St Michael’s and St Barnabas 30th June 2013
Do you have a particular person who is your inspiration and example in life? Someone special you look up to?
It’s part of our human nature to follow other people. When we’re very young, the first people we learn to follow, of course, are our parents. There’s something wonderful in the way a tiny baby’s eyes follow her mother or father round the room, noting every movement and every noise they make. Then, as we grow up, we start to look to the example of other people – a teacher or a friend, maybe. Perhaps when we are teenagers we put up on our bedroom walls a picture of a favourite actor or pop star. I won’t embarrass you by asking who was your hero! Or perhaps we turn into the more serious type and we read books by a particular author or follow a certain historical figure. That was certainly me as a spotty, nerdish teenager. But one way or another as we grow up we pick up influences and examples from all sorts of people – some good, some not so good. And it seems to me that one of the biggest questions any of us have to face is: who exactly do we follow?
Last week we began a sermon series from the book of Proverbs. As we saw, it’s not a hard book to read. It doesn’t have lots of difficult words or lists of long, complicated names. Because the whole point of the book is to teach us in very simple, down-to-earth ways the right path to take each day. And so it consists in the main of short, punchy sayings that are easy to remember. For example our memory verse last week: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. That’s not that hard to memorise, is it? And the whole point of the book is that once we have learnt a verse like this we begin to apply it in the rush and busyness of each day.
So I hope as we go through this sermon series you will make the effort to learn some of this book’s teaching. Because of all the books in the Bible the book of Proverbs is the one that is most grounded in the messy, practical reality of daily living. Yes, it’s very easy to come to church and to say we follow the Lord. But out there, when it’s a busy Monday morning, when we’re surrounded by colleagues or friends or families who don’t yet know the Lord, it’s that much harder to stand out as a believer.
And that’s why the book of Proverbs is concerned not only to teach us about following the Lord, but also to warn us about the dangers of following other people. For, if you think about it, the choice all of us have to make day to day is not whether we decide to follow the Lord, as if there was some kind of neutral alternative. The choice we have to make is whether we follow the Lord or something or someone else. Who exactly do we follow?
For example, our passage this morning describes in the most direct, possible language the danger in following the crowd. We all know the scenario. Someone gets in with a bad crowd. At first it seems exciting hanging round a bunch of people who are a bit edgy, a bit rebellious. But gradually that person gets sucked in a bit further. They’re asked to do something they’re not sure about. But they want to fit in, so they do it anyway. They want to be accepted, to be one of the gang. And then comes the ultimate challenge: Come along with us; let’s lie in wait for someone’s blood, let’s waylay some harmless soul. How do you respond?
I’ve seen this scenario played out countless times. The young man who gets in with the wrong sort of people, and ends up involved as the look-out for an armed robbery. The young woman swept along with the crowd who gets caught dealing in drugs. They never intended to get mixed up like this – it just kind of happened.
And it’s not only the young who can fall victim to peer pressure. You can see it happen among older people, perhaps in more subtle and less dramatic ways, but nonetheless the effects are just as real. That person who changes job and ends up in a workplace culture of heavy drinking and boozy office parties. That lonely person who retires into an area dominated by one or two pushy neighbours who think they can decide what is and isn’t acceptable on their own particular patch. How do you resist going along with the crowd?
I think there are several different answers to this question.
First of all, and this is something we perhaps forget all too often, everything in life has a spiritual dimension. As the psalmist writes in Psalm 24, verse 1: The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. So the company you keep, the events you choose to go, the places you visit – they all matter in the Lord’s eyes. Our faith is not a private hobby, or a leisure activity. It is a statement about God which affects every area of our life. Jesus is my Lord, is my Saviour. Therefore everything I do and say must honour and bring praise to Jesus. Especially and particularly in those parts of my life which are not churchy or religious.
And, let’s be clear, if we are serious about living out our faith, then we cannot help but be engaged with the world around us. We are called to spend time with our neighbours, our friends, our colleagues. We are not called to be a sect that cuts itself off from people who don’t share our beliefs. But we also need that constant spiritual discernment to know when to go along with the crowd, and when to make a stand, when to blend in and when to draw apart. That’s why The fear of the Lord and knowledge of the Holy One is just so important. We need to keep tuned into the Holy Spirit and His still small voice leading and guiding us in those decisions all of us face day by day.
