On This Rock

Preached at All Saints, Easton
24th August 2014: 10th Sunday after Trinity
Exodus 1:8-2:20; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

Life is full of questions. We are asked a lot of questions over the courses of our lives. We can’t even buy a coffee in most places, it seems, without an inquisition. “What kind of coffee–Espresso, Americano, Latte, Mocha, Frappacino?” “What size–small, medium or large?” “Would you like to upgrade to a grande for just an extra 30p?” “Would you like it with milk?” “If so, what kind of milk–soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, hemp milk, oat milk, or plain, boring old cows’ milk?” “And if cows’ milk–full fat, semi or skimmed?” “Regular or decaf?” “One shot or two?” “To drink here or to go?” And finally, they don’t let you leave without asking, “Would you like any cakes or pastries with that today?” Who would have thought getting our daily fix of caffeine would be such an ordeal?!

And yet, perhaps surprisingly for those who take their coffee very seriously, there are also a lot of other, more important questions we are asked over the courses of our lives, the answers to which are potentially life-changing; questions like: “Will you marry me?” “Why should we give you this job?” “Can you show me where it hurts?” In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus puts before his disciples a question the answer to which was not only life-changing but eternal life-changing. He puts it before us as well: “Who do you say that the Son of Man?” (i.e. that I am?) There is no more important question we have to answer in our lives than that. By our answer to that one question this church will stand or fall, indeed the whole Church will stand or fall. “Who do you say that I am?” Be careful how you respond, the mission of the Church depends upon it.

Jesus and his disciples were walking together in the area of Caesarea Philippi–an area, by the way of no little significance. It was situated at the base of Mount Hermon, right at the far northern border of Israel’s territories with the pagan nations and it was a haven for all kinds of idolatry. The ancients loved the high places and Mount Hermon was the highest around. Throughout its history, shrines were set up there to the Philistine fertility god Baal, the Greek nature god Pan, before more recently Philip, Herod the Tetrarch’s son, changed the name of the place to Caesarea Philippi to honour the Caesar (who himself was worshipped as a god) and, well, I’ll leave you to work out who else… Caesarea Philippi had, then, for many centuries been a place for those trying to discern the divine.

It was on the road in this very place that Jesus asked his disciples the first of two questions: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” In other words, “What is the word on the street? What are folks saying about me as they are queuing at the Post Office or waiting at the bus stop? What do they make of me in the pubs and the coffee shops, around the kettle or water cooler in the office? How are the opinion polls looking?” The answers were quite complimentary. “Well,” the disciples said, “there’s a strong rumour that you are John the Baptist come back to life. Others are saying you’re the returning Elijah, the prophet meant to set the messianic good times rolling. Still others think you’re Jeremiah–you know, the great prophet of the exile. A few think you’re some other prophet. Hosea, maybe–you certainly seem to hang out with a similarly dubious crowd.”

Then Jesus went a little further. He turned the question on them: “And what about you?” he said. “Who do you say that I am?” There was a deathly hush. You could have heard a pin drop. Finally, Simon, becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the silence blurts something out. “You are the Christ,” he says, “the Son of the living God.” “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah,” Jesus says, “come and get a gold star!” The other eleven are in disbelief. James and John are muttering between themselves calling Simon a swat. And Thomas is there and he’s protesting jealously saying, “I don’t believe it! He cheated! He must have looked in the back of the book!” But Jesus replies and says, “This isn’t ordinary book knowledge, only God can give this kind of insight.”

Faith is a gift. It is God alone who gives us the grace to see who Jesus is. Ours is a revelatory faith. We come to know God only because God comes to make himself known to us. We may pray, we may read our Bibles, we may receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist, but it’s up to God to meet us there. They are means of grace, channels God has generously opened for us to approach him. Before emerging as the great hymn-writer, preacher and leader of the 18th century Methodist revival, Charles Wesley became aware that there was something seriously lacking in his faith–a personal knowledge of who Jesus was to him. Already a preacher, he tried preaching himself into such faith. But he couldn’t. If he could, he would, and he tried. But he couldn’t. Faith is not something we go out and get out for ourselves, faith is something God gives us.

Only God can open our eyes to see that Jesus is God. Only God can make us look upon a homeless, wandering Jewish preacher and healer from an obscure little town in Galilee who ended up being condemned to die like a common criminal, half-naked on a Roman cross, and say he’s the Saviour. You’ve got to say, it’s not an answer you would arrive at on the basis of common sense. Jesus isn’t exactly what we would expect God to look like, is he? Therefore, if anyone can look at that Jesus and say that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God, it must be a gift of faith and not something we’ve come to by Sherlock Holmes style rational deduction. Jesus certainly does not fit the typical profile of the Christ. And despite confessing Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed and divinely chosen King, Simon (as we find out just a few verses on from here) clearly still had a lot to learn as he unwisely tried to rebuking Jesus for saying that he would have to suffer. He had not yet understood that the Saviour we need is not one who will wrest control of political authority, but one who will wrest control of our hearts by dying for our sins.

Nevertheless, Jesus turns to Simon and says, “From now on I’m calling you the Rock (that is, Peter, petros in the Greek), because you’re the Rock on which I’m going to build my Church.” I don’t know about you, but that fills me with confidence. If Jesus will build his Church on someone like Peter–impetuous, misunderstanding, stuttering Peter, maybe he can build his Kingdom on earth with someone like me too. I remember preaching on this passage a few years ago and a woman came up to me after the service and said, “You know, it wasn’t Peter himself Jesus said that he would build upon, but his confession.” She was concerned lest I gave the impression that Jesus gives authority in his Church to mere mortals. The scandal is: he does. Jesus gives his authority to people who know him and who he is, to men and women like you and me. The Church is built upon ordinary people who know Jesus, ordinary people who know Jesus personally as their Saviour and as their Lord–the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Muslims think of Jesus as a prophet (one of their top seven prophets) through whom God’s truth has come–nabi Issa they call him. They don’t believe that he’s the Son of God, that he rose from the dead or that he’s God’s final messenger (that, for Muslims, is Mohammed), but nevertheless he is still very well respected, even though he taught some things seemingly contradictory to Mohammed. I wonder though, how many people in Church on a typical Sunday don’t think much more of Jesus than Muslims do. They see him as just an historical figure, someone we learn about in books and documentaries on TV, not as the living Lord. They see him as the founder and teacher of a new moral code espousing a non-judgmental love and acceptance for all people, no matter what they may believe or say or even do. Others see him as a revolutionary of the political left who championed the cause of the poor and dispossessed and who was willing to die challenging the power of the elites. Still others think of Jesus as someone whose job it is to give us what we want–someone we write a shopping list to in prayer and expect him to fill it for us.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus still asks his disciples the same question. Do we know him as the Christ–as our Saviour, the King whose job it is to rescue and restore the whole world to God, who came to tackle not simply the symptoms of sin and evil, but the root cause of it–the selfishness and greed and inwardness which is so ingrained in us and which we so often do not even notice? Do we know him as the Son of the living God–as God in the flesh, as Lord and Master of all, the one whom we not only love but choose to obey in love, whose ways we follow not simply because they profit us but because they are his ways and because that is reason enough. Can we, even if we do not quite understand all that it means, say with Simon, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” and with Simon be made into a rock on which Jesus may build? The Church needs people who know Jesus. Only then can we make Jesus known. Nemo dat quod non habet. You cannot give what you do not have. If the mission of the Church is to grow, it must grow from people who know him whose Church it is.

