St Michael’s 24th July 2011
Last week we focused at St Michael’s on the central theme of the Christian faith – the wonderful and amazing love of God. We asked ourselves who this love of God was for, and we discovered that it was for everyone, no matter our education or age or level of income. We asked how we might receive this love of God, and we saw that it was possible through accepting Jesus Christ who died in our place for our sins. And we saw that following Jesus was not just a matter of words, but a serious commitment to show the same love to others that God has shown to us.
That is the royal law James talks about in chapter 2, verse 8: to love your neighbour as yourself. For when you know that you are deeply, personally and infinitely loved by God, this should change how you begin to view those around you. If only they could know it, they too are deeply, personally and infinitely loved by God. And it is up to us to show them that love.
From my viewpoint, at the front of church, it felt that last Sunday was an extremely significant service in the life of St Michael’s. People seemed to be sharing real needs and real concerns, and I believe the Holy Spirit was at work touching the lives of many. So as I have prepared for this morning’s service, the question I’ve been asking is: how do we sustain and deepen our experience of God’s love so that we may share it with others? After all, most of us are extremely busy people. Daily, even hourly, there are fresh pressures on our time. We have to make decisions quickly, and often in the heat of the moment. There are the little things that go wrong, and time we feel we waste sorting out what should be extremely simple tasks. How then do we keep our focus on God and His amazing love for us?
Well, I’m not standing here this morning as someone who can give you the perfect answer to this question. Even as a vicar it can be easy to be buried under paperwork, or become distracted onto something that doesn’t really build up God’s kingdom, or let the daily disciplines of prayer and Bible reading become a duty and a chore. But I believe there are three things that come out particularly from our Bible readings that can be of help to us.
First of all, Jesus’ simple parables about the treasure in the field and the merchant finding a pearl remind us just how precious is our faith. Our faith isn’t just a matter of religious ritual or of cultural identity. It’s a living relationship with God Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, who for reasons only He can fully fathom has chosen to love us and to send us Jesus to be our Saviour and our Lord. And when you realise that, when you stand at the cross and marvel at the depth of God’s grace and mercy to you, then you start to see just how valuable is your faith. It is worth more than your monthly pay packet, it is worth more than your pension, it is worth more than your home. It is priceless.
In the course of writing this sermon, I Googled the world’s most expensive pearl (http://www.nationalpearl.com/pe-14-pound-pearl.asp). Apparently it measures 9.45 inches in diameter and weighs 14.1lbs, or approximately 31,893.5 carats. It is sometimes known as the “Pearl of Allah” because it somewhat resembles a turbaned head. The pearl itself is valued at nearly 60 million dollars, although, in case you’re interested, it’s not for sale. But what is the value of that pearl compared to knowing Jesus? The answer is, precisely nothing.
Now in this parable the merchant sold everything in order to gain this pearl. You can imagine the scene. He rings up the estate agent to sell his properties. He contacts his stockbroker to sell his shares. He returns his garage load of Ferraris to the dealer. And all the while, his friends and neighbours shake their heads and say what a foolish man he is. But he carries on, because his one desire is for that pearl. Nothing will stop him getting it.
In his letter to the Philippians Paul lists all his credentials as a respectable Jewish teacher. He was born into a position of privilege, he had the best education, he possessed all the right contacts. But what did they matter when Jesus met him on the Damascus Road? As he writes in Phil 3:7-8: But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.
So the question is, how precious is Jesus to you, to me, to us as a church? Even as we gather this morning, there are countless Christians who are suffering persecution because they love Jesus. But they suffer it nonetheless because Jesus means more to them than all the world. What are we prepared to put up with in order to know Jesus? If Jesus called you tomorrow to give up your work or your home or your most prized possession, how would you respond? We will not get very far in showing God’s love for others, if we ourselves have no real desire for Jesus, and do not live a life of radical obedience to His will.
This leads me on to my second point, from our first reading, that our faith has to be practical.
Now we don’t know much about the churches to whom James was writing. But reading between the lines, it seems there were a few rich Christians who were using their wealth and influence to exploit poorer members of the congregations. In chapter 2, verse 6 James talks about the rich exploiting the poor and dragging them into court. Later on in chapter 5, verse 4 he talks about them failing to pay the wages of those who mowed their fields. I guess anyone who has had connections with Plymouth Argyle recently can understand the seriousness of this issue. But when these rich people were challenged about their faith, I guess their answer was something like, “What’s the problem? I believe in Jesus. I’m saved”.
Of course James wasn’t going to let them get away with this kind of attitude. Chapter 2, verses 15-17: Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
It’s important, however, to be clear what James is and is not saying. James isn’t asking us as Christians to be a soft touch, to give away whatever we have to whoever is asking. We do sometimes at St Michael’s have folk turning up asking for money, as if the church was something like an emergency cash machine. They usually only come the once. I am willing to give food, or buy a train ticket, but that isn’t what they’re really wanting. It may sound a harsh thing to say, but sometimes love involves saying “No”. Just as God doesn’t necessarily give us the things we want, because He knows they are not good for us.