Secondly, we need to be secure in our identity as children of the living God. What do I mean by this? Well, we live in an age where we are constantly being labelled, so to speak, by other people. We might be labelled, for example, by the type of clothes we wear – whether we shop at M+S or Next. We might be labelled by the music we listen to, or our particular age bracket, or our educational background, or the area where we live. We all go through life wearing numerous different labels. It’s one reason why you have those endless surveys with all those questions asking you about everything from where you shop to how often you go to the theatre.
But no matter what labels you wear, whether you are a silver surfer, or an ageing rocker, a vegan or a vampire, one label should matter to you above else – that, if you are a believer, you are a child of God. Because what’s important is not how other people see you. It’s how God sees you. Now it’s easy saying that in the comfort of a Sunday morning service. But it’s something we need to hold onto as we go out into the wider world, and maybe you come under pressure from other people. You are God’s child, called and loved by Him. That is the one label that matters, and you need to hold on to this every time you are being tempted to go along with the crowd.
Thirdly, we need to listen to others older and wiser than ourselves. This is the reason why so much of the book of Proverbs is cast as instruction from a father and a mother to their son. For example, our reading this morning began with these words: Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. They will be a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck. And I don’t think the writer was simply thinking about bling! He is setting forward an ideal of the family as a place where children and young people learn to love and honour the Lord, a place where good advice is both given and received. So as we go through the book, it’s not surprising we find many sayings about following the example of parents. For example:
A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish man despises his mother. (Prov 15:20)
Listen to your father, who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old. (Prov 23:22)
The eye that mocks a father, that scorns obedience to a mother, will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley, will be eaten by the vultures. (Prov 30:17)
Of course, this is all very well, yet we know there are many parents who do not teach wisdom, let alone inspire love of the Lord. So what then? Well, this is our gospel reading can help. We know that Jesus honoured his parents and was obedient to them (Luke 2:51) and quite rightly Christian tradition honours the part Mary and Joseph played in bringing him up. Yet we know that during his earthly ministry Mary and her other sons did not understand what Jesus was doing. Indeed our gospel reading starts with them coming to have a private word with Him outside, presumably to get Him to tone down His teaching, or stop drawing attention to Himself.
And what is so striking from this passage is that Jesus did not go out to meet them. Not even the demands of a family He honoured or respected would draw Him away from His ministry. Instead, Pointing to his disciples, he said (in Matt 12:49-50), “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Which leads on to my fourth and final point this morning, that we need the support and encouragement of each other as a church family. Because if we think we can somehow manage on our own as a Christian, if we can survive as a follower of the Lord without close fellowship or prayer support, then we really do need to think again.
Brothers and sisters, let me honest with you. I have been a minister here for nearly eleven years. Through my time here we have seen many people come and go through this church. Sometimes people have left for unavoidable reasons. For example, they may have moved house, or they may have found another church which is closer to home. But sometimes people have moved on, simply because they have been pulled along by the crowd. They may have a family at home who do not understand why they would ever want to go church. They may form a new relationship with someone who does not share their love of the Lord. They may get in with a group of people who spend Sunday mornings doing something else.
The pressure of the crowd is real. It may not be as blatant or as direct as the type of plotting and scheming we find in today’s reading. But it is there nonetheless. And as the body of Christ we need to help one another live out our faith especially when there is conflict and opposition. We need to teach that every part of our life has a spiritual dimension, and make our teaching relevant to the messy, practical business of day to day living. We need to help each other see that first and foremost our identity is children of the living God, redeemed and restored by the death of Jesus on the cross for our sins. We need to help families become places where children are brought up to know and love the Lord.
And we need to live out our calling as brothers and sisters of Christ – not just meeting on a Sunday morning, or sharing the odd e-mail, but praying together, letting each other know we are being prayed for in the busyness of each day, understanding the pressures we face, the joys and challenges that confront us each day. In short, we need to become our own version of the crowd so that people are not pulled away from the faith, but pulled into an ever greater awareness of God’s love and want to find out more about the wonderful good news of Jesus Christ. That’s what God wants us to be. The body of Christ, the family of God, the temple where God’s Spirit dwells. Call it what you will. But let’s do all we can to keep each other walking in fear of the Lord and knowledge of the Holy One. For the sake of the kingdom and the glory of God’s name. Amen.