I only preached on this passage back in October when I visited a church in another circuit and this was the Lectionary Gospel passage. Tomorrow I preach on it in a sermon series for Lent based on selected incidents from Holy Week.
One of my cousins married the daughter of a captain in the Army Catering Corps. The father of the bride said he would therefore organise the food at the reception. And so, on a cold February day, we trekked after the wedding ceremony to the barracks in Aldershot. As we arrived, the usual champagne flute glasses were offered, along with plates of vol au vents. As we ate these appetisers, we waited for the call to the main course.
It never came. The vol au vents were the meal.
Some of us later decamped to my aunt and uncle’s house, and to compensate for our hunger we ordered in fish and chips. Just as we were tucking in, there was a ring at the doorbell. In came the bride and groom. “Fish and chips?” they said, “Great! Can we have some?”
It wasn’t exactly the image of the wedding banquet that we expected. The nearest I have experienced to that was at another friend’s wedding where there was at least a full roast meal. However, as I went along with my plate taking my food, I was told by a member of the catering company, “Only two potatoes, sir.”
I can’t quite imagine God (or the king in the parable) throwing a banquet for his son where there was a strict rationing of the food. Although I have to say I harbour strange thoughts at communion services where we thank God at the end that we have had ‘a foretaste of the heavenly banquet prepared for all people’ when that ‘foretaste’ consists of no more than a miniscule square of white bread and a tiny sip of sweet wine. It is the merest of mere foretastes!
In the parable, I am sure the king is sending out invitations to a lavish banquet, just as I am sure that the wedding reception at Buckingham Palace last year for ‘Wills and Kate’ was rather more than a selection of ready meals from Asda. The invitation is to something generous, swish, and – in the best sense of the word – tempting. It is to come to the table of the abundant God. Oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered – the best of the herd have been prepared (verse 4). Nothing less will do.
The question arises, then, what will people do with an invitation to such a feast?
But in normal circumstances that seems such an easy question to answer. The shock in this parable – and I never tire of saying that we need to look for the shocks in the parables of Jesus – is what happens in response to the invitation.
In the first instance, the king sends his servants ‘to those who had been invited to tell them to come’ (verse 3). It sounds like this is a group of people who have already received an invitation. But the nature of the invitation is different from our culture. In our society, when we receive an invitation to a wedding, we are told the date and time as well as the location. But these people have not yet been told the date and the time. They have been invited more generally. Now the servants go with the word that the date and time have been set, and they are to attend.
I therefore take these people to be the ones who expect an invitation. Given that this parable occurs in the midst of the tension being racked up between Jesus and the religious establishment, I take it that these are the people in the firing line here. They are the people who would expect an invitation to the great messianic banquet of God’s kingdom. They are the people who would expect not only to be invited, but to be sitting in the places of the greatest honour. They are the people who consider themselves uniquely favoured by God. And yet they are the ones whom Jesus says have effectively trashed the invitation.
What had they done wrong? If we are talking about the Pharisees, we are considering a group who honoured the Scriptures and cared passionately about the holiness of God’s people. Yet this had distorted into the erection of barriers to decide who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. Conveniently, they themselves were ‘in’.
If we are talking about the chief priests and the teachers of the law, we are considering a social class who had ingratiated themselves with the ruling Romans in order to protect their own status. To do that, they had made their religion in their own image, to justify their actions. It’s not dissimilar from what many Christians do today. It’s remarkable how many Christians of a certain political persuasion think that Jesus would vote in a rather similar way to them. The Guardian carried an article about this very phenomenon at the beginning of this week, which even showed a photo of Argentinean football supporters holding a large photo of Jesus, who by sheer coincidence was wearing an Argentinean football shirt. Not that we would ever claim that God was a perfect English gentlemen. Oh, no. Not us.
These, then, are people who use God and religion to their own ends. If we use faith as a way of justifying ourselves and fortifying our own positions, rather than seeing it as bowing the knee to Jesus Christ as Lord, then we can be sure that Jesus sees us as one of those who have scorned the invitation to the great banquet. Because the way to accept is to confess Jesus Christ as Lord, in both word and deed. People who seem the most ‘religious’ may in fact be those least likely to follow Jesus. For ourselves, we need to ensure that we don’t substitute religion for discipleship, and that in sharing the Gospel we don’t just assume that the ‘nicest’ people will be more disposed than others to the Good News.
The second wave of invitations goes out. Rather than send his servants to the usual suspects, now the king commands them to ‘go to the street corners’ (verse 9) and invite anyone, whether ‘good or bad’ (verse 10). The implication of this for Jesus’ critics is scandalous. He wants to invite into the kingdom the very people who had been kept out by their rules. Those with a blemish. Those who didn’t fit. Those whose reputations brought shame rather than honour.
Applying this to us, no longer are we necessarily talking about taking the Gospel to the obvious candidates, to the people we think would have the most chance of fitting in with the church culture. One church I served appointed a married couple from another church as the cleaners. When this was done, somebody remarked that these people didn’t look like conventional churchgoers. The husband had long hair – even though he was in his fifties. They weren’t the most cultural of people. They were deeply working class. But the depth of faith this couple and their teenage daughter had shamed many established Christians. They had, as it were, come to the banquet from the street corners.
I have seen other people ostracised in churches who have had deeper faith than the clean, eloquent types who typically fill our pews. Not that there is anything wrong with being clean or eloquent, but too often we miss the fact that Jesus by his Spirit is going ahead of us to the street corners and wooing people we wouldn’t even think of with his grace and love. It’s our calling to join in with what the Holy Spirit is doing. As we do, we become the servants of the king, carrying the invitations to the great banquet.
Around the 1970s, when the so-called Church Growth Movement was at the height of its popularity, one of its most controversial beliefs was the idea that the best way to make churches grow numerically was to attract more people of similar social background. The idea was that people like to mix socially with others who are similar to them. Apply that to the church, and you have more chance of seeing growth. Many people criticised it, because the Gospel is not only about personal reconciliation with God in Christ, it is then also about reconciliation between human individuals and groups who would previously have shown animosity to each other. Not only that, it contradicted the teaching of this parable that involved taking the Gospel to people beyond the usual boundaries of those who normally embrace it.
Yet despite this, many churches persist who are monochrome. Same culture, same race, same economic background, similar interests, and so on. Yet the Gospel says that the banquet is not just for people like us. It is for all.
We’ve had two shocks so far. The expected guests at the wedding say ‘no’, and come under judgment, rather than blessing. Then, the invitation is extended to people you wouldn’t expect to be in attendance at the wedding banquet of the king’s son. It would be like the Queen throwing open the grounds of Buckingham Palace to the Occupy Movement.
But there is a third and final shock. A man turns up who is not wearing wedding clothes. Just as we dress up for weddings, so did people in the ancient Middle Eastern cultures. Furthermore, kings would provide wedding attire for their guests. This man has no excuse. In the words of a hymn we shall sing tonight at the ecumenical Lent service, ‘All are welcome in this place’. However, with the Gospel offer of grace comes in response the Gospel demand of discipleship. Does the man turn up for a free lunch? If so, he’s in for a shock. The Gospel is a free lunch – we are freely forgiven in Christ and have just to accept the gift by faith. But that free lunch is given us not only in love but also to build us up for the calling of discipleship.
The other day, somebody told me a story about not being allowed to go to Sunday School one week as a child because she was in her ‘play clothes’, not her ‘Sunday best’. This isn’t about the physical clothes we wear, it’s about being ‘clothed with Christ’. We are clothed in his righteousness that is our forgiveness and declares us to be in the right with God through his death in our place on the Cross. But we are also clothed in Christ in that we begin to take on his righteousness by the Holy Spirit. Our worship and gratitude in response to God’s free grace is shown as we actively co-operate with Christ’s work by his Spirit in our lives to make us new people, to make us more truly into the character that is fit to be at the king’s banquet. Of ourselves we are not fit to be there at all, and we only enter by grace. But we stay as we allow the Holy Spirit to transform us more into the image of the King’s Son.
