A service for New Year's Day live from Emmanuel Church, Didsbury, in Manchester, with the Red John Bell of the Iona Community.
On New Year's Day, John Bell of the Iona Community considers how to embrace the uncertainty of the future as he reflects on the spiritual impact of world events over the past twelve months. Drawing on biblical precedent he considers how God always goes before us, and how we can become part of God's redemptive creativity. Live from Emmanuel Church, Didsbury, in South Manchester, the service is led by the Vicar, the Revd Dr Nick Bundock, with choir and musicians directed by Helen Leach. Organist: Simon Leach. The producer is Andrew Earis.
This script cannot exactly reflect the transmission, as it was prepared before the service was broadcast. It may include editorial notes prepared by the producer, and minor spelling and other errors that were corrected before the radio broadcast.
It may contain gaps to be filled in at the time so that prayers may reflect the needs of the world, and changes may also be made at the last minute for timing reasons, or to reflect current events.
BBC Radio 4. At ten past eight Sunday Worship comes live from Emmanuel Church in Didsbury, South Manchester. The service is introduced by the Vicar the Revd Dr Nick Bundock and begins with a verse from a hymn written and composed by this morning’s preacher, John Bell of the Iona Community. “Before the world began, one Word was there”.
CHOIR: BEFORE THE WORLD BEGAN (VERSE 1)
Good morning. At the first light of a New Year those words encourage us to look back – back to the Word which is grounded in God and rooted in care. But it also encourages us to look forward. Echoing the words of St John, it reminds us of the Gospel writer’s conviction that in Jesus Christ all things were made, and in him love was, is, and will be displayed. Through him God spoke and said ‘I am for you.’
CHOIR BEFORE THE WORLD BEGAN (VERSE 4)
You, Christ, are the image of the unseen God,
the first-born of all creation.
You created all things in heaven and on earth:
everything visible and everything invisible,
thrones, dominions, sovereignties, powers,
all things were created through you and for you.
Lord of all creation
we worship and adore you. Amen.
Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury observed that as 2016 draws to a close we find ourselves in a different kind of world, one less predictable and certain, which feels more awash with fear and division, perhaps a world which doesn’t seem particularly ‘for us’. “One thing we know, Jesus really is the good Shepherd," said the Archbishop, quoting the words of a woman injured by a bomb in Pakistan. And he told us of two people – an elderly woman in London, and a trafficked teenager in Watford - seeing the glory of God in Jesus and of the powerful transformation God has brought to their lives. He affirmed that those who trust in God have something to hold onto which keeps us steady in the eye of any storm. It’s where Christians look for security and hope in any and every kind of circumstance. Lord of all hopefulness.
MUSIC: LORD OF ALL HOPEFULNESS
It’s a privilege to welcome John Bell who’s given up the traditional Hogmanay and travelled down from Glasgow to be with us this weekend. John works all over with world in local churches, festivals and centres of learning, and of course is a regular contributor to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.
In a few moments John will deliver the first of three short reflections on how the Bible informs the way we deal with the past, the present and the future. Each is about our attitude to life and to each other. First we hear a word from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 17.
READING 1: LUKE 17.20-27
He said to the disciples, ‘The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, “Look there!” or “Look here!” Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulphur from heaven and destroyed all of them —it will be like that on the day that the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, anyone on the housetop who has belongings in the house must not come down to take them away; and likewise anyone in the field must not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.
REFLECTION 1: JOHN BELL
Remember Lot’s wife: ‘Lot’s wife looked back and she turned into a pillar of salt.’
It is a great pleasure to be in Manchester. If I were at home I might say, 'A guid new yeare tae yin an a' ..but as I'm not at home I'll just say, Happy New Year and, unsually for a day on which we look forward, encourage us firstly to think about the woman who looked back... Lot's wife. I met her over forty years ago. If it wasn't her, it was someone very like her, a woman whose first name was Alice. She was probably in her mid sixties, a widow living alone.
I had never been in Alice’s house before and I knew little about her except that she was a member of the church I attended. When she opened the door it was a very stern face which greeted me. She showed me into the living room where she sat in a chair facing the television.