But James here isn’t talking about giving to strangers who are trying to fleece us. He is talking about giving to a brother or sister, that is, a fellow believer in Christ with whom you worship. And our response to their plight should be one of utmost generosity. After all, in comparison with the first century church we have so much in term of possessions and skills and wealth, and it is our duty, indeed our imperative, to share whatever it is we own. Since, if we are set on obeying the royal law to love your neighbour as yourself then we called to give, and to give again.
In the words of Jesus Himself: It is moreblessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35) and I am convinced it is through our selfless giving that we are shown to be the family of our loving Heavenly Father. A mean-spirited church or a church where the members are too busy to make time for one another is not a good advertisement for the gospel. But a place where people openly and honestly share their needs, and others generously and lovingly address them – that is the best possible advert for the gospel.
As James goes on to say in verse 17: ….faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. Sad to say, there are all too churches who are, by James’ standards, dead. It’s not that they don’t believe the right things. It’s not even that they are unfriendly people. The teaching is excellent and the welcome is warm. But nobody notices the needs of the newcomer, or if they do, take any practical action. Much prayer is offered for individuals’ circumstances but nobody stops to think that they themselves could be the answer to their prayer.
Let’s be clear: revival is not some mysterious and way-out working of the Holy Spirit, as it is often presented. Revival is when churches become alive again with the practical, generous, costly love of Christ, and Jesus is visibly seen in the actions of believers. Are we here this morning at St Michael’s, I wonder, willing to be revived like this? I pray God that we are.
If we want to sustain and deepen our experience of God’s love, we must stop and realise just how precious is that love to us. We must learn to love another in a generous, practical fashion. Not that any of this will be easy. We live in a world where faith is not seen as important and where God is not known. The spirit of the age is to get ahead and look after number one. Loving God involves adopting a radically different set of priorities and values, and it is something that goes against our deepest human instincts. So how are we going to do this?
The answer James gives is to build our lives on the promises of God. In verses 20-26 he looks at the examples of Abraham and Rahab from the Old Testament. I’m not going to go into the story of Rahab, but if you want to look at it later, you can find her story in the book of Joshua, chapters 1 and 6. But let’s think for a moment about Abraham. Abraham was a nomadic tribesman in what is now the modern country of Iraq. At some time in his life God appeared to him and told him to leave his country because He was going to bless him, make his name great and found a nation through him. And the important point is, Abraham went. He may not have understood what God was asking him. He certainly risked everything by leaving behind all that was familiar. But because God spoke, Abraham acted.
This doesn’t mean that Abraham immediately became saint. As you read from Genesis 12 onwards you find a story of a man who struggled to understand and obey God’s purpose for his life – most notably, when the promise of a child seemed not be fulfilled. And even when that child Isaac was born his struggles were not over. In the incident James mentions in verse 21, God apparently called him to go to Mount Moriah and offer Isaac as a sacrifice. It’s a puzzling incident we don’t have time to go into now. However we can at least say that Abraham learnt through this that God could be trusted. Right at the last moment God provided a ram to be sacrificed in Isaac’s place. Abraham didn’t know this would happen. He probably had all kinds of questions and doubts as he led his child up the mountain. But again, because God spoke, Abraham acted.
And Abraham serves as an example to us of what it means to live by faith. Now when we use the term “living by faith” we tend to use it for exceptional people who have abandoned the usual way of living and rely completely on God to provide – for example, to describe a missionary who goes out to start a church in a poor place where there are no Christians, or an outreach worker who sets up a drug treatment centre with nothing more than a word from the Lord. But there is a real sense in which all of us are called to live by faith. We called not only to hear God’s word, but to learn it, to rely on it and make it the basis for our daily living.
James’ words in verse 23-24 have often been misunderstood: And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. James would not disagree with Paul that we are declared right with God by believing and trusting in Jesus Christ. But he wanted to counter the claims of the rich people in his church who went round saying, “Hallelujah! I am saved” even as they profited on the poverty of others. For where is the proof you are in a right relationship with God? What entitles you to bear the title “friend of God”? The answer is: in actions which show not only that you received the love of Jesus right into your hearts, but that the love of Jesus is the driving force of your life, indeed the very reason why you get out of bed each morning.
So back to the parable of the merchant and the pearl. There were no doubt many people who believed the pearl was precious. Indeed there may have been many lectures and talks given on the value of this remarkable jewel. Perhaps even the odd song was composed in its honour. But only one person did anything to actually acquire this pearl. Not because it was his hobby, or because he didn’t have anything else to do. But because the pearl was his passion and his prize. So the merchant took practical action. He sold everything he had. From that point on, his whole life rested on the value of that pearl. The pearl became his security and his source of confidence.
Let me ask you, then: is that your response to the love of God?
A moment for silence, and then I’ll pray…