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Sermon: Life On The Frontline – 1. The Frontline Call

Matthew 28:16-20

LICC Life On The Frontline DVD cover

LICC Life On The Frontline DVD cover

This morning we start the series of sermons that accompanies our midweek course ‘Life On The Frontline’ that began on Wednesday. And I guess that to use such an image as a ‘frontline’ might need some justifying. If we use the word ‘frontline’ in ordinary speech, we might think of a war zone. And while it is true that Christian mission participates in a spiritual war, that conflict is not with human beings but with spiritual forces. We have no desire to be aggressive towards those who do not share our faith, and those models of evangelism that contain elements of that are styles that we place at a distance from our convictions.

But we do come to a frontline in the sense of a boundary or an interface. Our spiritual frontlines are the places where we connect with those who do not follow Jesus Christ. And that’s what we are exploring in the course and the sermon series.

So this morning’s first sermon has the title of ‘The Frontline Call’. And we get down to some basics about that call using this famous passage that is often called ‘The Great Commission’. Four questions, in fact, about the frontline call: who, where, what and how?

The first question, then, is who? That is, who receives the frontline call? Verse 16 tells us it is ‘the eleven disciples’.

Note those words very carefully: ‘the eleven disciples’. Eleven being one less than twelve, because Judas Iscariot has taken his own life. These were ‘the twelve’. This is the group that Jesus had designated as his apostles. There were twelve of them in order to designate the connection with the twelve tribes of Israel, but now they are reduced to eleven.

And they’re not even called ‘apostles’ here. They are simply ‘disciples’. They don’t come here with special status, but as representatives of all Jesus’ followers. Disciples, not merely apostles, receive the frontline call.

Therefore the call echoes down the centuries to you and me as Jesus’ disciples today. Disciples are the ones who learn from the master, and that’s us. We have so much more to absorb about the way of Jesus. The Greek word for disciple – as I said on Wednesday night – may be paraphrased as ‘apprentice’. We are learning the trade. We are not master craftsmen.

In short, the frontline call, in coming to disciples, comes to a group of people who don’t have it all together. We do not have the spiritual life sussed, we just know that Jesus is the way to go, and we are imperfect followers of his Way.

You might think that Jesus would only call fully trained people to the frontline of his kingdom mission, somewhat in the way that the church doesn’t let a minister loose on a congregation until he or she has had two or three years’ training, or the way a doctor or solicitor has to study for several years before qualifying and practising.

But Jesus has not called a professional élite. He has called ordinary people. While there is a place for certain Christians to be specially trained in understanding other views of life and responding with Christian answers, this is not what Jesus requires of most followers. He simply calls his everyday followers to witness to him in word and deed. We bear witness through our deeds, and we bear witness through our words when we describe what it is like to follow Jesus.

So let no-one here rule themselves out of this high calling. It is for every Christian. It is the privilege of every disciple to let the world see their allegiance to Jesus through their lifestyle and their speaking.

The second question is where? What is the location of our frontline? I know we’ve already answered this in general terms at the beginning of this sermon, but let’s look closely at this passage. Verse 16 again:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee … (italics mine).

The resurrection appearances of Jesus (of which this is one) happen in both Galilee and Jerusalem. When in Jerusalem, they are at the centre of religious and political power. But here, the meeting is in Galilee, far from those corridors of power, far from the sort of place that features in the title sequences of news bulletins.

Inside The Hobbit Hole Of Bilbo Baggins

Inside The Hobbit Hole Of Bilbo Baggins by Trey Ratcliff on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

They are back home, in familiar surroundings, even if – as in The Lord Of The Ringsthe Shire can never be the same. They are back where they began, the place of family and work.

