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Sermon: Affirming Hope In Conflict

Conflict (Chess)

Conflict (Chess II) by Cristian V on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ephesians 4:15-16

You may know the story of a question set in a training examination for police recruits:

‘You are on the beat and you see two dogs fighting. The dogs knock a baby out of its pram, causing a car to swerve off the road, smashing into a grocer’s shop. A pedestrian is severely injured, but during the confusion a woman’s bag is snatched, a crowd of onlookers chase after the thief and, in the huge build-up of traffic, the ambulance is blocked from the victim of the crash.

‘State, in order of priority, your course of action.’

One recruit wrote, ‘Take off uniform and mingle with crowd.’[1]

Which direction do you walk in when there is conflict? Do you walk towards it, or do you – like the police recruit – behave like Jesus really said, ‘Go out into the world, shut up and keep your heads down’[2]?

Perhaps you want to avoid conflict, because you see the potential it has to be destructive. And so our theme this week is about how we can affirm hope in conflict. Because if we come through conflict healthily, it can be constructive, it can result in growth.

So how can we approach conflict in hope?

Firstly, we can have a hopeful attitude to conflict by looking to our future goal. Hope is about what the future will hold, so if we can envisage a future goal and work towards it through conflict, that will help.

And – surprise, surprise – Paul has that in mind in Ephesians 4. It’s about unity, one of the things we fear will be a casualty of conflict. He starts the chapter with the fact that God has already given us unity in Christ, and he looks for us to maintain and build that unity. So the unity that is already given is present in all the ‘one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all’ language (verses 4-6), but he also calls us to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (verse 3, italics mine). By the end of the passage, he is talking about us as one body, where every part does its work together in love (verses 15-16).

Our goal, then, is unity. We have been given and entrusted a basic unity of the Spirit in Christ, but it is our duty to live out the unity we have been given.

What does that mean for us when conflict arises? It means we engage in the humility, gentleness and patience that Paul writes about (verse 2). None of these qualities is about compromising our convictions – humility doesn’t simply mean lying down, rolling over and saying to the other person, “Well of course I was wrong, you are right.” It does mean we bring a certain attitude of heart and mind to the discussion, where we value the worth of the person we disagree with, where we do not shoot them down on the assumption that we are always right and they are always wrong. It means we treat those we disagree with as people who – like us – are made in the image of God, and so should be treated with dignity, love and respect, however much we may genuinely believe they are in the wrong. If we only see conflict as a battle to win, we shall end up with disunity. But if our goal is to resolve our differences honestly and become more united, then we shall bring humility, gentleness and patience to the table. Again, this does not mean we walk away from conflict or pretend it isn’t happening, because those strategies just perpetuate the open wound. But we hold our convictions with a Christ-like heart.

So – to those of you whose natural instinct is to charge into conflict aggressively, I say – by all means don’t duck the conflict, but do take a step back before you get involved in order to check your heart. Please make sure you are entering the fray with humility, gentleness and patience.

And to those of you who find conflict stressful and who would rather duck out, I say – your gifts are needed in order to heal the tensions. You do not need to be afraid of voicing your beliefs, there is an important place for those who would put their point across quietly. We need to hear you, too, and remember that assertiveness is not about being belligerent, it is simply about being able to state your position, your desires and your needs. That truly can be done in a Christ-like way.

There is a second future goal in Ephesians 4, and it is maturity. Listen again to the final three verses of the reading, and note the references to growing up:

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

From infants to a mature body. That is our goal. How often is it that among a group of people who are physically grown up, the level of behaviour when it comes to working through conflict is nothing less than childish? Too often I have come across actions in churches by adults that amount to more than “It’s my ball, I’m taking it home and you’re not playing.”

So what makes for maturity, according to Paul? His answer would appear to be, getting stuck into Christian service. Tracing back the few verses before these, maturity in the church comes from his people learning to serve, and that’s what leaders are about. Immaturity comes when people just say, “Feed me, feed me, I’m not being fed,” and they complain and spread disgruntlement. It’s no good treating Sunday morning as once-a-week spiritual feeding station, then just going away until next week. That’s a consumer mentality that thinks everything we like must be laid on for us, and we should get something for what we pay. Such an attitude knows little or nothing of the Gospel, and it therefore causes strife in the church by its moaning and bleating.

