Thursday, 12 July 2018

Created to Praise

Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking through the book of Ephesians.

These opening verses are astonishing. They are an explosion of praise to God for all the blessings that he has given us. And the fact that they are written by Paul when he was in prison - he describes himself as ‘an ambassador in chains’ (6.20) - makes them even more remarkable.

‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (v3) – and then he just goes on. In Greek it is all one sentence. Paul says one thing and then wants to add another and another – it is breathless.  

And these verses are praise of the amazing, lavish, abundant, over-flowing generousity, grace and glory of God.

They speak of the communion at the heart of God:
a)      of Father God: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (v3)

b)      They speak of the Father’s beloved, his Son Jesus Christ.

Paul repeatedly uses the words ‘in Christ’
‘blessed us in Christ’ (v3)
‘chose us in Christ’ (v4)
‘in him we have redemption’ (v7)
‘God’s pleasure that he set forth in Christ’ (v10)
‘in Christ we have obtained an inheritance’ (v11)
‘in him .. we are marked with the Holy Spirit’ (v13)

The New Testament uses two phrases quite regularly.
It speaks about Christ in us. Christ living in us. That is fairly easy to understand. His Spirit comes and lives in us. We can talk about God in us.
Later we will receive the bread and drink the wine, and as they come into us, so we pray that God, by his Holy Spirit, will come into us.
That is amazing, that God is in you
But the New Testament also speaks of us being in Christ.
It uses that far more often. And it is harder to understand.

Perhaps we can explain it like this.

Imagine that this book is Jesus.
He has eternally been in the presence of God.
He delights in God the Father and God the Father delights in him.
He is the eternal Son of God. He is the Beloved.
And God has given all things to him.

And (placing sheets of paper inside the book) God has chosen to put you in him, and you, and you. That means that you are where Jesus us. If Jesus is the Beloved, you are now beloved because you are in the beloved! If Jesus is the Son of God, you are now a son of God because you are in the Son. If God has promised Jesus an inheritance of all things, then you will inherit all things because you are in him.

Or to put it another way. Think about us gathered here in St Andrew’s Church. We’re from all over the world - Ethiopia, Kenya, the UK, India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Switzerland, the US. But in St Andrew’s we have been brought together, we become one family, one people with one purpose – to listen to God and to praise God.

And these verses speak of Christ, and us being in Christ

c)      They speak of the Holy Spirit (v13): the gift of the Spirit as the first small gift of the future inheritance that will be ours

Father, Son and Holy Spirit – all working together in deep communion.
And Paul blesses God for all the blessings that he has given us

1.      That in his love God chose us – before creation came into being - to become holy and blameless (v4)

You might ask, if God chose me does that mean that I had no choice?

God did choose you – about that the passage is clear: it speaks of choice, of destining, and other translations don’t avoid the word predestination – but he chose you so that you, with complete genuine freedom, chose to say ‘yes’ to Jesus.
And I’m not going to say much about that here apart from to say that that truth is something that should give you both deep assurance that you belong to God and also shatter any of your pride when you start to think that you deserve to be a Christian.

But what I do want to emphasise is the fact that God has chosen you so that you might become like Jesus. God has chosen you so that you will become someone who would freely choose to be crucified for the sake of another person. That is what it means to become holy and blameless. He is going to change you – from the inside out. Because he loves you, He has chosen you to live a life of love. A life motivated by delight in God and delight in his will, and by a love for other people. He made us to be transparent, and true, and beautiful – on the inside, and holy. He made us to become radiant people.
2.      He blesses God because God delights to adopt us as his children (v5)

We become part of the family of God.
We can call God our Father.

That is the beginning of Christian prayer.
We pray to the Almighty – to the one who is all seeing, all knowing, all powerful, ever present; We do pray to the one who is our Lord and Judge.
But ultimately when we pray, we pray to ‘Our Father in heaven’.

And that means we are brothers and sisters. We have a common father. Unity is a major theme in Ephesians. Paul writes about how in Christ Gentile believers and Jewish believers are brought together as members of one family, one body.