And it is in our ‘Galilee’, our familiar surroundings, that we find our frontlines. Sure, the Gospel will go to ‘all nations’ (verse 19), but it starts in our daily territories. For some of us who share households with those who do not share our allegiance to Christ, it begins in our homes. For many of us, it is our place of work. It may well also be the school gate or the place where we spend our leisure time – the fitness club, the Women’s Institute, the U3A, the ground where our favourite sports team plays, and so on. Our Galilee may be in our relationships with our neighbours, next door, down the street, and in our community. It may be in our involvement with local affairs, as we get involved with residents’ associations or in lobbying local councillors. It may be the library, the hospital, or even the dentist’s waiting room. I think you get the idea.

Whatever our regular images of the missionary being the one who goes to ‘darkest Africa’ – as if forever defined by “Doctor Livingstone, I presume” – the fact is that Jesus commissions missionaries for Galilee and Knaphill, St John’s and West End, Pirbright and Bisley. We need not be door-to-door types who thump the Bible like a percussion instrument. But we are called to people who live out publicly our apprenticing in the Jesus way, and who give a reason for the hope we have in him.

The third question is what? That is, what are we meant to be doing on our frontlines? Jesus says,

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Verses 18b-20a)

We have something to do, due to Jesus’ authority. But what? The normal order in which our English translations put these words lead us to think that the key idea is ‘go’. But in fact ‘go’ is ‘going’ in the Greek, and it parallels ‘baptising’ and ‘teaching’. These verbs ending in ‘ing’ (or ‘gerunds’ for grammar fans) serve the main verb, which is actually ‘make disciples’.

We are placed on our frontlines in order to make disciples. We who are already disciples are meant to reproduce! But, like ordinary human reproduction, it doesn’t happen overnight. Even on the rare occasions when we seem to witness an instant response, like the way the first disciples ‘immediately’ follow Jesus in the Gospels, we usually find that God has been on the case for a long time. And we are in this disciple-making enterprise for the long haul. We know it will take time for our witness to have an effect. People may not be interested. They may tease or even despise. We won’t always know at first when some people have been set thinking by our lifestyle or our words. Only after a while may tentative questions surface. But we stay at our post.

What does this boil down to? Simply this: that disciples make disciples. There are those who have a special gift in this area, and sometimes we call them evangelists. But even though we are not all evangelists – someone has suggested that perhaps about ten per cent of church members have an evangelistic gift – all disciples are witnesses. Wherever you are this time tomorrow, it is a place where God has put you to live before others as a disciple of Jesus, not only for the sake of your own holiness but also for the sake of those you meet.

Many years ago, my home church once conducted a survey where they asked members what the main calling of the church was. Back came the resounding and apparently uncontroversial answer: worship. But Jesus’ words here show that it isn’t as simple as that. Worship is our purpose when we gather, and yes our lives are meant to be acts of worship, too. But if we worship when we are together, we disciple when we are dispersed.

The fourth and final question is how? Exactly how do we set out making disciples? This is where we come back to that question of the verbs. If ‘make disciples’ is the main verb, then ‘going’, ‘baptising’, and ‘teaching’ are the verbs that explain the ‘how’.

Just as we are learners and apprentices of Christ, so we invite others to learn his ways. Of course we have to ‘go’ to those frontlines in order to do that – it’s a delusion to think people will come to us. And when we do, we ‘[teach] them to obey everything [Jesus] has commanded [us]’. We don’t just do that after they commit to following Jesus, we can do that as part of the outworking of our missionary call. We can say, “I believe Jesus taught us to approach life this way. Why don’t you try it and see what happens?”

So why not think of all the life issues that we might discuss with our friends – how we cope with family matters, finances, major decisions, moral crises, conflicts at work, relationship breakdowns, and so on. Did Jesus have any wisdom to offer on any of these? Of course he did. Without turning into a Bible-basher, is it not possible to say, “What helps me in these difficult circumstances is the teaching of Jesus, when he said …” Just make it conversational rather than preachy. Say it in such a way that someone can respond. See it in the way that  you can go into Marks and Spencer and try on the clothes you’re thinking buying in the fitting rooms. We can invite people into discipleship by suggesting they try on the teaching of Jesus for size.

