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Sermon: A Missional Confrontation With Evil

Luke 8:26-39

Israel, Sea of Galilee (Lake of Tiberias)

Israel, Sea of Galilee (Lake of Tiberias) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was tempted to start this week’s sermon the way I began my sermon last Sunday. I figured you wouldn’t notice, as I was at Knaphill and this is Walton. The only people who would notice were those who read this on my blog.

I was going to talk about a woman called Nancy Duarte, who is a world authority on how speakers might craft the best visual presentations. She talks about the need to find something in your message that will resonate with your hearers, so that there is empathy between speaker and audience (or congregation).

But for a lot of contemporary Christians, there are difficulties finding that resonance or empathy with today’s Gospel reading. Some get worried by the references to demons. Others are troubled by what happens to the pigs. A few will know there are issues around the reference to ‘the country of the Gerasenes’ (verses 26, 37) and whether it extended to the border of the Sea of Galilee.

Nevertheless, I want to ask you to stay with me as we explore this story. Whatever problems some of you might have with the account, I believe Jesus has much to teach us here about the way we share in his mission in the world today.

In fact, let’s take up that theme at the outset: this passage is first and foremost about mission.

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. (Verse 26)

Then? What has just happened? Jesus and his disciples have just crossed the Sea of Galilee to the ‘other’ side, the Gentile side. They have survived a terrible storm, which threatened their lives, but which didn’t bother Jesus, who commanded it to stop. This is a deliberate journey. It is an utterly intentional act that he leads the disciples away from the safety and familiarity of the Jewish side of Galilee to the Gentile side. Jesus is leading his disciples out of their comfort zone.

And that is something we need him to do with us if we are to be on mission with him. How often do we want to stay in our familiar surroundings? How often do we describe outreach as ‘getting more people to join us’? We would rather it were all done on our territory, on our premises. But Jesus will not let us get away with that. If we just want to get people to join us, we are doing little more than recruiting people to our religious club. We have lost the vision of calling people to make their allegiance to the kingdom of God.

Yes, that will put us in uncomfortable circumstances. I was dwelling on that a few weeks ago when I went to the barber’s. As I waited my turn with one of the two guys in there, a student was having his hair cut by one of them. I heard him speaking disparagingly about a posh but attractive woman he had met at a social gathering. Without a trace of shame, the young man said, “It wasn’t as though I wanted a relationship with her, I only wanted to go to bed with her.” You can add your own stories, and some of you encounter these vastly different values every day. Yes, we can feel nervous when we come across them, because we are aware that our convictions will be laughed at, but it’s no good retreating from the challenge.

Make no mistake, there are forces that will want to prevent us from making our journey to the Gentile shore. The storm that rose threatened to derail Jesus and his disciples would probably have been seen by first century Jews as a demonic manifestation. The sea was a symbol of fear and for a storm to rise up there was more than a meteorological phenomenon. This was opposition to Jesus’ journey.

We face opposition, too. Yes, there are secular groups that want to obliterate all reference to God from the public discourse, not least the National Secular Society, an organisation that refuses to divulge how many members it has, but probably has no more than seven thousand.

But we have opposition within ourselves. We prefer our comforts. We want to avoid the difficult road. But you know what? We’ve tried that, and look around! It’s not working.

Friends, if there were one priority I could set for every church today, it would be to give mission the priority Jesus did, and to stop us running all our lives and our spare time around church activities. Things need to be cut. Certain high priorities at present need to be put far lower down our lists. We need to be in ‘Gentile territory’ with the love of God.

The second thing to notice – and you’ll say I’m just stating the blindingly obvious here – is that Jesus’ mission is about confrontation with evil. But before you ask why on earth the circuit is paying me a stipend to say such things, please notice that the confrontation with evil is more complex than it first appears.

Let’s begin with the problematic issue of the demons. It’s easy to assume, because we feel so superior as modern educated people, that the ‘primitive’ authors of the biblical books were mistakenly attributing what we would call mental illness to demonic activity. However, why do we make that assumption? Is it because we have already decided we are embarrassed by what is often called the ‘supernatural’? Or maybe we do so, because we know of Christians who have been irresponsible in their easy labelling of anything disturbing as being ‘of the devil’, sometimes causing pastoral damage by doing so. This has certainly happened.

But ultimately do we not as Christians have to deal with the fact that Jesus recognised the existence of the demonic? Were we then to say that Jesus only did so because he was a child of his time, then have we not come close to denying that he is Lord? It is one thing to say that Jesus limited himself in his incarnation, but it is quite another to say that he was wrong.

So I conclude that there is a spiritual dimension to evil that needs to be faced – and faced not with fear but with faith. I think it fair to say that the demonic is real but rare. In twenty years of ministry, I can only point with certainty to one case – although there may have been others. Indeed, the late John Wimber, whose famed healing ministry included a deliverance element, said he could count on the fingers of his hands the number of times he had encountered a demon.

However, I said that the confrontation with evil was more complex than first appears. The effect of Jesus’ ministry is not only the expulsion of the demons from the afflicted man. That is one of at least four effects Jesus has in this story. A second is that he has an effect upon the local economy when he allows the demons to enter the herd of pigs. Whatever we make of that action, the local farmers will not have been pleased. Even if we say that to a Jew the pigs were unclean (which isn’t an easy justification, because Jesus declared all foods clean), we are still left with an economic effect of Jesus’ battle with evil.

It isn’t the only time something like this happens in the New Testament. In Acts 16, Paul casts a demon out of a slave girl, and the girl’s owner is enraged that he has lost his income stream. In Ephesus, the craftsmen who make idols for people to worship become angry with Paul and his entourage who promote the worship of a different deity, one who prohibits images. Gospel preaching and deliverance ministry not only have a positive effect on those who are blessed, but a negative effect on those whose economic self-interest is dependent upon sin and exploitation.

As well as the exorcism and the social effect, there is a third effect of the confrontation with evil, and it is a positive one: the man’s relationship with society is healed. No longer does he have to be ostracised as a graveyard-inhabiting madman in chains, the only people he sees being those engaged to guard him (verse 29). Now, instead of being naked he is clothed, and instead of being afflicted he is in his right mind (verse 35). The Gospel heals his relationship with society. It heals social brokenness. Relationships are restored. Ostracism and exclusion are dissolved.

The fourth Gospel effect in Jesus’ confrontation with evil is that the healed man becomes a disciple. No longer is he subject to other powers, he is now free to follow Jesus. And so much so that he wants to leave his home and go on the road with Jesus (verse 38), although Jesus has a different task for him, a missional one among his own people of proclaiming what God has done (verse 39).

This all reminds us, then, that the mission to which we are called will be a fully rounded one. Some Christians talk as if you can pick a preference: the Gospel is about conversion, or it is about supernatural healings, or it is about reconciliation, or it is about social justice. However, there is no ‘or’ about it. The Gospel affects all areas of life, and we need to share it with that in mind. Jesus cannot be limited to a small compartment of our lives: he comes to reign in every area of life. This is the Gospel of the kingdom of God: that God seeks to act as king in every sphere. This is what we proclaim, and this is what we are to live.

Naturally, there are no guarantees here. People are not computers that can be programmed to provide a guaranteed response. Hence, when the townspeople become fearful and ask Jesus to leave them (verses 35, 37). And perhaps the frightening thing for such people is that Jesus honours their terrible request to go away.

But, but, but! If Jesus had not taken the missional initiative and confronted evil, that man would never have found healing and faith. It is because Jesus went away from the familiarity of Jewish Galilee to Gentile Galilee that the man was blessed and became a disciple.

I ask you to draw a contrast between where we are in many churches now and where we might be. Mostly, we wait for people to come to us. We follow Einstein’s definition of insanity: we keep doing the same thing, but we expect a different result. We ought to have got the message by now: doing the same old same old over and over as we do a credible impersonation of a heritage industry rather than a living organism will not get us any other result than the current one of decline and aging.

I hold out to you instead a vision of a church that is prepared to cross the stormy waters from safety to vulnerability. A church that is not interested in self-preservation but in overflowing with the Good News of God’s kingdom in every area of life, expressed in word and deed. A church that in doing so is willing to risk the negative responses of those who will tell her to go away for the sake of those who will drink the message of the kingdom as life-giving water, as the afflicted man in this story did.

