St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 21st July 2013
It’s only a small thing really, about 4 inches high, made of terracotta. There is some suggestion it was originally nothing more than a simple Victorian perfume bottle. Yet since it was first presented as a joke in 1883, it has become one of the most famous sporting prizes in the world. I am talking, of course, about the Ashes.
To cricketers in England and Australia there is no greater honour than appearing in an Ashes contest. It is the pinnacle of your career, something you dream about from the time you first hold a cricket bat or send down your first delivery. It is something you work towards over many, many years, and it is the reason why you spend so many hours in the nets. You will give up almost anything to end up on the team sheet, and you know that, should that trophy become yours, you will become a national hero.
And even if you hate cricket, or find it boring or incomprehensible, you will not be able to ignore the fact that this summer and next winter the struggle for the Ashes will be plastered all over the news. For so many the Ashes are the ultimate sporting trophy, treasure indeed.
In our gospel reading Jesus tells two very simple stories about the kingdom of heaven. The first is of a man who finds treasure in a field. When he finds it, he sells everything he has to buy that field and claim the treasure. The second is of a merchant who sees a pearl of great price. Again when he discovers it, he sells everything he has to buy that pearl. Jesus is using these stories to make one clear point: that belonging to God should be more valuable than anything else in our life. Once we hear the good news of Jesus Christ, we should make sure nothing stops us from accepting a place in God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven.
Now I guess if I was preaching in other parts of the world today, I wouldn’t have to preach on the fact the Christian faith is precious. Even as we gather in church today, there are millions of believers meeting in secret who are risking arrest, imprisonment or death, just because they have decided to follow Jesus. I am thinking of places like North Korea or Saudi Arabia, where to own the name of Jesus is a capital offence, or a place like this week’s featured country Belarus where you risk being raided by the police. Believers in these places don’t need to be told that the gospel is precious. They risk their lives every day for the sake of the kingdom.
And yet the sad truth is that for so many of us today in the West our approach to the Christian faith seems at best half-hearted. Free Sunday this week? I suppose I could go to church. Nothing on telly? Well, I could always get out my Bible and find something to read. Don’t get me wrong – I know that many of you are far more committed than that. But it is hard to maintain that level of a commitment in a culture where faith is seen as a hobby, a leisure activity, or even an eccentricity.
So today I want to ask the question: why is our faith so precious?
Well, there’s many different ways I could answer this question, but here’s one particular image I hope you will find helpful. I believe at the moment there’s a TV series called Long-Lost family. I’ve never watched it, although I’ve read a lot about it. As the name suggests, it’s about people who have been adopted trying to find their birth families. With the help of the presenters, Nicky Campbell and Davina McColl, and a research team they go through the long and arduous process of working out what happened. And the programme ends with a reunion and the discovery of another family they never knew existed.
Now one of the key images of the Christian faith is that of adoption. But the twist is, we weren’t given up by our Heavenly Father. No, we became separated from Him because we thought we knew better than to follow His will for our lives. We allowed ourselves to be cut off from His love because of our sin and wrongdoing. Yet the remarkable good news of the Christian faith is that God our Heavenly Father wouldn’t leave it at that. His greatest desire was to find a way for us to be adopted once again into His family. So He sent His Son Jesus Christ to do something we could not do – to open up the way back into His presence.
That’s why at the heart of the Christian faith is a cross. Because through the cross, through Jesus’ death in our place for our sins, God makes the most amazing offer to each and every one of us: “Believe in Jesus, and you can know me as your Heavenly Father. You can be adopted as a child into my family, the church. And as you come to believe and trust in Jesus, you will discover more brothers and sisters than you ever knew you had”.
That’s God’s amazing offer to you this morning. So can you start to see why Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as treasure, as a pearl of great price? Through Jesus we can receive peace with God, forgiveness of sins, eternal life, love, security, assurance, and so much more. That’s why the Christian faith truly is a precious message. And whether you are hearing this for the first time or for the thousandth time, let me encourage all of us to consider whether we really value Jesus and this word of salvation. Is Jesus your treasure, your pearl of great price?
Of course, you may well wonder about all this business of giving everything up. You may like the idea of Jesus as treasure, but giving everything up – isn’t that a bit extreme, a bit foolhardy even?