The lonely office conversationalist

The Lonely Office Conversationalist by Eric Domond on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The baptising? If we do that on the frontline, I guess that would be a real ‘water cooler moment’! But seriously, that’s dangling before us the goal. However many people regard it today, baptism began – and still continues in many places – as the sign of irrevocably breaking with the past and following Jesus. It’s the mark of discipleship. It’s why we seek to show and share God’s love on our frontlines, living out our faith before the world.

I think I’ve told before the story of my friend who lost his son to cancer. The young man was diagnosed at around the age of seventeen, and died when he was about twenty. Some months after the death, my friend took a phone call. It was his son’s consultant.

“I’m ringing to invite you to my confirmation service.”

My friend had no idea she was religious.

“I wasn’t,” she said, “but I watched how your son lived out his faith in the face of his cancer, and now I am a Christian.”

You know, I would love not to be repeating that story. Not because it isn’t wonderful – it is. I would prefer not to repeat it, because there were so many similar stories to tell of what happens when we live intentionally as disciples on our frontlines. I’m telling some at the Wednesday meetings for this course. This last week I told one about the witness of a grandmother to her daughter and grand-daughter. I have another one stored up about a Christian woman in the banking industry who changed her company’s attitude to those in deep debt.

But wouldn’t it be great if there were some Knaphill stories to add to the collection? Let’s get to our frontlines – because that, after all, is where Jesus promises to be ‘with [us] always, to the very end of the age.’ (Verse 20b)

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Sermon: The Holy Spirit And Serving

Acts 6:1-15

You are having coffee after the service, and chatting with friends. In the corner of your vision, you notice a church steward approaching you.

“I wonder if you’ve ever considered that vacancy for a Property Steward that’s been in the notice sheet for a few weeks.”

Uh-oh. Now you know why you attracted the interest.

Fortunately, you can play your spiritual ‘Get out of jail free’ card: “I’ll pray about it.”

And the steward walks away, knowing that “I’ll pray about it” is church code for “No”.

Vacancies: finding someone to take on a job is a bane of church life. The constitution says certain vacancies must be filled, or more positively a specific need is identified and we need someone to head up that new initiative. When several people turn down the opportunity, and we finally discover someone who is willing to have their arm twisted, we breathe a sigh of relief. Thus it is that we can sometimes end up with the wrong people doing things they were never suited to in the church.

There’s an urgent need in the early church. In an age devoid of social security, Greek widows are missing out on food distribution, whereas Hebrew widows aren’t. There is no question of ignoring this: caring for the poor is fundamental to the life of the church. This must be done.

But the apostles have too much on their hands. And important as feeding the widows is, you can’t take them away from their primary calling. So the hunt is on for people to do the job.

So far, so similar to us.

But from here on, their story departs from ours. Their approach to finding people to serve is not the campaign of desperation we are used to mounting. Unlike us, they don’t scratch their heads and say, “Who on earth can we approach this time?” Instead, the apostles know the criteria:

Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. (Verse 3)

‘Full of the Spirit and wisdom.’ It’s the first of three statements in this story of Stephen and these early servants, possibly the prototypes of later deacons, that references the Holy Spirit as key to Christian service. This story would tell us one important fact in a number of ways: to take on any form of service for Jesus Christ, from the most spectacular to the most humbling, we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

I suppose you think I could stop there? I would be happy if we all caught that message: all Christian service requires the Holy Spirit.

But I need to earn my crust, so I want to explore those three statements in the reading about the Holy Spirit’ association with serving. Each time, the work of the Spirit is associated with another spiritual quality. And it’s no accident, because each time that quality associated with the Spirit is vital for the Christian life in general and for acts of service in particular.

We’ve heard the first on already: ‘full of the Holy Spirit and … wisdom’. Wisdom, according to Isaiah, is a gift of the Spirit. But what is wisdom? Is it intellect? No. Anyone can have the spiritual gift of wisdom, regardless of their academic abilities.