Conversation was not easy to make. At one point to break the silence I pointed to the large photograph of a young man in an RAF uniform which was perched on top of the television. 'Who's that I asked.' And she almost spat her answer back:
'That was Jimmy. The Germans killed him when he was flying over Dresden.'
Now, I wasn't born during the war, but don't think that many RAF pilots flew over Dresden for a joy ride. British bombers flattened the city and some planes were shot from the sky. It must have been terrible to lose her son.
But that was almost thirty years previously, and it seemed as if her life had not moved from that day. That's why I tend to think of her as Mrs Lot. Clearly the tragedy of losing her son had so impacted her that it was impossible for her to let go of this terrible episode in her past.
The unusual story of Lot's wife referred to by Jesus in the passage from Luke Chapter 17 we’ve just heard, is not to explain the origin of a female looking rock somewhere on the coast of the Dead Sea. It's a much more profound story.
Lot and his family were told to leave their past behind, to walk away from a corrupt city which was about to be destroyed. They were told not to look back. Lot and his daughters obeyed, but his wife looked back and, captivated by what was being destroyed, she herself became immobilised, turned into a pillar of salt.
The moral of the story, if there is a moral, is that those who are obsessed with what has gone wrong in the past become unable to walk into the future.
You in your life, as I in mine, will know well what are the things in our past that went wrong, the failures we regret, the offences we still feel deeply, the disappointments which we almost covet from last year or the one before that or the one thirty years ago.
God does not want our future to be held ransom to our past. Remember Lot's wife.
[Last night – Hogmanay as we call it in Scotland - I thought of another woman called Bessie Duncan. She lived in the other half of the semi-detached council house in which I grew up.
And every Hogmanay, every New Year’s Eve Bessie had a set ritual. At 11.30, you could hear her raking the ashes of her living room fire Then she would re-set paper, sticks and coal in the hearth ready to be lit after midnight. Then you would hear her going out the back door to put the ashes of the old year into the dustbin.
That was her ritual and, as in the best symbolic action, it was about more than it seemed. IT wasn't just ashes but her regrets which were put out of the way so that she could move forward unfettered.
Remember Bessie Duncan.]
MUSIC: O Christ the Same
Bishop Timothy Dudley Smith’s hymn, O Christ the Same. We now hear words from the Book of Revelation, Chapter 2, beginning at verse 8.
READING 2: REVELATION 2.8-11
To the angel of the church in Smyrna write,
'These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life again:
I know how hard pressed you are, but in reality you are rich.
I know you are slandered by people who pretent to be religious.
Do not be afraid of any sufferings to come.
Some of you may be thrown into prison and be put to the test.
Be faithful till death and I will give you the crown of life.
You have ears, so hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches!
REFLECTION 2: JOHN BELL
“I know how much you suffer for the Lord, and I know all about your poverty (but you have heavenly riches!)”
At the beginning of the book of Revelation are seven letters sent to seven different churches.
Each has the same purpose, namely to say to these different communities, 'This is what you say about yourself... but here is the truth. Or to put it another way: This is the rumour about you, but now I'm going to reveal the reality.
In most letters, the reality is worse than the rumour, but not in the letter to the church at Smyrna. Here the reality was better than the rumour.
What is the rumour about you? This is what I often ask people I have never met before, because often the rumour we spread about ourselves can eclipse the potential we have. The people in Smyrna believed they were poor and persecuted. But these were people who had stood up to malicious gossip, who had not allowed themselves to be intimated. They had resources of faith and energy and commitment they never knew they had. That's why the messages is: You say you are poor, but actually you are rich.
It seems to me that one of the hard jobs God has to is to convince people that they have a capacity for goodness, for generosity, for courage which they don't believe is there. God's purpose is not simply to convince people of their sins, but to alert them to their potential.
I sometimes think that not just in churches but in Britain in general, we are tempted to spread rumours about what we can't do, what we can't afford, who we can't help. Such messages are in danger of undermining the capacities for generosity, altruisim, neighbourliness which I believe are too seldom affirmed as real national treasures.
Maybe the letter to the church in Smyrna is apposite for us today whenever we do ourselves down: ' You say you are poor, but actually you are rich.' You.... we....have unseen and untapped God-given potentials.
