Sunday 28 June 2015

Serving Together: Young and Old (Jeremiah 31.11-14 and Luke 2.25-40)


“Praying always and serving together, sharing Jesus’ love in our communities.” That’s what we’re about and that’s what we’re exploring together over these summer months.

Over the last four weeks we’ve thought about what it means to ‘pray always.’ Basically, it we want to place prayer at the heart of what we do; pray with faith, pray with perseverance, pray in unity and pray even in times of desperation.

We’re now delving into the second bit of our vision which is “serving together.” Serving, not being served. Together, not in isolation. Serving. Together.

In the next four weeks, we’re going to look at the way Jesus served because that is the best model there is. Jesus said “learn from me” so that’s what we’re going to do. We’re also going to look at what service looks like expressed in both practical and spiritual ways. And we’re going to see how spiritual gifts can make a church a serving church.

But today, the focus is on young and old. We serve together as people of all ages. I’ll tell you what I think; although there are times when it is natural for us to serve the Lord with people in own age bracket, something very special happens when young and old join forces to serve the Lord side by side.

I shared this story with you a couple of years ago I think but I think it bears repeating. Amy Orr-Ewing tells of her local MP, who is an atheist, and who came to one of her church’s services as a guest of honour. He was deeply touched by what he saw. “Wow,” he said, “this is the only place I know where such diverse people come together. You’ve got old people, young people, singles, couples, families, wealthy people and those of modest means, the well-educated and the barely literate, the able-bodied and disabled, people of every political persuasion and none. You just don’t see that anywhere else.”

Then he went on to say “It’s just a pity about the God bit.” What a shame he didn’t get it! The point is that “the God bit” as he called it is not some kind of optional extra. It isn’t the ketchup that you can leave on the side of your plate if you don’t like it. The God bit is what makes it what it is.

If the church is a cake, the God bit is not the cherry on top. The God bit is the eggs, the flour, the butter, the sugar, the mixer and the oven. And the cherry. We get to be the tin.

That’s basically what the Bible means when it says we’re just plain old clay jars holding priceless treasure. Ordinary people get to be something extraordinary together when Jesus is in the midst.

Nobody brings people together like Jesus does. Jesus shows the world what community can look like. As we serve together, the young and the old and those in-between, power is released, grace flows amongst us.

Young and Old in the Bible

We’ve got Bibles in the pews here. If we open them up we see immediately that the young are often used mightily by God.

Paul said to Timothy, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young.” He was probably in his early- to mid-20s when he was given responsibility for leading a church.

Jesus’ mother Mary was a teenager when God asked her to do the greatest thing that any human being had ever done up to that point; carry, care for, nurture and love the Son of God incarnate.

The patriarch Samuel and the prophet Jeremiah were both called to do extraordinary things for God when they were young – Samuel was certainly primary school age.

John the Baptist was even younger – he was filled with the Holy Spirit from birth.

In Psalm 8 it says that through the praise of children and infants God has established a stronghold against his enemies.

No wonder Jesus said the Kingdom of heaven belongs to children and that we should aspire to be like them. Never let it be said here that children are of no use to God until they get older.

I have also heard people say – even here - “Oh, I’m too clapped out and old now. What use has God got for me at my age?” As one veteran stand-up comedian said, “At my age I’ve seen it all, done it all, heard it all. I just can’t remember it all.”

And sure, one of the many things no one tells you about aging is that it makes such a nice change from being young. I get that.

But look, do we believe this book or not? In the Bible, the very old, as well as the very young, are used mightily by God.

Abraham was 75 when he left everything he owned; his wider family, his house, his country, his culture, his security, to pursue God’s call on his life. 75!

Moses 80 when he led Israel out of Egypt into the Promised Land.

In our second reading, Anna and Simeon were absolutely ancient. Had God finished with them when they got past their fifties?

Sadly, some liberal commentators I read on this said that Luke probably made this story up. Anna and Simeon were ‘a literary device’ they say. What rubbish! Luke was an observant writer, who claims that he went out his way to get his information first hand from eye witnesses. Some of the historical detail he includes, long doubted by sceptics, has recently been proved 100% correct by archaeologists.

You’d expect a family doctor to be interested in what is, after all, the only surgical procedure Jesus underwent, as far as we know. So it is that Luke alone makes reference to Jesus’ circumcision. Mark, Matthew and John never mention it.

Would Luke invent incidental details about Anna’s age and how long she had been a widow? Of course not. This passage clearly is a carefully investigated report. I believe it is inspired by the Holy Spirit and true in every detail.

Anna and Simeon, old and wrinkly, served faithfully and prayed steadfastly decades into their retirement years that God would send a Saviour. And… then… he… did.

Never let it be said here that people are of no use to God when they get past a certain age.

Young and Old in Church History

It’s not just people in the Bible who serve the Lord in old age.

The founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, at age 81, the year before he died, then virtually blind, led extensive campaigns in the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. On his return to England he toured the country for months serving the Lord and reaching out to the poor.

John Wesley was still going at age 87. Roy Hattersley (who is an atheist) says in his biography of Wesley “John Wesley’s robust constitution – fortified by a careful diet, regular exercise and constant prayer – meant that he did not go quickly to meet his Maker.” He was still preaching ten days before he died at 87. Even on his deathbed he tried to get one last sermon out before he finally popped his clogs.