Is it the experience someone accumulates at ‘the university of life’? No, not really. That can be helpful, but it can be no more than folksy and it can just be hokum and old wives’ tales.
The Spirit’s gift of wisdom is different. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf knew what wisdom was. In the third part, The Return of the King, he said:

All you have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to you.

Wisdom, then, is a moral quality. It is not about cleverness. It is not necessarily about experience. It is about knowing the right thing to do, and the right way to use our time and resources.
And that quality will be essential when we take on acts of Christian service. It’s not just the extreme situations. Those of you with memories long enough to recall Michael Buerk’s original report on the Ethiopian famine in 1984, the report that led Bob Geldof to put together Band Aid and Live Aid, may remember it featured a nurse who had to decide which children could receive food and live, and which children would die. How do you make decisions like that?

But in the more mundane, we need the wisdom of the Spirit. We need to know the way to go that is consistent with the way of Christ. We may need to know how to use our limited resources. Where might we focus our energies, time, talents and money? Let there be no mistaking: to serve Jesus Christ, we need to be ‘full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom’.

What does this mean practically? It means soaking even the apparently obvious, routine decisions we make in prayer. A criterion of good discipleship in the Old Testament is whether a person ‘enquired of the Lord’. To be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, we need to seek that wisdom from God. Yes, of course we can use our common sense as we dedicate it to the Lord, but we shall make serious errors if we don’t make a conscious choice to seek the wisdom of the Spirit.

In my home circuit, there was once an occasion where a person turned up a few minutes late to a church business meeting. “Have I missed anything?” he asked quietly, as he slipped in at the back.

“No,” came the reply, “we’re only on the opening devotions.”

That, I suggest to you, was an approach that betrayed a failure to understand the need to seek God’s wisdom through the Holy Spirit. Never let opening devotions or prayer for guidance shrink to a formality.

The second and third comments about the Holy Spirit are linked specifically to Stephen. The second is that he was ‘a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit’ (verse 5).

Again, ‘faith’ can be a gift of the Holy Spirit – not simply saving faith in Jesus, but special faith to trust God and see remarkable things happen. I think faith like that was present here, because the outcome of the decision to appoint the seven men as servants of the Greek widows was

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. (Verse 7)

Some might think all that is needed for Christian service is just to get on with the required task. There is an element of truth in that, in the sense that sometimes people need to get their hands dirty, rather than wait around for something super-spiritual to happen.

But we should not overlook the Spirit’s gift of faith. What happens when you take amazing risks in Christ’s name by serving people? Quite surprising and astonishing things, actually.

Take the story of one Christian initiative that I came across the other day. In 1999, a young family in Southport turned up at a church, desperate, because they were homeless. The church had spent the previous two years offering shelter to homeless people in their church building. However, they had learned that this was illegal. Two people in the church felt prompted to take a big risk in faith: they ploughed their considerable savings into the task of buying two flats. Three years later, the venture became a not-for-profit limited company. Now, with the help of churches all over the country, some two hundred and forty previously homeless people are being housed. Here is what the pastor who founded the company says:

We have seen some amazing changes in people just because we have been able to give them a key to their own home. Alcoholics are now free from their alcohol addiction; drug addicts are now free from their drug addiction; unemployed young people with life skills problems are now working. Mothers who had been brutally beaten are now housed with their children in secure accommodation; people with mental health problems are housed and cared for. But most wonderful of all is the number of people who have come to Christ, not through our preaching of the Gospel, but by our doing the Gospel.

How wonderful is that? Christians saw a social need. The willingness to take great risks in faith has made an eternal difference to needy people.

Therefore, never see the call to a servant rôle as something mundane. Ask the Holy Spirit for the gift of faith. Is the Spirit of God asking us to imagine a different future in a certain situation? What risks would it take to bring it into being? Is the Holy Spirit daring us into acts of faith as we serve the needy that will bring transformation in the name of Jesus Christ?