And of course, brothers and sisters don’t always get on, they fall out, they have different tastes and they don’t always like each other – but they are still brothers and sisters.
They cannot run away from the fact that they share the same DNA, that what is in one is in the other, that they have a common history, and a shared identity.

And as believers what is in you – or perhaps I should say ‘who’ is in you, is the same as who is in me.
And we have a common history: when we become part of the family of God, then the history of the family of God, the people of God, becomes our history.
And as believers we have a shared identity: Remember that we have been brought together. Our ultimate identity is not in our biological family, it is not in our tribe, it is not even in our nation (we need to remember that in a World Cup). Our ultimate identity is in God our Father.

3.      He blesses God for our forgiveness (v7)

We have been forgiven. God in his grace and mercy has forgiven us our sins.

We had walked away from God, lived as if he did not exist, ignored his law and his word, put our trust in the things that he had created and not in him, abused his creation and treated it as our private waste disposal pit, treated other people like dirt, and messed ourselves up.
Maybe I am a bit better than you; maybe you are a bit better than me. It doesn’t make any difference, because by anybody’s standard we were pretty far gone.

And God could have wiped the floor with us.
But in his grace and mercy and love, he sent his beloved Son, Jesus to come to us – to call us back to God, to show us God’s way, and to die for us – for our forgiveness.

We have been forgiven. It is one of those things that we have in common. That is why we are able to come together to worship God; it is why can come to this table together.

I can’t look down on you, and you can’t look down on me.

We’re like people who have been given free tickets to the premiere seats at the World Cup final. On the market they would cost $10000. I can’t say to you that I deserve that ticket because once I played two games in a youth team, but you don’t deserve a ticket because you only played one team in a youth game. That is foolish. We are both there because of an astonishingly gracious invitation.

And we are both here because of an even more astonishingly gracious invitation.

4.      He blesses God for God’s plan for the universe – which has been made known to us - ‘to gather up all things in him’ (v10)

As believers we are in Christ. Our unity is in him.

The New Testament talks about the church – the people of God - as a body, with each person playing a unique role, with unique value and significance, but in relationship with all the others. And the head of this body is Christ.
Or it talks about the church as a building in which each person is one of the bricks. And Jesus is the builder of this building: he lays brick beside brick.
It speaks of the church as a family
I guess today we could use the illustration that the Church is like a team: a top football team that really does play the beautiful game. Jesus is the manager. He knows each person, their gifts and abilities, he sees how they can play with others and he knows where to position them and how to inspire and bring the best out of them.

But the Church is just God’s starter for ten. It is a picture of what God plans for this creation. That under the Lordship of Jesus, and in harmony with Jesus, all things will work together.

5.      He blesses God for God’s purpose for us
‘In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance … so that we who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory’ (v11-12)

Football fans are quite good at praise. I suspect that when the victorious Croatian or French team return to their country, thousands of people will come out onto the street to praise them and give them glory.

But when it comes to praise of God: then I’m rubbish – even though what he has given to us, and what he has promised us is far greater than even winning the World Cup.

I find it hard to praise God.

When I’ve been at prayer meetings and we have been asked to share one thing for which we would like to thank or praise God, my mind goes blank. And if in my prayer time, I start to praise God with my own words, I very quickly run out of words.

That is why it is helpful to have set words to say, or to sing a song or hymn: it can set us free to praise.

But I suspect that I struggle to praise God because I have not quite realised what it is that he has given me, just how much he has blessed me. That is why spending time with passages like this is so important.
It is often when we begin to praise God out of a sense of duty that we discover -even if we are in prison or if the world is against us - that we end up praising him with self-forgetful freedom and joy.

We were created to praise God. It is what we were made for.

These verses are all about how we are called to praise:
God called us to become his children ‘to the praise of his glorious grace’ (v6)
His purpose is ‘so that we … might live for the praise of his glory’ (v12)
He gives us the Holy Spirit ‘to the praise of his glory’ (v14)

If the first line of the Lord’s Prayer is ‘Our Father in Heaven’, the second line is ‘Hallowed be your name’.

