Friday, 31 August 2012

Why does Jesus walk on water?

Mark 6:45-52

Life is hard: there are discouragements, disappointments, criticisms
Some of us have been on holiday, and now we have to go back to work: we have to be responsible, do things we do not wish to do, wear the uniform, look smart.

The Christian life is no different: it is hard to be a Christian believer.
Our society is increasingly anti-Christian; maybe our work place or family is hostile to faith; our friends are at the stage where they want to experiment or have new experiences, which is great, except God plays no part in their thinking and they want to do things against what God has said.
Maybe you have lost your job, struggling with a sense of lack of worth, or with forgiveness, sickness, bereavement. 
It is hard living by faith, putting your total trust in an unseen God; and at times prayers seem unanswered, God seems absent and you feel forgotten. 

It is hard: the disciples (Jesus' followers) are being obedient to Jesus. He has told them to go to the other side of the lake, and they have gone. And yet, even though they are being obedient, 'they make headway painfully'. They are not getting anywhere fast.

But it is when the disciples are in this situation, struggling against the wind, making slow headway, that Jesus comes to them, walking on the water. 


1. Jesus walks on the water to show the disciples that he has not forgotten them.
Jesus sends off his disciples and goes up a mountain to pray. 
It reminds us that He is, even now,  praying for us. We're told that in Hebrews. He is 'seated' next to his Father, and he is praying for this world and for us. But in his prayer he not only faces God, his Father. He also looks for us.
And Jesus sees that his disciples are struggling. 

His prayer for them would have been more than enough. But Jesus comes to his disciples, walking on the water, to show that he has not forgotten them.

We know that Jesus is praying for us as we seek to obey him here. We know that he can see us and our struggles. But there are moments in our Christian life when things are hard going, and Jesus, in his compassion, comes to us and meets us - whether in worship, communion, an encounter, a time of prayer or whatever. He comes to us and reassures us that he has not forgotten us. 

2. Jesus walks on water to show us that he can come to the most unlikely place and at the most unlikely time.
'At about the fourth watch of the night [about 3am], he came walking to them on the sea'.

It was the most unlikely place: so unlikely that they think that he is a ghost. And he came at an unlikely time, at the darkest hour. 

They've been slogging away for quite some time: the youtube clip is taken from a boat in roughish seas on the sea of Galilee. They were in a much smaller boat than this. 

It was really hard work; it had been going on for several hours; and 3am in the morning is the darkest moment of the night.

And Jesus walks on the water to show that he can come, and he often does come, at that darkest moment or in that darkest place. Nowhere is beyond his reach, not even when we've been disobedient and we know we are not where we should be. 

3. Jesus walks on water to show that all things are possible to him
He's fed the 5000; he is now walking on water and calming the wind.
It is no wonder that the disciples are terrified and then astounded. 
It is no wonder that he needs to say, 'Don't be afraid'.

Notice that here they are not frightened by the sea. This is different to the occasion when the disciples are caught in an overwhelming storm and are terrified. This is simply about hard work. However, here, they are terrified by Jesus. 

Love, not fear
It's not surprising. Jesus says to them, 'Don't be afraid. It is I'. The words, in the original, used for 'It is I' are the same as those that are used to translate the words used by God when Moses asked God to tell him His name. God says, 'I am who I am'. 
This is the one who is the Creator; this is the one who is bigger than all we've known or experienced or dreamt - who is completely beyond us and outside our control. And yet he tells us, 'Don't be afraid'.

The reaction of the disciples in the boat to Jesus walking on the water, is the same as their reaction, a short while later, when they see him in his radiant glory (Mark 9:2-6). It is the same as the reaction of the women to the news about the risen Jesus (Mark 16:8). 

But Jesus does not wish for us to live by fear of him.
He loves us and he desires us not to be his slaves, but his children and his beloved. 

What is interesting here is that Jesus came to his disciples, but his intention was to pass them by. In other words, Jesus would have come to them, walked alongside them, and then gone on ahead to the place where he had told them to go.

But because 'they do not understand who he is', they are terrified of him. 

It is a bit like the children in one of the Narnia stories. They see a lion running beside them. If they had been trusting Aslan, they would have known it was Him, and been reassured. But because they had forgotten him and were trying to do their own thing in their own way, they are terrified of it. 

And Jesus, in his compassion, hears their cry and he gets into the boat with them. And when he gets into the boat, they are given a glimpse of heaven. The sea immediately becomes calm, and they reach their destination. 

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Montgomery Heights Christian Care Centre

Montgomery Heights (the compound)
Montgomery Heights Christian Care Centre is a children's home set on a hill about 80 kilometres NW of Harare, Zimbabwe. It is home (and school) to 56 children, from 0 - 18, carers and staff (some of whom live in the compound, but most of whom live in a village just outside the compound). The children are divided into four homes: the babies, the toddler house, the boys and the girls. Most of the children are without both parents, and have been at the home from a very early age. The vast majority of parents have died with HIV. Montgomery Heights is also home to a church which serves the surrounding villages and district.

Jesus said that those who call him Lord should be 'the light of the world'. He describes them as being like 'A city set on a hill', which cannot be hidden. Montgomery Heights is a 'city' set on a hill which reflects the glory of God, and we had the privilege, as part of my sabbatical, to stay there for 3 weeks in July 2012. Several things struck me.