You may be the sort of person who doesn’t notice that the clothes you have been wearing have become dirty, and it takes someone – perhaps a loved one – to point this out. Similarly, it is possible not to notice the bad habits or compromises that sneak into our lives. Someone may need to point them out lovingly to us. It may be our reading of the Scriptures or our participation in worship of fellowship groups that reveals the truth to us. However it happens, our calling is to be present at the wedding feast of the King’s Son when God’s kingdom comes in all its fullness. And for that reason, it’s time to dry clean our clothes, so to speak, to accept the invitation on Christ’s terms and to be part of taking his invitation to all who will receive it, whether they fit the commonly accepted stereotypes or not.
Friends, the wedding feast awaits. It’s time to get dressed.
One of my least favourite, but most necessary, possessions is the alarm clock. Without it, someone like me, who is constitutionally a night owl, would oversleep every morning. I cannot say I appreciate the insistent beeping that says, “Listen to me, I am so annoying. Just get up and switch me off.” While other people bounce out of bed, energised to meet the new day, I wish the god of sleep had not been dethroned for yet another day.
The apostle Paul wouldn’t have known about alarm clocks, but he describes Advent in a manner that is like seeing it as God’s alarm clock. It urgently tells us God’s time. It tells us that
our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed (verse 11)
The night is nearly over; the day is almost here (verse 12).
Advent is the season that tells us God’s time. It tells us not simply that Christ is coming in terms of his birth at Christmas, it tells us that he will one day appear again, this time not in obscurity but in glory.
In these terms, we might get nervous about Advent as an alarm clock. The thought that ‘our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed’ makes us think of those Christians who are forever predicting that Jesus will come again very soon. Their predictions always fail, and we are left with the Christian faith being discredited by what is either well-meaning error or cynical emotional blackmail. We want none of that. We know that Jesus said no-one knew when he was coming again.
But the basic truth which Paul elucidates here must be true: our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The fullness of God’s kingdom is closer. There is less time until the general resurrection of the dead, and God brings in his new heavens and new earth.
God wants to tell us his time. He will not tell us when Jesus is returning, but the fact that he is has an effect upon the way that we live the Christian life. With an alarm clock, there is no room for complacency. It rings or beeps incessantly, until we do something about it. And that is what God is doing at Advent. He is saying to us, this is no time to be lax about being a Christian. Rather, this is a time to be active, deliberate and full of intent as a follower of Jesus. Like the t-shirt slogan says, ‘Jesus is coming: better look busy!’
Telling the Advent time, then, is about living with a sense of urgency. Not frantic, not haunted or hunted, but urgent.
That’s all very well, but what does that mean? Paul calls us to two actions that we need to do when the alarm clock goes off. The first is to wake up:
The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber (verse 11).
In a service where we have already baptised Leo, ‘wake up’ may be a theme that provokes certain thoughts and emotions from Kim and Mark! While I hope that at two years old, Leo has long since established a sleep pattern, there are doubtless still plenty of occasions when his parents don’t need an alarm clock, because they are woken by his calling.
What does it mean to wake up when we discover the urgency of God’s time? Partly, it is about the urgency of which I spoke a moment ago. When we know that the grains of sand are trickling down through God’s timer, then we know we need to wake up and get on with things. The alarm clock says, if you don’t get on with things now, you’ll be late for work. And you don’t want that. The crying baby says, I have an urgent need. Come to me!
What kind of person is ‘awake’, according to Paul? It is one who is prepared for the end of the night and the breaking of the dawn. For Paul, the ‘night’ is the present evil age, the age of sin, which Christ came to conquer and redeem in the Cross. The ‘day’ that is ‘close at hand’ (verse 12) is the kingdom of God, where God reigns in love, justice and grace. If we have heard God’s Advent alarm clock, we want to be living as if it is daylight, not as if it is night.
So if I am to be ‘awake’ in the sight of God, I will be a person who embraces the kingdom of God. I will be someone who lives according to the values and principles of God’s coming age, even when they conflict with the darkness of the contemporary ‘night’ in which we find ourselves living.
Therefore, to live awake as if in God’s daytime is to live by love for God and for neighbour. To be awake in Christ is to live in a spirit that forswears revenge in favour of forgiveness. To live in the day means to show God’s special concern for the poor and the obscure, instead of the popular fantasies that prefer the wealthy, the powerful and the celebrities. To be awake in the kingdom of God is to live a life based on the fact that the most precious thing in all the world is to know that I am ‘loved with an everlasting love’ by Almighty God in Jesus Christ. I do not then take my significance or status from my job or my social standing: to do so is a vanity, compared with God’s love for me in Christ. To live as awake in the light of Christ is to know that God’s words are a light to my path, not to let the loud but passing fads of our culture steer our lives.
Advent, then, is a call to wake up to God’s time: that Jesus who came will come again. It means we need to wake up and live in God’s daylight. I’ve just suggested a few examples of what that will mean for us.
But to do so requires a determined attitude. When we wake up, there are various things we need to do in order to face what life has for us. One such thing is to get dressed, and that is the other thing Paul calls us to do here: get dressed. In fact, he says it twice, in slightly different language each time:
So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. (Verse 12)
Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 14).
‘Put on’; ‘clothe yourselves’. Get dressed. Wear on the one hand ‘the armour of light’ or on the other hand ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’. What are we to take from these images? I believe it’s something to do with the fact that to live according to the daylight of God’s kingdom rather than the night-time of the present age is going to take an effort. We need to be intentional about it – that is, it won’t just happen to us. The old slogan ‘let go and let God’ may be valuable in teaching us to trust God, but if we think we don’t have a responsibility for our actions, we’re tragically mistaken. We need to co-operate with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We shall live by his power, but we need to say ‘yes’ to walking in his ways.
We have all the resources of Jesus Christ, but we still need to ‘put him on’ – to be ‘clothed in Christ’. God shines his light, but we still need to ‘put on the armour of light’.
And perhaps ‘armour’ is a telling image for the clothing we wear. To wake up and live in God’s daytime is to accept not merely that we will live differently from the world. It is to accept that to do so will mean we need the protection of divine armour, because we shall find ourselves in a conflict, and sometimes under attack for doing so. The trouble with living by daylight is that light starts to shine into darkened places, and the darkness no more welcomes that than a dictatorship embraces dissidents. If we put on the armour of light, we are the dissidents of the world.
Think about it in relation to the examples I mentioned a minute or two ago: loving God and loving neighbour sounds attractive – after all Girl Guides promise to love God and do good – but while society will accept this up to a point, what our culture really wants to believe is that charity begins at home. In other words, we put ourselves first. Forgiving those who wrong us may get some admiring coverage for a while, but ultimately it’s a challenge to those who always need to find a scapegoat to blame for everything. Finding our status in the love of God rather than in our job or our social standing turns our society’s way of putting people in their place upside down. Favouring the poor and the marginalised may win you certain plaudits, but in the long run our economy can’t run that way, because it’s structured to thrive as much by our purchasing the things we don’t need as anything else.
It requires determination, then, to wake up and get dressed in the light of God’s time. Right now, Paul places us at the end of the night, as dawn is coming. Night is fleeing, the day is on its way. But his image breaks down, because he is imagining not a sequence where day follows night but a clash between night and day. If we live in God’s coming daylight, we shall be drawn into that conflict until the time of God’s final and ultimate triumph over the night. Sometimes, the forces of the night will inflict suffering on the armies of the day. That is to be expected for a community that was formed around the sinless Son of God who was crucified on false charges.
But … we are not merely the community of the Cross, but of the Empty Cross. We are the people of the Empty Tomb. We who are called to wake up and live in the light of God’s coming day are those who do so, knowing what the future holds. The final chapter of Revelation, the final book in the Bible, contains an image of God’s people in God’s new Jerusalem that is pertinent to our theme this morning. Revelation 22:5 says this:
There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
Friends, as the Advent alarm clock rings and we wake up, determined to get dressed and live in the light of God’s coming day regardless of the temporary presence of the remaining night, we do so knowing the future God has for us. Whatever the darkness does to us now, the Advent hope is not merely that the light of Christ comes into the world. It is that it will prevail.
Whatever the evidence looks like at times, when we commit our lives to following Jesus, we sign up with the winning side.
That’s the Advent hope.
Perhaps you know the old story of the vicar who visited a primary school where they were learning the Creed. The children lined up for the vicar and one by one recited a section. However, an embarrassing silence enveloped proceedings part-way through.