The third and final reference doesn’t explicitly talk about the Holy Spirit, but I believe the Spirit is to be understood as necessarily implicit in the words. It’s the description of Stephen that led to opposition and his arrest:

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people (Verse 8)

‘Full of God’s grace and power.’ I think the word ‘power’ references the Holy Spirit, who would have empowered the ‘great wonders and signs’ Luke speaks about. If so, then here we see the power of the Spirit associated with grace. The Spirit’s work of grace takes Stephen beyond just serving the needy in the Christian community to demonstrating that grace in the wider community.

And furthermore, the Christian who is serving in the power of the Holy Spirit will demonstrate grace and speak grace, because grace is at the heart of God’s kingdom. That is why yesterday the Chertsey churches held what they called the Grace Café at the annual Chertsey Black Cherry Fair. They gave away a thousand drinks, nearly a thousand slices of cake and painted the faces of three hundred children, all free of charge. It’s why next week at the Knaphill Village Show, we as a church will have a free lucky dip on our stall. These are just small parables of the Gospel. One of my previous churches held an annual family fun day on a Saturday each summer. We always insisted it was free. Well-intentioned parents who brought their children along often asked how much it cost or where to leave a donation. We had the pleasure of replying, no, it’s on us, because this is the kind of God we believe in.

But this isn’t simply the sort of public stunt a church can do in the ways I’ve described. The Spirit leads individual Christians into acts of grace as signs of God’s love. It may be that opportunities will come to speak about that love, but the important point is that we allow the Spirit to show us where we might demonstrate grace.


Bill Hybels
recounts one such example in his book ‘The Power of a Whisper’. Bev and her husband owned a property in the United States, which their daughter and her family once rented from them for a holiday. While they were there, some children were throwing mud balls. One smashed the front window. Bev’s daughter discovered the miscreant, and spoke to his mother about replacing the glass. However, she couldn’t afford to pay. She and her husband were both out of work. Bev and her husband paid for the repair.

Several months later, with no word from the young man’s mother, Bev decided to phone her, a couple of days before Thanksgiving, just as she was preparing to do the final grocery shopping for that important American holiday. However, when she got through to the mother, instead of pressurising her for the money she owed, she found herself saying, “I was just heading out to the grocery store. May I bring you a Thanksgiving meal?” Bev then went and purchased double the quantities she had planned to buy, and joyfully delivered a parcel to the unemployed mother.

That’s what grace does. How would it be if this is what Christians were known for, rather than for self-righteous judgmentalism?

Can we see now why serving is not something to do in our own strength, but in the power of the Holy Spirit? We need the Spirit’s gift of wisdom in order to serve well. We need the Spirit’s gift of faith to lead us into extraordinary adventures that will end up bringing more of God’s love to people than would otherwise have happened.

Once again, then, we find ourselves praying: Come, Holy Spirit.

Sermon: The Wilderness – Jesus’ Favourite Getaway Destination

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

At this time of year, much conversation revolves around, “Are you going on holiday? Where are you going?” One of Rebekah’s classmates was missing on Friday’s final day of term, because his family was driving and ferrying to France. Others have flown to Disneyland. Our children wonder why they haven’t been on an aeroplane yet, but we have more modest ambitions and budgets. It still doesn’t seem long since we weren’t confined to the school holidays, and could book cheaper holidays.

Where would you get away to, if you had the choice? I would fancy New Zealand (not just because I’ve seen the Lord of the Rings films), parts of the United States and I’d like to return to Norway, having once done a mission there. After all, where else would you spend nine days in August, but north of the Arctic Circle?