If we are to be hopeful, then, about conflict, we shall see that one of the ways we can become a more mature, grown-up fellowship is by committing ourselves to serve Christ by serving one another and serving the world. That way, we become less me-centred and more God-centred and other-centred. This takes us away from the complaining state of mind that inevitably follows from a mentality that expects everything in the church to be provided on a plate for me. Too often, the problems we deal with are caused when someone moans that the church in some way let her down, when she has not been cultivating an attitude of service herself.

You see, we are not just shaped as people by what we think: we are shaped by our desires and by our actions. And even if we do not currently desire to serve, we should begin serving, because eventually such action will affect our desires and our attitudes towards others.

Thirdly and finally, although I have touched on some practical action as we have considered how our hopes shape us, there is a particular course of action to which Paul calls us to aspire in our desire to grow into maturity. And yes, it comes in those words of his that have become a hackneyed expression in Christian circles: speaking the truth in love (verse 15). This, he says, helps us grow.

But ‘speaking the truth in love’ is difficult. Some of us are better at truth than love, and so we go up to someone and offer ‘a word in love’, which turns out to be cover for negative criticism. Others of us are better at love than truth, and we use love as a justification to avoid a conflict when one is actually needed.

How, then, can we break the impasse? Let me offer a suggestion. While the context and other uses of the word almost certainly refer to ‘speaking the truth in love’, the literal translation here is, ‘truthing in love’[3]. In general, there is not simply an obligation upon Christians simply to speak the truth but to live the truth. Some of our problems are caused by barstool Prime Ministers who love to criticise but do little to live out the Gospel. We need fewer pontificators and more practitioners. When we are devoted to practising the Gospel life – to ‘truthing in love’ – our hearts become softened by grace. We are aware of how much we need the mercy of God, and this affects the way we approach others.

Naturally, it will also bring us into greater connection with the holiness of God, and this will alert us to many things that are wrong with the church and the world. But before that happens, the holiness of God will expose what is wrong with us.

Equally, for those of us who are too nervous to confront an issue and prefer to pretend it’s not a problem at all, living the truth leads us into a greater courage so that we can bring problems out of the darkness into the light where they can be dealt with healthily.

Unity, maturity, truthing in love – yes, we do actually have cause for hope in the face of conflict.

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Sermon: Suffering And Faith

Psalm 130

The pastor of a Christian Science church was talking to a member of his congregation. ‘And how is your husband today?’

‘I’m afraid he’s very ill.’

‘No, no,’ corrected the pastor, you really shouldn’t say that – you should say that he’s under the impression that he’s very ill.’

The woman nodded meekly. ‘Yes, pastor, I’ll remember next time.’

A few weeks later, the pastor saw her again.

‘And how is your husband at the moment?’

‘Well, pastor,’ she replied, ‘he’s under the impression that he’s dead.’[1]

It isn’t long in life before a bright beginning is touched by suffering. A child is born, and discovers pain. Even Prince George will find that out. A wedding and honeymoon is followed by the reality of each partner’s frailties. Someone is converted to Christ, but then learns it isn’t a rose garden.

Meanwhile, we have people who want to play pretend about suffering. They want to act as if it doesn’t exist, or they demand it be magically removed from existence in an instant. Maybe they even try to get round it in a religious way by saying that the body doesn’t matter, it is only a shell for the real person. That isn’t a view you can take while still believing in the New Testament, with its strong emphasis on the resurrection of the body.

The first thing our Psalm of Ascent this week does is be frank about the reality of suffering.

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
    Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy. (Verses 1-2)

The Scriptures do not get into philosophical discussions about the existence of suffering and belief in a good and powerful God. They simply enter the story of suffering, and describe that narrative. Our Psalmist here is in deep suffering – he cries ‘out of the depths’. While there are great accounts of deliverance from suffering in the Bible – the Exodus, the healing miracles, and so on – we are not presented with faith as a ‘Get out of jail free’ card. Faith enters human suffering.