Peter’s confession didn’t come out of the blue; it came from spending time with Jesus, as a gift of God’s own self-revealing. So it will for us also. Spending time with Jesus is the only way we get to know who he really is. So are we doing that? Are we meeting him regularly where he may be found–in prayer, in reading the Bible, in the Eucharist, in acts of loving service? Peter may have known that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God”, but he still had a lot to learn about what that means, that Jesus is our crucified Lord and Saviour, and that because and not despite his death on the cross.

Who we say that Jesus is matters. Who we think Jesus is will affect how we relate to him and what place we allow him to have in our lives. If we think of Jesus as the epitome of Mr Nice Guy, our discipleship will just consist in trying our best to be ‘nice’. If we think of Jesus as just a great moral teacher from yester-year, we might take some of his teachings on board, but we won’t let him take control of our lives in the here and now, reshaping us and saving us from the sin that comes so naturally to us.

The Jesus the world needs is Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God. The only Jesus who can redeem the world is God incarnate, who goes to the Cross on our behalf to save us from our sin and to follow whom means taking up our own cross and having our self-seeking, self-will and self-centredness crucified with him in order to live the lives God has for us. So who do we say that Jesus is? What do our lives as individuals and as the corporate life of this church say that our answer is? Are we as shaky as sand or solid as a rock?

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

What the Whole World is Waiting For…

Preached at Holmfirth Methodist Church
20th July 2014: 5th Sunday after Trinity
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43; Romans 8:12-25

“The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19)

No pressure, but the hopes of a changed, transformed and restored universe are pinned on you, on God’s plan for creating new people out of us by the interior operation of his Spirit. The entire cosmos, Paul says, is crying out for the emergence and empowerment of people who will take responsibility for its renewal. The whole world is waiting. It’s waiting for us. It’s waiting for the appearance of children of God who will be agents for the divine revitalisation of all things. I told you there was no pressure. But do you know what? Actually, there isn’t any pressure really, because it’s not down to us; it’s down to the Spirit working in us, it’s down to God renewing us so that he might renew the world through us.

The entire fabric of the created order is crying out, squinting, straining its eyes to see what is coming next; it’s desperately hoping for humans who have been returned to the height of their true humanity, humans who will govern the world under God as they were always meant to from the very beginning. The good of the world, Paul seems to say, is tied up with the good of its rulers—us. We might think we’re small, insignificant, and unimportant; but we’re not. Our lives have cosmic consequences. We are people of infinite influence. Scientists call this the Butterfly Effect—the idea that the disturbance equivalent of a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas a few weeks later.

The fractured, broken, unredeemed world in which we live and of which we are a part is after true children of God. This is what the whole world is waiting for. And since the whole world is waiting for the true children of God to be made known, it’s worth asking ourselves the question: are we one of them? Are we now and are we becoming more every day true children of God? Are we part of God’s response to a world in need of healing and wholeness? To help us answer that, I suggest we look together at three things which Paul says are marks or characteristic of true children of God:
1. That they know God as Father;
2. That they are led by God’s Spirit;
3. That they suffer with Christ, God’s Son.

In the previous chapter of his letter to the church in Rome, Paul writes about our being torn in two directions—our inability to do what we know is right on the one hand, and our natural inclination to do what we know is wrong on the other. The solution, he says in this chapter, is life in the Spirit. We can’t be who we’re meant to be by ourselves. We can try to be ever so ever so good, but we will fail. We can struggle and wrestle against the sins which beset us, but still the will entangle us and still we will keep falling short. Whether willingly or otherwise, the fact is that we can’t live as God wants us to live in our own strength. We need God’s help. We need God’s power to fill us and take control of our lives. What we need is what Paul calls the Spirit of adoption—the Spirit whose very work is making us children of God.

It may seem obvious, but the first mark of true children of God is that they cry out, they call on God as ‘Abba, Father’ (the Aramaic equivalent of ‘Daddy’). True children of God, those who have the Spirit of adoption living and active inside of them, enjoy an intimate relationship with God, such as Christ has. Now, of course, on one level it’s completely possible for us to say the words, ‘Abba, Father’ and not have that kind of relationship with God. In the same way as it’s possible for me to say that I am actually moving from here, not to go into ministerial training as you think, but to be Arsenal’s new multi-million pound goalkeeper. It’s not the words themselves which matter; it’s the reality which stands behind it. If a couple doesn’t love each other and are separated in all but name, there’s no point them sending each other a Valentine’s Day card—it’s just empty words, hollow sentiment. In the same way, the work of the Spirit isn’t just allowing us to name God ‘Father’, it is to truly know, experience, and love God as Father.

The true children of God know God intimately. They love God. But even before that, they know that they are loved by God. John Wesley in a sermon on this passage called ‘The Witness of the Spirit’ writes: “We cannot love God, till we know He loves us. ‘We love Him, because He first loved us.’ And we cannot know His pardoning love to us, till His Spirit witness it to our Spirit.” In children of God, the Holy Spirit works to assure them of God’s fatherly love. The Holy Spirit gives children of God a sure sense of God being for them, of God’s love made plain in the life, death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ, His Son. A true child of God, Paul implies, can no more doubt his adoption—his God-given identity in Christ—than we can doubt the shining of the sun while stood in its beams.