And this is not for God but for us.
God isn’t sitting there like some oversized cuckoo in an alien nest crying out to its exhausted foster parents, ‘feed me, feed me’. He is not some megalomaniac potentate saying, ‘praise me, praise me’!

Praise really is what we are all about.
God created us to be like God. We were created to be people who love – who lose ourselves in the delight of the other, in the adoration of all that is good and beautiful and wonderful and true, and in the acclamation – the praise – of all that is good and beautiful and wonderful and true.

And who or what is more worthy to receive our praise, because who is more good or beautiful or wonderful or true than the Father God who loves us, created us and has blessed us with every spiritual blessing?

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Authority over unclean spirits

Jesus gives the Church authority.

He calls the 12 to him and he gives them authority. And in giving them authority, he gives the Church authority, because the Church is built on their teaching about Jesus, and on communion with them. 

But if you notice, it is a very specific authority. He gives them ‘authority over unclean spirits’ (v7), authority to set people free from the evil that grips us and controls us.

Don’t dismiss the language of unclean spirits or of demons.

There are things, forces which control us, which are bigger than our will.  They can’t be healed by psycho-therapy, or self-knowledge, or religious ritual, or by our sacrifices, or by self-discipline or meds.

I remember one of our children putting it very clearly. He said on one occasion: ‘There are two mes. There is the good me and the bad me – and I don't know which one is going to turn up’.

And I know that. There are two Malcolms. There is the Malcolm, who wants to put God first and love and serve; and there is the Malcolm - the Malcolm I hate - when the fears and the wrong loves (the lusts) and self takes over.

Jekyll and Hyde is not a monster created by Robert Louis Stevenson. Jekyll and Hyde is alive and well, and is in each of us.

Someone (a Russian) asked me recently whether I thought the Russian people were a good people – were they better or worse than British people?
I didn’t know quite how to respond, but afterwards – isn’t that so often the case – I wished I had remembered a quote by Solzhenitsyn:
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts.”

When we talk about unclean spirits or demons we immediately think of supernatural phenomena, of possession, and exorcists. We think of the dramatic.

And there certainly were those moments in Jesus ministry:
In Mark 5, our previous chapter, we read about the demon possessed man who lived in the local cemetery – and Jesus drove a multitude of demons out of him.

But that is the extreme.

The desert fathers and mothers, women and men who went into the desert to separate themselves from the things of this world in order to focus on the things of the other world, speak a great deal both about becoming aware of their demons and battling with the demons.

And for each of us, and in each of us, the demons, the unclean spirits, are alive and well.

But – and this is the amazing thing – Jesus gives to his Church, to his people, authority over evil spirits.

The Church does not only have the authority to declare to men and women who are repentant that their sins are forgiven. It also has the authority to ‘cast out’ (that is the language that is used here) evil spirits. It has the authority to set people free.

So how do we exercise this authority?

1.      We exercise this authority by being faithful to the teaching of Jesus

The emphasis in these verses is on Jesus’ teaching.
v2: On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue
v6: He went about among the villages teaching
And we are told that his teaching is full of wisdom and it is accompanied by works of power

And the calling of the twelve is an extension of his teaching.
We are told in verse 12, ‘They went out and proclaimed that all should repent’

That is the key to all of this!

It is Jesus’ teaching which sets us free

When people hear his teaching and don’t do anything about it, very little happens.
We see that in v5: ‘And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief’.

But when people hear his teaching, and repent, things happen

And it is when we, as a church, are faithful to Jesus’ teaching, to that vision; and it is when we call people to repent, to turn from living without God to living with God, from living for themselves to living for God; it is when we call people to get off the throne of their life and to submit themselves to his rule; it is when we call people to stop believing the half-lies of this world and to put our trust in what God has done for us when Jesus died and rose from the dead, and to put our trust in the promises of God – that is when things happen.

Sometimes there are dramatic things that happen. But usually it is the quiet non-dramatic life changing stuff that happens.