Henri Nouwen (1981?) at his apartment in New Haven

Henri Nouwen (1981?) at his apartment in New Haven (Photo credit: jimforest)

And so, before anything else, simplistic and obvious as it might sound to some of us, we need to embrace the reality of suffering and stop playing games. Henri Nouwen wrote,

Many people suffer because of the false suppositions on which they have based their lives. That supposition is that there should be no fear or loneliness, no confusion or doubt. But these sufferings can only be dealt with creatively when they are understood as wounds integral to our human condition. Therefore ministry is a very confronting service. it does not allow people to live with illusions of immortality and wholeness. It keeps reminding others that they are mortal and broken, but also that with the recognition of this condition, liberation starts.[2]

Are there areas where any of us is pretending? Are there times when – much as we believe that God heals – he is in truth going to take us the long route to wholeness? We like to believe that if God works a miracle it will be a great testimony, and it certainly can be. However, are there times when we say that, but what we really want is a short cut out of our personal difficulties rather than the testimony? Could it be that God will also bring glory to his name when he takes us on what seem to be detours rather than the direct route?

For me, that was true in one particular instance. In my first year at theological college, I suffered a collapsed lung. My lung had previously collapsed three times a few years earlier, and I had only avoided surgery then when the consultant was inconveniently on holiday. But on the weekend when it happened to me at college, the father of a student friend was visiting. My friend’s Dad was known for having a healing ministry. Surely he would pray for me and I would be healed. But he had left to go home a few minutes before I got back from A and E. This time, I had to have the operation. It meant a week and a half in hospital, a month’s convalescence at home, and three months before I was back to anything like full strength. But God used that experience so that when I visit people in hospital, I have a way of identifying with them and a reason to bring them a word of hope.

That leads to the second piece of frankness in the Psalm: we hear about the reality of God. The Lord is addressed throughout the Psalm. The Psalmist cries out to him (verses 1-2); he acknowledges and relies on the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness (verses 3-4); and the Lord is the reason to wait and hope (verses 5-8).

God is there. God is present. God is even in the depths. The Old Testament describes a God who hears his people’s suffering, even if he does not always act on it as quickly as his people would desire him to do. But the cry of suffering reaches him, and he liberates his enslaved people from Israel. He brings them back from exile in Babylon.

Not only that, the same Old Testament begins to describe God as being involved in his people’s suffering, even functioning as some kind of representative or substitute. I really don’t think you can avoid reading passages such as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 that way.

What the Old Testament doesn’t have, but which we have, is the filling out of that belief in Jesus, who came as a servant, lived among the poor and suffered death on a Cross.

Ours, then, is the God of the depths – even the depths of Hades. In Christ God stands with us in suffering and he stands for us in suffering. And in doing so, he shows supremely the divine answer to the Psalmist’s cry for mercy and the forgiveness of sins. The merciful God is the One who enters the depths of human suffering, who drinks the cup to its dregs.

English: Eugene Peterson lecture at University...

English: Eugene Peterson lecture at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, Washington sponsored by the Seattle Pacific University Image Journal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As Eugene Peterson puts it,

God makes a difference. God acts positively toward his people. God is not indifferent. He is not rejecting. He is not ambivalent or dilatory. He does not act arbitrarily in fits and starts. He is not stingy, providing only for bare survival.[3]

He goes on to say,

And this, of course, is why we are able to face, acknowledge, accept and live through suffering, for we know that it can never be ultimate, it can never constitute the bottom line. God is at the foundation and God is at the boundaries. God seeks the hurt, maimed, wandering and lost. God woos the rebellious and confused. … Because of the forgiveness we have a place to stand. We stand in confident awe before God, not in terrorized despair.[4]

Suffering is awful, but it is not the final word. God has seen to that in Christ. At the Cross and the Empty Tomb we find that God has the last word. God has not stayed remote and sent us a philosophical answer to our suffering. Instead, he has got his hands dirty. He has come alongside us, and also in his suffering he has accomplished what we cannot do for ourselves due to our sin. He has provided for forgiveness and so we can serve him with reverence (verse 4), or ‘stand in confident awe before [him]’, as Peterson put it.

