Don’t pin your hopes on pastors or elders on politicians or scientists. Go into 2021 clinging to Christ and with your hope fully centred on him.