Eventually, one child blurted out an explanation. “I’m sorry, the boy who believes in the Holy Spirit isn’t here today.”
Is there sometimes an embarrassing silence about the Holy Spirit in our churches? That can be true in some traditional churches. Well has it been said that Catholics believe in Father, Son and Holy Mother, whereas Protestants believe in Father, Son and Holy Bible.
The reasons for embarrassed silence aren’t hard to find. Often, they can be put down to one word. Fear. The Holy Spirit? Or worse, the old name ‘the Holy Ghost’. It sounds spooky, if not frightening. On top of that, you get stories like this one in Acts 2 with the account of people speaking in tongues. In some circles, I have only to mention that and people get upset with me!
As a result, we either ignore or domesticate the Holy Spirit. When we domesticate the Spirit, we reduce his work to a bland coating of the mundane. It’s like cooking without spices or herbs.
What a tragedy. For Pentecost is one of the key events in God’s story of salvation, along with creation, the Incarnation and Easter. And while today I don’t have time to explore the particular anxieties many have around the specific issue of speaking in tongues, what I want to do in this sermon is explore the purposes of Pentecost.
Here’s the first purpose: Pentecost makes us more like Jesus. Let me give you some background in order to explain that. If you know your Bibles, you will know that Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles are both written by the same author (whom I take to be Luke himself) to the same recipient (a character otherwise unknown to us called Theophilus). Luke’s Gospel describes what Jesus began to do and teach; by implication, Acts is then Part Two of his story. In Acts, Jesus is still at work, but by the Holy Spirit through the Church.
In particular, there are parallels between some of the early episodes in Luke’s Gospel and those near the beginning of Acts. Both contain a promise that disciples will be ‘baptised with the Holy Spirit’. Then the Spirit comes down – upon Jesus at his baptism and upon the disciples at Pentecost. After that, there is a key sermon that explains what God is fulfilling – Jesus preaches at Nazareth, Peter preaches in Jerusalem after the Pentecostal outpouring. Then there is witness to people nearby.
Put that together, and what is Luke telling us? He’s showing the early disciples going through the same process as Jesus. Pentecost begins their empowered public ministry just as the baptism did for Jesus. By drawing these parallels, Luke is telling Theophilus – and us – that the Holy Spirit has come in order to make us ‘little Jesuses’. The Spirit has come to make our lives and ministries much more like that of Jesus.
How often is it we lament that our lives are nothing like Jesus at all? Quite frequently, I’d guess. As Christians, we want to be more like him, but much of the time we know how vast the distance is between the way we live and how he did on earth.
What failing or weakness do we lament in our Christian lives? Is it that, unlike Jesus, we struggle to display selfless, sacrificial love? The Holy Spirit is here to move us closer to the example of our Saviour. Is it that we have no assurance that our prayers are heard and answered? The Holy Spirit comes to move us in the right direction. Do we lack courage to share the love of God with others through our words and deeds? Again, the Holy Spirit comes upon us to remake us more in the image of Christ.
Let me put it another way, in order to underline this point. Many Jewish people celebrated Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, as a commemoration of when God gave his people the Law at Mount Sinai. God gave the Law after he had delivered his people from Egypt. It set out the ways they were to please him in gratitude for that deliverance. We too seek to please God out of gratitude for our deliverance (not from Egypt but from our sins). The Pentecostal gift of the Spirit is what enables us to please God. God has shown us the ways we might please him, but he has also given us his Spirit so we may have the power to do what delights him.
The second purpose is this: Pentecost is a taste of God’s kingdom. Let me introduce this thought with an illustration. Every now and again, we go into Chelmsford town centre on a Saturday as a family for various reasons. There is one stall among all the market stalls where we are almost guaranteed to stop every time. That is the fruit and vegetable stall. Apart from the fact that we enjoy buying some of their delicious fruit, they have samples available on a table by the stall. Usually they have cut up oranges and pineapples in the hope that passers-by will try some and then say, “Wow! I must buy some!” Regardless of whether we are going to buy any, our seven-year-old daughter Rebekah stops off for a little feast. In her eyes, the fruit samples are there purely as a public service.
Pentecost is like the opportunity to sample a taste of some fruit, too. The Jewish Feast of Weeks was a harvest festival. Not a full harvest festival like that celebrated at the end of the summer when all the crops have been brought in, but a festival of first fruits. When the first crops came in during late Spring, the people got a taste of what was to come three months or so later.
Pentecost, then, becomes the taste of what the fullness of God’s kingdom will be like, when God sends his angels to bring in the great harvest of the ages. Just as the Resurrection of Jesus is also described as the first fruits (of the great resurrection of all) and anticipates the day when God will make all things new, so too the gift of the Holy Spirit brings a foretaste of the new creation, when God will renew the heavens and the earth. Every sign of the Spirit’s work now, whether large or small, quiet or loud, private or public, is a taste of God’s fruit stall.
So when the Holy Spirit inspires us to care for the stranger, we taste God’s future. When the Spirit calls someone from the darkness of sin to the light of Jesus Christ, our taste buds anticipate the flavours of the kingdom. When the same Spirit does a work of healing in a life (be that physical, emotional, social or any other kind of healing), we glimpse the glorious future where there will be no more pain. When the Spirit leads God’s people to confront evil powers with a prophetic word of truth and justice, we taste the new society to come. When the Holy Spirit does his supreme work of revealing Jesus to people, we get a flavour of that time when we shall no longer know in part, but see him face to face.
Yes, it is frustrating and painful that not everyone is healed, not everyone responds to the call to follow Christ, and that powerful forces dish out injustice. We long for the great harvest of love, healing, righteousness and justice. But right now we are in the era of the first fruits. God calls us to welcome his Holy Spirit and co-operate with him, so that there may in the meantime be many more foretastes of his kingdom when he will rule unchallenged.
The third purpose I want to highlight is that Pentecost is about mission. Even though I take it not that the disciples spoke to the crowd in ‘other tongues’ but rather that the crowd overheard, what is clear is that the Holy Spirit crosses national and cultural boundaries so that people hear the praises of God in their own languages.
Now on one level, there is something almost unnecessary about this miracle. Although the Jews who heard were from different lands, these are almost certainly
‘not in the main … pilgrims [who had] come to Jerusalem from the Diaspora for the feast, but rather Diaspora Jews who had come to live or retire in Jerusalem, and no doubt would have attended some of the synagogues founded in Jerusalem by Diaspora Jews’
In other words, this is a group of people who could speak a common language together anyway, despite their different nationalities. They could understand Hebrew, the language of their faith. Why not just address them in Hebrew?
But the Holy Spirit takes the Gospel to them in the language of each of their cultures. They do not have to work within the language and culture of the established religion in order to hear the Good News.
For me, this is a vital approach in mission. One of the problems we have in church life is that we want to draw people into the community of faith, but we expect them to adapt to our ways of doing things and learn our jargon. We add unnecessary barriers to the acceptance of the Gospel.
This is not what the Holy Spirit does. Think about the ministry of Jesus himself in the Incarnation. He did not stand at a distance and expect people to come to him. Rather , he took on human flesh and dwelt in the midst of the people to whom he was sent. The Holy Spirit mirrors Jesus. He desires to take the Gospel to people where they are in a form they can understand.
That becomes the challenge for us. When we are filled with the Spirit, we shall not simply want to make more people who are Methodist or United Reformed like us. We shall want to establish new communities within the many cultures of our world, our nation, and even of our locality. That’s why ‘Fresh Expressions’ and all sorts of experiments in sharing the Gospel in culturally appropriate ways are at heart Spirit-led approaches to mission.
We should expect this. When Jesus told his followers they would be baptised with the Holy Spirit, he said the consequence would be that they would be his witnesses. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of mission. The disciples were to be witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, in Judea and all Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’. Again, the work of the Spirit is not in creating a church that waits for people to come to her on her terms. The Spirit makes us missional people who move out of our comfort zones into the places where those who need the love of God are comfortable. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we share the love of God in Christ in other people’s comfort zones, not our own. This is what Spirit-led people do.
