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  Philippians 3:4-14  &  John 12:1-8

Have you ever watched a dog on a lead?  Of course, just like people, every dog is different but it seems to me that in the main they fall into four different categories.   Firstly are those who you see going for a walk who just amble alongside their owners, maybe a bit lazy, maybe a bit on the elderly side, often a bit podgy, amble, amble, amble, not taking much interest in anything.

Then there are those who lull you into a false sense of security.   They seem to be like the first type, but then they’ll catch a scent or see something that interests them, and suddenly they’ll pull at the lead, eager to be off after that squirrel.   If the owner’s not particularly aware they’ll find the lead pulled from their hand and a dog disappearing into the bushes.

Then there are those who can’t go more than a step without their attention being caught by something new.  They’re always pulling, straining, at the lead, but never in the same direction for more than 30 seconds.  They have the attention span of a goldfish.  They want to be off the lead and off exploring the world, but they’re not sure about where they’d go first if they were let off.

Then there are the fourth type.   They are the ones that if you had roller skates, or a skateboard would probably pull you along the route.   They pull and strain and yearn with every ounce of their being against the lead.  But in one direction.  They pull you on every step of the way.  They have a fixed idea in their head and they are going to go for it.  The blood hound is on the scent and will not relent until she has found the quarry. 

In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Christians in the city of Philippi we hear about how Paul is like our fourth type of dog.  He is straining towards a goal.   There is a prize, that he hasn’t fully got hold off, but he desires with all his being.  He is pulling towards it, utterly focussed.  And, it seems to  me, that he encourages his readers to do the same.

But what is the prize for which God has called Paul, and us, heavenward in Christ Jesus.   What is this thing that is such a consuming desire for Paul?  It is the promise of life in the uninterrupted, experienced, presence of God.  The promise of life in the uninterrupted, experienced, presence of God.   God our Father will hold us.   Christ our brother will stand next to us.  The Holy Spirit, our comforter will embrace us.  We will sense with our bodies the scent, touch, sound of the near presence of God.  We will know and be known.  We will never be abandoned or left or excluded.  We will be welcome.  That sounds like a prize worth straining towards to me.

And as we strain towards our final goal, we come to find that we can experience God’s presence with us now, in our earthly life.   For some of us that will be in the sacraments, especially in the bread and wine of the Communion.  For others it will be in extended times of sung worship, perhaps at events like Fearless tonight.  For others it will be in the kindness, love, and friendship of other Christians.  For some it will be in the experience of an intense touch of the Holy Spirit in our lives, releasing us, healing us, and equipping us.  For others it will be in the solitary, silent, contemplation of God.  For most of us it has been a mixture of these and other things at different times.

As we meet this morning, and share together a review of the year, and some of the challenges and encouragements that we face, it might all feel a bit business like.  It might not feel much like God is present in it.  What is the link between the heating bills and these high flying words about straining to experience God’s presence?  What do elections to the District Church Council have to do with the heavenly prize?

Everything, in every way.  If we, as individuals and a church are truly straining to live in the reality of God’s presence then every single thing we do is part of that.   God is with us, so we can trust God with the finances.   We know that the knowledge of God’s presence is the most precious thing, the best good news ever, so we call others to join us in experiencing it.  This drives our mission action plan.   We desire to explore different ways of being open to God’s presence so we have that as our touch stone as we reflect on our worshipping life together.

In the reading from John’s account of the good news of Jesus’ life we hear about one woman’s response to the presence of God.  She is so moved that she pours out perfume worth a year’s wages, forgets herself and her own reputation to the extent that she lets down her hair to caress his feet.   She is abandoned in worship, straining to experience all that she can of Jesus’ physical presence with her while she is able to.

Now we know that God is always with us by the Holy Spirit, but if you’re anything like me it doesn’t always feel like it.   We amble along, we get distracted by the other scents around us, or things that look shiny, or feel more important.   As we come to the end of Lent, and move ever closer to Easter, let us strain with every part of our being to experience God’s presence more and more.  In our church business, in our everyday lives, in our worship together, and in our rest.  As we do this we will grow in faith and knowledge of God, and move step by step closer to the goal for which God has called us heavenward in Christ. 

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