While we know God’s love for us as a powerful present reality, we can know that we are children of God. What’s more, for children of God, his fatherly love is intensely personal. Because they know God’s love as it has been made known in Jesus (and especially in his sacrificial self-giving on the Cross)—they know that Jesus loves them, that Jesus gave himself willingly for them, that Jesus died for their sins. To be a child of God means to know God, to know God’s love for us personally. It isn’t some intellectual theory or abstract generalisation. It isn’t even about knowing that God himself is love. It’s about experiencing God’s love for ourselves as a powerful, present reality. It means to have a personal relationship with him.

One of the worst things we can do in churches is to give the impression that God is some vague, distant, airy-fairy, impersonal and ultimately unknowable life-force floating around the universe. God is supremely personal. That’s why he came to us in the flesh of a man! That’s why he insists on being known as Immanuel—God with us. God wants to be known. The children of God are those who relate to God as Father, who have begun to enjoy this kind of intimate, personal knowledge of the Creator which only comes through spending time with one another. The question, therefore, is: Do we spend time in one another’s company? Do we pray? Do we seek to come into the ever greater knowledge, understanding and love of God, which only comes through prolonged exposure and experience? Do we take time to talk with God, to listen to God, to observe God, to meditate on who God is? A child of God will.

So that’s the first characteristic of true children of God. And the second is this: that they are led by God’s Spirit. “All who are led by the Spirit of God,” Paul says, “are children of God” (v. 14). What does that mean? What does that look like? The questions we need to ask ourselves are these: Who/what do we take our directions from for the way we live our lives? Who/what is calling the shots in the courses of action we take? Who/what do we obey when we’re deciding what to do? So often, even in churches, the answer is that we’re paying more attention to the pounds and pence than to the purposes of the Almighty. To be led by the Spirit is to surrender our own agenda and submit to going God’s way—wherever that way may take us.

Let me share with you the story of Elizabeth Masilela. Elizabeth is just an ordinary South African woman. One day, she was walking across the road to a field where a group of kids regularly played football; she went there to collect old, discarded bricks in an attempt to try and build onto her little house in the township. On this particular day, however, the boys playing football in the field ran over to her and told her to come quickly. She did. A new-born baby had been abandoned and left in a cardboard box where it was now crying and covered head to toe in ants. Elizabeth brushed off the ants as quickly as she could and took the baby to the nearest health centre around. When she got there, the people there said they couldn’t help and that she’d have to go to the police station. So she went to the police station. They also said they couldn’t do anything with a new-born baby, but they’d send a social worker out to her soon; but in the meantime it was best if she kept him. So she did.

Elizabeth took the little baby boy home with her and he cried all night. He must be hungry, she thought, and she gave him all that she had in the house: some water. But it was to no avail. She went out to look for some milk—not so easy to do in the middle of a township at night; but eventually she found somewhere to buy milk and tried feeding it to the baby as best she could. The little boy cried all night long and there was nothing she seemed to be able to do about it. The next day, a social worker sent by the police came by to talk to Elizabeth and told her that the best thing would really be if she kept the baby for as long as possible, but if she couldn’t then to call and they would talk more later. That was 14 years ago. Since then rumours of what Elizabeth had done began to spread and more abandoned babies started turning up on her doorstep. Now she runs an orphanage and has 15 unwanted children staying with her in her little three-room house along with 4 daughters of her own.

This, I suspect, is a fairly accurate picture of what it means to be led by the Spirit. It is to be ambushed by God. To have our lives hijacked, seized, commandeered for God’s purpose and plans. Being led by the Spirit means living life on God’s terms. It means being less concerned with what we want than with what God wants. People filled with the Spirit of adoption are God-focussed. True children of God want to please God. They want to do right by God. They have their lives composed, directed and orchestrated by God. A child of God doesn’t see their freedom in Christ as an opportunity to do what they want; they see it as an opportunity to hand themselves over more fully to doing what God wants. The lives of the children of God are lives marked by obedience, even when that obedience is decidedly costly or inconvenient. Does that describe us? Does that describe the people we are and are becoming?

The third characteristic of a child of God, which Paul describes in this passage, follows closely from what we’ve just been talking about is this: true children of God are ready to suffer with Christ. This isn’t, I’m afraid to say, an optional extra. To be a true child of God in the Christian sense is to take up one’s cross. Not only is this a suffering of self-denial; it is a suffering which is inseparable from faithfulness to Christ in a world which doesn’t know him as Lord, which doesn’t share the same values as we do, which doesn’t belong to the same story, the same narrative as we do. Walking too close to Christ will get us into trouble. It is inevitable if we walk with Jesus that we will be lead into tension and into conflict with the values and the cultures of the world around us which does not know Jesus takes for granted.

Take the famous example of Eric Liddell, whose story was so wonderfully told in the film ‘Chariots of Fire’. His refusal to race on a Sunday for the sake of Jesus put him at odds with his teammates, his coaches, even the royal family and ultimately cost him the opportunity to compete in the event he had trained so hard to enter. Or take my friend Ben, who walked away from a lucrative and well-paying job in a big company because he was being put under pressure to collude in some rather shady business practices. Or again, take my friend Peter, who works for a big London law firm and who finds it more difficult than most to join in office banter because he doesn’t have any wild nights out or sexual conquest to brag about.

Following a crucified Lord is difficult. Being made children of God involves a complete and comprehensive overhaul of the kind of people we are. Such rejection of what we were will also unsurprisingly lead those who are not being similarly transformed to take offence. This is where hope comes in. Faced with the prospect of suffering, being a child of God might not sound an entirely appealing prospect. But, Paul says, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. … For in hope we were saved” (vv. 18, 24). We suffer the death of our old lives, in order to be made alive with Christ in a new, more glorious way. We endure hardship for the sake of something so much better. We put up with the pain of following Jesus because the payoff of participating in his glory and becoming like him as fellow sons and daughters of God is more than worth it.