In conclusion, then, we have every reason to welcome the Holy Spirit rather than fear him. Who wants to be more like Jesus? Let us welcome the Holy Spirit. Who is hungry for a taste of God’s coming kingdom? Let us invite the Holy Spirit to come. And who wants to share the love of Christ in word and deed in a needy world? The Holy Spirit is already at work, within us and going ahead of us. Let us seek more of his power.
Yes, come Holy Spirit.
 See Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, p128f.
 Although we’re not absolutely certain this was the case at this time – see Witherington, p131.
 Witherington, p135.
Have you given up anything for Lent? Some of my friends have denied themselves the usual chocolate. Another has started an annual practice of giving up Facebook.
But if you had asked this of my wife some years ago, she would have given you a strange look. She came to faith and had her early Christian formation in a Baptist church. When she met me, she found the practices of the Methodist Church strange. I must admit that as someone who has been in Methodism since the womb, I still find it strange!
And one practice Debbie had never encountered before was Lent. The day she asked me what Lent was, I couldn’t believe I was hearing what she said. Surely everybody knew what Lent was? It’s been part of my background all my life! Indeed, except for when Easter Day occurs on the very latest day in the year that it can, my birthday always falls within Lent. Thankfully, I’m allowed to feast on my birthday – according to my rules, anyway!
Now the reading from Philippians seems a good one for Lent. Not that the earliest Christians practised it, but it is a passage that explores the importance of self-discipline. Now while Debbie’s home church was lower than low – calling baptism and Holy Communion ordinances, not sacraments – I’m sure they too would have endorsed the importance of self-discipline in the Christian life. And at Lent or any other time, that is a critical part of our discipleship. It’s also – as we shall see – an area where we can be a counter-cultural witness in our world today.
Implicit in Paul’s teaching here are various core Christian reasons which provide the foundations for living a life of self-discipline to the glory of God. It’s those beliefs I want to explore today.
We begin at the Cross. Christians always have to begin at the Cross, and Paul does so here.
For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. (Verse 18)
Paul sees that a root cause of self-indulgence is not taking the Cross seriously. The Cross is not merely the place where I am forgiven – so that I can keep living however I like and then return for the next batch of forgiveness. The Cross is the model for our discipleship. What Paul teaches here is consistent with Jesus telling aspiring disciples to deny themselves, take up the Cross and follow him.
Christianity, then, is less about what I can get and more about what I can give. So much of our conversation, even in the Church, is peppered with the assumptions of consumerism. Does this church suit me? Did the worship feed me? Does it have what I need? It’s very me-centred. But the Cross says we have to take a different approach. And disciplines of self-denial and self-discipline are those which call us back to the Cross. They are not preventing ourselves becoming fat, they are about tuning ourselves into the wavelength of the Cross.
So a week ago, when there was a news story reporting the development of a new low-fat chocolate bar, where the fat particles are replaced with water, air or gels, the Daily Telegraph was wrong to call it the ‘Chocolate bar that can be eaten during Lent’. The point of self-denial isn’t about losing weight, it’s about a sign that we will walk the way of the Cross. As one person put it,
Lent is supposed to be concerned with spiritual discipline and self-denial, not a handy way of losing a bit of weight. If the new low-fat chocolate tastes as good as an old-fashioned one but doesn’t pile on the pounds, then where’s the self-denial?
So we approach Lenten disciplines of self-denial not as some kind of belated New Year’s Resolution to get ourselves in shape; we embrace them as a sign that we accept the Cross will shape the way we live.
The second Christian building-block in Paul’s teaching is worship. Hear verse 19 again:
Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.
‘Their god is their belly.’ Who do we worship when we are self-indulgent? Ourselves. This comment of Paul’s tests what we truly believe worship to be, because it’s a question of allegiance. Does my stomach deserve my ultimate allegiance? I need to feed it, but when it becomes my god, something has gone badly wrong.
This, then, is about how we understand worship. Much as I enjoy worship with a band, featuring a lot of contemporary songs, and other people love their hymns, how dangerous it is when we end up worshipping worship. And we forget what worship is. The main New Testament word translated ‘worship’ means ‘to move towards and kiss’. However, the ‘kiss’ envisaged is the ‘kiss of homage’, like that offered to a monarch, and even still kept in a symbolic and ceremonial way in our society when a new Prime Minister or bishop is appointed. They have to go to ‘the Palace’ to ‘kiss the hands’ of the sovereign.
Worship is not in the first place about the good feelings and the positive experiences. It is about declaring our allegiance to Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord or Lords. When we deny ourselves as a spiritual discipline, we do so not to torment ourselves but to affirm that God’s will comes first in our lives. We are to indulge his will, not our appetites. We ‘do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’, and so our worship is seen by taking God’s word seriously and putting it into practice as a priority. When we do that, our god is not our belly. Instead, we give ourselves in devotion and worship to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
As we come to our third and final foundation, you could say this is a question of past, present and future. A past event – the Cross – shapes our behaviour now. Our present activity – of worship – needs to be rightly directed to God. So thirdly and finally, that leaves a future component – the kingdom of God.
But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. (Verses 20-21)
Jesus is coming, says Paul, and our minds are set on him rather than ‘earthly things’ (the worship point again). But Paul goes further: what Jesus will do when he comes also leads us to consider our behaviour now. When Paul says, ‘He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory’, he is making a reference to the Resurrection. Jesus’ own ‘body of humiliation’ was transformed into a ‘body of glory’ in the Resurrection. You will remember that the risen Jesus was identifiably the same man who had been crucified (once the disciples’ eyes had been opened), but his body was also somehow different (remember how he appeared in their midst in a locked room, and how he disappeared from sight after the meal at the end of the Emmaus Road journey).
So, says Paul, we are in for transformation, too. When Jesus comes again and renews heaven and earth, he will raise us up and renew our bodies, just as his was. This will be an expression of his reign in his kingdom, for he will do it ‘by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself’ (verse 21b).
If you’ve followed me thus far, one thing you will understand is that our bodies matter to God. They are important to him. The great future of God’s kingdom is a physical one. The idea often trumpeted that our body is just a shell and that the real person is the invisible soul simply doesn’t match the New Testament’s teaching. Our bodies are part of God’s good creation. Yes, they are imperfect and they decay (what Paul calls here the ‘body of humiliation’) but God does not intend to discard them, he will renew them at the resurrection of the dead.
What does all this have to do with our Lent theme of self-denial? For one thing, it reminds us that self-denial is not about self-hatred. It is about self-discipline, and that’s a whole lot different. When we deny ourselves, we are not doing so in order to torture ourselves, like Filipino Christians being nailed to crosses as acts of devotion. It is more that we are training our body for better use in the service of God. It is why in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul uses the image of an athlete training to compete in the ancient Olympics. So too our self-denial is an act of training: we are getting ready for the Great Games themselves in the Kingdom of God.
In other words, self-denial is a positive action. It is about love for God and his ways. It is part of building for God’s kingdom.
In fact, it is something we practise in other areas of life. I remember one particular aspect of our marriage preparation. We sat in the lounge of the manse where the minister friend who was to marry us lived. I recall how awkward he felt about having to ask some of the standard questions to two people he knew. I was one of his circuit colleagues!
One question in particular stuck with me. he talked about the promises in the marriage service where the man and the woman say they will honour one another with their bodies. Now I guess many couples think that when they say, ‘With my body I thee worship’ or some modern equivalent, it is really a coy, veiled reference to sex. But our friend had a different take. He looked at me and said,
“Dave, how are you going to look after your body for Debbie’s sake?”
Well, as someone who has put on a stone in weight since marriage, it may well be I haven’t honoured that as well as I should have done!
But perhaps the point stands. And perhaps it helps us see that while we naturally accept we would deny ourselves for our loved ones, how much more we might do so for the love of our God?
In conclusion, I can’t tell anyone whether they should give up anything for Lent and if so, what. But I can invite us all to examine ourselves and ask, is my life being conformed to the Cross or are there areas where I need to deny myself in order to make that more true? I can invite us to look at who or what we worship, to see whether our priorities need correcting by self-denial. And I can put before us all the hope of resurrection to enquire whether we need to deny ourselves out of love for God and his ways, by building for his kingdom.
‘What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.’