Someone once said, “You don't stop laughing because you grow old, you grow old because you stop laughing.” I think that applies to the life of faith as well. Christians don’t stop serving God because they grow old. Christians grow old because they stop serving God. Not once in the Bible is the word ‘retirement’ used.

It’s not just in the Bible that children like Samuel and Jeremiah do amazing things for the Lord either.

In 1995 or 1996, I was at a Christian conference near Macon in France with my family and a few dozen others from my church. There was a lovely outpouring of the Spirit there at that time and an amazing atmosphere of faith and excitement. One morning, our son Nathan, who must have been about 8 just spontaneously offered to pray for a little girl he was playing with. I guess she must have been two or three years younger than him. She was 5 or 6.

Now, we knew her parents well and we knew that this little girl had been a victim of sexual assault a couple of years earlier. Anyway she said to Nathan, “Yes, you can pray for me.” He laid a hand on her shoulder and started to pray and – bam – she fell to the floor and stayed there for over an hour. She looked totally at peace, with a big smile on her face. We asked her if she was OK and she said, “Yes, I am in the arms of Jesus.”

That’s not the church of the future is it? That’s the church of today.

There is something about the winsomeness and audacity of children that I think God loves very much. Here’s a couple of funny little stories to show you what I mean.

A little girl is talking to her teacher about whales. The teacher says it is physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human because even though it is a very large mammal, its throat is very small. The little girl says “Yeah, but Jonah was swallowed by a whale.” The teacher repeats that no whale could possibly swallow a human. The little girl says, "Well when I get to heaven I will ask Jonah about that." The teacher says, "What if Jonah went to hell?" The little girl says, "Then you can ask him." 

The next day, the school photographs come out, and the teacher is trying to persuade them all to buy a copy of the group picture. "Just think how nice it will be to look at it when you are all grown up and say, 'There's Amber, she's a lawyer,' or 'That's Daniel, he's a doctor.' The little girl calls out from the back, "And there's the teacher, he's dead." 

Young and old are used mightily by God both in the Bible and in our experience. You are never too old and you are never too young to serve the Lord.

Young and Old Together

But we are very used to thinking as generational clans in our culture. In 21st Century Britain, the different generations often don’t communicate well with each other. We don’t understand each other’s worlds. Often, we don’t really want to.

Robert Warren in his Healthy Churches Handbook makes the same point: “Our society today” he says, “is much less connected between the generations. People relate more within fairly narrow age bands. The gospel calls us to reach out across those divides. Certainly churches that do so engage are significantly more likely to be churches to which people are attracted.”

In Bible there’s no estrangement of the generations here, it’s much more integrated and healthy.

In Jeremiah 31, our first reading, it says the young women dance and are glad, young men and old as well. It’s a vision about what happens when the Lord delivers and redeems his people; a prophecy that finds ultimate fulfilment in Jesus. Celebration, praise and worship bring together the youngest and the oldest, and everyone in between.

In Joel 2, which is a vision of the Holy Spirit coming in power, it says “your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions… I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” When the Holy Spirit comes in power, one of the distinguishing features is that there are gifts released that bring together the youngest and the oldest and everyone in between.

Three weeks ago, I was talking about praying in desperation. We remembered the time when King Jehoshaphat gathered all the men of Judah with their wives and children and little ones to stand before the Lord. Facing calamity in faith and prayer brings together the youngest and the oldest and everyone in between.

In Psalm 145 it says, “One generation shall tell of your works to another” and I think that goes in both directions; youth can glean wisdom from older people and the very elderly can learn from the very young.

Examples of Serving Together as Old and Young

But what today is about is when old and young come together and serve together. Something very special is released when that happens.

Kathryn Belmont chatted to me a few years back now about research that has been done amongst young people in church who leave their home town and go off to study at university.

What happens is this:
·         there is the buzz and excitement of being independent
·         there are ample opportunities to sample the temptations of youth
·         there is the inconvenience of having to look for a good church
·         there is, sadly, the reality sometimes of being able to find only a very dreary one

So understandably, many young people drift away. But here’s what the research found; where young people had formed meaningful friendships in church with people not their own age, when they had not been in a youth bubble, the dropout rate was noticeably lower. In other words, young and old serving together is vital to young people becoming mature and committed disciples of Christ.

That is a very, very good reason for you and me to take an interest in young people. Don’t be scared; say hello to them. Pray for them. Tell them you prayed for them. Ask them how they’re doing at school and college. Don’t be offended if they just grunt a monosyllabic reply – that’s just hormones and it will pass.

Keep loving them, keep affirming them. Bust a gut to break out of your own friendship group from time to time and show an interest in young people and children.

When we read that research, we started to encourage our young people and even children to be on the welcome team, with people older than them. We roped them into serving coffee with people they don’t know.

We started to get them involved in leading mixed-age services, even from primary school age with giving notices and being part of the prayer at Holy Communion. We got them involved in the band, the projection and the sound desk from time to time.

We have now linked our young people up with adult mentors just so someone outside their group can send the occasional text and say “how’s it going?”

We asked our children to design Christmas cards to give to the retired people who come to the December Lunch Club.

These are a few examples of value added to ministry when old and young serve the Lord together.


A church where young and old never interact, never talk, never do anything together is like a dysfunctional family. That’s not the kingdom of God.

But by serving together, young and old side by side, our generation will hear the message of 21st Century Jeremiahs and Marys and marvel at the stories of modern-day Annas and Simeons. And that is our vision.

Let’s pray…

Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 28th June 2015

No comments: