This is the first sermon from our new series “Still Valued and Valuable,” focussing on being a Christian in the later years of life. It was preached at all four services on Sunday 24th August.
I may have told you this one before so please forgive any repetition, but there was once an older lady who felt she would like to take some exercise.
“I felt like my body had got totally out of shape”, she said. “So I got my doctor’s permission to join a fitness club and start exercising. I decided to take an aerobics class for seniors. I bent, twisted, gyrated, jumped up and down, and perspired for over an hour. But by the time I got my leotard on, the class was over”.
On the other hand, listen to what the Bible says:
“The glory of the young is their strength; grey hair is the splendour of the old”. Proverbs 20: 29
“Grey hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.” Proverbs 16:31.
“Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days”. Job 12:12
“Even to your old age I am he, and to grey hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save”. Isaiah 46:4
“They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green”. Psalm 92:14
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day”. 2 Corinthians 4:16.
It seems there is something of infinite value in being older. Of infinite value to others. Of infinite value to the world. Of infinite value to God.
Over the next few weeks – six Sundays in fact, dodging around a couple of Harvest Festivals – we are going to have a series of sermons on what it might mean to be an older Christian. A disciple of Christ who has had perhaps many years of living under his or her belt. We very much hope that it will bring encouragement, and perhaps some challenge, too. And not just for those of us who are older – and how, anyway, do we define “older”? I suppose it might mean those who have reached retirement age and beyond. But then again, that can be anyone from 55 to 105.
Anyway, the fact is that more and more of us can confidently expect to live to old age. Certainly for many years beyond retirement age. Apparently it is predicted that it will be quite the norm for children born in the UK today to live to over a hundred years old. We are constantly told that there are burgeoning numbers of older people and this is set to continue for many decades.
Yet we live in a world – at least in the West – which is fixated on youth. Cosmetic surgery of all sorts is available – and not only to the very wealthy – in a desperate effort to restrain the physical effects of ageing. There is constant comment on the age – especially of women – of presenters on the television. The “celebrities” of today are invariably the young and beautiful.
So how does all this fit with what God give us in the Bible? I quoted a few verses just now, which makes it perfectly clear that God profoundly values the qualities that age can bring. And the people we see in Scripture, too. Key people. People through whom – and not because they were perfect but because they trusted him – God was able to do great and significant things. Abraham and Sarah. Isaac, Jacob, Moses – we heard a little about him this morning, his birth, although the real purpose and destiny of his life didn’t effectively begin until he was eighty years old – to name a few in the Old Testament.
In the New Testament Simeon and Anna as they waited patiently for decades for the arrival of the Messiah. And significantly the ageing St Paul. Read his “prison letters” – Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and perhaps especially Timothy and Titus – to get a flavour of this older person giving the sort of wisdom, care and concern that only the experience of many years of life can bring. John the Apostle who brought particular qualities to the writing of his Gospel which reflected that he had lived long, prayed much and was now an old man in exile on the Greek island of Patmos.
Twenty or so years ago the American writer Norman Fitzroy McLean (author of “A River Runs Through It and Other Stories”) decided, when he was in his mid-eighties, to embrace what he called “the anti-shuffleboard philosophy”. In other words a conscious resistance to doing the sort of things which people of his age – so-called American “old-timers” – were expected to do. Slippers and cardigans. Afternoon naps and retirement to the American equivalent of Bournemouth. That sort of thing.
He sort of rebelled and decided to write a book about the tragic “Mann Gulch Fire” of 1949 which had claimed the lives of 13 young fire-fighters. There had always been the suspicion of a cover-up by officialdom and McLean decided to investigate and write about what he discovered.
Apart from anything else this meant hugely physically demanding tramping around the Mann Gulch in the searing temperatures of the blistering Montana desert. He jokingly reported later that the fear of dying of a heart attack was replaced by a fear of dying of de-hydration! The result was an acclaimed book: “Young Men and Fire” published in 1992 shortly after his death – he’d worked on it right to the very end.
