St Michael’s, September 9th 2012
Yesterday we went to the Diocesan Roadshow at St Andrew’s in Plymouth. It was led by Bishop John setting out the current position of the diocese, explaining plans for the future and inviting those present to make a response. We covered many subjects – finance, ministry, calling- to name but a few. It was part of a process which will lead to the Diocesan Synod agreeing on a budget when we next meet in October.
It was no doubt an important meeting. Although the life of the diocese seems remote and unconnected with what we do, the decisions made will have a direct impact on our life as a church. Yet at the same time as we listened to all the stuff about common fund and mission communities and priesthood, it struck me that one of the elements missing was actually probably the most important thing about being a disciple of Jesus Christ. I’m talking about obedience.
Maybe I am just a simple evangelical, but I wonder what would happen if instead of talking the talk we actually walked the walk and did what Jesus said? We – and I really mean me and you – are so good at finding clever reasons why we can’t put Jesus’ words into practice. We tell ourselves that the world has changed or we have new scientific insights which mean, for example, Jesus’ teaching about marriage being between one man and one woman can’t really apply. And then we wonder why Jesus seems not to bless us, why the church is in such an appalling state.
So this morning instead of talking about diocesan strategies, I am going to talk about this subject of obedience. Because obedience is something we all struggle with. We are all human and the most basic lesson the Bible teaches us is that being human means we resist God’s will for our lives. Right from the time Adam and Eve decided to listen to the serpent, we have gone our own way, made up our own rules, and generally thought we’ve known best. Even the most saintly and most godly among us this morning have found it hard at times to obey God. Indeed some of the godliest people I have ever met have been the ones most conscious of their failure to do God’s will.
And unfortunately it is in the whole question of obedience that we tend to have our greatest blindspot. Take the people of Jeremiah’s day, for example. They had a magnificent temple right at the heart of their capital city dedicated to the Lord. It was built by the greatest king of all, King Solomon, and it was one of the wonders of the ancient world. It was a busy, bustling place. People were constantly going backwards and forwards to offer sacrifices, carry out vows and celebrate the festivals. They thought that the Lord would be pleased with all this religious activity in this wonderful religious building.
But what is Jeremiah’s word to them? This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” You see, just saying the right words, or singing the right songs, does not make you a faithful follower of the Lord. Yes, ceremonies and rituals have their place, but if they are not matched by a desire to reform our ways and our actions then they are worse than useless. We end up thinking that following the Lord is all about what we do in church, and we ignore at our peril the fact He is Lord over the rest of our lives.
Or again, take the disciples in Jesus’ day. They had been called by name to follow the Messiah. They had gladly responded to His call and left everything to follow Him. But when it came to Jesus’ final journey towards Jerusalem, what were they arguing about on the road? About which one of them was greatest in the kingdom of God. They just hadn’t taken in all that Jesus had said about taking up their cross and following Him. So it’s little surprise that in today’s reading Jesus asks them quite bluntly: Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? Because, if you think about it, it’s a contradiction in terms to call Jesus Lord and not put His teaching into practice. As I’ve said before, either Jesus is Lord over all or He is not Lord at all.
But before we point the finger at other people, it’s worth thinking about our own lives. What was the subject I preached on last Sunday? That’s right – it was on loving your enemies. There’s the story of a new vicar who came and preached a wonderful sermon on his first Sunday. Everyone flocked to hear him again on the next Sunday. You can imagine their shock and disappointment when he preached exactly the same sermon all over again. When asked why, he replied that he was going to carry on preaching that sermon until folk took some action on what he said.
Don’t worry – I don’t think I am going to ever employ the same tactics. But the story raises an important point – when was the last time I ever acted directly on what I preached? It’s all so easy to think that what is said on a Sunday morning applies to someone else, that it’s the Lord’s word to the person sitting next to you, or that person over there who really ought to be more loving. It’s something we all do. Let’s be clear, God wants to speak to you. And when I think about some of the most positive experiences I have had here in this church it’s been when folk have got to grips with God’s word, done some serious business, and visibly grown in their faith. There really is no substitute for obedience.
You see, God isn’t looking for people who are outwardly religious or people who make great sacrifices. He is looking for people who are serious about learning to obey Him. So moving on in our reading today, let’s think for a moment about the man who built his house on the rock. Who does he represent? Jesus tells us clearly in verse 47 he is the one who comes to Jesus, and hears His words, and puts them into practice. In other words, this is a person who has learnt the secret of obedience. And if we are serious about learning to obey Jesus, then we too need to come to Jesus day by day, to hear His word, and put what we hear into practice.