Now this leads us on to the third and final piece of honest faith in the face of suffering that the Psalmist models for us, and that is the reality of waiting. Hear how he uses words about watching, waiting and hoping:

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins. (Verses 5-8)

In the Old Testament, the words ‘waiting’ and ‘hoping’ are very close. There are passages where in one Bible translation the English word used may be ‘wait’ and in another English Bible it may be ‘hope’. You could say that the faithful disciple of Old Testament days waited in hope. Certainly when we face suffering we often need to wait, and our waiting will have meaning and significance if we can wait with hope. That is what we do as New Testament Christians for sure, living in some respects between the suffering of Good Friday and the hope of Easter Day.

But what do we do while we are waiting hopefully? The Psalmist suggests we apply for the job of nightwatchman:

I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning. (Verse 6)

In my home church was a gentle, devout Jamaican Christian called Clarence. He was employed as a security guard. Anyone less likely to tour a building site at night accompanied by fierce Rottweilers you would find it hard to imagine. But for most of the time, he told us, he was able to sit in the site office. Each night he would take his Bible and his Moody and Sankey hymn book, and study his faith. He may have been the most unlikely candidate for the job, and heaven knows how he got it, but he used his waiting time fruitfully and every morning, the dawn came.

So it is for us. We are on the night watch in our faith as we wait for God who is with us in our suffering to act on our behalf. What we think should not take him a trice is something he chooses for reasons only he can see to take longer about resolving. Meanwhile, in the darkness we wait.

But … we wait knowing that the dawn is coming. Hence we wait in hope. And during that waiting, it would be good if we put the time to good use, as Clarence did.

How can we use our waiting time? We too can certainly take advantage of opportunities to deepen our faith, too. We can express our trust, even if at times it is a bemused trust, in the God for whom we are waiting. We can share our hopeful waiting with others who are also struggling, so that we may encourage them. Such people can be found both inside and outside the church.

I’ll give the final word again to Eugene Peterson:

The depths have a bottom; the heights are boundless. Knowing that, we are helped to go ahead and learn the skills of waiting and hoping by which God is given room to work out our salvation and develop our faith while we fix our attention on his ways of grace and salvation.[5]

Sermon: Intercession

This Sunday, I get to preach in a sermon series on prayer.

1 Timothy 2:1-7

The Christian playwright Murray Watts tells a story of how in his early days in the profession he was waiting at a bus stop with his fellow playwright and actor Paul Burbridge. Fed up with waiting for a bus to come, they decided to pray for one. While they closed their eyes and prayed, a bus came … and went past. Watts says that has always been a reminder to him of Jesus’ words to ‘Watch and pray.’

So how do we pray when it comes to intercession – that is, praying for human need? Our passage gives us some answers, but some of what it says doesn’t always correspond with the way we typically pray, either on our own or in Sunday services. It may be that these verses provide a corrective to the ways we often pray.

There are three questions I think this text will help us with. They sound obvious questions with obvious answers, but I’d like us to pause and hear the answers that are actually given, rather than the ones we would give us a reflex response.

Firstly, how do we pray?

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone (verse 1)

What do you make of these different words Paul uses for prayer here? ‘Supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings’ give us a range of prayer.

Supplications are usually prayers for ourselves. Some of us are reluctant to ask God for things for ourselves. Perhaps we think it’s selfish or greedy. Maybe you’re like me and when you were a child your parents didn’t have much money, so you got used to the idea that with your earthly parents you asked for little or nothing, and then you transferred that over to your relationship with your heavenly Father. In my case, it took some special experiences of answered prayer in my early to mid-twenties before I could begin to feel confident that I could ask God for big things for myself in prayer. I’m still careful and wary of my motives, especially when I want to ask for something I think I will like. Habitually I make major purchases a subject of prayer, and if it something that appeals to me – such as a new computer – part of my praying is to ask God to show me whether this is something I really need or whether I am just lusting after the latest technology. I certainly prayed before buying the iPad you have seen me using lately.

Prayers [and] intercessions probably go together. These are our requests for others. When we intercede, we are the go-between person, connecting those in need with God. It is a priestly role, representing human beings to God. However much some of our other Christian friends may call some of their ordained people ‘priests’, the New Testament sense is that all Christians are priests. We have the privilege of representing people to God, and representing God to people.

If that’s the case, then intercession is a privilege. We are invited into the throne room of God with our prayers for others. Yet if you’re anything like me on this one, sometimes the regularity and even the monotony of intercession make it dull. The sense of privilege gets worn away over time. So let’s pause for a moment and remember what a remarkable privilege it is. As the old hymn writer put it:

Large petitions with thee bring
Thou art coming to a king.