Jackie Pullinger, who wrote the book Chasing the Dragon was sent by God to work among drug addicts in the old walled city in Hong Kong. She speaks of how for the first year or so she saw remarkable miracles. She prayed for addicts and they were instantly delivered – with no withdrawal symptoms. But, she wrote in a subsequent book, after the initial period, those instant deliverances didn’t happen. Instead she worked with those people who had been delivered miraculously to help set up drug rehab centres – and she wrote that subsequently people were delivered, usually not instantaneously, but through the long, hard, costly path of step by step healing.

And for us there may be moments of deliverance. when we are instantly set free from something that has gripped us. But that is rare. Most of the time we will need to constantly put our trust in God’s word, in his forgiveness and do battle with the demons. There will be times when we win and times when we lose. But we hold to his promise that one day we will be set free.

One of the desert fathers describes the teaching of Jesus, the Word of God, as like a stream falling from a height onto a rock. The water, he said, is soft. The rock is very hard. But over thousands and thousands of years, the constant fall of the water has worn away the rock and created a hollow which is filled by pool of ever-flowing, life-giving water.

All we need to do is to be faithful to that word, and faithful to that teaching, and to call people to repent and turn to God.

2.      We exercise this authority by living in absolute dependence on Jesus

Jesus ‘commands’ the twelve – it is a strong word – to go out with virtually nothing in complete dependence on him.

They are to go in pairs: that is so that they could collaborate each other’s words. Jewish law required that there had to be at least two witnesses if anything was to be validated as true.
And they were to only take staff, sandals and one tunic. That really is travelling light.

When we go out for the day, Alison loves to take everything with her – a bit like Mrs Beaver in the Lion and the Witch and the Wardrobe. The baddies are coming to get them and they’ve got to get out of the house as quickly as possible and she still wants to take the sewing machine with her. That is very different to me. I just want to leave and not take anything with us. But that is not me being spiritual. That is me being impetuous and lazy. And I can’t even be smug in my laziness, because I still make sure I have my wallet and my money with me.

But they are to take nothing: no bread – so the Lord’s prayer, ‘Give us today our daily bread’ becomes for them a very real prayer; no bag and not even any money
Even the instruction about taking only one tunic is significant. During the day one tunic was sufficient, but at night you would need two tunics to keep warm if you were out in the open.

 So they were really were dependent on God for their provision.

I was very struck by an article that I read about Mother Theresa after her death. Her worldly personal possessions consisted of a couple of saris and a bucket for washing.

Jesus was giving to specific people specific instructions for a specific task in a specific time. And there is an urgency here because he wants to get the message of the Kingdom of God to as many people as he can before he is crucified.
But I do not think that these instructions are for all people at all times. The dress code wouldn’t really work in Russia in the winter!

Rather the principal is that if we are to exercise our authority and see people set free from evil spirits then we need to be doing this by living in complete dependence on God.

The story is told of someone showing Thomas Aquinas around the Vatican treasury. The guide asked him if he remembered the story in the bible when the beggar came to Peter and John and asked them for money. And Peter and John had to say to him, ‘We don’t have any money’. ‘Well’, said the guide, ‘Look at this treasure. We don’t need to say that now’. And Thomas Aquinas replied, ‘I agree. But we can’t say what Peter and John then did say to the paralysed beggar: ‘In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, get up and walk’.

The temptation, in this ministry – particularly when we speak about something like casting out unclean spirits – is to fast and confess my sins, to get others to pray for me, to say my prayers and do the rituals.
In one sense that is right. We need to do that.
But we do not do that to make ourselves more spiritually powerful. We do not do this to spiritually psych ourselves up. We do it in order to spiritually psych ourselves down. We make ourselves weaker – so that as I go into this ministry, I recognise my physical weakness, my dependence on forgiveness, on others and my dependence on God.

We have no power in ourselves to forgive sins. We have no power in ourselves to preach or persuade people to repent or to cast out unclean spirits. Who do we think we are?

But as his Church, as his people together, we do have authority over the unclean spirits, over the demons, over the forces of hell: We can be set free and set others free - when we are faithful to his teaching, and when we recognise our complete weakness and our utter dependence on him.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Reaching out to Jesus through our fear

Mark 5.21-43

These are a fascinating couple of stories.

