Ebenezer and not Scrooge

Do you make New Year’s resolutions? There’s a long tradition of doing this isn’t there? The Romans called the first month of the year “January” after their god Janus who had two faces, one looking back and one looking forward.  The idea is that we have space to reflect on how the past year has gone, how have we done, what went well, what could have been better and then make commitments for the year ahead.

We also have a long tradition of breaking our resolutions, too don’t we? Maybe you’ve tried every year. What have your resolutions been? Maybe to:

–          Stop smoking

–          Drink or eat less – diets often start just after Christmas

–          Be kinder

–          Take up a new hobby

–          Exercise more

–          Get to church/pray/read your Bible more often

How did you do? How long did the resolve last? Often it’s not long is it?

There’s also a tradition in some churches of renewing commitment to God, the Gospel and each other annually. The Methodists have their “Covenant Renewal Service”

It’s with this in mind that I want to come to our text 2 Samuel 7:12. This is where we find the name “Ebenezer” that appears in some of our hymns and songs -though you may associate it more with the grumpy character in Dicken’s Christmas Carol!

Looking Back

The people of Israel have been through a horrendous time, the ark of the covenant has been captured when they people were defeated by the Philistines. They had used it as a lucky charm and it had failed because that wasn’t its purpose. However, God had sent plagues on the Philistines and so they became scared of the ark and had it returned to Israel.

Now, the Israelites are in danger again. The Philistines gather to attack. Samuel calls the people together and prays on their behalf. God bring victory and so the people gather to give thanks to God.

This is the context in which Samuel puts up a memorial standing stone and calls it “Ebenezer” -a stone of help. It is to remind the people that God has been with them and has delivered them up until this point.

So, I want to encourage us to look back with thankfulness at the end of 2017. Think about what it means to say that God has been with us.

–          The history of this church has been that there have been fruitful times and difficult times. There have been times when it has looked very fragile. Yet God has been with us.  This is not about God helping us to do what we want but about God looking after and loving his people as they share in his mission.

–          There have been times in the past few years when we’ve taken what felt like big steps of faith – employing a worker, adding a service, starting Nueva Vida, buying the Community Café.  We’ve seen people show faith and make sacrifices.  But most of all, we’ve seen God at work.

–          We can look back through this year -and further back and see how God has been with each of us through ups and downs. Some of you have faced real difficulties in relationships, at work etc. But God has been at work helping you to grow in him and to show the fruit of the Spirit by being loving, patient and kind when it has seemed impossible

However, those things are only the “starter courses” as we think about what it means to look back and say that God has helped us. The idea here is that God has delivered his people. He has rescued them from slavery and death. That’s what Samuel means by “thus far.” God rescued them from the Pharaoh then from various enemies during the Exodus and when they settled in the land. Now he has saved them from the Philistines.

We look back with thanks because God has saved us. He has delivered us from sin and death. In Jesus Christ he has defeated evil. We are forgiven, restored and reconciled.

Some of you will look back and say 2017 was the year when that happened. For all of us, this is time to look back on another year of knowing God’s love, grace and forgiveness.

Present reminders

Why did Samuel put up a standing stone? It did two things. First it reminded te Israelites every time they were in trouble that God was their saviour. Secondly it reminded their enemies whenever they planned trouble that God was Israel’s Saviour.

God has given us a few things that do the same

–          Scripture

–          Communion

–          Church fellowship including testimony and encouragement

Of these Scripture is the most vital. There was a point in my childhood when it seemed whenever we were on holiday that we had to visit every castle, RSPB site or standing stone in the vicinity. Dad would stop the car and we would walk across a field and look at an upright stone. The thing is no-one really knows why any of those stones are there, even the big ones at Stonehenge. Were they ancient temples, sundials or (my favourite and least likely)  runway markers for alien spacecraft?  That’s the problem with signs and memorials; unexplained, people quickly forget. Samuel didn’t just stick a stone up, he told the people what it meant and those words were recorded in Scripture.  God has clearly revealed in his word, his saving character and his saving deed at Calvary.  Make sure you spend time in his word this year.

Looking Forward

Now, it is time to look forward. On the basis of

–          What God has already done for us at the Cross (Past Grace)

–          God’s presence with us now (Present Grace)

–          God’s promises to us (Future Grace)

We look forward.  This is not about being superstitious seeing church or God as a lucky charm. It’s not about arrogance assuming that we will have it all sorted. However, I believe it is right to resolve -or covenant together as we seek to serve and follow Christ in 2018.

Now, there are lots of challenges and opportunities ahead. There are things we think it is right to try and do in the year ahead as a church.  We’ve talked about:

-Employing additional workers

-Keeping the Commnunity café going

– Developing our ESOL work at the chapel and at Victoria Park

– Training people for urban Gospel ministry

We believe that these are things God is leading us to do together. They look like big challenges -maybe even impossible.  I am not saying that we will “succeed” at all of these things.  You see God doesn’t promise us that everything we will try will work.

But I believe there is a right sense in which we step out in faith. We trust God to fulfil his purposes which will be:

  1. To teach us more about him and draw us closer to him
  2. To ensure that the good news about our wonderful saviour is heard.

That’s what we really want to be part of.

Individually, I cannot promise you that you will prosper at work, get the exam results you hope for, get on with everyone without conflict.  I can make this promise. If you make your commitment in 2018 to know God more and to share the Gospel more then:

He will be with you

He will equip you

He will use you.

Let’s finish with a couple of examples of how this works:

  1. We have some families in the church where it looked like they wouldn’t be able to have children. In at least one case, they prayed and God blessed them with children. We heard from Hannah a few weeks ago about how God answered their prayer. This was not without its challenges. They learnt to keep trusting God through each challenge. On the other hand, there are others where this hasn’t been the answer to prayer. However, despite not having children, there are couples and individuals who have been a great encouragement and blessing to other families and have had the joy of seeing lots of spiritual children as they’ve given love, hospitality, time and shared their lives and the gospel with others.
  2. I have heard from several people who had the choice to move away for better work and bigger houses but God told them to stay here in Bearwood where they’ve had the joy of serving and seeing God at work in people’s lives. It was that sign of faithful commitment that encouraged Sarah and I to come and make our home here and put down roots even before the church could make a long-term commitment to us.
  3. We have got alongside people here in Smethwick who at first sight seemed to have nothing and needed help as they’ve fled from dangerous situations as refugees. Yet we have been surprised, excited, encouraged (and maybe a little rebuked) as we’ve watched them open their homes, share what little they’ve got, loved others and shared the Gospel.
  4. I remember visiting Bob and Pauline Adams with Steve to hear their testimonies. Pauline was chronically ill. She had suffered much. Yet her testimony was “God has been so good.” Could you say that? Can I say that? It’s true isn’t it. Pauline learnt to cling more and more to God and his goodness. In her weakness she was fruitful for Christ as neighbours, friends and carers saw and heard something of Christ when they spent time with her.


Next Steps

What are you giving thanks for from 2017?

What are your priorities in 2018?

Here I raise my Ebenezer
Here there by Thy great help I’ve come
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home
Jesus sought me when a stranger
Wandering from the fold of God
He, to rescue me from danger
Interposed His precious blood