Paul says that those with the Spirit inside them groan inwardly for that future, for their being completely and utterly swept up into the mystery of God in Jesus Christ. A life characterised by the indwelling of the Spirit is a life characterised by this hope, this yearning for something we don’t yet see. And it’s a yearning shared by all creation. The whole world is desperately waiting for the advent of new people, renewed in the likeness of Christ, made by the Spirit children of God. The entire created order is groaning for people who know God intimately and pray; people who allow their lives to be taken over by God for his purposes in the world; people who are prepared to suffer with Christ for the surpassing hope of something even greater to come. Can you see the Spirit of adoption at work in your life? If not, then ask until you can. And if you can, then praise God and ask him for patience to wait until you see it in every part of your life.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

How to Hear

Preached at Shepley Methodist Church
13th July 2014: 4th Sunday after Trinity
Isaiah 55:10-13; Matthew 13:1-23

An evangelist, a travelling preacher, was going from place to place telling people about Jesus and the Good News of God’s kingdom. He would often stop and stay somewhere for a few days before moving on again to somewhere new. Sometimes people from the town would welcome him into their homes and show him hospitality and generosity to support him in his ministry. In one town, a farmer who wanted to be seen to offer something to this visiting preacher collected a basket of almost rotten fruit to give him. The next day, the farmer saw the preacher in town and had the audacity to ask him, “Hey, Preacher! How did you like that fruit I gave you?” The preacher smiled. “It was perfect,” he said. “If it was any riper we couldn’t have eaten it, and if it was any less ripe you wouldn’t have given it to us.”

Parables are stories or images which function in much the same way as jokes do. Jokes, like parables, use stories and images to pull us in and string us along until at the end of it we’re hit with the punchline or the crucial detail which makes the whole joke funny and gives us a new insight. Sometimes we’ll hear it and get it straight away. Sometimes it takes a while for the penny to drop. Often with parables, as with jokes, the point is not always immediately obvious. It takes some thinking about. It takes a bit of turning over in our heads before we can understand it. Parables have a rather indirect way of getting their message across. Like jokes, they weasel their way into us at funny angles and then they leave it to us, the hearers, to make the necessary connections.

Jesus used parables all the time. Look through the Gospels and you’ll find tons of them. The Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Pearl of Great Price… The list could go on. The question is: why did Jesus use so many of them? The answer, Jesus says, is so that we won’t understand them. If I was being parabolic, I’d just leave it at that. But let me explain what I mean. Parables are a teaching aide. Jesus uses them train his followers, to help them see the reality of God’s kingdom. But it’s a reality they’ll only see by immersion in it. I could have just told you that when you give gifts, you ought to make sure they’re good ones, and that if you do give a bad gift to someone, you’re best not asking what they thought of it. Telling the story, however, let’s you get there for yourself. What’s more, it’s far more memorable and far more interesting.

Eugene Peterson calls this ‘telling it slant’. It’s a phrase he borrows from a line in one of Emily Dickinson’s poems:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—/Success in Circuit lies/ Too bright for our infirm Delight/ The Truth’s superb surprise/ As Lightning to the Children eased/ With Explanation kind/ The Truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind—
Jesus, Peterson says, tells the truth slant because we wouldn’t get it if he told us it plainly. He lets the truth come to us in odd and seemingly obscure ways in order to gain entry into us, in order to penetrate our hearts and minds with the things he hopes for us to see. Jesus uses parables for the same reason that preachers like me use illustrations, because if I told you that God is Three in One and One in Three you’d go, “Huh?” but if I told you that God is both three and one in the same way that water, ice and steam are all H2O, you’d have a better idea what I’m talking about. So it is with the parables of Jesus. They use familiar images to introduce us to the unfamiliar—the workings of God’s kingdom.

I want to suggest that the Parable of the Sower is chiefly about three things: 1. The Receptivity of the Soil, 2. The Productivity of the Seed, and 3. The Generosity of the Sower.

1. The Receptivity of the Soil

Sometimes, the way we read and preach this parable suggests that we would be better off renaming it the Parable of the Soil. The question we’re usually asked to consider is this: What kind of soil are you? Let’s be honest, none of us are going to say we’re the good soil, are we? None of us are going to put our hands up and say, “Yep, I’m producing a yield 30, 60 or even 100 times what was sown.” No, of course we’re not, not if we’re being honest with ourselves. Instead, we’re going to say, “Well, I think there are a few thorns there. Maybe it’s got a few rocks in it too.” Of course we’re going to say that.

The question invites introspection. And it’s not a bad question, far from it. Stopping to take stock of our lives, to examine where we are in our faith and how we stand with God is a really valuable thing to do. The danger is we become Christian hypochondriacs, checking our spiritual temperature every five minutes in case we’ve gone off the boil. That’s fine. There’s a place for that. But I wonder whether the more helpful question might actually be this: What kind of soil is conducive to growing a good crop? Or, to put it another way: What conditions are necessary for the seed sown in us to flourish?

Jesus explains the Parable of the Sower as an explanation of the effects that his preaching of the kingdom will produce. Most of the parable is taken up describing its failure, the various reasons why his proclamation will not take root and bear fruit in people’s lives. Therefore what constitutes good soil is defined negatively, by saying what it’s not. Good soil is not hard. Good soil is not shallow. Good soil is not crowded. Or to put it the other way around and make the negatives into positives, good soil is open, deep and allows room for the seed to grow.

The seed scattered on the path is like the joke which is not understood. It’s heard but it goes no further. The soil on the path has been compacted by the countless feet which have trodden on it over many years. It’s hard. It’s unreceptive. Its engagement with the seed is purely superficial. It never penetrates the surface, and therefore the seeds of the kingdom which Jesus sows never has chance to take root. Good soil is that which gets to know Jesus. It is that which spends time Jesus, that which is constantly turned over by Jesus through prayer, through Bible-reading, through attentiveness to him in one another. Good soil is that which allows Jesus and his word to dwell richly in us (Colossians 3:16).

Good soil is also deep. The soil in the rocky ground was shallow. It gave growth at first, but in the end it petered out because there were no roots. Jesus explains that some people who hear his message are enthusiastic initially, but fall away when the going gets tough on account of the message. Such people are too ready to follow Jesus. Stanley Hauerwas makes the point that to be too ready to follow Jesus means we haven’t understood what kind of a Saviour he is. Jesus is a crucified Saviour. Following Jesus is difficult. It’s demanding. If we think it’s easy, we’re mistaken. And so, our response to Jesus mustn’t be simply a means to an end, a way for us to feel good about ourselves or give our lives meaning. Rather, the reign of God must be its own end; not our personal benefit from it.