Friends, if you compare where we are now with where we could be, which future do you want? The present scenario is sometimes expressed in terms that I find uncomfortable: I hear some of our older members in some churches saying, “As long as this church sees me out, that’s all I care about.” In other words, as long as the congregation doesn’t die before they do, that’s enough. I find that depressing and distressing.

We have a better alternative. Yes, it’s a bit scary, but it’s the way of life. It’s the way of Jesus.

We have two choices before us. I pray we choose the way of life.

Sermon: Worship and the Gifts of the Spirit

Continuing our sermon series on worship:

1 Corinthians 14:26-33

Nancy Duarte is something of a hero to me. She married her husband Mark at eighteen, and they planned to go Bible college and then find a church to pastor. Instead, Mark bought a computer, and set up a business which Nancy now heads. They design visual presentations for major international clients such as Apple. Their most famous work was to design the visuals for Al Gore’s film about the environmental crisis, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. Nancy is a pastor, though – to her staff.

One of the key themes Nancy Duarte teaches about designing engaging presentations is that they must resonate with the hearers. There must be an empathy, a deep inward ‘Yes!’ to what the speaker is saying.

My problem with today’s passage was that initially I thought it might be difficult to get it to resonate with a good number of you. Some of you will struggle might be troubled by the references to speaking in tongues and prophecy. But it isn’t just that: Paul has a completely different conception of what a typical gathering for worship looks like from traditional twenty-first century Christian worshippers. We are used to most or all things being led from the front, but he assumes that everyone has a contribution. Not for him is the content all down to a trained expert.

So how are we going to appreciate what Paul says here about the common use of spiritual gifts in Christian worship? Well, one thing I need to do immediately is to take you out of the pews. In fact, not just out of the pews, but out of the church building. Because Paul was not writing to a congregation that had its own special religious space like us. The notion of church buildings is so ingrained into us, but it distorts what Paul is saying.

To put it more specifically, I once heard Professor Jimmy Dunn say that when we read that the early church met in homes, we can probably assume that they met in the homes of the wealthier members. Archaeological evidence of large homes in the Roman Empire suggests that we are talking about a space that could accommodate thirty, or at most forty people. It is neither like typical Sunday services as we know them, nor is it like the house groups of our experience.

But it does provide a context that makes sense of so much of what Paul teaches about worship in 1 Corinthians. For example, if you bridle at his command that women should keep silent, remember first of all that they are being allowed to learn in the early church (unlike other religions), but that they are probably saying, “What does that mean?” every now and again to their husbands in a confined space where that will be disruptive. Hence they are to keep their questions until they get home for the sake of good order. It also makes sense of the chaotic scenes at the Lord’s Supper in Corinth, if you read chapter 11.

And I suggest to you as well that a gathering for worship in a large home makes sense of Paul’s teaching here. See if some of what Paul says resonates more with you if I can ask you to imagine thirty or forty people crammed together in a large reception room. They are not all sitting on chairs; many are cross-legged on the floor, and others are reclining. For me, it means recalling a holiday I had with friends many years ago where we hired a villa on the Algarve. Imagine something similar – but definitely delete the pews and the church building from your thoughts this morning.

So – if you can picture this different style of gathering – let us ask three questions of the text to help us understand the place of spiritual gifts in Christian worship. Those three questions are ‘Who?’, ‘What?’ and ‘Why?’

Firstly, we ask ‘Who?’ The answer to this is, ‘Everyone’.

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. (Verse 26, italics mine)

It’s just the way of things in the early church. Paul doesn’t need to command ‘each of [them]’ to bring a contribution to worship: they do, anyway. This statement is indicative of the existing situation, and Paul doesn’t have any problems with it. After all, when he began his teaching about spiritual gifts in chapter 12, he soon used his image of the Body of Christ, where every member plays a part.

You may have heard some preachers say that church is often like going to a football match, where twenty-two thousand people in need of exercise watch twenty-two people in need of a rest. Over the centuries, we have deified forms of worship led by the experts – whether it is the more Catholic insistence on the need for a priest who can lead us into the presence of God, or the more Protestant emphasis on a sermon like this that makes teaching the Word of God more like a lecture. That, of course, comes complete with rows of seating. And as we sit in rows (whether in pews or on chairs), we reduce our sense of community and the congregation becomes passive, listening to the minister.

