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Sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas -
New Year's Day 2006
Introduction before the first hymn.
Before we sing our first hymn, I want to say a little about today's sermon. We often take hymns, and I am afraid, those who play them, for granted. This is particularly poignant in the week when we have sent Brian on his way to his maker.
In this church we have been, and are, very lucky. We have Peter, we had Brian, we have Marion (thank you for standing in this morning Marion) we have John, and we have a vicar who can turn his hand to the organ too, as long as one of the unholy trinity, as someone called Martin, Michael and I, are here to lead the service.
Today is about the planning of services, and our organists, and the great hymns that they play and the people who wrote them, and the trouble they take in choosing them. For once, I have been let loose on today's hymns. Please enjoy them and notice their significance to today's readings and the second Sunday of Advent.
We sing hymn number 219 - How lovely on the Mountains are the feet of him.
I pray that I may speak, and that you may hear, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As I have already said, the care taken to prepare services is often taken for granted. It is east to imagine that it all just happens without any effort, and that the only thing that takes any real time is writing the sermon each week, by whatever poor wretch happens to be on the rota that week.
Well, since I have mentioned it, let's start from there - who is going to preach next week? It all starts in September when I supply a copy of the new Lectionary to Roger for him to plan the following year from Advent Sunday.
Now, title hough the lectionary does contain the set readings for each day of the year, there are several title ernatives for each day, and it can be difficult to work out which ones we are going to use, particularly as the liturgical commission appears to have had a corporate brainstorm on some days and produces a set reading that seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the season, or indeed anything else.
Roger then comes up with a rota for the whole year which includes all the Parish Communions, Seasonal Communions, Family Services, Easter Services, Christmas Services and one off services like Ash Wednesday and Ascension Day. The Eight o'clock and Wednesday services and the Evening Services are not on the rota as Roger does all of the first two, and I do all of the latter.
He then gives copies to the three of us and we negotiate and swop where we need to, but this happens little as Roger will already have consulted on Holidays and breaks. For instance because Martin, and Mike particularly, are away so much, they try to give me a whole month off in the summer, usually June or July.
So that is us sorted out, more or less. Naturally unforeseen things crop up during the year, and we always fill in for each other when necessary. But it does not stop there! We need to know that there will be an organist there to play our hymns and incidental music for us. We have a great musical tradition here at Streatley, which we hope to maintain. In this we now have a piece of the jigsaw missing with Brian's sad demise.
Peter is the one who usually chooses all the hymns. I was speaking to him on Boxing Day - yes, we were both working on services on Boxing Day - and we were saying how difficult it is on some Sundays to find hymns appropriate to the readings for that day.
If you look at the back of your hymn books you will see that are several indexes, the first of which is Author, Translators and Sources of Words, which helps if you are looking for a hymn by a certain author. The second is an index of uses - if, for instance, you are looking for a hymn which is about Faith, trust and commitment, then it will tell you that Father, hear the prayer we offer, Number 120 is appropriate.
The next index is scriptural. If a particular hymn refers to a certain piece of Scripture, then here is where you will find it. Sometimes the choice is very narrow, sometimes there is no hymn at all that refers to the readings for any particular day. I chose our first hymn today as it is the only hymn listed that refers at all to our first reading, Isaiah 52: 7-10, and then only to the first verse.
I could have preached on it being New Year's day today, but the hymns listed are not really about the New Year, and some of them are pretty lacklustre! I have used one of them, however, our last hymn today, Breathe on me breath of God, of which more later.
The next index is of hymns to fit the readings for the Revised Common Lectionary, the three year cycle of readings authorized for the Church of England, and most other Christian denominations. The middle two hymns we will sing today come from that index. It is often difficult to find an appropriate hymn even from this section.
There is then an index for the old ASB lectionary which hardly anyone uses today. More modern editions of Hymns Old & New don't even contain this index. Finally there is an index of first lines. This is useful for wedding and funerals, as people quite often say - "you know, that one that goes 'Be still -something, something, something. Then at least you can narrow it down to three in this particular hymn book, Numbers, 52, 53 and 54.
Often, Peter will find even better hymns than those suggested. His knowledge of hymns, and their significance to any particular season is astounding, if I ever get halfway to his understanding, I will be more than satisfied. Try and watch how appropriate the hymns chosen are on any one Sunday. I guarantee you will find pleasure in spotting words and phrases or sentiments echoed directly from the readings for the day.
So we have chosen the hymns for our services. What about the effort put in by the hymn writers? Who are they? Why did they, or do they, write the particular hymns that they wrote? Well I can tell you about three of our hymn writers today:
The first hymn today I chose because it is the only one that refers to our first reading. I know the name of the author, that is in the hymnbook anyway, and it appears to say that they have no idea what verses two to four refer to. Neither have I!