Good soil is also uncrowded soil. The seeds of the kingdom won’t grow well where there’s competition. The kingdom of heaven doesn’t tolerate rivals or adversaries. Unless it is allowed free reign to spring up in us, its growth will be stunted and stifled and no crop will be forthcoming. Wealth, Jesus says, is the chief culprit in this. We can’t serve two masters (Luke 16:13). Our wealth becomes so important to us, it starts calling the shots without us even being aware of it. Stanley Hauerwas observes that, “Possessed by possessions, we desire to act in the world, often on behalf of the poor, without having to lose our possessions.” In other words, because we feel we need all the stuff we have, we try to protect ourselves and make our discipleship benign, safe and cost-free. Following a crucified Saviour couldn’t possibly be risky, could it? The kingdom couldn’t possibly mean becoming poorer into order to make others richer, could it?

And so the fact is that some of the most receptive soil may actually be in some of the most unexpected places. The seeds of the kingdom, it seems, grow best among the vulnerable, the disaffected and the poor. And on the contrary, the seed Jesus sows struggles most where he comes across those who think they have it all together, those who are in it for what they can get out of it and those who think they have a lot to lose.

2. The Productivity of the Seed

The purpose of a seed is to reproduce itself. Each tiny seed contains within it an enormous potential for new life. Take a sunflower seed, for instance. One little sunflower seed in the right conditions can produce a head with over a thousand new seeds in it. Not bad, huh? Ultimately, the point of the parable is about fruitfulness, about growth. The problem with the seeds sown on the path, on the rocky ground and among the thorns is that they were unfruitful, unproductive. In contrast, the good soil which represents the disciples of Christ yields an increase. In other words, it grows! Growth isn’t a word we hear much of in our churches at the moment, but what Jesus says is that good soil is characterised by growth.

The seed, Jesus says, is “the word of the kingdom.” The receptivity of the soil is about how we hear that word. And yet, to receive this word is to receive Christ himself. The disciples, the good soil, are those who receive not only Jesus’ words, but Jesus himself, fully into their midst. Disciples are those who follow their Master in order to become like him. Disciples are, in a sense, apprentices of Christ. Christ is the seed. He is the seed spoken of in the Bible, proclaimed in preaching and revealed in human flesh. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sends out his disciples to make disciples of all nations. Disciples make disciples. Good soil allows the seed planted in it to grow and flourish.

“Be doers of the word, not hearers only.” These words from James 1:22 are painted on an archway leading from the nave to the chancel in a church close to where I grew up. They’re a perfect summary of what it means for the seed to be productive. The seed must change us. Good soil turns hearing into doing.

3. The Generosity of the Sower

The third and final point I want to make is also the shortest (you’ll be pleased to know). Now I must confess that I’m not much of a gardener, I don’t have particularly green fingers, but it strikes me that the best way to sow seed isn’t just to sling it in every direction and hope for the best. What we’d expect the sower to do is spend some time preparing the ground, putting on some fertiliser, digging it up, making a little hole, dropping in a seed, covering it over, measuring out a good distance, then making another hole, dropping in another seed, covering it over, and so on. That’s not what he does. He just picks up great handfuls of seed and tosses it in every direction, without a care in the world where it lands. I thought about demonstrating it here with you all but I didn’t fancy having to clear up the mess afterwards. And that’s what this sowing is: messy. With sowing like this, it’s a miracle anything grows.

Can you imagine it? You’re in your car, following a tractor. The tractor is spilling seed all over the road, so you flag the farmer down and tell him there’s something wrong because he’s been dropping seed on the tarmac for the last three miles. To your astonishment, the farmer turns around and says it’s not a mistake, he wanted to do it. What would you think? You’d think he was mad, wouldn’t you? But that’s what Jesus is like. The parable points us to a Sower who is recklessly, extravagantly, wastefully generous. It points us to a Sower who is interested in all, who wants his kingdom to take root everywhere. If just two or three seeds sprout at the side of the road, it’s worth it for this farmer. Efficient his sowing isn’t. But this isn’t a farmer who’s worried about efficiency. This is a farmer who won’t write anyone off, whose love is indiscriminate.

We, the Church, like Christ before us are now called to be the seed by which the kingdom is scattered over the face of the world. We are to be picked up and flung by the Sower into every area of life, every part of society, every corner of the world. The message of God’s love is wildly universal and we as Christ’s disciples will be thrown anywhere and everywhere by him with uneconomical abandon.

The Parable of the Sower is a parable about how to hear parables. The parables are addressed to all, just as the seed is cast far and wide. But it is the committed few who spend time with Jesus, who let his word dwell richly within them, who put him above every other competitor for their affections—they are the ones who reap the rewards of Christ’s revelation: “For to the one who has, more will be given.” We can hear parables on many different levels and get things from them without spending much time with Jesus, but without spending time with Jesus they won’t produce lasting fruit either in us or for others. We could listen to the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, and try ever so hard to “Go and do likewise,” but unless we spend time with Jesus we won’t know that we can’t, that we, like the man in the ditch, need the help of an unlikely Saviour.

It is only in company with Jesus that parables make sense. He himself is the key to their interpretation. If we don’t know him, we won’t fully know what he’s talking about. We might think we do, but in the end we’ll be proved wrong. Be warned: “From the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” All you with two ears, are you listening?

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Lost and Found

Preached at Holmfirth Methodist Church
10th July 2014: Shoppers’ Service
Luke 15:1-10

If you’ve ever wondered why a nice person like Jesus ended up being nailed to a cross like a common criminal, the reading we’ve just heard from Luke’s Gospel goes a long way towards answering the question. Samuel Crossman, whose famous hymn, ‘My song is love unknown’, we often sing on Good Friday asks this very same thing in a somewhat more poetic form:
Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
He gave the blind their sight.
Sweet injuries!
Yet they at these
Themselves displease,
And ‘gainst him rise.
Surely Jesus can’t have been condemned to death for healing the lame and restoring sight to the blind. As Crossman says, these are pretty sweet injuries Jesus inflicted if, indeed, they are the reason why he was crucified. No. Jesus was crucified largely because of the company he chose to keep.

One day as he was teaching, queues of the morally suspect were lining up to hear Jesus speak. All the good, religious folks of the day noticed this. “Look at all these crooks, lowlifes, junkies, wasters and deadbeats that Jesus hangs around with!” they tutted. “Doesn’t he know that bad company ruins good morals? So why on earth does he spend so much time fraternising with them. They’re just not worth it.”