Now once you get beyond the numbers that were in a typical early church meeting, then the group dynamics change, and they certainly do if you go for a more formalised structure. But that is to beg the question of what to do when you grow – maybe instead of getting bigger a church should divide into two.

Of this I am sure: we have disabled many members of Christ’s Body from being able to contribute in worship. It is not to say that everybody has to lead from the front – Paul doesn’t assume that here – but it is to say that we have squashed people’s gifts. Sometimes we ministers don’t want the contributions of others. Sometimes congregations want to stay passive. Christians judge a church or a preacher by whether they were ‘fed’, but shepherds don’t merely feed the sheep, they also teach the sheep where to feed for themselves.

Hence, I want to announce something this morning that I have been thinking about ever since I came. Just as I have made a modest increase in worship participation at the communion services by involving our Youth Church, so I now want to increase adult participation, and I shall do that in the non-sacramental services. I am introducing a feature that runs in a number of churches, called ‘This Time Tomorrow’. The aim is to make the link between 10 am on Sunday and 10 am on Monday. I would like people who are willing to share (perhaps by being interviewed) what they do in the week away from church, how they approach it as a Christian, and what challenges they face for which they would like prayer. You can be in paid work, you can be retired or unemployed, you can be doing something voluntary in the community. If you would like to do this, please speak with me after the service, but I am on the lookout and will have a sign-up sheet available, too! The key is to connect our worship more clearly with every member, and through every member to the world in mission.

Our second question is ‘What?’ That is, what is every member bringing to worship?

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. (Verse 26, italics mine)

Here is why we can’t allow the rule of experts to disable the ministry of all God’s people. It’s because God has equipped not only the leaders but all of his followers. There is a wide range of gifts here. At one end are gifts that traditional Christians would easily recognise, such as ‘a hymn, or a word of instruction.’ At the other end are the gifts that unnerve some Christians, because they seem so far away from everyday life and conventional behaviour – ‘a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.’ Yet all good gifts are from God and are to be welcomed in a spirit of trust.

We shouldn’t trivialise this. The thought that someone can bring ‘a hymn’ should not be reduced to some kind of community hymn-singing, or just an opportunity to sing someone’s favourite hymn. It is all about the contribution that can be made to the overall act of worship. I would not be picking a hymn for myself, but for the sake of the gathered body of disciples. ‘A word of instruction’ is not the chance for someone to inflict their hobbyhorse on the congregation, but the prospect of someone who has been close to God in prayer and the Scriptures bringing a word that has the aroma of heaven. Likewise, the more spectacular gifts of ‘a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation’ are not occasions for Christians to show off some supposed spiritual prowess, but an opening to use something precious from God to bless his people.

But here’s where our disparity from the way the early church gathered makes it difficult for us to take this on board. Once you get beyond a certain size, only particular types of people are willing to speak up and ask for their contributions to be included. Sitting in rows doesn’t help, either. It has to be done in more intimate, flexible gatherings we have such as the house groups.

In public worship in our culture it would have to happen in a more controlled way, because we require that someone takes responsibility for ensuring that the content of worship is consistent with the Christian faith as the Methodist Church has received it. That person is the preacher appointed to take the service. But there is no reason why members cannot approach the preacher (in good time, of course!) and say they have something which they think could be of benefit to the congregation. Heaven knows, there are few Local Preachers and ministers who are highly skilled in every aspect of worship. That means the church as a whole is missing out if others do not come forward with their gifts and offerings.  I want to encourage you to break through the barriers that our current practices create, so that we can all be enriched by what God has given you. If that means you having a word with me to tell me you have something that could be a gift for our worship together, then I want to urge you to speak with me.

Our third and final question is ‘Why?’ Come back again to verse 26:

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. (Verse 26, italics mine)

So that the church may be built up. That’s why Paul goes on to give some instructions about how many people should speak, how what is said should be weighed, how some speakers should give way to others, and how generally those who offer their gifts should exercise self-control and demonstrate peace and good order. The gifts of the Spirit in worship are not about manufacturing religious superstars or launching careers in the Church: they are to be used with one motive in mind only, the building up of Christ’s church.