And linked with that sense of privilege, let’s note that the last word used in the ‘how’ of prayer is thanksgivings. Is this something we overlook, too? Intercession is linked with gratitude, because God answers prayer. Oh, I know we sometimes struggle to see the answer, and we often have to wait for him to do something, but answer he does and when he does it is only right to bring our thanksgivings as well as our requests.

This is something that Knaphill has tried to build into its practice of prayer. The church has a prayer chain. If someone has an urgent need of prayer, it is circulated around the people on the prayer chain and they will pray. But we also ask the person requesting prayer to let us know what God does in response to those prayers, so that we can report what happened and give thanks to God for all he has done.

Probably the only area of weekly public intercessions that includes thanksgiving is when we thank God for the departed in Christ. That’s good, but there is so much more to thank him for, when we consider all he has done for us in response to our prayers.

Secondly, who do we pray for?

for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions (verses 1b-2a)

How many of these people are Christians? Few indeed. We are to pray ‘for everyone’ – and Christians are a minority. We are to pray ‘for kings and all who are in high positions’ – well, in the days of this letter very few Christians held high office. But we seek the same amount of blessing for those who do not know Christ, or who are yet to know Christ, as for any Christians in need. It is the job of the Christian as part of mission to bless the world. We are not simply to rail against the aspects of life that we do not like, even if there is a place for a prophetic word against sin. We are also to bless those we believe to be outside the kingdom of God. It is like the days of Jeremiah. When some of the population of Judah was carried off to pagan Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar’s army, Jeremiah wrote them a letter, in which he told them to bless the place to which they had been taken (Jeremiah 29).

So can we ask ourselves, how can we bless the world where we live? Much of that will of course be by practical action, but it needs to be done on a foundation of prayer. Are there neighbours or colleagues we are praying for? Do our friends know that if they are in trouble, we would be willing to pray for them? Think: what might happen if your friend suddenly realised that Jesus had shown up in her life?

But as well as the general everyone, let us also think about the specific kings and all who are in high positions. Now we often pray for such people in our public intercessions. We pray for the needs of the world, we pray that rulers and governments will act with justice and for the sake of peace. All of that is good and I would not wish to stop it. However, Paul has other things in mind.

Note how this is linked with the reference in the next verse to ‘God our Saviour’. Not only is it true that God is our Saviour, Paul is reminding Timothy that these kings and rulers are not saviours[1]. Some of them expected to be acknowledged as saviours: think of the claims to divinity by Roman emperors, for example. This, then, is prayer that puts things in perspective – God’s perspective. Today we have other people and forces in society who want to claim that they can ‘save’: think of the inflated promises made for consumer goods, to take one example. Intercessory prayer that remembers God is our true Saviour dethrones these idols from their pedestals.

We need to dethrone these pretenders to the throne of God in our own lives, of course, and it is also a vital task for Christians to pray that idols will come crashing down in society. In that respect, is it too irresponsible to wonder whether the financial woes of the last five years have at least in part been a bringing down of false economic gods that have wrongly laid claim to our worship? Does prayer not begin to clear the ground, spiritually speaking, for what God wants to do in truth and love in a society?

And that leads to the third and final question: why do we intercede?

Again, it probably seems like there is an obvious answer. We want things to get better. We want people to be healed. We want to see justice and peace.

Well, yes indeed to all those things! They can all be signs of God’s kingdom, and therefore such prayers are consistent with the Lord’s Prayer, where we pray for God’s kingdom to come, for his will to be done on earth as in heaven. But Paul goes further:

so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (Verses 2b-4)

The part about leading ‘a quiet and peaceable life’ is probably there because the early Christians were a small and insignificant group of people, often not from influential strands of society. They could not hope to make a big political difference in their culture – and remember, it wasn’t a democracy as we know it, anyway. The best they could hope for was the chance to live undisturbed by persecution. Millions are the Christians today for whom that is also true. They need our prayers.