MUSIC: I RISE TODAY – HELEN LEACH
Echoing the timeless words of St Patrick, ‘I Rise Today’ was composed and directed by Helen Leach. Whatever our hopes, and fears about 2017, one thing’s for sure – the future is bound to surprise us. In John chapter 1, verses 35-46, Nathaniel is about to have his future turned upside down by an encounter with his best friend Philip…
READING 3: JOHN 1: 35-46
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’
REFLECTION 3: JOHN BELL
We don't know much about Nathaniel.
But I like to think that I've seen him, or young men very like him in the Vondelpark in Amsterdam. In the sixties and seventies it was a safe haven for hippies where people would lie spaced out listening to Jimmy Hendrix or Velvet Underground on a ghetto blaster and thinking the most profound thoughts on the planet.
I like to think of Philip going through the Vondelpark looking for his friend Nathaniel who would like to be a spiritual guru, so he's studying comparative religion in the University.
And Philip, who has been looking for him, sees him and goes over, all excited, and says,
'Nathaniel, Nathaniel, I've found the Messiah...the Son of God. He's called Jesus. He comes from Nazareth. And Nathaniel rolls his eyes and says. 'Nazareth?? Can anything good come from that dump.' For that’s how people saw Nazareth in biblical times…
And Philip says, ' Come and see.' That's all, ' Come and see.'
He doesn't just ask Nathaniel to move from his comfort zone and his deep thoughts, he asks him to meet someone about whom he knows next to nothing, but who will change his entire future.
These days too, many people don't know much about Jesus. And if the primary adjectives they have heard with regard to him are words like Gentle and Meek and Mild, then why bother about someone who sounds like a wimp?
I meet people who don't believe Jesus was ever angry, and when I indicate there are over 20 places in the Gospels which describe Jesus in that condition, and they ask me which Gospels I've been reading. I meet people who say that Jesus was a chauvinist and a racist. So I tell them about nearly two dozen women with whom he had positive engagements, and point out that he had equally positive relationships with people of some seven different nationalties and faiths. And people say I'm making it up.
But it's all there, in black and white, in flesh and blood, the Jesus who is bigger than the baby at the centre of the nativity play, the Jesus who is more dynamic than the motionless figure in the stained-glass windows, the Jesus who is more risky, inclusive, hospitable, transforming than the rather insipid saviour we may have been introduced to in our childhood.
It's all there, and his invitation echoes through the ages, through the voice of Philip to Nathaniel, and from me to you: 'Come and see. Come and see.'
Some may know next to nothing about him, but if we accept his invitation, our future through him might be changed for good and for ever.
MUSIC: NEW YEAR – JOHN RUTTER
Turn your eyes to the light; cast away the works of darkness. A New Year carol by John Rutter. Our prayers are interspersed with the sung prayer chant ‘Take, O take me as I am’ by John Bell. Let us pray.
As we leave 2016 behind us we pray for a world bewildered by painful events. We pray for the people of Syria shattered by years of civil war and particularly for the city of Aleppo.
As we look forward to 2017 we pray for refugees of war and for countries, communities and organisations struggling to cope with the challenges of human migration. We pray for peace in our world and answers to the big challenges we face.
MUSIC: TAKE, O TAKE ME AS I AM
As we leave 2016 behind us we pray for a world which has seen huge political change. We pray for those who have felt marginalised and sidelined as well as those who feel renewed hope and re-engagement.
As we look forward to 2017 we pray for politicians here in the UK as they plan the way forward for our country. We pray for hope, inspiration and renewal as we meet the challenges and opportunities that this year will bring.
MUSIC: TAKE, O TAKE ME AS I AM
As we remember, at this time of year, loved ones who are no longer with us, we draw our thoughts, our fears and our hopes together as we sing the prayer our Saviour taught us…
MUSIC: OUR FATHER
We end our service with another hymn by Bishop Timothy Dudley Smith, one of our most celebrated hymn-writers. He was ninety on Boxing Day and this is one of his best known works, always sung at this time of year: Lord for the years, your love has kept and guided.
MUSIC: LORD FOR THE YEARS
On behalf of St James and Emmanuel and the people of Didsbury I wish you all a very happy 2017.
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
And the blessing of God Almighty,
The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
Be among you and remain with you always.
MUSIC (INSTRUMENTAL): REPRISE OF ‘BEFORE THE WORLD BEGAN’