Where would Jesus go? Like a couple in my first circuit who every year travelled with a holiday company specialising in camping in the wildest parts of the world, Jesus’ preferred destination was the wilderness. When he wants a break with the apostles, he invites them ‘to a deserted place’ (verse 31), and that almost certainly means a wilderness.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of a wilderness as a good place for a spot of R and R. I think of somewhere that is too hot, and too dry. That’s why it’s a wilderness, after all. I think about the children of Israel wandering aimlessly and disobediently in the wilderness for forty years, between leaving Egypt and arriving in the Promised Land. A wilderness doesn’t have good associations for me.

But I want to talk today about how the wilderness is a good place in the spiritual life. It is somewhere the Christian Church has known in former centuries as a desirable destination, but in our comfort-saturated world we have lost sight of that. I am thinking not simply of the wilderness in a literal, geographic sense, but also the spiritual wilderness, when our lives seem dusty and barren. Come with me, and see why it is good to be in the wilderness with Jesus.

The Apostles
At my first theological college, we were introduced to the tradition of the Quiet Day once a term. A visiting speaker would address us in chapel two or three times during the day, but we spent the rest of the day in silence – even our lunch. One of my friend made a cardboard speech balloon with the word ‘hello’ on it and brought it to the dining room once!

One year, I decided I would spend the day reading a short book about community. Only a hundred and twelve pages long, I thought I could easily devour it and think about it in a few hours. It was called ‘Life Together’ and was by the famous German Christian who resisted Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

A hundred and twelve pages? Fat chance! If I got through twenty, that was all. Why? Because every paragraph was challenging. The comment I most remembered was one where Bonhoeffer said that nobody should attempt to live in community if they couldn’t cope with solitude.

The apostles in our reading learn community and solitude in the wilderness. Jesus invites them there in order to rest, because he wants to get them away from the notion that non-stop busyness is what makes someone a good or valuable person. You have to come away from that way of life at times in order to reset your priorities. And our priorities are not just to do, but to be. After their recent mission, Jesus calls them away from people to the loneliness of the wilderness, so that they might be with him. When he had chosen them in Mark chapter three, he had not only set their ‘job description’ as including preaching, healing and exorcism. Before all that, their call was ‘to be with him’.

How we forget that for ourselves, too. We reduce Christianity to a series of lists – a to-do list, a tick list, a shopping list. We forget that we are also called to spend what one Christian called ‘A Royal Waste Of Time’ with God. So Jesus urges us sometimes to put the busy schedule away, because it is ruining us. We become like car drivers who never fill their tanks with petrol, and then wonder why we stutter to a halt. And if it requires the drastic action of removing us from the busy place to restore us, then Jesus will take us to a wilderness, so that all we have is him – not our status, not our rôle in the church, just him.

Whether you are an introvert or an extravert, this is a challenge. For the extravert, who gets energy from other people, the wilderness reminds her to depend not on other people but on God. For an introvert like me, who is energised by being alone with books and the like, I am challenged to rely on God and not on other tools. But what is sure is this: Jesus knows we need to ‘be’ as well as to ‘do’, and he will take us to the solitude of a wilderness if that is what it takes.

The Multitude
And yet the apostles still can’t get away completely. They escape in a boat (verse 32) from the ‘many [who] were coming and going’ (verse 31), but when they arrive at the deserted place, there is no peace for them:

‘Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.’ (verse 33)

The apostles have preached the good news, cast out demons and cured the sick (verse 13). It’s like they are victims of their own success. Well, not their success, because it is the work of God, but right now the multitude can’t see that. All they see is need – their own need – and that this group can help them.

Thus we traditionally interpret this episode as being about the importance of putting aside your own need for rest in order ‘to spend and be spent’ for others. But what if we turned it around and considered the thought that God had a purpose for the multitude in bringing them to the wilderness to receive what they needed? What if we concentrated on that?

If we did, I think we’d see that when we are in need, God may well bring us to a wilderness for our own well-being, renewal and healing. Why? Because God calls us to come out of our ‘Egypt’ and journey to our ‘Promised Land’, but the route often goes through a wilderness. We need to leave Egypt behind, with all its temptations and bad influences, but the journey to Canaan is not a quick and simple one. In purifying the pagan influences of our own personal Egypt, God takes us to a stark place in the wilderness where he strips away the toxins that have infected our souls.