Well, to answer that, I want you imagine for a moment a man with his most beloved possession – a rare, vintage motor car. He doesn’t just stick it in a garage and forget about it. No, he spends hours polishing and maintaining it. You ask his wife where you can find him, and she just points to the end of the garden. When he’s not at home with his car, he’s probably driving it very carefully to a vintage car show, where he spends hours talking about it with other enthusiasts. He has DVDs, books, memorabilia about that make of car, and he can tell you more facts and figures than you ever thought possible on the subject.
You see, what is most valuable to you affects the whole of your life. You can’t help it really. It becomes your passion, your preoccupation. It’s something you love to talk about to other people. It will make an impact on how you spend your money and your time, the places you go and the people you hang out with. As someone who spent most of his free time as a teenager playing chess I know exactly what I’m talking about.
So the question is – isn’t it better to devote yourself to something that truly satisfies? To dedicate yourself to something that will never rust, spoil or fade? You see, the actions of the man in the field, and the merchant, are not the actions of a fanatic or an extremist. They are the actions of someone who knows there is nothing more valuable than knowing God as their Heavenly Father. And so they spend whatever they have deepening and growing in their relationship with God. Because, for them, their faith is not a matter of words or private belief. It is a costly devotion which directly impacts on how they spend their time, their money, their energy.
And this leads on to our second reading this morning, from the book of Proverbs. Because so far we have been using stories and images to talk about our Christian faith. But actually faith is a way of life which has direct, practical implications on what we do and how we behave. Why? Because it is a response to the generous, freely given love of Jesus poured out for us on the cross.
So as Jesus gave Himself so freely to save us, we too give freely, knowing that it is through our giving we discover the blessings of God. That’s why we read in Proverbs 11:24: One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.
Now let’s be clear: the writer of this book isn’t saying we will automatically grow richer the more we give away. That’s the error of the so-called prosperity movement which equates following Jesus with material gain. But when we truly understand who Jesus is and what He offers us, then we begin to see that all that we have is not ours to own anyway. It is a wonderful gift from a generous Heavenly Father, and when He calls us to give, who are we to refuse?
And so the person who has truly understood just how precious is the Christian faith, will be known as someone who is generous and willing to share. Now we may think we only have a little to give. But the funny thing is, God can take even the smallest thing and use it to bless many people. Think for a moment of how Jesus took five small loaves and two fish to feed five thousand.
Or again, we may worry how we will manage when we give. My experience, and I suspect the experience of many others, is that God is well able to provide for what we need. After didn’t Jesus Himself tell us to pray, Give us this day our daily bread? So why are we so surprised when God sees fit to answer that prayer? Maybe the answer lies in the fact that time after time we forget just what a truly generous God we worship, that He delights to give good things to those who believe and trust in Him.
So let’s remind ourselves of the promises we find in the next verse from Proverbs:
A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.
And again, in verse 26:
People curse the man who hoards grain, but blessing crowns him who is willing to sell.
And as we read these verses, let’s ask ourselves openly and honestly: Do we truly believe what they say? I believe how you answer that question depends in the end where you place your security. Does your security come, for example, from the car in the garage, or the good job, or the pension pot you pay into every month? Or does your security come from the fact you have been loved by a generous Heavenly Father and adopted into His family?
Because in this life there are in essence only two types of security. There is the security based on how much you have. There is the security based on how much you are loved by God. And in the end we have to choose between the two. For as Jesus says elsewhere, in Luke 16:14: “You cannot serve both God and Money”. So at some point we have to make a very practical decision with very practical outcomes – who we are going to serve.
On Tuesday evening at St Michael’s we were looking at the example of the apostle Paul. Paul grew up in the most privileged of circumstances. He was a Roman citizen. He had an impeccable religious heritage. He had the best education on offer. He had status in society. Yet he gave all that up for the sake of Jesus. Just like the man in our gospel reading who sold all he had to buy that field or the merchant who liquidated all his assets to get the pearl of great price. Why? Because as he later wrote in our memory verse for today: I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
So today, let me ask you direct question. What step of faith do you need to make? It might be you need to realise for the first time just how wonderful is the good news of Jesus Christ. It might be you need to consider where your security really lies. It might be God is calling you to do something costly with what you have.
But whatever it is, make sure you act on what Jesus is calling you to do. For the Christian faith is precious. It is about God opening up the very kingdom of heaven to all who believe. It is about God doing what we could not do for ourselves, giving us peace and forgiveness and eternal life, and so much more. And it is what God offers you today. So today, please have the courage to act, to put your life in God’s hands, and discover the joy of doing His will. There really is no better way to live.