Beyond that, the ‘why; of prayer goes to another kingdom of God theme: the spread of the Gospel. ‘God our Saviour … desires everyone to be saved,’ says Paul, and he goes on in the remaining verses to talk about the key rôle of Jesus as mediator between God and humankind. Paul wants Christians to pray for those in authority so that the climate will be right in a society for the unfettered spread of the Gospel.

Now there are certainly Christian traditions that pray regularly for the Gospel to reach more people at home and abroad. The trouble is, it’s not one of our strengths. You rarely see anything like that alluded to in official liturgical intercessions, and it doesn’t always come naturally to our lips when our preachers construct extempore intercessions, either. It has slipped off our radar – which is all the more strange when you consider how concerned we become about the decline in church attendance and membership. Wouldn’t you think that one thing we would want to pray for was for more people to start following Jesus Christ and becoming part of his community, the Church? This is something we need to recover.

Certainly we need to lead by example by including this in our weekly public intercessions, and – I would suggest – in our Thursday morning prayers here. But then we also need to follow through in our own private devotions. I don’t know what you include in your private prayers at home – I hope you do pray regularly! One thing we could include is a list of people we know who do not yet know and follow Jesus. Should we not be consistently praying for such people, that the Holy Spirit will be at work in their lives to show Jesus to them?

It is said that the famous evangelist D L Moody had a long list of people he prayed for. By the time of his death, all but two of them had found Christ. I wonder whether he went to his death sorrowful about those two.

If so, he needn’t have despaired. After he died, both of them became disciples of Jesus.

Friends, the question of people becoming committed Christians is a spiritual issue. It will not be solved simply by adopting a programme or a set of techniques. It needs to be handled spiritually, and that at very minimum means prayer.

In fact, what of value does happen in the kingdom of God without prayer? Let us commit ourselves to it.

How To Write An Awful Worship Song

Stephen Altrogge has Seven ways to write an awful worship song. It’s funny in places, but also rather too close to the truth. Principle #1 put me in mind of all the ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ songs. #2 made me think about ‘the dove from above‘ in Reeves and Mortimer‘s ‘Shooting Stars‘. The ‘poetry’ of #5 reminded me of that strange mixed metaphor in ‘I could sing of your love for ever‘ – ‘Over the mountains and the sea, your river runs with love for me.’ (Ever seen a river run over the sea?) As for #7, I thought about the old story Murray Watts used to tell about people saying to him, ‘The Lord has given me a poem.’ It was usually turgid. Watts would tear up the poem, saying, ‘The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.’

Can you add to Altrogge’s list?

What would you nominate as an awful worship song, and why? (Don’t be nasty.)

How can we improve?

Sermon: Unwrapping Discipleship

This Sunday, I get to preach at one of my colleagues’ churches. So I’m reverting to the Lectionary for one week only. There are a few things in this sermon that have appeared before, notably in the first point. Please excuse that if the odd bit is something you’ve read from me before.

Matthew 4:12-23

Both Debbie and I had our main Christmas presents after the big day. I had asked people for money or vouchers that I could put together so I could buy an Amazon Kindle e-reader. Debbie followed a similar route, and when she had finally weighed up the options and dismissed the idea of a new phone, she ordered a new camera. Like me, she ordered her present online from Amazon.

Being cheapskates – or as we like to think of it, good stewards – we ordered both products on Amazon’s free Super Saver Delivery. Effectively, that means second class post. Amazon gives you an estimated date by which your order should be with you.

I had ordered my e-reader first. I memorised the due date. I counted down, like a child. The due date came. And went. I phoned the local sorting office to see whether it was there and got a jobsworth who really couldn’t be bothered. Eventually, it turned up two days late, left outside the front door by the postie, even though we weren’t in. Debbie’s camera was a similar story. Apparently it was all down to a backlog they were still trying to clear since the snow of November and December.

We waited for the time of fulfilment and were disappointed. In that respect, we were like the people to whom Jesus came. Matthew tells us that his house move from Nazareth to Capernaum was fulfilment of the prophetic hope (verses 12-16). Just as Debbie and I (OK, particularly I) were wondering when our packages would come from Amazon, so God’s people were wondering when the Messiah would come and inaugurate God’s kingdom. Now, at last, the package arrives, and he’s called Jesus.

So – if the package has arrived, if Jesus the Messiah has come, bringing the kingdom of heaven – what do we do when we unwrap him?