When God draws us into a wilderness experience, it is the most natural reaction in the world to kick and scream as we are dragged there. But God the loving Father does this for pure, holy purposes.

One thing is for sure: when God leads people into a wilderness, his intention is to do great things. What happens to this multitude? What we’re reading is the preface to the Feeding of the Five Thousand. They have tracked down the apostles, rather like first century stalkers of paparazzi, but whatever their motives, they end up stranded a long way from civilisation and without food. In that wilderness place, God through Jesus provides generously for their needs.

So it may be with us. We may wonder why we are in a wilderness. It may be due to our own rash choices, or it may directly be in the purposes of God. But God in Christ has good things for us in the parched places of life.

Jesus
Finally, we read about Jesus and the multitude:

‘As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.’ (Verse 34)

What does that have to do with a wilderness theme?

The clue comes in the phrase ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. To which a considered response might be, ‘Huh?’

If it makes no sense, the clues come from the Old Testament. When Jesus thinks the crowd are ‘like sheep without a shepherd’, there is a strong Old Testament background to that thought. In Numbers 27:17, Moses in the wilderness asks God to provide a new leader for Israel ‘so that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep without a shepherd.’ They need a leader in the wilderness.

And in Ezekiel 34:5, God’s people are scattered in the wilderness of exile ‘because there was no shepherd’.

Both times, God’s people are in a kind of wilderness, and they need shepherds, or leaders. However much God wants to bless his people in the deserted places, they still need a leader. But how does a Jesus-like shepherd lead the people of God in the wilderness? Isn’t it complicated, leading people in strange, unfamiliar and unwelcome lands – rather like we find ourselves in today?

Surely the ministry of Jesus was like leading his people on a new exodus to the salvation he would bring. He helped them navigate the way through the wilderness into the good things of God’s kingdom. You might list a whole catalogue of things that could involve, but the navigational work of the Christian shepherd in the wilderness comes down to the three priorities elucidated some years ago by Eugene Peterson in his book ‘Working the Angles’. They are prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction. Anything beyond that, whether a current fad or a venerable tradition, is probably extraneous. Just because ‘it has always been done that way’ or because loud voices demand a particular course of action are no reasons to depart from the essential practices necessary to navigate the way through the wilderness.

You may say that Jesus walked this earth in a simpler time, and he did. There are complications provided by the society we live in today. But that is no reason for the Christian Church to add unnecessary complications to the cause of leadership in the wilderness we find ourselves in today. The compassion of Jesus when he saw the crowds simply led him, in the words of Mark, ‘to teach them many things’. Through prayer and study of Scripture, he knew the word of his Father and how to navigate the rocky terrain of the wilderness. There, in the barren desert, Jesus led the multitudes by teaching them the kingdom of God, and by feeding them and healing them. Simple stuff – and therefore a challenge for the likes of me!

Conclusion
So – it may be surprising to cosseted twenty-first century Christians that Jesus wants to bless his apostles and his multitudes in the wilderness. It may surprise us that his favour does not rest on fevered activity, but on a rhythm of ‘being’ followed by ‘doing’ (and never the other way around).

Yet we’re used to Jesus turning the values of the world upside-down, aren’t we? This is the kingdom where the king was enthroned upon a Cross. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so astonished that Christ would use the privations of a bleak location as the scene for our growth in grace.

And in a complex world, the way in which Jesus leads and guides us through the rocky places towards lands of milk and honey lacks much of the complexity our culture deems necessary for everyday living. He also cuts out the all-singing-all-dancing approach the Church has mistakenly baptised, in favour of simplicity: prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction.

Maybe it’s time that a church in the wilderness pared things down to essentials.

Maybe then, we might find life.