“Let me ask you something,” Jesus replied, overhearing their grumbling. “Suppose you had a hundred sheep and one of them goes missing. Which one of you wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine completely unprotected and unguarded, all alone in the wilderness, and go beating every bush between here and Baghdad trying to find it? Which one of you wouldn’t traipse through the bramble bushes and the briers, wade through streams and bogs, looking high and low, not eating, not drinking, not sleeping, till you found it? Which one of you, then, having found it, wouldn’t throw it over your shoulders, skip home and organise a huge party with all your family and friends to celebrate you finding it again? Which one of you wouldn’t do that?”

“Or suppose you’re a woman,” Jesus says, “with a small fortune in your purse. If you lost a £1 coin, wouldn’t every single one of you, open all the drawers, move all the furniture, tear up all the carpets, sift through all the dirty bin bags trying to find it? Wouldn’t every single one of you scour the whole entire house and neighbourhood looking for it, retracing your steps not only for the last day, but the last month, till you come across it? And when, at last, you say, “There it is! I’ve found it!” wouldn’t every single one of you pick up the phone and tell absolutely everyone in the phonebook the good news? Wouldn’t every single one of you do that?”

Of course we wouldn’t. That’s just silly. That’s absurd. If we had a hundred sheep and we lost one, we wouldn’t leave the others behind by themselves and go off looking for it. We might ask our friends, our neighbours to be on the lookout for it, but we wouldn’t start a search party. In all probability, we’d just write it off as a bad day. “Never mind,” we’d say, “I lost one, but at least I’ve still got ninety-nine.” Likewise with the coin, yes it’s annoying to have lost a bit of money, it always is; but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not such a big deal. It’s certainly not worth the disruption of turning the whole house upside-down for, that’s obvious. Besides, it’ll probably turn up sooner or later anyway. We’ll probably find it down the back of the sofa in a few months’ time and it’ll be a nice little surprise, won’t it? No. The fact is it’s just not worth the aggro looking for it.

These aren’t stories about you or me. They’re stories about God. To God, that lost sheep matters. To God, that lost pound coin matters. And it’s not because he needs them. It’s not because he’d be poorer without them. It’s because God loves us so much he wants every single one of us. We might be happy to write people off as a lost cause, but God isn’t. God simply won’t accept that we’re lost. And though you might think that leaving the ninety-nine sheep alone in the open country was a recipe for losing more too, well he’ll go after them as well if he has to! These parables are about what God is like.

God is like the shepherd who loves his sheep so much he’s not prepared for one to go missing. God is like the woman who isn’t prepared to cut her losses and walk away, but who instead feels into every dark and dingy corner, trying to find the lost coin. “You don’t understand what God is like,” Jesus tells the Pharisees and the scribes. “If you only knew how much God loves every single one of us, wants to be in relationship with every single one of us, you wouldn’t criticise me for eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners.”

“If you only knew…” Do we know? Do we know that we are relentlessly pursued by the Almighty, that he will search and search until he finds us? Do we know that there is no one (let me repeat, no one) who is unnoticed, unvalued, unwanted by God? Do we know that we and every other human on this earth is infinitely precious to God? Do we know that even if we were the only person alive, the only sinner on earth, Christ would still have died for us? Do we know that there is a raucous celebration in heaven whenever the lost that have strayed from God are brought back to him in Jesus?

Do we know that? How might things look different if we did? Perhaps, for a start, when we feel like we’re worthless, like we don’t matter, like nobody would notice if we weren’t around, that we’d know that that’s not true, that we’d know that God is out beating the bushes seeking to get to us in our lost-ness. Perhaps, also, we’d look at one another differently and instead of seeing an annoying old lady, a foul-mouthed teenager or a scruffy beggar, we’d see people God has made and given his Son Jesus to redeem. Perhaps it’d make us more hopeful for people and situations, knowing that it’s in this God’s nature to keep looking until the lost is found.

Finally, perhaps, there’s a message here for the Church. Are we content holed up in our own little Christian bubble? Is the company we keep too safe, too comfortable, too ‘nice’ (for want of a better word)? What’s more, if God is always on the road looking for the lost, then it stands to reason that we’re not going to see too much of him at Church on Sunday, are we? If we want to meet God, the best chance we stand of that is on the road, climbing over hills and rocks, scratching himself in thorn bushes, on his way to find the lost sheep still waiting to be found. Are we involved with a God like that, I wonder?

Let’s pray:
Lord Jesus, we thank you that you seek and save the lost. We thank you that with you there is no such thing as a lost cause. We’re humbled by your love, which searches for us, high and low, again and again, and simply will not give up. We ask that we might know the joy of your relentless pursuit and be filled with your great love. Give us the courage also, Lord, to go with you as you seek to bring more of the lost back home to God. For your name’s sake, we pray. Amen.

Dancing to a Different Tune

Preached at Holmfirth Methodist Church
6th July 2014: 3rd Sunday after Trinity (Praise Service)
Zechariah 9:9-12; Matthew 11:16-19

One of the things you’ll notice about Jesus is that he always seems to be dancing to a different tune to the rest of us. The things we value, like comfort, security, stability, wealth, health and well-being just don’t seem to matter much to him. On the other hand, he seems to see value in places we don’t—in beggars, in lepers, in prostitutes, in small, needy, dependent children, in tax collectors and sinners. To crown it all, he even seems to see some value in the things we despise and fear the most: suffering and death. Is he out of step, or are we? Spend time with Jesus and I guarantee there’ll be times you’ll realise that you’re not moving to the same music as he is.

“I’ll tell you what you’re like,” says Jesus. “You’re like children playing music in the street, complaining to their friends, ‘Hey! We played something with a really great beat, but you didn’t even tap your toes. We put on a Coldplay record and you didn’t even look miserable.’” Ouch! We’re like spoiled children, Jesus says. We’re always trying to call the shots. We didn’t like it when John the Baptist came fasting, living in the desert and preaching repentance—so we said, “Hey God, lighten up a bit!” But then Jesus came and we criticised him for mixing for people we didn’t want him to be mixing with, for giving new life to people at the bottom and we said, “Don’t waste your time with them.”