Or let’s see it this way. Never mind those who harbour the vain ambition to be big fish in the small pond of the church, we would probably all agree that the building up of the church is a noble goal for worship. But presently we leave that task of building up largely to one person – the preacher. Paul clearly believed that it took the actions of the whole Body to build itself up. There’s nothing particularly contentious among Christians about a goal to build up the church. But the idea that such a goal requires more than the diligence of the preacher is resisted in places. In one church it was said, “Why buy a dog and then wag your own tail?” Even in churches where there is a lot of participation in various areas of its life, there can still be a disturbing division. The minister is expected to do the ‘spiritual’ work, while the congregation does the ‘practical’ stuff.

Of course, some will ask, “How can I contribute to the edification of the church? I haven’t got anything worthwhile to offer.” To that I would reply in two ways. Firstly, either you already have some latent spiritual gifts you can offer that you haven’t noticed, or you could ask God to give you spiritual gifts that you can use for the benefit of the church. And the second thing I would say is to quote the Apostle Peter:

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

In other words, nurture your spiritual life and you will find that something grows in you that you can share. I talked last week about some of the opportunities we offer in KMC and which we have offered to help you grow in the life of the Spirit. The nub of the matter is that if you share in the view that worship should build us all up, then that implicates you in playing a part that contributes towards that goal.

Where does all this leave us? It gives us a radical view of Christian worship that departs from our traditions in some significant ways. But really it’s our traditions that have departed from the apostolic testimony. When the Holy Spirit is at work, that will happen in an apostolic way, not a traditional way, and if we are not careful we shall find that the new wine of the Spirit is poured into the brittle old wineskins of our traditionalism.

Ironically, that’s why I’ve ended up speaking for a little longer than usual this morning. It has been an attempt to lay out a more thoroughly New Testament vision for worship, one that depends on us all using our spiritual gifts for the maturing of the church.

Friends, we might have to choose between our cherished traditions and the growth of the church.

Nancy Duarte: Christian Values In Business Leadership

A while ago, I saw a great TED Talk video on ‘The secret structure of great talks’ by Nancy Duarte:

I didn’t need much persuading to buy her book Resonate, about improving your presentations. (It’s not a book of PowerPoint techniques, it explores the principles of good presentations instead.) I recommend it highly to all public speakers.

Now, I have seen an amazing interview with her on The Good Life Project. I wouldn’t normally sit through thirty-eight minutes of video on a computer, but this had me hooked. I had no idea Duarte was a Christian (that confession comes about twenty  minutes in). What is so wonderful about this interview is the way her Christian convictions have so permeated the way she leads and runs her business:

* She sees her job as to shepherd her staff. It is her duty to make sure the work is there so her one hundred employees can put food on their tables.

* She has a place both for the outgoing, quirky people who are good to put before clients and also the introverts who will hunker down and get a job done.

* Having been told by a coach that the two verbs applicable to her are ‘conquer’ and ‘liberate’, she uses these, not in what she calls an ‘Attila the Hun’ mode, but in terms of what she wants to do for others – again, specifically including her employees.

* When asked near the end what ‘the good life’ is, she emphatically rejects the notion of ‘bling’ in favour of generosity.

So put the kettle on, make a drink, and watch this inspiring video:

Benjamin Zander On Leadership

I came across this TED Talk by Benjamin Zander via Nancy Duarte‘s book ‘Resonate‘. Zander, an orchestral conductor, has a big vision for leadership that he doesn’t doubt. He wants everyone to love classical music. And he knows he is doing his job when the eyes of his people are shining. Quite a challenge for any leader.

Enjoy the video.

Be Yoda, Not Luke Skywalker: How To Craft A Memorable Presentation

Here’s a thought-provoking talk by Nancy Duarte, the woman who designed the slides for Al Gore’s film ‘An Inconvenient Truth‘. See what you think about her idea of cycling between ‘What is’ and ‘What should be’, leading to a final climax promising future bliss:

Today I’m writing my sermon for Sunday. I think part of the passage might lend itself to the ‘What is’/’What should be’ dichotomy. Would it work for all sermons, though? Opinions?