Sunday, 18 June 2017

Taking Joseph's bones - a sermon at Newbiggin Chapel

On Wesley Day 2017 the Methodist Society at Newbiggin Chapel held their final act of worship in the building reputed to be the oldest Methodist chapel in continuous use.

This is the sermon I preached on that occasion:

At this time Lord,
In this place
May your spirit move among us
That we will be warmed by your love
And open our hearts and minds to you.
And now,
May the words of my mouth
And the meditations of our hearts
Be acceptable in your sight
Loving Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

“The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph…”

It was Joseph of the coat of many colours who had brought his whole family into Egypt when he became a senior member of the government there. You may remember the story – how he was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers but rose from being a prisoner to being the man in charge of the grain stores in a time of famine.

 Joseph was a foreigner in the land, his family joined him there as refugees from famine, but after his death and a change of government the situation of the Hebrew people changed and they were made slaves. Eventually they were led out of slavery to freedom by Moses. On the night of the exodus, the night they left Egypt, they took with them the embalmed body of Joseph.

Why did they take Joseph’s bones?

You may, by now be asking, Why is she talking about this ‘out of the way’ text from the Old Testament?
Why focus on this text on this occasion, in this place?
I hope that as we answer the first questions the answer to the second will become very clear.

Evidently, the body of Joseph was important to Moses and the people.
In all the rush of that escape from Egypt; the haste of cooking unleavened bread, the desire for speed as they were bound to be chased by the Egyptian army, the uncertainty of their future and the direction they were to take - in the midst of all this, they obtained and carried with them Joseph’s bones. Those bones must have been special because they certainly were an encumbrance.

And they were special.
They were special because they reminded the people of their inheritance. They reminded them who they were and where they had come from.

Now, I expect there were other things that Moses and the Hebrew people would have liked to take with them when they left Egypt. One strand of the account in Exodus tells us that they were driven out of Egypt and could not take any provisions with them – but they took Joseph’s bones.

When the monks fled from Holy Island in fear of the Vikings, they left in a hurry but they took with them the body of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels. They took them and they carried them all over the north of England before finally settling, 150 years later, in Durham. They took them because they were important symbols of the identity of that group of monks: the body of the abbot who had inspired them and brought peace and healing to their community and the scriptures on which they based their whole lives.

For many people this church building has been a place of peace, a place of beauty, a place of prayer. It has been the place where people have been baptized, married and where funeral services have been held. It has important links to the history of Methodism in Teesdale and has received visitors from all over the UK and all over the world.

A society of Methodist people has met here and worshipped here for over 250 years. But now, the time has come to move on and questions we might ask are: what should we take with us? What is our equivalent of Joseph’s bones?

Some of you may already have noticed that a direct answer to our question about Joseph’s bones is given in the passage we heard read from Exodus.
Moses took the bones because, on his death bed, Joseph had required a solemn oath from his descendants that when they left Egypt, they would take his embalmed body with them. Moses is being true to a solemn oath that had been made by his ancestors.

We might ask why was it so important to Joseph that his bones were taken with the people when they came to leave Egypt. And why, in any case, did he expect that they would move on from the country where he had become an honoured citizen and his people were welcome members of the community?

Listen to the account of Joseph’s death as it is written in the very last verses of Genesis:
24 Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die; but God will surely come to you, and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.’ 25So Joseph made the Israelites swear, saying, ‘When God comes to you, you shall carry up my bones from here.’ 26And Joseph died, being one hundred and ten years old; he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.

Joseph is looking back and looking forward. As he looks back he remembers the promise God made to Abraham, a promise of land. History had shown that God was true to his promises, that had been so in the life of Joseph and of his ancestors and now Joseph is certain that God’s promise of land will be fulfilled. For Joseph, Egypt was a temporary dwelling place, it was a place where he had, ultimately, known good fortune, but it was not the final destination. His last words are words of hope for the future.

The Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, calls it hope for an exile-ending-intrusion of God in history. Joseph is sure that there will be a new beginning for the people, that God will be true to the promises made and they will go on to their proper destination. When Moses takes the bones of Joseph with him, it is an act of faith and trust, trust that God’s promises will not fail and that God will be with them.

So Joseph’s bones are a symbol of God’s faithfulness in the past, God’s presence now and of hope for the future. Much the same could be said of the body of Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne gospels, which together spoke of God’s faithfulness in the past, enduring presence and hope for the future.

This evening we look back with great thankfulness to God’s faithfulness in the past. When Mr Wesley came to Teesdale he found that his travelling preachers were already at work here. Jacob Rowell, Matthew Lowes and Christopher Hopper were among those who signed the indenture for the purchase of the land on which this chapel was built. Here, there was a thriving lead mining community and people open to hearing the gospel and responding to it.  The decision to build this meeting house was an act of faith and a commitment to serve the needs of that time in this place. It was a good decision, the society thrived and Mr Wesley preached here or nearby on a number of occasions.

From here the gospel was preached and people were brought to Christ.

John Wesley wrote:
“You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work. And go not only to those that need you, but to those that need you most. It is not your business to preach so many times, and to take care of this or that society; but to save as many souls as you can; to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance.”

By building a chapel here those ancestors of ours were going to those who needed them most and were being spent in the work of saving souls.

In more recent times we can give thanks for the faithful friends who have continued to strive for a vision of this place as a centre of worship, a place of pilgrimage, and a community and visitor resource. You have done well, you have been faithful and this place has served its purpose on the way to the final destination.

When the Hebrew people left Egypt they were promised that God would go before them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God would guide them to their final destination.

For the Celtic Christian monks travelling around the north of England, the presence of the Lindisfarne Gospels was a sure reminder that God was present with them. They did not know where they were going but they knew that God was always with them.

Earlier this evening we heard the words of the great commission from the end of Matthew’s gospel.  In Jesus, we see the ultimate exile-ending- intrusion of God in history. Those who had been separated from God were brought close again and Jesus promised, “I will be with you always.”

We can be sure that the risen Christ is always with us and his presence is not linked to any particular place or time, God cannot be confined by walls of stone or brick. God continually breaks out with resurrection power. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

As we sing our final hymn this evening, the doors of the chapel will be thrown open and, after the blessing we will leave without delay certain that God goes with us, and in that is our confidence and strength.

This is not the end of the story, this is a new beginning. This is another exile-ending-intrusion of God. This is full of promise and hope, this is exciting!

Joseph and the Hebrew people could not remain in Egypt, it had become a place of slavery and they were called elsewhere.

The community in which this chapel is set has changed and this is no longer a place of growth and hope and promise. The miners are long gone, there are few people here and they do not look to this place and what it offers for sustenance. It is still a beautiful setting but now people want to travel here by car and not on foot and the roads are simply not adequate for that.

Jesus said, “Go therefore making disciples of all, baptizing them and teaching them” That is our calling and this is no longer the right place to be a focus of that calling. To remain here now would be to make this place the centre of all that we do and are. We are followers of Jesus and Christ must be the centre. To remain here now would be unfaithful to those who have gone before us and engaged in mission among the miners and others in this part of Teesdale.

Mr Wesley wrote these words in his notes on the Bible and in relation to the passage we have read this evening from the book of Exodus:

They need not fear missing their way who were thus led, nor being lost who were thus directed; they need not fear being benighted, who were thus illuminated, nor being robbed, who were thus protected. And they who make the glory of God their end, and the word of God their rule, the spirit of God the guide of their affections, and the providence of God the guide of their affairs, may be confident that the Lord goes before them, as truly as he went before Israel in the wilderness
(Wesley J Notes 13:21)

It is time to move on from this place and we take Joseph’s bones with us. We take with us the commission of Jesus that was the reason for establishing a chapel here in 1759. We take with us the certainty that God is with us wherever we go, and we take with us the hope of making disciples of all and the hope of new life in Christ.

We go without fear of missing our way, we make the glory of God our end and we are confident that God goes before us.

The best of all is God is with us!

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