I’m sure some of you will have played ‘spot the difference’. Two photographs that are almost identical but that have a number of differences. Well, in this case, it is more a matter of spot the similarities.

The woman has suffered for 12 years. The little girl is 12 years old
Both Jairus and the woman fall at Jesus’ feet
Jairus asks Jesus to touch his daughter. The woman touches Jesus
Jairus pleads for the life of his daughter - and Jesus calls the woman ‘daughter’

But I think that the big similarity is that they are both about fear and faith.

The woman comes to Jesus ‘in fear and trembling’. But Jesus commends the faith of the woman: ‘your faith has made you well’.
And when Jairus receives the news that his daughter has died, Jesus says to him, ‘Do not fear, only believe’.

There is the fear.

For the woman it is the fear of exposure, of ridicule, abuse and shame. She suffers from bleeding. That makes her unclean in the eyes of the law. The last thing that she should be doing is touching a rabbi, a religious leader. By touching him, she would be making him unclean. And there was no such thing as health insurance or a health service, and this woman has been ripped off - by the first century medical profession.

So when Jesus stops and says, ‘someone touched me’, she is terrified. She has lived in the shadows so long. She is the unnoticed one. She has got away for so long thinking that she is naked, nothing. She thought she had got away with this. And now someone has noticed her - and not only noticed her but brought her out into the public.

And so she falls at Jesus’ feet.

In Ravenna, in Northern Italy, there are some amazing mosaics. They date back to about the C5th, making them some of the earliest surviving Christian images. In the Church of Apollinare Nuovo, there are a series of mosaics depicting events from the life of Jesus. One of them is this moment – in fear and trembling the woman falls at the feet of Jesus.

I think many of us are like this woman. Maybe we have never had that confidence. Maybe we have tried to get up but been knocked down time after time – whether by people or by the circumstances of life. So we prefer to live in the shadows. We’re terrified of being exposed in public and of being shown up, or shamed and ridiculed. And so we hide. We might hide behind a role, or dress down so that we are not noticed. And we certainly don’t put ourselves forward.

But the thing that I love about this story is how Jesus brings this woman to the front in order not to push her down, but to lift her up. He does not rebuke her. He commends her for her faith. He reassures her that she has been healed. He tells her to go in peace. And – and this is possibly one of the most significant words in the whole encounter – he calls her ‘daughter’. Daughter of Abraham, Daughter of God.

And in this image we see how the woman is holding out the garment covering her arms as if it is a receptacle. She is stripped of all self-reliance. She is at the feet of Jesus, but she is open to receive from Jesus. And Jesus is beginning to stoop down in order to lift her up.

And perhaps this is where we should be, a little more often!
‘Humble yourself before the Lord’, says James, ‘and he will exalt you’.

And what about Jairus?

He has also come to Jesus and fallen at Jesus feet.

That was a big thing for a leader of the synagogue to do. He was an important man. Could you imagine a VIP doing that?
But he was desperate. He asks Jesus to heal his daughter. And now – because Jesus has spent time with this woman - the news has come to him that his daughter has died.

His heart must have broken in two.
Those of you who have lost a child, when you got the news, will be aware of what that feels like.

In my parish ministry in the UK, I spent a great deal of time with people who had been bereaved. And one of the more powerful emotions that people can experience is fear. Fear of facing a reality that is so much bigger and more powerful than they are, of something - though they are not quite sure of what: fear of what happens next, fear of isolation and separation. Fear of being alone in a hostile world. Fear that they will be found to be naked and nothing.

And in the face of that fear, Jesus calls us to believe, to exercise faith.

To believe in him. To put our trust in him.

That is important.

It is not simply about having faith.
We have faith in many different things: in people, in yoga, in experts, even in ourselves.
But when you have been sick for 12 years or ripped off by the very people in whom you put your trust, or when you have lost a child, you realise that that is a misplaced faith.
We are called to put our faith, our trust in Jesus.

We are to put our faith in his power to act

He does have the power to heal, as he healed the woman.
We must not let go of that. Wonders can happen when we call on Jesus.