Many of us think of Francis Bacon’s famous words when we read this account of Jesus before Pilate. But we have a problem: the Lectionary omits verse 38 where Pilate says, ‘What is truth?’ for reasons that are beyond me. Well, unless it is to do with the political correctness that afflicts the Lectionary in some places. Maybe Pilate has to be rehabilitated.
But aside from strange editorial decisions in the compilation of the Lectionary, this is a difficult passage, however familiar it seems. We read it today, because today, the Sunday before Advent, is the Feast of Christ the King, also known as Stir-Up Sunday, from the famous collect
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And hence Jane’s piece at the beginning of the service with the cake! If today were just about cake, we’d have few problems with it – maybe it would be suitable for Back To Church Sunday!
But the kingship of Jesus is a problem. It’s a problem throughout the Gospels, and it’s a particular problem here. The kingship of Jesus is a problem for everyone who encounters him. By considering how King Jesus is a problem for different people, we shall see how his kingship challenges us all.
Firstly, and obviously, King Jesus is a problem for Pilate. To return to Francis Bacon’s words, I don’t think he is ‘jesting Pilate’ at all. Pontius Pilate has a serious political problem here. As a Roman Governor, he is used to being able to throw his weight around, using the occupying army to subdue the locals. His trouble is that he has done it too heavily-handed once too often, having desecrated the Jerusalem Temple. The Jewish leaders had sent a deputation to Rome to protest, with the result that Pilate was on a final warning. However aggressive the Roman Empire was, they saw no need to cause what they believed to be unnecessary provocation in the lands they conquered.
So when the Jewish leaders hand Jesus over to him, Pilate has a big problem. Yet to be fair, he starts from a position of justice: ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ (verse 33); ‘What have you done?’ (verse 35)
Yet by the end of the interview, we know Pilate, like a politician today, will cave into compromise and short term expediency. Throughout the conversation, he can’t get a handle on who Jesus is. He doesn’t fit his categories. Because Pontius Pilate only understands one language: the language of politics. He’s expecting Jesus to be a revolutionary. Well, he is, but not in the sense Pilate expects: Jesus is no terrorist. Not only does Jesus’ lifestyle deny such an idea, he contradicts it in his reply:
‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ (Verse 36)
Some people seize on this as a sign that obeying the kingship of Jesus means we don’t get involved in politics. They quote it as ‘My kingdom is not of this world’. Therefore, they argue, since we are part of that kingdom, we should not get embroiled in dirty, everyday politics: that’s a different kingdom.
But what Jesus says is perhaps better rendered, ‘My kingship is not from this world’. He’s not advocating withdrawal from the world, he’s saying that he does things differently. His kingship comes from heaven, where justice is not established by force or violence. His kingship is therefore radically different from the tactics employed by Roman Emperors or Jewish Zealots.
Jesus doesn’t bail out of politics: it is about the common good, and he cares about that. But his kingship redraws how his disciples will get involved. They will do so peaceably, not forcefully.
What does that mean for us? Not all of us are directly involved in politics. Apart from anything else, I believe it means that if we live under the reign of King Jesus, we conduct ourselves in public in a peaceable way. We do not shout, scream, demand, manipulate and scheme. We speak up more for the poor and the voiceless than for ourselves. We do so passionately, but without aggression. Is that possible? Jesus managed it.
Secondly, King Jesus is a problem for the Jewish leaders. There’s a lot of reference in John’s Gospel to ‘the Jews’. Tragically, down the centuries some Christians (and others, such as Hitler) have used it to justify prejudice and violence against Jewish people.
However, John does not use ‘the Jews’ to mean the entire Jewish race at the time. He normally uses it to refer to a distinct group, and he is clearly aware of other people in the story – not least Jesus – who are also Jewish but are not included under ‘the Jews’. Mostly, it stands for the religious authorities who are in opposition to Jesus and his ministry. It is these people, designated ‘the Jews’, who have handed Jesus over to Pilate (verse 32).
What’s their problem? Simple. Jesus doesn’t fit their expectations. Jesus is at odds with most of the major groupings in the Judaism of his time. He won’t cosy up to the Roman authorities like the wealthy Sadducees and some of the priestly classes. He won’t use the Scriptures as a weapon to exclude people in the way the scribes and Pharisees do. He won’t retreat to a secluded, pure community like the Essenes. And as we’ve already noted, he rejects the violent revolution of the Zealots. He just doesn’t fit.
So what are you going to do with a misfit who keeps causing you trouble? You’ll try to get rid of him. The traditional Jewish punishment of stoning was still sometimes spontaneously used, as we see from the story of the woman caught in adultery . But around AD 30, Rome took away the Jewish right to execute someone. But it further suited the purposes of the religious establishment to have Jesus crucified, because then by being hung on a tree he would be subject to a curse, according to Deuteronomy. It’s sobering what lengths human beings will go to in order to exclude someone they regard as a misfit.
I’ve talked before in sermons about the way we wrongly fit Jesus into our own preferred image and can’t cope with the fact that he won’t be confined to it. Recently, I read something helpful that a friend posted on Facebook. Pam is an American Christian (a Methodist minister, in fact) who recently returned to the USA from the UK. She has obviously been listening to the famous American radio show ‘A Prairie Home Companion’, hosted by the author Garrison Keillor, author of the well-known series of books that began with ‘Lake Wobegon Days’. Keillor, a Christian of Lutheran and now Episcopalian background, tells fictionalised stories based on life in rural Minnesota. They often draw on his My friend Pam quoted a gem from a recent broadcast by Keillor:
Jesus came to earth and disappointed a lot of people.
When you follow Jesus, he will disappoint you. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were quickly disappointed by him. He won’t conform, and life with him will not always go the way we want it to. For he is king, and it is his rule that matters.
The question therefore comes, what will we do with our disappointment? Will we attempt to banish or exclude him, like the Jewish establishment of two thousand years ago? Or will we continue to follow him, mixing joy and disappointment? It’s a hard choice, but let’s remember that only those who continued with Jesus through disappointment got to see him in his risen glory.
Thirdly, King Jesus is a problem for us today. It’s simply this: even if Jesus radically reinterpets kingship into a peaceful form, it’s still a reworking based on a notion of kingship that has very little equivalent in our world today. We may still have a monarchy, but our Queen is meant to act on the advice of her ministers. Largely, therefore, she gives Royal Assent to Bills in Parliament that have been shaped by politicians. She retains certain powers, but they are much diminished. She is no absolute monarch. Long gone are the days when we spoke about ‘the divine right of kings’.
And in other cultures, the gap is even greater. How do you think about King Jesus when you live in a republic with a President as head of state? The American Christian author and speaker Brian McLaren has spoken of his cultural struggle with the biblical references to kingship and the kingdom of God. He suggests an alternative. We should refer to ‘the revolution of God’.
I think that’s helpful! If following King Jesus joins us up to the revolution of God, then one thing is certain: we are not in for a quiet, cosy time, at least not in the way some church communities seem to envisage. We are called instead to a dynamic, challenging, risky way of life.
A risk-free existence can look very attractive for a while. Although the fine line between risk-free and unbearably boring is easily crossed. But those who want risk-free should never become Christians. To follow Jesus means risking all to follow him. I was recently reminded that the Church of Scotland report ‘Church Without Walls’ says that the essence of church is ‘People with Jesus at the centre, travelling wherever Jesus takes us.’ The whole fresh expressions initiative is about allowing Jesus to take us to those whom our existing churches do not reach, and working with him, as he forms a new group of people, who are willing to go wherever he takes them. That inevitably involves risk.
Because that is the logical conclusion of the other two issues we have thought about. Risk. It will be risky to follow King Jesus in the ways I have suggested. People who campaign for the poor in public life and do so in a peaceable way may end up on crosses. People who are willing to keep following Jesus even through disappointments are not signing up for a safe and quiet life, even if they do live with the hope of resurrection. But we remember how Jesus finally answered Pilate:
‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ (Verse 37)
Nothing else is the way of truth.
 Richard Burridge, John (The People’s Bible Commentary), p215.
It has famously been said that women can’t read maps and men won’t ask for directions. Which means that if men are from Mars and women are from Venus, we’re all going to have trouble getting home!