The children of Montgomery in their school uniform
God is glorified when people love Him with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and when they love their neighbour as themselves. There was a lot of love at Montgomery Heights: love for God and love for neighbour. The staff were committed both in their faith and to the home. In our brief stay, we got to best know Lesley, the director of Montgomery Heights and pastor of the church. She is British, but has been working as a missionary in Zimbabwe for over 25 years, and now has permanent residency. Fiona is a nurse from the UK, who has been working in the home for over 10 years. Elaine is Zimbabwean, the longest serving member of staff, mother of the girls home and headteacher of the school. For each of them it is a life of total commitment, a freely chosen decision to obey God and be where He has called them to be. Elaine told us of one 'encounter', in her early days at Montgomery Heights, with one of the teenage girls. Elaine spoke of how, in the middle of the argument, she said to the girl, 'Do you know I love you' (she said it was not something she usually says, because the typical response is, 'No you don't. You are not our mum'). But on this occasion, the girl said, to Elaine's surprise, 'Yes'. So Elaine asked, 'Do you know why I love you?' The girl said, 'No'. Elaine replied, 'Because I choose to'. It was, she said, the breakthrough that was needed in that girl's life, and she was the first who did come to call Elaine 'mum'. Love is fundamentally an act of the will. We love our own children because we need them: it becomes real love when we choose to love them freely.

Because the children's home is a large family it is hard for Lesley, Fiona or Elaine to get away; and although I never heard any of them say this, by choosing to be obedient to God's calling and commit themselves to the children, they have given up much. I was reminded of Jesus' words, 'Truly I say to you, there is no on one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.' (Mark 10:26)

God is glorified when people are at their limits for Him. The children's home and school was initially set up and supported by the local white farmers. Just before the troubles began 10 years ago, the then pastor of the church prophesied that God was going to take away the crutches that many of them had relied on. For many of the farmers, the following years were a riches to rags story, with everything stripped away from them, apart from the One who can never be taken away. We had the privilege of meeting an older couple who had been evicted from their farm and lost their home and most of their assets, and yet who were remarkably unbitter. They both worked for a Christian mission, and he was teaching pastors throughout Africa how to farm. But the crutches were also taken away from the children's home. They had relied on the farmers for food, volunteer support, finance and friendship. Overnight it was all taken away. At the same time the economy of Zimbabwe collapsed. Suddenly they had nothing; they had to learn to farm, to become as self-sufficient as they could, and to be daily dependent on God and on the donations of His people. There were and (occasionally) are days when Lesley does not know where the food is coming from. Although things have improved in Zimbabwe over the last couple of years, there is still tremendous poverty and it can be hard to find things that we would consider essentials.

Dangling one of the younger children!
The result is that the home and school is run on love, hard work and prayer. Prayer is not a leisure activity, something to tap on to the beginning or the end of the day, but a daily reality and an essential need. Even in our short stay, one of the boreholes (providing water) broke, the main cooking stove broke, the solar water heater on the girls home broke, the toilets broke (that is a fairly regular event) and there were 3 powercuts (one of them lasting 3 days). The prayer, 'Give us today our daily bread' is at times a very real immediate prayer. There are also occasions when babies arrive at the home who are so sick that there is no medical option. All that can be done is pray. And because of that dependence on God they have seen God do astonishing wonders. There have been miraculous healings; there have also been occasions when babies and children have died: but even then the grace and healing of God has been seen. Janet was very sick when she arrived as a baby. She had also been badly treated and had drawn into herself. She made no eye contact. For a period of 6 months she was loved and nursed by Fiona, but did not respond to the treatment. However, just before she died, Fiona tells how Janet, for the first and last time in her life, looked directly at her in the face. There are stories of God's astonishing provision at moments of desperate need, and of his protection, especially when the compound was surrounded by a group of thugs in the time of the troubles demanding access to the children, .

Football at MH (with our children)
It was also a good reminder for us, and our children, to live in a community where there are no shops or television or internet or computers or outside entertainments. So how do the children survive? They play together, read, write, play football or in the play area, they sew, sing, do drama, draw, and play with Ali or Toby, the dogs who live on the compound. In the summer they can swim (there is a swimming pool on the compound). Every Saturday an older and a younger team comes from one of the local farms, and there is a football match. The older lads (and younger staff) are scarily good and fast, even though many of them play with no football boots, or a left footed player plays with a left boot, and the right footed player plays with the right boot. Once a week they watch a DVD. They get a new set of clothes at Christmas. But, and this is the astonishing thing, they survive and even flourish!

Thirdly, God is glorified when His praises are declared, and when the truths about Him are proclaimed. Worship and prayer is at the centre of Montgomery Heights. There is the Sunday service (typically, for Africa, very long), but the worship is great, and people loved to go forward for prayer

On Saturday there is a youth service (which is optional for the older ones and which brings in some young people from the neighbouring villages). School begins each day with a prayer, and there are prayers in the different homes each evening. Once a week the school meets together for assembly and worship.

I was struck again by how important it is to declare the praises and truths of God, not simply as our duty of worship to Him, but as a reminder that, in a difficult world, in which people have known immense pain at very early ages, where there is so much inequality and injustice, and where the problems can be overwhelming, God is still God, He is still in control, He loves us immensely, He has a plan for our lives, there will be a day of judgement and we have an astonishing destiny. It is important to remind ourselves that there is nothing that can separate us from His love. It does not matter how those praises or truths are declared (whether through chanting the Te Deum or singing the latest Matt Redman song) - that is purely cultural. What does matter is that they are declared!

And when God is glorified, there is good fruit. Many of the children have come through very traumatic experiences, and yet they are astonishingly well-adjusted. Social Welfare, Zimbabwe's equivalent of our social services, hold the home in high regard. Montgomery Heights is a real family. The older children help care for the younger children. It was lovely to learn that 'alumni', children who have grown up in the home and who have now set up their own homes, invite children currently living at the home for holidays. Lesley's prayer is that the home will make a difference in Zimbabwe, as children grow into young men and women who love and serve God and who wish to love and serve their country for Him.