We like to tell God who he is and who he’s for. We want to get God dance to our tune. We try to make God and everything else revolve around us. We put ourselves at the centre of our own universe and expect everything and everyone to dance around and orbit us. This is the just kind of people we are. We do our best to sit still and make people and things come to us. It’s the essence of sin—making ourselves our own king and expecting everything and everyone else to serve us—our needs, our wants, our desires. Why wouldn’t a £1 t-shirt be a good thing? It saves me money, right? Forget about the poor people in Cambodia working in a sweat shop for peanuts to make it for me.

That’s why it can be uncomfortable for us spending time with Jesus, because by dancing to a different tune—God’s tune—he brings us and our own lives under judgement. The dance of God, the dance which Jesus reveals, is the complete opposite to our stationary, self-centred kind of dancing. God’s dance is the dance of sacrifice and self-giving. It comes from a love, which is forever searching, seeking, moving, reaching, circling, and serving—focussed not on God’s own self, but on us, the other. If our relationship with God is based on what suits us, then we’re trying to make God dance to our tune, trying to make him a means to our ends.

At the Cross, Jesus shows us God’s dance. He dies for us, not for anything he gets for himself, but purely and solely for us—to deal with our sin and bring us back to God. Jesus shows us and calls us to a new God-centred life, where we lose our self-centredness and learn to love as God loves—loving without benefit to ourselves and centring ourselves on others, for the sheer joy of sharing the infinite love of God we’ve received. The paradox is that if we put God (rightly) at the centre and allow our lives to orbit him, we’ll find out that he, in his incomprehensible, self-giving love, puts us right at the centre of his, circling and serving us. The question we all need to ask ourselves is this: whose music are we moving to—God’s or our own?

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Preached at Holmfirth Methodist Church
6th July 2014: 3rd Sunday after Trinity (Prayer Service)
Psalm 145:8-14; Matthew 11:25-30

“Lord, you are great, and greatly to be praised. Awaken us to delight in your praises, for you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”

St. Augustine, who first prayed this prayer some 1,600 odd years ago, was, for much of his youth, a rather restless young man. He spent many years searching for meaning, purpose and direction to his life, and that search led him to look for it in many different places. It was during this time, in fact, that he famously asked God to grant him chastity and continence (that is, self-restraint), just not yet. St. Augustine, like so many of us, sought things which would make him happy, things which would give him some sense of satisfaction or significance, things which would give rest to his restless soul. What he found was that only Jesus, the Creator-Lord, could fill the void inside of him.

“Come to me, all who labour and heavy-laden,” Jesus says, “and I will give you rest.” No doubt, in a few hours times, there will be a good many cyclists passing through here for whom the promise of rest would be an enticing prospect. And yet, this is a particular kind of rest that Jesus is talking about. The truth that St. Augustine discovered was that if there is a God who created us, who made us in love to relate to him, then any attempt to define ourselves, to build a life or identity apart from him will leave us empty and unfulfilled. If we were made by God for life with God, then only life with God at the centre will give us the rest, the fulfilment, we crave.

Whatever we life for, whatever we derive our sense of self from, whatever we look to in order to give us our identity—who we are, that is our god, our Lord. For some people, like the young St. Augustine, their god is sex. For others, it might be family. For others still, it might be their career. Suppose, however, you make being a parent the centre of your life and your children grow up and leave home or don’t turn out as you’d hoped, you’ll be devastated. Alternatively, suppose you make your job the most important thing in your life and you’re made redundant or you have an accident which prevents you from doing it any more, your self-worth and security will be shaken to the core. It’s not that a career or family are bad things, not at all; it’s just that when we try to make them the main thing, they can’t bear the load we’re trying to put on them.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” Jesus says, “for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” What we need is a wholesale reorientation of our lives until they are entirely centred on God. This is what we are to learn from Jesus. And we are to learn it from Jesus because Jesus is the only human whose life is entirely centred on God, who is completely in tune with God; he is the One whose wholehearted devotion to God led him to the Cross. And it is the Cross which is the yoke that Jesus would place upon us. “If anyone would come after me,” he says, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).

“Wait a minute!” I hear you saying, “That’s not ‘easy’ or ‘light’, is it?” Welcome to the paradoxical world of costly grace. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.” It is costly because it asks us to take up our cross, and it is grace because it asks us follow Jesus, who is “gentle and lowly in heart” and who has already taken up his cross for us. Jesus is the only Lord we can live for who gave up his life for us. Jesus is the only Lord we can live for who, no matter how badly we fail him, will buy us back and forgive us. Jesus is the only Lord we can live for who, if we come to him, will give us the rest we so desperately desire. Though the yoke might appear heavy at first, we’ll find that being yoked to him is, in fact, perfect freedom.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

All Consuming Worship

Preached at Honley Trinity Methodist/URC
29th June 2014: 2nd Sunday after Trinity
Romans 6:12-23; Genesis 22:1-18

Let me ask you a question: what does your worship cost you? Well, the obvious answer is that it costs you an hour a week, or let’s be generous, two hours a week by the time you add in tea and coffee, or if you get a long-winded preacher like me. That’s 2 out of every 168 hours of your week spent in church if you come every Sunday. What else does it cost you? Well, financially-speaking, it costs you whatever you put in the offering plate—be it a few coppers or maybe even some pound coins. But is that it? 2 hours a week and some loose change? Is that the sum total of what our worship costs us? If it is, then it’s got to be said, we’ve obviously got a pretty good thing going on. God must be a really cheap date for us!

Alas, Abraham didn’t find him so. Abraham found him to be much more demanding than that. “Take your son,” God said to Abraham, “your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Genesis 22:2). We hear that and we’re horrified. How could God ask something so cruel, so callous, so costly? It is stories like this which give the Bible (and the Old Testament especially) a bad name. It is stories like this which turn people off of God and off of religion.

Let’s be honest, if we were on the heavenly committee responsible for the editing and publication of the divinely inspired word, this story would have a big red cross through it. There’s just no way we’d allow it through into the hands of unsuspecting readers. Think of the children! Won’t someone please think of the children! They couldn’t read this story, could they? And what about the rest of us? I mean, even if it’s true, what kind of a message does this story send out? It’s not a very attractive depiction of the life of faith, is it? No. I’m sorry, God, but this story has got to go. Either that or if it really must go in, it’s got to be printed in so small a font as to make it illegible—no one must be able to actually read it.