Maps and directions: geography. I don’t know whether the word ‘geography’ brings bad memories back to you, in the way that ‘Maths’ or ‘PE’ do to some. I was OK at Geography, and got my O-Level, but I never really shone at it. Sadly, most of what I remember from school Geography lessons consists of the cruel tricks played by pupils on our teacher, who was blind.
On the other hand, Mark [our four-year-old] is already fascinated. He writes his own little books at home, which are full of references to the River Nile, the longest river in the world. I think I just need a sat-nav!
So why am I wittering on about Geography? Because it is important in the Gospels, and it has a particular rôle to play in this story. I’m going to use some geographical features of the reading to structure these thoughts. I think they’ll show this story has a slightly different meaning from the one we often take it to mean.
The Other Side
‘Let us go across to the other side,’ says Jesus (verse 35). Where is the other side? At this point, Jesus and his followers are on the western side of Lake Galilee, among villages where the people are good faithful Jews. ‘The other side’ is very different. You can get an idea if you know where Jesus and the disciples land in the story that immediately follows this one. They encounter the Gerasene demoniac, who lives among people who are pig farmers. Not exactly kosher Jews! Not only is the demoniac unclean, so are the general population. This whole area to the east of Galilee was one where Jewish people generally mixed and compromised their faith with alien influences from Greek culture.
Jesus is saying to his friends, “We can’t just stay among the people like us, those with whom we feel comfortable. We must move into other territory to advance the kingdom of God.”
And Jesus says the same to his twenty-first century friends. We too cannot stay just among the people we are comfortable with, because they are like us. We cannot spend all our time in church activities. If we are the community formed by God’s kingdom, then we have to leave our familiar places and go to our ‘other side’, wherever that may be. Insulation is not guaranteed in the life of faith.
Jesus calls us, then, not to spend every second of our lives on church matters. He calls us to mix with people not like us at all, with the intention of sharing God’s love in word and deed. They may not dress like us. They may have strange haircuts. They may hold beliefs we find dreadful. Their moral and ethical values may be far from ours, perhaps quite contrary. But Jesus died for each and every one of these people. We cannot stay in a church castle, protected by a moat and with the drawbridge up.
For Debbie and me, while we enjoy the company of those we mix with in the children’s primary school community, and while the great majority of the parents care deeply for their children and want only the best for them and others, we are also aware at other times that our values and beliefs are very different. We only know of one other Christian family represented in Rebekah’s class, and to date we know of none in Mark’s. But that’s good: it means we are in a missional context! It means we mix with people who don’t share our values about sexuality, with mothers whose children are all by different fathers. It means having to do with people who are heavily involved with questionable New Age and occult practices.
So while we share some things in common as fellow parents, obviously there are certain things that mark us out as different and leave us decidedly uneasy about the lifestyles of these friends. Yet this is our ‘other side’ at times. It is where God has led us and placed us as ‘the church dispersed’.
I believe each of us needs to know the ‘other side’ to which we are called. If we know our ‘other side’, all well and good. If not, then we need to listen, because Jesus is calling us into the boat with him and taking us somewhere beyond our usual boundaries on mission with him.
Here’s the next geographical feature, the storm on the lake. One commentator says:
The Sea of Galilee, surrounded by high mountains, is like a basin. Sudden violent storms on the sea are well known. Violent winds from the southwest enter the basin from the southern cleft and create a situation in which storm and calm succeed one another rapidly. Since the wind is nearly always stronger in the afternoon than in the morning or evening, fishing was done at night. But when a storm arises in the evening, it is all the more dangerous.
The storm was a natural, unsurprising event, yet a terrifying and life-threatening one. So it is that when we head for our ‘other side’ storms will blow up against us. The other day I was talking to a minister friend in another denomination. He said he had been at his church eight years, and was dedicated to seeing it transformed from a private religious club to a missionary agency. But he said that process was a painful one. Some people just didn’t want to be thrust out of their comfort zones and stirred up opposition.
Similarly, it’s not surprising when the Church moves into the public arena, that atheists and secularists complain, especially if we happen to be moving onto some of their cherished territory. They say that religion should be kept as a private matter. Some even try to use laws against Christians. Some Christians believe we’re seeing signs of that in some legislation in our nation today.
And it’s interesting to see how Jesus responds to the storm when he is woken from his peaceful slumber. Listen to the language of verse 39:
‘He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.’
Does rebuking the wind and telling the sea to be still sound familiar? Jesus is addressing this storm, this natural event, as if it were demonic. Rebukes and commands to be quiet are the language he used when expelling demons.
We should not be surprised if storms whip up in our lives, often consisting of natural but frightening events, when we decide to cross with Jesus to our ‘other side’ and engage in mission. We are joining battle against an enemy when we do so. He will not take it lying down. He will use church people, non-Christians and social events in attempts to discourage and intimidate us. To paraphrase the late John Wimber, our boat is not a cruise liner; it is a battleship. We can expect storms of opposition. But we must not cower in their face.
The storm is a natural event, as I said, but the language Jesus uses to still it (the stilling of such storms also being known as natural events in those days) suggests this natural event has been whipped up by demonic forces opposed to his mission with the disciples to a region of compromised allegiance to God.
Jesus stills such a storm. He commands it to be calm. Jesus acts with the cosmic authority that is his. This is a kingdom of God action. He brings the storm under the reign and purposes of God. The kingdom is at work here, not simply to make the disciples’ lives easier, but so that the kingdom may advance when Jesus and the disciples land on ‘the other side’.
Jesus has himself been calm,
sleeping in the stern upon the pillow that was customarily kept under the coxswain’s seat for those who were not involved in the actual sailing or fishing.
In other words, Jesus commands the storm to be calm as he himself is calm. He brings the storm into line with his own person and character. That is what it means to bring something or someone under the kingdom of God. Jesus brings people and circumstances into his orbit, influence and likeness.
And when you put it like that, you see why his rebuke doesn’t stop with the storm. It extends to the disciples:
He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ (Verse 40)
As the calm Jesus makes the storm calm, so he seeks calm in his disciples. Prior to this incident they have sat as privileged insiders with Jesus. He has told parable after parable, leaving them as enigmatic stories for the crowds, but he has explained them to this inner circle.
Yet they still don’t get it.
‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ they ask in verse 41.
And as Jesus sovereignly deals with the storms that oppose our early sorties into mission, so he commands calm in our lives. For he calls us to understand more of who he is in the face of the forces arrayed against us, and thus trust him.
My problem is I’m all to like those first disciples. In a difficult situation, faith tells me Jesus is in control and reason tells me my worst fears won’t materialise. But my body doesn’t listen. My pulse and blood pressure increase. I end up getting value for money from the National Health Service.
Like those earliest followers, I am on a long journey to the calm Jesus wants me to have. Maybe it’s not enough simply to have accepted intellectually that God is in control of events. I need to feed my mind with that truth. I need to meditate upon it. I need to share with other people of faith.
In short, I need to ensure I am on a journey of increasing faith. Jesus is calling me – and all of us – over to another side where we shall be his witnesses. Getting there will mean negotiating the storms of opposition, and for that we would do well to have the serenity that comes from trusting that Christ is ruling over all that happens, whether good or bad.
One of the early Christian symbols for the Church was a boat. You can see ancient drawings where the Church is represented as a boat. That idea is taken from this passage. When the Early Church set out on her task of Christian witness, she frequently encountered the storms of persecution for her faith. But they knew Jesus was asleep in the stern with them, and all would be under his sovereign care.
And perhaps you see now why I said at the beginning that we might end up with a slightly different application of this story from normal. We have often taken this story as an example of how Jesus will calm all sorts of storms in our lives, and I don’t want to deny he does that. Yet the primary application in the passage seems to be connected with mission. Jesus has a specific interest in conquering the fierce opposition to his church’s engagement with mission, and in calming his followers through a growing faith.
Knowing that, are we ready to venture across to our ‘other side’?
 William L Lane, The Gospel Of Mark, p 175.
 Ibid., p 175f.
How many people have you come across who seem to have a one-track mind? At secondary school, plenty of the boys had one-track minds: they only thought about girls!