What Maclean also reflected upon – as he went about his task – was that life is an ever onward journey of productivity; of re-exploration of who we are and what God is calling us to do and be. He wrote this: “The problem of self-identity is a problem not simply for the young, but for us all“. In other words, at every, evolving stage of our lives God is longing to use what we have and who we are for the blessing of his world.
More than once I have felt myself being blessed most powerfully by God through very elderly people, perhaps from their hospital bed, sometimes in the last hours of their lives – something of the profound mystery of the love of God in the helplessness of Christ on the cross, perhaps – when I had gone in assuming the ministry was happening the other way around.
I can’t help thinking that maybe we are simply not realising as much as we might be what God might be longing to do through the ministry of older people – whether the very active retired or physically frail 98 year olds. A ministry which is usually totally unassuming, humbly offered, with good humour, compassion, kindness and wisdom – all of these things coming only after a lifetime of bumps, bruises, mistakes and wrong turns, but which amounts, at its best, to a reflection of God himself.
Yes, we all know crotchety older people. Perhaps bitter, angry and rather self-centred older people. But I suspect there are many, many more older people who are full of grace, care, concern and have huge amount to offer to God’s needy world.
Younger, middle aged or older. Whatever stage you are in life, do you know God values you utterly? Do you realise how much he loves you? Do you know that he still has things for you to do – maybe the greatest, most significant things in your life so far – and maybe more importantly, to be? For the good of others – those who he will bring across your path this week – his world, his Kingdom? Maybe now is the opportunity – whether you are 27, 47, 67 or 87, to discover just how exciting Christian discipleship can be as we follow and trust our amazing and faithful God.
A recent Church of England Report noted that in 2007 the average age of congregations was 61. Seven years on that may now possibly have increased.
Not surprising to any of us I’m quite sure. So often the response to this is deep – quite understandable – anxiety. Where are the young people? The missing generations? Perhaps our own children and grandchildren (a later sermon in the series will address this one specifically, especially the sadness – maybe the guilt – we feel, when our own families do not wish to have much to do with church, often despite our best efforts). What is going to happen in the future? What is happening now, when there seems to be no-one to take on the jobs that we feel, after many years of service, we would like to hand on to someone younger?
Now all these are huge questions, clearly. None of them has a quick-fix solution and many of them present a big challenge. But the worry and anxiety they cause can also be a distraction to what God is calling older Christian people to be and do, with all they specifically, uniquely, have to offer. That’s the thing we want to be exploring – and hopefully finding encouragement in – over the next few Sundays.
“You make new Christians by making Christians new”. So said Jack Nicholls, former Bishop of Sheffield. Perhaps you might like to consider coming along to the “Alpha” evenings beginning on Tuesday, 7th October. Every congregation member in each church will receive an invitation to come and explore what it means to follow Jesus: to live to the full the great adventure of discipleship.
Do you know that your baptism, however long ago that might have been, reflects the astonishing fact that God, in the power of Jesus and his Holy Spirit, is renewing us again, again and again throughout our lives? It may no longer be for energetic, physical service – although many in their sixties, seventies and even eighties – can continue to be very active.
But just think of the many things you have within you now – experiences you have garnered and which have shaped you – that you never had in your twenties, thirties, forties, fifties. Invaluable things. The things which God longs to use for the help and encouragement of the many – often younger people – who so need them.
As Paul wrote to the church in Rome – as we heard just now in the reading – let’s offer the whole of ourselves – present ourselves – our bodies and souls – as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, in service to him and to others. This is our spiritual sacrifice.
Never mind how tired, worn out, creaky we may feel in our physical bodies; never mind that we almost rattle with the number of tablets we seem to have to take nowadays; never mind that we might forget the odd thing or wonder what on earth it was we came to get out of the fridge. That makes no difference whatsoever to the fact that God calls us – the inner and totally unique person we truly are – to be re-born, renewed, brought to new life, new purpose, again and again and again. Until our dying breath, when our bodies themselves will be renewed, completely, in glory. That is what the Resurrection of Jesus is all about.