In my previous parish, God met one of our younger mums in a very powerful way. Her faith came alive. Her mother had a painful leg. So Maaike prayed for her leg. And Maaike’s mother spent most of the following day in tears. Not only was her leg healed, but Jesus had touched her.

And Jesus has the power to bring people back from the dead.

There is evidence that it happens – not very often, and usually at particular places at particular times when the people of God are going through dreadful suffering. God uses it as a sign to encourage the church.
My own adopted half-cousin, who is Indian, and her husband, Krishna, work in Orissa in North India where many Christians have been martyred for their faith.  They tell of someone who they knew who had died and who their church had prayed for. His body was in the mortuary. He sat up, and the terrified mortuary attendant ran out of the mortuary and locked the door. Make of that what you will.

But when we speak of such healings and when we speak of people being raised from the dead, we need to remember that Jesus is sovereign in all of this.
He works in his way and in his time.

This woman had to wait 12 years before she was healed.
And Jesus in his ministry on earth only brought back three people from the dead: Jairus’ daughter, the widow of Nain’s son and Lazarus. And in each of those cases none of the people left behind asked Jesus for the miracle of resurrection.

So this passage is not only about putting our trust in Jesus; it is about persevering in that faith.

That is why Jesus says to Jairus, when he hears that his daughter has died, ‘Do not fear, only believe’.

Jairus had thrown himself at Jesus feet. He had trusted Jesus that Jesus would heal his daughter. But his daughter had died. Jesus had let him down.
And Jesus says to him: ‘Don’t fear – don’t give up on me. Just keep on believing’

I guess many of us need to hear this

We have prayed for healing and not seen healing. Maybe we have lost a child or someone close. The job has gone, all our efforts are futile, a relationship is on the rocks, there is no money, our team have gone out of the world cup, the church continues to struggle, the political situation gets worse, we have got no resources left. And Jesus has gone AWOL, or at least, if he is there, he is doing wonderful things in other places with other people – but not with us.

Remember that Jesus didn’t heal Jairus’ daughter. Because he spent time with this woman, the most awful thing that Jairus could imagine did happen. His daughter died.

But Jesus then went and did something even more astonishing, something that Jairus could not even imagine would happen. He raised her from the dead.

Jesus is showing us that there is nothing beyond his control. He is saying, ‘Look. Don’t be afraid. Trust me. Keep on trusting me. Because I am bigger than the worst thing that can possibly happen. I am bigger than death.’

And God promises that he will answer our prayers, in his way, and in his time, and ‘he is able to accomplish abundantly – through his power at work within us – far more than all we can ask or imagine.’ (Ephesians 3.20)

These are two stories with a similar theme: faith and fear.

Believe in Jesus. Put your trust in him.  And go on putting your trust in him. Even in the face of terrifying, rational or irrational, overwhelming fear, even when the worst thing you can imagine happens, even in the face of death.

We cannot physically reach out and touch the hem of his robe like this woman, but we can in our mind and in our imagination reach out to him and touch him. We throw ourselves at his feet.

When I was at theological college, we were attached to local churches. One of my fellow students spoke about one Sunday, when after everybody had received communion, and the service was meant to continue, the vicar was nowhere to be seen. So he went up into the sanctuary behind the large altar and saw the vicar lying flat on the floor. He asked, ‘Are you OK’, and was greeted with the words, ‘Go away. I am praying’. 

Or I remember going to a service in the St Petersburg theological college, when a student became a monk. He lay flat out on the floor with his arms stretched out in the shape of a cross. It is a symbol of our absolute dependence on God. 

Can I suggest you try it - when you are on your own – throw yourself at Jesus’ feet: Physically prostrate yourself before Jesus.
But don’t do it when you are tired, because you’ll just fall asleep!

In our fear, in our emptiness and brokenness, we reach out to him.

He is the one who lived and who died and who rose from the dead.
We cannot see him, we cannot hear him. He is beyond our five senses. And yet, in some completely incomprehensible way, he is present. He is present in this world. He is present in his people. He is present here as we listen to his word and as we eat the bread and drink the wine.

He bends down and he lifts us up. He calls us Son or Daughter. And he gives us eternal life.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Being patient with yourself and others

Mark 4.26-32

We are looking at two stories which Jesus tells: both speak of seeds.