And there are preachers with one-track minds, too. Whatever passage they take, their sermons keep coming back to the same subject. Somebody once parodied them by rewriting the hymn ‘Come, let us join our cheerful songs’. When it came to the lines, ‘Ten thousand thousand are their songs but all their joys are one’, he said, ‘Ten thousand thousand are their texts, but all their sermons one.’
Jesus has a one-track mind.
At least, he has when you read Matthew, Mark and Luke. He has a one-track mind for the kingdom of God. You certainly get that here in Mark 4. It is Mark’s great ‘parables of the kingdom’ chapter. We have heard extensively about the Parable of the Sower, along with Jesus’ philosophy of parables. Here, we have the Parable of the Growing Seed and the Parable of the Mustard Seed – two more that use agricultural images from his day to speak about God’s kingdom. He only speaks in this elusive way to the crowds – all they get is enigma. Only the disciples receive explanations.
For this morning, I’m just going to concentrate on the first parable in our reading, the Parable of the Growing Seed. It moves in three phases: sowing, growing and – this doesn’t rhyme – harvest. What do these tell us about Jesus’ one-track mind subject, the kingdom of God?
‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground’ (verse 26).
In my last appointment, I used to belong to a group of ministers that met monthly to support one another. When we worshipped together, one of our favourite songs was Paul Oakley’s ‘Jesus, lover of my soul’. One reason that song was important to us was these words:
It’s all about You, Jesus
And all this is for You,
For Your glory and Your fame
It’s not about me
As if You should do things my way
You alone are God,
And I surrender to Your ways
It’s all about you, Jesus. Not about us. A sin church leaders fall into all too readily!
And the sowing of God’s kingdom is all about Jesus, too. The Old Testament often speaks about God as king of his people, but when Jesus comes he announces that the kingdom of God is near. The kingdom is among people, because he has come. The sowing of the kingdom is the sowing of Jesus’ life. The sowing is his incarnation, obedience, teaching, death, resurrection and ascension. In all these, we see close at hand that God reigns.
Yes, when the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary to bring about her miraculous pregnancy, that is the reign of God. When Jesus follows the will of the Father, that is the kingdom. When Jesus proclaims the message and demonstrates it in works of power, that is God’s kingdom at work. When he dies for the sins of the world, that is not the victory of evil but the kingdom conquest of sin. When he is raised from the dead, God’s kingdom triumphs over death. When Jesus ascends to the Father’s right hand, he is reigning on high – it’s the kingdom.
What does this mean for us? The primary sowing has been done. We get to do a secondary sowing of God’s kingdom. Whenever we obey the will of God, we sow the kingdom. Whenever we share the love of God in Christ for people by our words or our deeds, again we sow God’s kingdom in the world. Anything we say or do to point people in the direction of God’s reign over creation is a sowing of the kingdom. Any action that is in harmony with God’s purposes does the same thing.
In other words, Jesus calls us to spend our lives intentionally sowing the kingdom of God. It is not simply when we sing of his kingship on Sunday morning. It is tomorrow morning at work or in the community, when we are the people known to be those who care for the hurting, and who by sacrificial service earn the right to speak about Jesus to people. Tomorrow, we spend time sowing the kingdom as we seek the power of the Holy Spirit to live like Jesus.
‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.’ (Verses 26-28, italics verses 27-28 mine)
It grows, and the sower doesn’t know how! I find that very helpful for interpreting some of my own experiences in the life of faith.
A few years ago, I had to take charge of a church temporarily when its minister was removed for disciplinary reasons and look after them until a new permanent minister arrived. Within days, I was called to visit a couple. It was Good Friday, and the husband was dying. As far as I am concerned, I simply visited, stayed with them, listened to what the wife had to say and led a prayer before leaving. On Easter Monday, the husband died. I visited again, took the funeral, and so on.
It was nothing remarkable in my eyes. In fact, I looked back and thought I could have done more. But not in the eyes of the widow. Cynthia told others in the church that I had greatly helped her through her bereavement. I can’t understand why she thought that.
Similarly, it has often been the sermons I have thought to be my weakest, or certainly the ones I have found to be the biggest struggle in preparing, that have had the most positive responses from congregations. It doesn’t make sense to me.
Well – it doesn’t make sense to me unless Jesus is onto something here. The sower in the parable sows the seed, but the growth happens without any fancy strategies. Off goes the sower to bed, and the seed gets on with growing from the earth. Jesus doesn’t need our cleverness. He doesn’t need our fancy programmes of action. Nor does he need our techniques. And he certainly doesn’t need us to manipulate people if the kingdom of God is to grow.
How does the growth happen, then? We simply get on with our obedience, however quiet and unflashy, and we depend on the Holy Spirit to bring growth. We obey, the Spirit grows the kingdom, not us.
The Apostle Paul said something very similar, when he was discouraging the immature Christians at Corinth from pursuing a personality cult:
‘What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.’ (1 Corinthians 3:5-7)
We plant (that is, we sow – as already described). And we water (that is, we find out what God is doing and join in with it). The growth comes from God, not us.
If that’s the case, then we know both the extent and the limit of our responsibilities in the kingdom of God. The extent of our responsibility is that we are called to faithful obedience to Jesus Christ. We are junior partners in co-operation with the Holy Spirit.
But we are junior partners only. We are responsible for our obedience, but the Holy Spirit is responsible for the kingdom of God’s growth. So let’s get on with obeying Christ, calling on the Holy Spirit to make the kingdom grow.
Here’s how the parable concludes:
‘But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’ (Verse 29)
What happens at a harvest? Why would the harvester use a sickle? When the growing season has come to a conclusion at the end of the summer, the farmer needs to bring the crop that has grown into the barns, separating it from other things that are burned. No longer do wheat and chaff mingle: they go to different destinations.
The harvest of God’s kingdom, then, involves both blessing and judgment. For all that is good, all that have grown in grace and in the knowledge and love of God and Christ, there is blessing. But for those who have sought to strangle the work of the kingdom, all who have been apathetic to the claims of Christ, there is only eternal separation from God’s pure love to contemplate.
This may not be a popular claim to make today, but it is clearly present in the imagery of the parable. Furthermore, Jesus seems to be building on the language of the prophet Joel, who used the picture of a sickle as a way of talking about God’s judgment on the Day of the Lord.
So it’s good news for the fire and brimstone brigade, isn’t it? Those who shout at us in the street, warning us of the coming judgment – they’ve got it right. Haven’t they?
Actually, no. This judgment is in the future, not the present, and it is the prerogative of God, not us. Like everyone else, we shall stand before Christ, dependent upon the mercy of God, a mercy we have found in the Cross, not our own superiority.
I was thinking about this yesterday, when the July 2009 issue of Christianity magazine came through my letterbox. The first column I read every month is the one by Jeff Lucas, and in his piece this month he had this to say:
‘… we followers of Jesus can become holy meddlers on a crusade to sort people out. We (who are so unsorted ourselves) can be quick on the draw with natty little ‘answers’ that are little more than slogans. Instead of just shutting up and listening, we rush to dispense our occasionally silly solutions. I know that the Bible encourages us to nudge and even rebuke each other so that we won’t be caught in insane and life-vandalising sins; but surely that doesn’t mean that today is yet another opportunity to run around looking for people to sort out, pronto.’
God will judge. His main judgment will be in the future. We are not to judge. This is not to eliminate the need for the Church to speak out on all sorts of social evils and to campaign against them. However, it is to say that whenever we need to do so, we must remember that we are sinners saved by grace, not a self-righteous cavalry riding over the hill to rescue poor old God.
Where does this leave the followers of Jesus when it comes to the development of God’s kingdom, then?
We begin by remembering that Jesus has sown the kingdom of God; we are secondary sowers of the word today.
Secondly, sowers are not growers: it is the Holy Spirit’s responsibility to grow the kingdom. Our calling is to the life of obedient faith, also by the power of the Spirit.
Finally, there will be a harvest of judgment where righteousness will prevail and evil will be destroyed. But vengeance is not ours. God will judge. We are his witnesses.
Truly, our calling in God’s kingdom is be junior partners with the Holy Spirit. Yes: junior partners.
What kind of book is the Bible? Some see it is a book as rules. Others say it is God’s love letter to us.