This story is shocking. It is disturbing. There’s no getting around that. Even if this was just a test, as the narrator tells us it is in the opening verse of the story, Abraham doesn’t know that. What’s more, test or no test, it doesn’t alter the horrific nature of the command. Surely, we ask ourselves, God couldn’t possibly demand the life of a child in sacrifice, could he? That’s not the God we know. And even though we, the readers, know that God prevents Abraham going through with it, we also know that he waits until the knife is in his hand, suspended precariously above his innocent son Isaac.

And yet, with all our ill-ease at this story, we in the Church can’t ignore it. We believe that this story is a gift. We believe that God has given us the whole of the Bible, this story included, as a precious act of his own self-revealing. We remind ourselves of that when, at the end of a reading someone says, “This is the word of the Lord,” and we all reply, “Thanks be to God.” This story is a gift. It may not seem it. We may struggle with it. This story may not make it into the list of our top ten favourite biblical passages, but it can (and I believe, does) point us the way of God’s light and life.

Last weekend I visited an elderly couple I know well. The man is 91, his wife a couple of years younger and together they have been married 68 years now. For the last several years, the man’s wife has suffered from dementia. Recently, however, both her mental and her physical states have declined quite sharply. The man is determined to give her care at home and even at the not-so-young age of 91, is nursing her around the clock—washing her, dressing her, changing her, feeding her—all day, every day. When I spoke to him, he told me, quite candidly and emotionally, “I never imagined that at 91 years old, I’d have to be doing all this.” It never occurred to him that his love for his wife could be so costly.

Our culture at large talks about love primarily as if it were an emotion, a feeling. We talk about ‘falling in love’ as if we were walking along a road where a manhole cover has been removed and we drop down and this big pit we land in is called ‘love’. Christians, though, have quite a different idea of what love is, which you can tell by looking at the marriage service. In church, when a couple come together to be married, the minister doesn’t turn to the man and ask, “James, do you love Rebecca?” but rather, “James, will you love Rebecca?” Love, for Christians, is an act of willing. It’s a choice. It’s a conscious decision we have to make. That’s why couples to be married make vows to one another.

Love like this is costly. When the woman you married 68 years ago doesn’t know who you are, has violent mood swings and requires constant attention, any love that’s less than a steadfast commitment to the other simply won’t cut it. Love, then, has to be more than an emotion. It has to be borne out in action, irrespective of whether we feel we’re ‘in love’ with the person or not. There are times when to love means choosing to love, even though we’d rather not. I wonder if that’s not rather like what Abraham went through here.

“Take… Go… Offer…” The words send tingles down our spine. I think it’d be wrong to suggest that Abraham got up early the next morning after hearing God say these words to him and set off down the road to Moriah with a spring in his step. I just don’t think that’d be fair. He must have headed off with the heaviest heart imaginable, the burden of what he’d been asked to do pressing down upon him all three days of his journey. “Why do it, then?” we might well ask. And the only answer which makes any sense to me is the same answer to the question of why a 91 year old man should spend every hour of the day looking after his frail, demented, old wife: because his love demanded it.

Jewish writer Jon Levenson says this story is about “whether Abraham is prepared to surrender his son to the God who gave him.” In other words, is Abraham willing to put his loving obedience to God ahead of every other competitor for his affections or allegiance? God had chosen Abraham as the channel through which to bring his salvation to the world in Isaac and his descendants. But will Abraham put God first, or will he prize his son more highly than the God who gave him? To put it another way, is Isaac his own son more valuable to him than Isaac the beloved son of God’s great providential drama?

It’s one thing for us to be able to say, “I love God.” It’s something quite different for us to be able to say, “I obey God.” When, I wonder, was the last time any of us said, “I really want to do this, but I can’t because Jesus commands me not to”, or perhaps the other way around, “I really don’t want to do this, but I will because Jesus commands me to.” The fact is that God’s love makes demands of us that we won’t always like. It’s not so much about belief as it’s about behaviour. “Take… Go… Offer…”

Instinctively, we shrink from a God who demands sacrifice. In fact, we shrink from a God who demands anything at all. What we really want is a God we can treat a bit like a cosmic cash machine. We can keep each other at arm’s length, but approach him when we need to make a withdrawal. Worship, love, doesn’t work like that. God asks Abraham to surrender what is most precious to him, his only son. This is worship. It’s not two hours a week and a few loose coins for the collection plate. It’s God put at the centre of our lives 168 hours a week and with everything we’ve got. Worship of this God must be all consuming worship.

A rich young man came to Jesus once and asked him what he had to do to inherit eternal life. “Obey the commandments,” Jesus told him. “Done that,” he said, “been doing that since I was in Sunday School.” And Jesus looked at him and loved him. “Alright,” Jesus said, “because I love you, I want you to go, sell everything you have and give it away to the poor, then come, follow me.” And the rich young man couldn’t do it. He got back in his Mercedes and drove away (Mark 10:17-31). “Take… Go… Offer…”

The love of God could never ask me to do something I don’t want to do, could it? Surely it could never be so costly. Yes it could. But the paradox of this story is that Abraham only keeps Isaac because he was prepared to give him up to God. Both Abraham and the rich young man are invited to believe that the life God asks of them is better than the life they could make on their own. Abraham could have jealously guarded Isaac and elected never to leave home and set off for Moriah. But if he had, God’s salvation would have had to come into the world by another route. What’s more, Isaac would never have been the son God promised him, or the son through whose offspring blessing would flow to the nations.

What Abraham discovered that the rich man didn’t is that sacrifice and life are bound up together. For that 91 year old man I mentioned earlier, the joy of 68 years of marriage to the woman he loves far surpasses the cost of the sacrifice he was now being asked to offer. “Those who want to save their life,” Jesus says, “will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24). Do we dare to believe that life with God in obedience to his commands is better than the life we could live by ourselves? Do we dare to trust that when we give everything to God, he’ll give us back even more than we started with? Could it be that God loves us enough to say to us, “Take… Go… Offer…”?

The truth is that God doesn’t ask us to do anything he has not done himself. Some four hundred odd years ago, the great reformer Martin Luther read this story of Abraham and Isaac to his wife. “How could a loving God ask Abraham to sacrifice his only son?” she demanded. “Why Katy,” he said to her, “He did it himself.” We give all to God because God gave all to us, just as he gave all to Abraham, and that love inspires us to do it.

So let me put before you once more the question we started with: what does your worship cost you? And, in light of all God gives, is it enough? May God in his grace, send us the fire of his love to make our worship all consuming.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.