St Barnabas 28th February 2010
Reading – Luke 18:31-43
A couple of centuries ago there was a Portuguese gentleman who decided he wanted to produce an English phrasebook for the benefit of his fellow countrymen. So he sat down and thought how he might best do this. You see, the task in hand wasn’t that straightforward, for the very simple reason that he himself didn’t speak any English. But our friend wasn’t going to let a little problem like that stop him. After all, he knew how to speak French and he had a French-English dictionary. So surely all he had to do was translate the Portuguese and then look up the right word?
Well, needless to say the result was a bestseller but not for the reason the author intended. The phrasebook has gone down in history as probably the worst and certainly most hilarious guide to the English language ever written, including such classic phrases like, “Excuse me, my postillion has been struck by lightning”, which of course is just the sort of thing you need in everyday conversation. But then again, it is always hard to make yourself understood in a country where you don’t understand the language, isn’t it? Maybe you’ve had experience of travelling abroad and you’ve needed to stop and ask for directions, only to realise no-one can make out what you’re saying. Or, as once happened to my parents, you can’t really work out what’s on the menu and you end up with a fried octopus on your plate.
But sometimes it isn’t the language that stops us from understanding what someone else is saying. In our reading this morning we heard how the disciples singularly fail to grasp anything of Jesus’ message. And I want to stop and ask for a few minutes why this should be. After all, Jesus spoke the same language as His disciples. He also very probably had the same accent, and even if He didn’t, they had been with Him for the best part of a couple of years by now and must have got used to His manner of speaking. Yet when Jesus tells them plainly what is going to happen to Him, they are completely and utterly mystified.
So what’s going on? If you look at the passage in Luke’s gospel just before today’s reading, you will see how a rich young man approaches Jesus and asks Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? There then follows a long and detailed conversation that is probably worth all of us reading later, but the upshot is Jesus asks the man to give up everything to follow Him which the rich young man refuses to do. And as the young man slopes off into the distance out of the pages of history, Jesus turns to His followers and says “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Now to those who heard Jesus these were astonishing words. In Jesus’ days it was thought that the people God blessed were the rich, the famous, the powerful, the sort of people who 2000 years later would appear on the pages of OK or Hello magazine. To put it very simply, the more you had, the more God had favoured you. For Jesus to overturn all this, for Jesus to say that in fact your wealth, your possessions, your status could stop you being blessed by God simply did not compute. It was as if Jesus was speaking in a foreign language.
And then for Jesus to say that He was going up to Jerusalem to be mocked, to be spat upon, to be flogged and to be killed – well, that was completely incomprehensible. That’s just the sort of thing that doesn’t happen to a Messiah, is it? A Messiah is someone who comes in power, who defeats all His enemies and single-handedly sets up a kingdom of peace and justice here on earth. No wonder as Luke says in verse 34 they did not know what he was talking about. As far as they were concerned he could just as well have been speaking in Celtic or Persian for all they understood.
But you know what? I have a kind of sympathy for those first disciples. Because I believe that although the church often doesn’t recognise the fact, a lot of people have a translation problem when it comes to understanding the Christian faith today. It doesn’t help that even before folk start grappling with the Christian faith they have to come to terms with a church culture that in many ways is completely alien to them. Indeed I recognise there may be folk here today for whom the whole idea of sitting in rows, singing hymns, saying prayers, and hearing a bloke in a dog collar preach may be a totally novel and strange experience – and this in a church setting where we’ve tried to strip away as much of the unnecessary ceremony and ritual as possible.
But even beyond that, even if people actually look beyond the trappings of the church to the message of Jesus Christ, they may find it very hard to connect with His message. Because again, if we’re totally honest, it can be hard to see how it can be relevant to our busy, crowded lives where we are trying each day if not to make money, then certainly to pay our way, to make sure our families are clothed and cared for, to keep a roof over our head. Sure, the story of Jesus of Nazareth is a lovely story, even an inspiring one. But what’s it got to do with me? Why should it make any difference to the way I live my life today?
Well, I can’t answer these questions fully in a few minutes, but I will later on in the service suggest some further steps you can take if you’re serious about finding out more. But let me ask you a simple question: have you recently borrowed or hired something for a special occasion? It might, for example, have been a rental car to go on holiday or a bridesmaid’s dress for a wedding. Or possibly you can think of something else. But whatever example comes to mind, I am sure you can agree with me it can all be a bit nerve-wracking making sure nothing happens to the item you’ve borrowed. After all, when you give the car back to the rental firm, there’s no point saying, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s just a little dent” or the dress back to the hire shop, “It was only a small glass of red wine that spilt down the front”. They expect as far as possible for you to return the item in the same condition as you borrowed it, and if you don’t, you have to forfeit your deposit.
And I want to suggest to you this is a bit like how Christians view life – as a gift from God, given to us on trust. And not just the religious or spiritual bits of life, but every single part of it. The food we eat, the water we drink, even the air we breathe. The satisfaction of a job well done. The joy and wonder of a child coming safely into the world. The love a couple declares to each other in their marriage vows. All these and so many, many things more are a gift from God who made us, who loves us and cares for us. They are the blessings of a God who is more generous, more wonderful and more gracious than we so often realise. And I hope that as today we come to celebrate Bess’ baptism all of us will take a moment to say, “Thank you” to the God who gives us so many good things.