At the name of Jesus, our second hymn, was written by Caroline Maria Noel a nineteenth century spinster, part of a group of Victorian unmarried women who wrote dozens of popular hymns. She came from a family of hymn writers, her father - a canon in the Anglican Church and her uncle, once Queen Victoria's chaplain and, later, a convert to the Baptist Church because he came to believe in adult Baptism. Caroline wrote hundreds of hymns, At the name of Jesus appeared in the second volume of them and was written in the early 1870s. She is buried outside the door of the Abbey Church of Romsey, beside her father, who was vicar there for many years.
Shine Jesus Shine, which we will sing after we say the creed is a modern hymn which has become a firm favourite in all sorts of congregations, from the charismatic revival churches to conservative churches like Streatley, from family services to Parish Eucharists, it is sung everywhere.
The author, Graham Kendrick was born in 1950, the son of a Baptist minister. At teacher training college he experienced what he describes as 'a profound religious experience' when he felt filled with the Holy Spirit, and he embarked on his ministry as an itinerant musician, hymn writer and worship leader. He worked as a full time evangelist with the Name of Jesus touring team and then Youth for Christ then, in 1984, decided to devote all his time and energies on congregational worship music. We may thank God for it.
Graham has written dozens of worship songs, many for the Icthus Fellowship with which he is closely involved, and many of those have become, like Shine Jesus Shine, firm favourites is all sorts of churches - Make Way, Make Way, for the Kings of Kings; From Heaven you came helpless Babe; Meekness and Majesty; to name but a few that we sing, and Rejoice, Rejoice, Christ is in you and Jesus put this song into our hearts, which you will have heard often of you watch Songs of Praise on television.
Kendrick tends to compose by sitting strumming his guitar until a tune forms in his mind, which he then develops into a worship song. He did this with Shine, title hough the chorus did not come to him until all the verses were complete. Believe it or not the whole thing was completed in half an hour. It was first heard at Spring Harvest, the great annual evangelism gathering in 1987, and sung again at Westminster Abbey in 1988 at the launch of the Church Urban Fund.
As I said earlier, our final hymn, Breath on me Breath of God, is listed in the index as appropriate for today, the second Sunday of Christmas for we are at the start of a New Year, praying that we will be ready for the challenges that that year may bring, and needing the help of the Holy Spirit to support us.
Breath has always had a central role in Christian Theology. God's creative function has often been described as breathing life into mankind following the description in Genesis 2:7 'and the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.'
Breath has also long been synonymous in Christian thought with the Holy Spirit. In both Greek and Latin one word is used for both spirit and breath (pneuma and spiritus). To a physicist the word pneumatology means the science of air and gases, to a theologian it means the doctrine and study of the Holy Spirit.
It is this notion of the Holy Spirit being the breath of God that Edwin Hatch develops in the simple devotional hymn we will end our service with. If first appeared in a privately printed pamphlet published in 1878 entitled Between Doubt and Prayer
At Oxford. Hatch became friendly with members of what came to be known as the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, including William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and Algernon Swinburne. As an undergraduate he contributed several articles to magazines and reviews but, instead of following his friends into a literary or artistic career he was ordained into the Church of England, and served as a Parish Priest in East London.
Most of the rest of his life he spend as an Academic - Professor of Classics at Trinity College Toronto; Vice-Principal of St. Mary's Hall Oxford and finally, Reader in Ecclesiastical History. Despite his academic eminence, Hatch was a man of deep and simple piety, as this hymn shows. It was said, by a friend of his, that his religion was a simple and unaffected as a child's.
So, as we stand at the gate of the year, following a year marred by disaster and terrorism, let's thank God for our musical tradition here at Streatley, for those who organize and plan our services, for those who provide our music, organists and choir, and hope that 2006 will be a year to remember both for our worship, and for peace and tranquillity in the world at large.
Prayers - Intercessions
Lord, at the beginning of this New Year, we ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to face whatever is to come. We hope that the year will be peaceful in the world and in our private lives, but we know that we may have challenges to face which will only be possible with your help.
As we look back at the year just past, we pray for the victims of the Sunami, just a year ago - for the orphans, for the bereaved, for those who still do not know the fate of their loved ones. We pray for all of those affected by the July bombings - those killed and injured; their families and the rescuers who showed such bravery. We pray for the victims of the earthquake in India and Pakistan, many of whom will still die in the cold of winter. We feel helpless Lord, there is so little we can do except give our money and hope that it spent wisely.
We pray for those who are hopeless and alone at this time, for those for whom the New Year holds no hope for the future. Help us to see them Lord, for they are not always obvious, and to help them see that there is hope in you and demonstrate your love through our actions.
We give thanks Lord for the love you show us. We give thanks for the hymns written for your glory over the years, for those who plan the services, for our organist and musicians, who help us to glorify your name.
We offer all these things in Jesus name.