Hebrews 10:5-10 & Luke 1:39-55
This morning we come to the third in our Advent mini-series on refining, reviving and renewing.
A couple of weeks ago Marg helped us to think about God’s refining work in our lives. We heard about the real live example of a silver refiner, and what that can show us about how God works in our lives. We looked at how God is waiting with us and watching with us in all the heat and fire, and that through the refining process we are made more able to reflect God’s image.
Then, last week, we thought about God’s reviving work in our lives. Using the real life example of the process of reviving someone who has got too cold, we discovered that God’s reviving wakes us up, moves us out of the place of death and gives us life in the Holy Spirit.
Now this week are going to think about God’s renewing work. Given the pattern so far, it might not surprise you to hear that I have a real life example of renewal to think about as well. And it won’t take much imagination to think what it might be either. You can’t wander more than about 50 yards in this city without seeing some kind of sign with the word “Renew” on it.
According to their website:
“RENEW North Staffordshire is helping to create better places to live across areas of Stoke-on-Trent, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Staffordshire Moorlands.”
That sounds great, and I’m sure that there will be different views around the room as to how well Renew is doing, but what I’d like us to think about first is HOW they are going about renewing areas.
In some areas it seem that renewing is very dramatic and far reaching. Whole streets of houses are cleared out, pulled down and demolished. Where there used to be pot banks there are now flats and schools. With this kind of renewal the cost is very high. It is painful, and takes a lot of time and money.
In contrast, in other areas, it seems that renewing means improving what is there already, or replacing parts of it. This might mean new garden walls, or replacing roofing, or providing insulation. The cost in terms of time and money of this kind of renewing work is usually much lower, but it can also have a significant impact on the quality of people’s lives.
It seems to me that we can see both these types of renewing in God’s renewing work as well.
The first kind is the renewing that needs a significant clearance to happen before the new thing can be built. I think that we can see this kind of renewing work in both the readings that we have had this morning.
In the gospel reading we hear Mary’s song of praise to God, shot through with the theme of renewing. The new Kingdom that will be bought to birth with Mary’s Son is one that is characterised by clearing and replacing.
What is cleared?
God has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts, has brought down rulers from their thrones, has sent the rich away empty.
What is built?
God has lifted up the humble, has filled the hungry with good things, has helped his servant Israel,
So it seems that God’s renewing work has a practical, everyday, working out. In the renewing of God’s government, those who are thought to be important in the world’s eyes are cleared away and in their place are put those who are not thought to be important. God’s renewing work is made up of building up the humble, the hungry, and God’s people.
And it seems to me that we get this dynamic in the reading from Hebrews as well. It is a complex reading, that I found difficult to understand, but I think that the clue to help us get our heads around it is in verse 9.
“He sets aside the first to establish the second.”
Here we find again this idea of something being cleared away so that there is space for something new to be built. The important questions are, “Who is doing the renewing?”, “What is being cleared?”, and, “What is being built?”
It is clear that it is Jesus who is doing the renewing. And we know that Jesus is God, so we can find out about God’s renewing work by looking at this example.
As to what has been cleared, this is the Old Testament system of sacrifices and offerings. These were put in place, by God, in order to allow the people to have a way of being forgiven for their sins and to be a pointer towards the ultimate sacrifice which would, one day, bring complete forgiveness. So why did they need to be cleared? It is because they were no longer needed. The event that they pointed towards had happened. Jesus had died and had risen. His sacrifice had achieved complete forgiveness. The old system of sacrifice was demolished and a new sacrifice, that only had to be made once, was established.
Also because of Jesus’ sacrifice there is something else that is renewed in the life of God’s people. That is their worship. Under the Old Covenant worship was given from afar. The people could not come close to God on their own account. Priests represented the people to God and God to the people. But that way of worship was demolished by the death and resurrection of Jesus. As Hebrews says a little later, “We have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us...”
So from our readings we have seen that Jesus’ coming to earth, to live among us, to die, to be raised to life and to return to glory was a time of drastic renewing. The kind of renewing which is made up of the demolition of old things and the building of new things.
In Jesus’ upside down kingdom the old world order is demolished and the poor and humble are built up. In Jesus’ death and resurrection the old ways of sacrifice and worship are abolished, and a new, once for all sacrifice is made that opens the way for all to worship in a new way.
So that is the first kind of renewing, but what about the second kind, the one that is less drastic but is still renewing? Do we see that in God’s renewing work?
I think that we do throughout the Bible, and I’d like to take an example from Paul’s second letter to the church in Colossae. He says:
"Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all." Colossians 3:9-11
In this letter we find Paul talking about the ongoing process of being made new in Christ. It’s like the ongoing maintenance work of the Christian life. As we follow Jesus, and get to know him better, the Holy Spirit points our parts of our lives that need refurbishing, that need to be bought up to scratch. It’s not a complete clearance and rebuild job, but it can have a really positive impact on our lives and the lives of those around us. In this example Paul uses the practical examples of honesty with each other, and welcoming those who are different, but he could have chosen a whole load of other things. There are aspects of our lives that we know need to become more faithful in their reflection of the image of God as we are made new.
Having thought a little bit about what God’s renewing work might be like, and how sometimes it is drastic and sometimes more gradual, I’d like us to consider our reactions to God’s renewing work.
Since I moved here, I have seen and heard many different reactions to the work that Renew is doing with the physical environment.
Some people are excited about the possibility of improvements in the place that they live, and catch the vision for what it could be like. They are speaking up for their communities and the people who live there, not always liking the way that Renew go about things, not always agreeing with the decisions that have been made, sometimes frustrated with the slowness of the process, but despite all this, working with and for the renewing of the city.
Others resist renewing. Maybe they don’t trust the people who are in charge of the renewal work. Maybe they don’t believe that there is any need for change, for things to be made new. Maybe they don’t believe things will be better. Maybe they are tired of change, and want something to stay the same, because they feel like too much of what they grew up with has gone.
Some people feel left out of the whole renewal process. When I go to Etruria Residents’ association meetings I hear about the streets that have had no work done and the residents can’t see any difference between the houses that they live in and the ones that have had new roofs put on by Renew. Or when I visit people who live in one of only three houses that are going to be left standing on a road of terraces which are due to come down. The rest of the street is empty and they’ve been left, and they feel abandoned.
I wonder whether our reactions to God’s renewing work are similar. When God says to us, either about something in our own lives, or our church life, “that needs renewing. I’m going to strip that back to bare wood and repaint it, or I’m going to clear that out and put something new in.” How do we react? Are we willing for God to work and to renew us? Or, are we going to resist it?
If God makes it clear that the way that we engage with the Bible, or the way that we worship, or the way that we reach out to our friends and neighbours, or the way that we relate to each other, needs to be renewed, how we are going to react? How are we going to tell whether God is calling us to demolish some things and build new ones? Where is some spiritual refurbishment needed?
At times in my life I have felt left out of God’s renewing work. I have seen exciting spiritual things happening in other places and for other people, but not for me and I have felt left out and abandoned. I still feel like that sometimes. But, I know that we are never abandoned by God, even when the fire is hot I know that God is waiting and watching. I said last week that I believe that God has more reviving warmth for this church and I also believe that God is doing a new thing here, and that we do not need to feel left out, but we do need to be ready for it, and what better time to get ready than Advent. As the prophet Isaiah said:
"See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland." Isaiah 43:19