But if life is a gift from God – as I believe it is – then the other side of the coin is that one day we will have to give account to God for how we have used our life. And just like when we return an item to the hire shop or a dress to the bridal outfit, it’s not really going to be any use saying to God, “Well, I only made a little mess of my life” or “I only did a few wrong things along the way”. God expects quite rightly that our life here on earth reflects His love and His goodness and His perfection, and He has every reason to call us to account for what we have done wrong.
Which of course creates a problem. Because no matter how hard we try none of us can live a perfect life. We all fall short one way or another of the standards God sets us. And don’t think because I am here standing at the front that I’m any different. Now we can try to deny it, or pretend there isn’t a problem, but surely the apostle Paul is right when he says in Romans 3:23: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
So what’s to be done? Other religions say the answer is to invent a set of rules that you try and follow as closely as possible. Or they invite you to share in some kind of mystical experience that will somehow take you beyond your present earthly existence. But the blunt reality is that religion isn’t the answer because it can’t deal with the heart of the matter, which is the human heart. No matter how many rules we keep, how many weird and wonderful experiences we enjoy, we still all of us have this tendency to make a mess of our lives, to ignore God and to hurt other people.
And this is why I for one am a Christian. Because the Christian faith says, Yes, there is nothing I can do to get right with God. I know that one day I will be called to account before God and I will be found guilty. But, the good news is that what I cannot do for myself, God has done for me. He has sent His Son Jesus Christ into the world to be – as it says in our passage – mocked, to be insulted, to be flogged, to be spat upon and to be killed. Why? So that He could free me to lead the life God always wanted me to lead, a life where God becomes my Heavenly Father, a life where Jesus lives in my heart as my Lord and Saviour, where His Spirit is there to guide and to lead me. This doesn’t mean I won’t keep on messing up. I will still sometimes hurt other people. I will sometimes go my own way. But I will live life knowing Jesus died for me and even when I get things wrong I know that because of His generous, undeserved and free love I can find forgiveness and peace.
That at least is my testimony. So the question I want to ask you is this: do you want this life as well?
If you do, then I want you to consider very carefully the three questions I am going to put to the parents and godparents in a little while, questions all of us need to decide how we are going to answer.
First of all, do you turn to Christ? Because, you see, God is so loving and so generous that He doesn’t force Himself upon us. He gives each of us the freedom for us to decide for ourselves whether we are going to be like the rich man who walks away from Jesus’ offer of eternal life, or like the blind man at the side of the road who will do anything to find Jesus and to follow Him. So please can I urge all of you to decide what you will do? Because if one day we are going to be called to account for this life, if one day God will ask us how we served and pleased Him here on earth, then we need to ready with our reply. We can either hope against hope that somehow that our lives are good enough or we can point to the fact we have accepted Jesus as our Lord and Saviour.
Secondly, do you repent of your sins? I recognise this is a question that requires a bit of translation. What it is basically asks, is you are truly sorry for the mess you have made of your life? Because there’s no point turning to Jesus if we’re not sincere, if as soon as Monday morning comes we are going to tell the same little lies, say the same unkind things, use the same swearwords. Now of course change won’t completely happen overnight. But if we are serious about living for Jesus, then we can rely on His Spirit to live in us and bit by bit make us more like Him. And that will involve letting go of old habits, old attitudes, old ways of doing things. Is this something you are prepared to do?
And then the third question, do you renounce the devil? In some ways I always think this is a bit unnecessary. Because if by this stage of the baptism process you are still a secret Satanist then there doesn’t seem that much point proceeding, does there? But maybe there is a deeper intention behind this question. A desire to find out if you really want follow Christ, to set Jesus before you as your example and guide, even to the point of like Him sometimes being mocked and insulted for your faith. You see, a Christian isn’t, as people often think, someone who simply leads a good life, or goes to church, or says their prayers. A Christian is quite literally someone who is a little Christ. Someone who has Jesus living in their heart and who aims to be the presence of Jesus wherever they go, whatever they do.
Now this morning we have focused and quite rightly so on the way the disciples failed to understand the message Jesus was trying to communicate to them. But of course there did come a time when they did understand, a time when they looked back and realised just what exactly Jesus had been saying to them, when they saw the truth of these words. And when was that time? When as Jesus predicted in our passage today He rose again three days after his crucifixion.
And this leads me to just one final, concluding thought. Because these questions that I am asking this morning Do you turn to Christ? Do you repent of your sins? Do you renounce the devil? aren’t theoretical questions that we can somehow puzzle out by our own brainpower or by phoning a friend. They are questions that are only fully and finally answered when we recognise that this Jesus is alive and looking for a relationship with us. And even if very little of what I’ve said has made sense, even if it seems like I’ve been speaking in a foreign language, be assured of this: that no matter how little or much we understand, if we ask the risen Lord Jesus to meet with us, this is what He will do. All it takes is one simple prayer, a prayer that you believe and trust in Jesus, and that you want Him to be real and relevant to you. I am going to pray such a prayer now, which you can either echo in your own hearts, or you can use your own words. How you pray is less important than the fact you pray. Because in the end the words that come from our lips are less important than the desire of our hearts, that we come maybe not understanding, but trusting and believing that the risen Lord Jesus will hear and answer our prayer.