The first action is repentance. The opening tone of Jesus’ message is,

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. (Verse 17)

What is repentance? We know it has to do with being sorry for our wrongdoings, but there is more to it than that. If it were only feeling sorry but without any change of heart or change of lifestyle, it would only be remorse. And remorse doesn’t change anything – apart from maybe persuading a judge to give a more lenient sentence in response to mitigation.

Repentance is bigger than that. In the Greek of the New Testament and even in English it means ‘a change of mind’. It means to ‘rethink’. Those of you who know French will recognise where the English word ‘repentance’ comes from. Remember penser, to think, so repenser is to rethink, to change your mind. The Greek metanoia is similar. When we repent, we change our minds about the way we live.

It’s like doing a u-turn in a car. We know we are going the wrong way, so we change our minds and our direction. Repentance, then, means a change of mind, so much so that we are sorry enough to change our actions.

So that unpacks one problem we have in understanding repentance. It is not simply being sorry, it is a change of mind that leads to a change in our actions. That is why it is also not the same as condemnation, which simply tells us how terrible we are but leaves us desperate and desolate about ourselves. Repentance brings positive change and hope.

Another problem we have with repentance is that we associate it with conversion and the beginnings of Christian faith, but not always with the ongoing life of Christian discipleship. Yet we do not make all the changes we need to make in our lives all at once, when we first encounter Jesus Christ. We don’t even make all the essential changes before we die.

My point is this: repentance is not a one-off change of direction, it is an ongoing process in our lives. One of my favourite stories to tell about this involves the Local Preacher who was always the most popular preacher among my youth group in the church where I grew up. John Evill was born in Wales in 1902, two years before the Welsh Revival. He preached like the revival was still going on. In one sermon, he asked the congregation: “Have you been converted?” Then he added, “I’ve been converted – many times.” His point wasn’t that he’d regularly slipped back and denied Christ, it was that time and time again Christ had to call him to change.

So it is with repentance. It is a change of mind that leads not simply to one change of action, but to repeated changes of action in our lives, until our dying day. Paul tells the Philippians that God who began a good work in them will complete it on the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6). Or, as the t-shirt slogan puts it:

Please be patient with me. God hasn’t finished with me yet.

When we unwrap the kingdom Jesus brings, then, the first thing it involves is a lifestyle of ongoing change, reorientating ourselves to the ways of God from our selfish ways.

The second thing we do when we unwrap the Jesus package is we follow. Having turned around, we now start positively and actively going in our new direction, the direction in which Jesus is travelling. To Simon Peter and Andrew, he says,

Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. (Verse 19)

Then he calls James and John and we read,

Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Verse 22)

I find the nature of Jesus calling these fishermen to follow him utterly amazing. For one thing, I am staggered by their immediate decision to leave their family businesses and go with him. Some people have said that they may already have known Jesus in the area, but it’s still quite a decision to go off like that. Why would they do it?

Here’s one theory. As I’m sure you know, it was common practice for Jewish rabbis to call certain young men to follow them, learn their teaching and emulate their lifestyles. However, they tended to pick the cream of the crop, those who showed promise from a young age. If you got as far as getting into regular work – as Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John had – then you certainly weren’t among the elite. You were among the rejected. You were among those who were not considered up to the task of following a religious master.

But Jesus sees it differently. He calls these men. To him, they are not rejects, they are people who are every bit as capable of following him as anybody else. Why? Because – as the old catchphrase puts it – it’s not your ability that matters, it’s your availability. You don’t need great gifts and talents in order to follow Jesus, you just need to be willing to say ‘yes’ to him. And that’s what these four guys do.

So imagine you are one of them. Imagine you have been passed over by other rabbis as not good enough. Now this one comes along when you are at an age when you no longer think such an opportunity exists and he says to you, “Follow me.” What does that do for your self-esteem? I like to imagine the four young men striding off from their boats with their heads held high and their chests puffed out.

Translate that into our church context. One of the things that saddens me as a minister is the time many church members speak of how inferior they feel to ministers. “You can do {X, Y, Z] because you’re more learned than me,” some say. However, in Jesus’ eyes, it’s not the alphabet soup I have after my name because I spent six years studying Theology that matters. It’s whether I say ‘yes’ to Jesus. I hope I can bring benefits to people by sharing my learning. But what matters in the end is one simple matter that puts everybody on an equal following, regardless of gifts, talents, opportunities, wealth or privilege. It’s this: will we say ‘yes’ to Jesus? All we need to be concerned about today is whether we are saying ‘yes’ to him in the places where he is calling us to follow him.