In the first, the farmer sows the seed, is expectant and patient, and then reaps the harvest.
And in the second a tiny seed grows into a huge tree in which birds find shelter.

What is this seed?
At the obvious level it is literal seed: this is something that farmers would understand.  Yes, they would say, that is how it is. We must wait for the seed to grow into grain. And we know the mustard seed. We know that the seed will grow into something huge, even though we are not sure how. 

But elsewhere in this chapter, and in other stories that Jesus tells, the seed is the word of God. It is the good news of Jesus. It is a message, a word of love, of promise, of warning. It is about forgiveness, about friendship with God, about the Kingdom and rule of God, about hope and peace and power. It is a word about Jesus, a word which blows apart our human reasoning.
And this word, like a seed planted in the soil, is planted in a person’s heart and mind, when they hear it and receive it. 

And in the first of the two stories Jesus tells, or at least this is my take on it, he is saying that the seed will bear fruit. The shoots will come, then the head and then the grain in the head. So, he is telling us, we need to be expectant. Like the farmer we should be looking for this growth. But we also need to be patient. This is going to take time, and we need to let God do his work.

That is important. 

In the past, certainly in the West, we rather assumed that there would not be such a big change when a person heard the word and received the message. For many of us who are older and were brought up in the West, the values that we were taught were those values which had been shaped by at least 1400 years of biblical tradition and church history in our country.  And we were taught to guard things like family values, respect for authority, faithfulness, truth, honesty, hard work, humility, patience, sobriety, generousity, self-denial, self-discipline, doing your duty and at least lip service to the idea that we need God and that we will one day come under the judgment of God.  Now please do not hear me saying that this was a golden age. It was not. People were blinded by prejudices, there was terrible abuse of power, and there was judgementalism and hypocrisy by the bucket load.  But what I am saying is that when a person received the gift of forgiveness, when they welcomed the Holy Spirit into their lives, the church did not expect them to live a particularly different life - rather it expected them to live the same sort of life that they had been living but now not in their own strength but in God’s strength, not to their own glory but to God’s glory.

But our societies today are very different. People have often been brought up in a culture that has very different values.  They may have grown up believing that God does not exist; that as far as morality goes, they are a little god, that there is no ultimate authority, and that anything goes so long as it does not obviously hurt another person.  Truth, or lack of truth, is only a means to an end.  And why wait when you can have it all now. It’s OK to take what you want provided it is legal or least you can get away with it.  They may have had several sexual partners of indiscriminate gender. They consider marriage to be an outdated institution dreamt up in a patriarchal society as a way of keeping your woman under control. And so when a person becomes a Christian, when they hear the word of God and receive it, yes - there will need to be very big changes of attitude and changes of behaviour. 

But I think that this parable warns us against impatience. We need to wait till the grain is formed in the head.  And we need to be patient with the other and, for that matter, we need to be patient with ourselves. One of the vicars who I worked for in inner city London used to say that he expected it took 7 years from the point of conversion till a person became a useful and reliable member of the church! Today he might say it that would be longer.

When a person becomes a Christian, when they have been baptised, or have suddenly realised what it means to live as a baptised person, they will not change overnight. They will not immediately become perfect.  The drunken binges, or the foul language or the addictions or the abuse of their and other’s bodies may well still happen - but by the grace of God you’ll just feel far more rubbish afterwards. I say by the grace of God, because that is not a bad sign. In fact it is evidence that the Holy Spirit is active in you. Before God came into your life you couldn’t care less; but now you are becoming painfully aware that what you are doing is in fact hurting many people, destroying yourself, corrupting society, and - worst of all - hurting the God who gave his life for you. 

But this story seems to me to be saying that we need to give the other person, and we need to give ourselves, time to change. We need to let the Holy Spirit do his amazing work. 

