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.