The third way we unwrap Jesus is by imitation. Hear again the final verse in the reading:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. (Verse 23)

The playwright Murray Watts tells a yarn that might explain how some of us feel about this verse:

An evangelist was so successful, he converted his own horse. He decided to develop his ministry with animals and took his horse to market, to exchange it for another. A farmer came riding along, on a very old horse, and the evangelist begged him to swap animals. The farmer looked at the fine fettle of the evangelist’s horse and agreed, delighted with his bargain. As he mounted his new steed, the evangelist explained to him about the horse’s religious zeal. The farmer looked at him incredulously.

‘It’s no good shouting “giddyup!” or “whoa, there, boy!”’ the evangelist went on. ‘To start, you have to shout, “Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!” and to stop you have to shout, “Amen!”’

The farmer now realised that he was dealing with a nutcase, but he decided to humour him. The horse was in excellent condition and he accepted. As the evangelist trotted away on the famer’s ageing horse, the farmer shouted ‘Giddyup thar!’ to his steed. There was no reaction. He whipped the horse, but there was still no reaction.

‘Go on tharr! Get going!’ he screamed, digging in his heels. The horse refused to budge. The farmer scratched his head.

‘Perhaps that old preacher wasn’t so crazy after all,’ he thought, ‘oh well, no harm in trying.’ He took a deep breath and shouted: ‘Praise the Lord, hallelujah!’ Immediately the horse galloped off. The astonished farmer clung on for dear life as it sped along the road.

‘Whatever its religious quirks,’ he mused, ‘this is some horse!’ On and on the pious creature went, crossing fields, jumping gates. At last, hearing the sound of the sea in the distance, the farmer knew they were approaching the cliffs of Dover.

‘Whoaa there, boy!’ he called. ‘Whoaa there!’ He yanked the reins. The horse sped on regardless. ‘Silly me,’ thought the farmer, ‘I’ve got to say that special word.’

‘Blessing!’ he shouted. ‘No, that’s wrong. Faith!!’ he called, urgently. ‘No, that’s not right either.’

The sound of the sea came nearer, and try as he might, the farmer could not remember the right religious word. Suddenly, within yards of the cliff edge, he remembered.

‘AMEN!!’ he screamed. The horse stopped, inches to spare. The farmer mopped his brow and, lifting his eyes to heaven in gratitude, murmured, ‘Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!’[1]

Maybe when we hear that Jesus went around preaching, teaching and healing, and when we realise that the call of the disciple is to imitate the teacher, we might feel like we are riding an out-of-control horse. Are we about to go over a cliff?

Disciples of a Jewish rabbi knew their call was to imitate the way their master lived. Some took that to considerable extremes, and if I mentioned specifics some of you might cry out that modern cliché, ‘Too much information!’[2]

So those first disciples of Jesus, watching him teach, preach and heal would have been making mental notes. This was their vocation, too.

But it contains scary aspects for us. Some of us are nervous about ‘proclaiming’ our faith. We would not feel able to ‘teach’ the faith. And as for healing people, well where do we begin?

I think there are two keys to embracing this. The first is to recognise that when we become disciples of Jesus, then we receive the Holy Spirit into our lives. And the Holy Spirit brings all sorts of gifts to us that we did not previously have. If we are open to the empowering of the Holy Spirit, then we shall find ourselves equipped for Jesus-like tasks that we would otherwise be unable to do.

The other key is this. Only together are we the Body of Christ. You will contribute some gifts towards copying the ministry of Jesus. Your friend will offer other gifts. I will bring different gifts of the Spirit.

So yes, imitating the ministry of Christ is daunting – but only if we view it purely humanly. If we put ourselves at the disposal of the Holy Spirit, all sorts of things become possible that previously were never even on the radar of our imagination.

Let’s pray.


[1] Murray Watts, Rolling In The Aisles, p 90f, story 153.

[2] See Michael Griffiths, The Example of Jesus.

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