And this isn’t a cop out. The expectancy that you will change has to be there. There will be times when you do have to make certain deliberate decisions if you are to grow as believer. It might be the decision to tithe, or the decision to leave a certain group of people, or to commit yourself to a pattern and discipline of prayer. I know of one couple - and I wouldn’t advise this for everyone - who were living together, who both became Christians, and they felt that God was calling them to live apart in separate homes until they were married. In many ways it doesn’t matter what the specific act of costly obedience is - but it does matter that when we have heard the word of God, we obey - even if we then fail.

And the change will happen - God alone knows how. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. Things that we used to do lose their previous attraction. Other things become more attractive. Our desires will be transformed, and our behaviour will follow on.

I often tell the story that I heard about Kyle and Darren. I don’t know if it is true, but it makes the point. Kyle and Darren were the leaders of the two rival gangs in the local borstal, the prison for young offenders. There was a mission and both Kyle and Darren went along, with their gangs, for a laugh. But an amazing thing happened. On the last evening the evangelist made an appeal, and to everybody’s astonishment Darren got up and went forward. Kyle couldn’t believe his luck. He could taunt his opponent mercilessly. When they next met he went up to Darren and said, ‘’So Darren you’ve become a Christian. I always knew you were pathetic. So you’re a changed man now are you?”. Everybody stepped back because that was the sort of challenge that would have resulted in a serious fight. But this time Darren didn’t hit Kyle. Instead he said, ‘No, not changed, but changing’. Then he hit him. 

We need to give people time to change; and we need to give ourselves time to change. We need to be patient.
Be patient with others – bear with them, challenge them, encourage them, forgive them and go on forgiving them as they begin this life long walk with Jesus.
And be patient with yourself. You will to become perfect immediately, but - and forgive me for using a very environmentally unfriendly illustration - this is really eating elephant stuff. How do you eat an elephant? One mouthful at a time. Don’t decide to become a monk or a nun if you haven’t yet learned to have a regular daily time of prayer. 
Be patient, be gentle with others and yourself, but also be expectant that there will be change. Look for it. Expect it. 

And the second story: about the mustard seed. Jesus is exaggerating here to make a point. It was a standard illustration of the time. And people knew that it would grow into a huge bush.  
And again, Jesus is speaking about the power of the word.  The word about Jesus, proclaimed by a marginalised powerless church, becomes the great tree that is the Kingdom of God. It shelters many people - there are echoes of Ezekiel 40, and images of believers as birds in paradise (tiles with images of birds on the estate at Ismailova). 

But I suggest that in telling us this story, one of the things that Jesus is doing is giving hope to those of us who think that we are so small, who don’t think that we are changing, who are still struggling with the old way of life. He is saying, let God be God, let the Holy Spirit do his work in you, and you will become a place of blessing for many people.

I think of Corey and Hayley, who we are saying goodbye to today. I’m sure God has still got many things that he wants to do in their lives, but I also see how - because they have been obedient to God and worked at Hinkson, at a fraction of what they could have got if they had taught elsewhere, and because others have been obedient in supporting them, they have been a great blessing to many. If they will forgive this illustration, many birds have made their nests in them!  And it is right that we should honour such people. I hasten to add that this is not in any way running down others who have come here as teachers in the usual way: we each need to be obedient to God in the calling he has given us.  And when that happens, we will grow to become like trees, which provide a home for many. 

It is significant that Jesus uses parables to talk about the seed of the word of God. People could hear the parables as interesting observations about current farming techniques. They could hear the parables as stories - Jesus was a great story teller. But if that is all that they heard them as, then they were like the rock on which the seed fell. It lay there and never put down roots. 
But the follower of Jesus realises that there was more to these stories. Just as Jesus explained everything to his disciples in private (v33-34), so we can come to Jesus and ask him to explain them to them. 

When you are reading a parable, or a passage of scripture, and you don’t understand it, or you find it difficult, talk to him. Ask him to help you understand. And use whatever he gives you: other Christians - those who have written about the passage. ‘Think about these things’, says Paul to Timothy, ‘and God will give you understanding’. 

We don’t exactly know how God changes us and transforms us into people who will bless many. It is a mystery! But we do know that the seed is the Word of God. And if we allow God to speak to us through his word, then in time, if we are patient and expectant, that seed will grow in us, and we will change, and we will become like Jesus.