Now there’s no doubt this can involve hard work and discipline. I’d love to preach a simple message that all you have to do is to get zapped by the Holy Spirit and suddenly everything will be easy. Of course the Holy Spirit can zap you and change you in an instant. But the daily reality of living for Jesus usually involves a routine and a structure, a determination to keep on with Jesus even in the most difficult and most demanding of circumstances. It’s not for nothing that Jesus talks about this man who built his house digging deep. For if we want really solid foundations for our faith, we have to be prepared to work at our relationship with Him, to be willing to grow in our understanding of what it means to be a disciple.
So, first of all, we need to carve out time when we can come to Jesus. For some people it might be first thing in the morning, for others it might be in the middle of the day, for others last thing at night. The main point is that, however and whenever you do this, you get used to spending time with Jesus. If you don’t know how to do this, then spend some time each day thinking about who Jesus is. This Jesus who loves you so much that He died for you wants a relationship with you. This Jesus who is your Messiah, your Saviour, your Shepherd, your Rock. This Jesus who is also the eternal word of God, the one through whom all things were made, the Alpha and the Omega, the very image of the invisible God. Spend some time reflecting on the immense privilege of knowing and being known by Him. And even if you don’t feel like drawing close to Jesus, ask Him to draw close to you. Give Him the busyness and the distractions that so often pull you away. Leave all your worries, your sins, your cares and concerns at the foot at the cross and recognise just how able He is to deal with each and every one of them.
And be willing to let Him speak to you. So often, because our time is limited, we rush into Jesus’ presence and present Him with a great long list of demands and petitions. Now there’s no harm in doing that, but Jesus wants a two-way relationship with us. There is so much Jesus wants to teach us about Himself, and about His Heavenly Father.
So as you come into Jesus’ presence get into the habit of opening up the Bible and reading it for yourself. Don’t believe the lie that the Bible is somehow too difficult and too complicated to understand. There are so many resources out there to help you discover what Jesus may be saying to you through the pages of Scripture. If reading is not your thing, then listen to it being read, or watch it performed on DVD. The main thing is, each day we get feed on to a small portion of God’s word. Because just as we need to eat physical food to stay healthy, so we need eat the spiritual food of God’s word to help us remain close to Jesus.
I should just add that if you’re a long-standing Christian who has somehow lost the habit of reading the Bible each day, then you need to get back into the routine. It may be possible to stay close to Jesus for a while but, without regularly reading the Bible, the danger becomes that you start to drift and to lose your love for Him.
And then having drawn to close to Jesus and fed on His word, you then need to ask yourself what action you need to take as a result. Sometimes, although not always, the Holy Spirit will lay something very directly on your heart. You will have an instant conviction you are being prompted to speak to that person or carry out that particular task. For example, having read about loving your enemies, you may become aware you need to pray for one particular individual who has hurt you in the past. The main thing is, whatever you believe you need to do, you actually do it. Some people find it helpful to keep a kind of journal and write down the action they need to take. Again if writing’s not your thing, just make sure that when you next get to read God’s word you have done what you believe the Lord is telling you to do.
So draw close to Jesus, listen to His word and put His teaching into practice. It’s not rocket science. It’s not even a particularly new and trendy message. But I believe that if each and every church member made a quiet time with Jesus the bread and butter of each day, we would in the long term begin to see real, solid growth that would transform the life of this nation, let alone this diocese.
Because when folk are in a loving, growing relationship with Jesus, then things begin to happen.
First of all, as Jesus says in verses 43-45, we will start to bear fruit for Jesus. Now I need to stress again this is a long-term process. It’s only in fairy tales that beanstalks sprout up overnight from seeds. It takes months, sometimes even years, for Jesus to work on the inside, so that we grow in love, joy, peace, patience, and all the other fruits of the Holy Spirit. But my experience tells me that one day you will look back and see you are not the same person as you were five, ten, twenty years ago. God is in the business of changing lives for good, and I for one am so grateful that over all these years He has not given up on me, but patiently carried on His work – which is still very much in progress.
And then secondly, as Jesus says in verses 46-49, we will have foundations. Jesus isn’t saying here that if we learn to obey Him we will be protected from the storms and troubles of life. As Christians we may even suffer more than other people. But if we have developed a habit of spending time daily with Him, Jesus promises that we will have a secure foundation that will enable us to endure even the harshest trial. However, if we have not, we must not be surprised at Jesus’ warning that we will falter and fail. Let’s be clear once again – what Jesus teaches here is not just for experienced Christians, or Christians leaders, or people who’ve been coming to church for a long term. It’s for anyone who wants to build their lives on Him.
But this teaching isn’t important for us alone. Because when others see the fruit of our obedience, when they see we have strong foundations to our lives, we will in the end make more followers of Jesus. For at the end of the day there is no better witness to His saving power than lives changed for good – your life, my life, bearing witness to the riches of Jesus’ amazing grace.
So today think what it means for you to walk with Jesus day by day. Ask Him what steps you need to take to obey Him more fully. And allow Jesus to take and use you so that others too learn to act on His word.