Me, I see it increasingly as the story of God’s mission. (Which means that any rules tell us what pleases the God who loves us and has saved us. And which means that if it is a love letter, it is addressed to the world, not just God’s favoured ones.)
No, right from the beginning, God is on mission. And he is on mission in a particular way. God does not shout from a distance, expecting us to come where he is. From the start, he comes onto our territory. He is the first missionary, coming walking in the Garden of Eden, calling out, ‘Where are you, Adam?’ In the Incarnation, Jesus is ‘the Word … made flesh [who] dwelt among us’. In this parable, the landowner keeps going to where the workers are, rather than expecting them to turn up at his vineyard.
So God is a missional God, and this sermon attempts to explore some characteristics of our missional God.
The missional God is the sovereign God. ‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?’ he says to those who complain (verse 15a).
What do we mean when we talk about God being sovereign? Some of us get nervous, because we know how this has been used in history. In the Calvinist tradition, affirming the sovereign God has been used to advance the idea that God chooses some people to be saved and others to be damned. That’s not what I mean.
The sovereign God can do what he chooses, but what does he choose to do? It will be consistent with his character. The sovereign God wants his reign to be accepted everywhere, and so he reaches out to all. If he is truly sovereign, then he wants that reign to be embraced universally. Not all will accept the summons to his kingdom. Some will resist and face eternity without him. But it is his will that none should perish. And so, just as the landowner in the parable keeps going back to hire more labourers, so God keeps searching for more people who will turn from their former ways to follow his Son.
What does this mean for us? We are called to share in God’s mission. If God wants his reign to be embraced by all people in all places, then this is fundamental to the nature of the Church. Christianity is a missionary faith. Mission is not something we leave to those who are keen. It is something for all of us.
Yesterday, I was at Synod. The President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference were with us. Our current President, Stephen Poxon, is Chair of the North Lancashire District. His District has twinned with three overseas Methodist Conferences. One of them is the Methodist Church in Uruguay. There are only six hundred Methodists in Uruguay, spread across twenty-five congregations. A Uruguayan Methodist visiting the UK said to Stephen Poxon, ‘There’s something I don’t understand about British Methodism. Back home, every single Methodist church has a community project. Why isn’t that so in British Methodist churches?’
I think that Uruguayan Methodist had a point. If the missional God wants to see his sovereignty acknowledged everywhere, then mission has to be our top priority, even our defining characteristic as the church.
Some of the famous quotes from the last century really come into their own here – like when William Temple said the church was the only organisation that existed for the benefit of those who weren’t its members. Or when the theologian Emil Brunner said that the church exists by mission as fire exists by burning. We are a missionary church, or we are no church at all. That much is certain if the missional God is sovereign.
The missional God is generous. ‘Or are you envious because I am generous?’ he says to the moaners (verse 15b).
What does it mean for the missional God to be generous? In the parable, it’s quite clear. He has promised a day’s wages to everyone who comes and works for him. The surprise comes at the end when he gives just as much to those who have worked for less than a day. He doesn’t give them what they’ve earned – which wouldn’t be enough to live on – but what they need – namely the rate for a whole day.
On the surface, this makes it sound like God is a socialist: ‘From each according to their means, to each according to their needs.’ But capitalists like this parable too, because the landowner is free to do what he likes with his wealth. Jesus didn’t tell this parable in order for people to fit it into the political philosophies that would come two thousand years after his hearers.
No, the Gospel is a message of divine generosity. All we need for salvation has been provided for us in Christ. In his Incarnation, he lived our life. In his death, he took away the sins of the world. In his Resurrection, he began God’s New Creation. We have everything we need in Christ. It has been generously provided in Christ, at immense personal cost.
God is on a mission to share his generous love. We are called to share the message of divine generosity to all people. But here’s the issue: the spirit of the message needs to fit the content of the message. So a message of God’s generosity needs to be couched in a generous spirit.
However, is that how we are perceived by non-Christians? One thing the Vice-President of Conference said at yesterday’s Synod was this. He talked about having visited the Greenbelt Festival for the first time. While he was there, he encountered a seminar led by a cross-party group of Christian MPs. Together, they explained to their sorrow that in Parliament the Christian Church is generally assumed to be a critical organisation. We are known far more for what we are against than for what we favour.
Might it be that if we want to encourage people to embrace the generous love of God, we need to adopt a generous attitude towards them? Debbie and I try to get involved in the community that centres around our children’s primary school. We have tried to befriend two or three single mums, who have each had two children by different fathers, and they have not married the fathers. Then there are two families where the husband and wife have recently split up. In one case, we can understand why the wife kicked the husband out. In the other case, we can’t. But we have tried to be available and demonstrate Christian love to them.
There are some Christians who think the first thing we should have done was condemn sex outside marriage and divorce in these cases. I want to make clear that Debbie and I believe very strongly in the sanctity of marriage. There is a time and a place for talking about right and wrong. But how will people have a chance of believing in a generous God if we do not offer a generous spirit towards them? Believing that our missional God is generous calls all Christians to undertake acts of selfless, sacrificial and unconditional love in the name of Christ for those yet to discover his love.
Our missional God is merciful: ‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’ (verse 16)
Mercy is at the heart of the Gospel message. It is a message of God’s loving mercy for sinners. In Christ and Christ alone we have the forgiveness of sins and new life. Such is the mercy of God that he sends his Church everywhere in his Name to proclaim and demonstrate the mercy he longs to extend to all.
I expect we’re all used to speaking about the mercy of God like that. But when Jesus has the landowner say that the last will be first and the first will be last, the culture of mercy is extended further. That mercy is so fundamental to God’s kingdom that notions of order and rank are outlawed. One commentator on the parables puts it this way:
‘Earlier Jesus taught that there are degrees of punishment in hell (Lk 12:47-48); now he makes plain that there are no degrees of reward in heaven. The perfection of the life to come, by definition, does not allow for them.’
No superiority, no rank in the kingdom: we all need the mercy of God in Christ to enter the kingdom of heaven. The idea that because I am a minister I am more important is anathema to the Gospel. I should not expect to sit at the front of church like some worldly dignitary.
The early Church recognised this radical application of the Gospel: they even elevated slaves to the rank of bishop. They did not care for the world’s way of status. The Good News changed all that. Sometimes I see it in today’s Church, other times I don’t.
What does this have to do with mission? When we are obsessed with title or power, we start valuing some people less than others. While there may be certain ways in which the older approaches to rank and status are passing away today – such as the decline in respect for the Royal Family – other forms of the problem rise up to take its place. So we have an obsession with celebrity that seems to be about the kind of people our culture claims to be more important than others.
Now giving people differing value undermines the Gospel. God’s love in Christ is every bit as much for the least and the lowest as it is for the most and the highest. A true proclamation and living-out of the Gospel will have nothing to do with mimicking the world’s love of status. Nor will it fall into that contemporary trap, the making of Christian celebrities.
Rather, it will be counter-cultural. God loves all people, and that means he loves the poor and the obscure every bit as much as the rich and the famous. The Gospel is for our neighbours and the poor of the world.
One last example from yesterday’s Synod. Stephanie and I attended a workshop about mission opportunities in schools. It was led by a young woman from the Luton Churches’ Education Trust. Forty churches in Luton support this trust. It employs over twenty staff to work in secondary schools and with local teenagers. They don’t just do the normal schools work of RE lessons and assemblies. They also work with the sort of young people who are shunned or despised – those with ADHD, or who self-harm. As far as they were concerned, these children were as valuable as the gifted ones with the A* grades. That makes Gospel sense.
This parable leaves us in no doubt that God’s heart beats a missionary rhythm. If we are truly to be the Church of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, then mission will define what we are about. We shall have a passion to take the Gospel everywhere. We shall proclaim God’s generous love in Christ with a generous spirit. And God’s mercy for all will mean we are as interested in sharing that love with the broken as with the headline-makers.
I nearly included today’s Old Testament lesson from Jonah in the service. It’s the part of Jonah’s story where he complains to God that the sinners of Nineveh have repented at the sound of his preaching, and received the grace of God. If we have the heart of Christ, then may we not be moaners like Jonah. May we be people who rejoice when the missing find their way back to God. And may we press on with the Gospel, that there may be many more occasions for such rejoicing.