St Michael’s and St Barnabas 5th August 2018
Readings – Colossians 3:5-17; Luke 10:25-37
A few weeks ago we looked at a story Jesus told about a farmer going out to sow some seed. We saw how the seed the farmer sowed fell onto four different kinds of soil – can anyone remember what these types of soil were? And to illustrate the point Jesus was making I planted some nasturtium seeds into four different pots to see how they would grow.
Since then, the weather has been challenging to say the least, and I have been very much hoping that my experiment would actually yield the right result. So let’s see how the seeds have been growing …
As we learnt at the time the point of the story is that the seed stands for the word of God. The challenge Jesus sets us is to make sure we are like the seed sown on good soil, that we not only listen to the word of God, but actually live by it, and so produce the fruit God wants to see in our lives.
So how exactly do we this? Well, I hope you will agree that Beth provided at least some of the answer in her testimony this morning (see here).
First of all, and this is a really important point, Beth put herself in a position where she could hear God’s word. Beth was very open and honest about not understanding everything that is going on, but she went along to the Quiet Day and she keeps coming faithfully to group on Monday and Thursday evenings. And we really do need to encourage one another to come along to these kinds of events. Yes, God can speak to us at any time and in any place but Jesus promises to be especially present when two or three are gathered in His name. That does not mean we will necessarily hear God speak every time but if you’re not there, the chances are, you’ll miss out!
Now I realise some people are perhaps nervous about going along to groups. Perhaps you are afraid of joining in. Perhaps you think you don’t know enough, or that these groups are only for established church members. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every single person that attends a group started out at some point as a shy, new Christian, feeling rather nervous and out of place. The point of our small groups is that they are to help anyone who comes to grow in their faith, and I cannot stress highly enough that no previous experience is necessary!
Secondly, Beth acknowledged those who had given her such input and help in her faith. Again, if we’re to grow in our faith we all need the guidance and wisdom of experienced Christians. One thing I always say to folk when they join a small group is that no question is too silly or too obvious. The chances are, that if you have a particular question, other people are wanting to ask it as well. So let’s make sure none of us feel unable to share the challenges and the joys, the struggles and the fears we face in our faith.
Or as Paul puts it rather more positively in Colossians 3:16 – our memory verse this morning – Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. Because a church where the word of Christ is taught and shared will be like the seed sown on good soil. There will be growth in numbers and there will be growth in faith, and there will be many, many testimonies of how the Lord is at work. So one of my major aspirations for St Michael’s and St Barnabas is that we become more and more a church community where each and every person knows what it means to have the word of Christ dwell richly in their lives. Beth has already shared her story this morning; my hope and prayer is that in the months and years to come there will be many, many more who can tell how God has spoken directly to them.
However for that growth to occur, there also needs to be a radical willingness not only to hear, but also take action. After all, the point Jesus makes in his story about the sower is that simply listening to God is not enough. In order to become like the seed sown on good soil, we have to allow God’s word to challenge and change us so that we become more and more the people God intends us to be.
In today’s gospel reading the expert in the law already knew exactly what the Lord demanded of Him. He had memorised those two great commands to love God with everything you’ve got and to love your neighbour as yourself. That didn’t mean he was going to put those commands into practice. He was still likely to walk on by if he saw a Samaritan lying in the middle of the road.
So if we are going to become the type of church and the type of people God wants us to be, we need to take God’s word right down into our hearts and allow the Holy Spirit to do His work at the deepest, most personal level. That’s why Paul says in verse 5 of our reading: Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because what goes on inside of us shapes our personalities and our habits, and even if we can fool other people about what we are really thinking, we cannot fool God. He knows our dreams and fantasies that capture our imagination, and He wants to take control of all our thoughts and desires so that He truly is Lord of our lives.
Now I realise we don’t tend to talk that much about issues such as sexual immorality, impurity, lust and all the rest. Maybe it sounds a little old-fashioned, even Victorian to mention them. But just spend a few minutes browsing the net or listening to people chatting about programmes such as Love Island and you will quickly realise how much we need to bring such issues out into the open. You see, having other gods in our hearts other than the Lord God Almighty means that we neither love God as we should nor love our neighbour as ourselves. Our greed or our lust or our evil desires mean we are focused on getting what we want, no matter the cost to other people, or what God is saying to us. It’s for this reason that Paul says in verse 6: Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. And that’s not just a warning to non-believers. How can we say we truly worship the Lord if our hearts or minds are actually focused elsewhere, when the words we say don’t match up with our thoughts and desires deep inside us?
And if it is true that out of the fulness of the heart that the mouth speaks, then we also need to take action about the words that come out of our mouths. Paul goes on in verses 8 and 9: But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices.
Now again we don’t often preach and teach about the language we use. But again it is really important that we do so. After all, we live in a culture where so often the name of the Lord is simply used as a swear-word; where so much comedy involves filth and innuendo; where the issue of fake news is a very current affair at the moment. Surely it is in the language that we use that we can most readily show the difference that our faith in Jesus Christ makes, by not swearing like everyone else, by having fun without being crude, by being truthful and honest. I realise, of course, this isn’t always easy, particularly when we are surrounded by family and friends who do not know the Lord. On the other hand, however, there is no worse witness to the Christian faith that a believer who constantly says “Oh, God” or whose posts online are full of slander or filthy language. Perhaps this is one area in particular where we need to have a little more confidence to teach and to admonish one another, because the words we use matter. They really do.
There is so much more I could say about verses 5-9 but I need to press on, because in one sense they are really only half the story. What do I mean by this? Well, so far Paul has talked about all the negative stuff we need to deal with and I hope you can see how important is his teaching here. But if we only focus on the negatives, we can reinforce the popular perception that the Christian faith is all about what you are not allowed to do. But, as Paul goes on to show, letting the word of Christ dwell in you richly should be a far more positive, life-enhancing experience than that.
The word of Christ brings unity to His church
To begin with, it is the word of Christ that bring unity to His church. Now in this passage that is essentially a list of commands Paul’s statement about the church in verse 11 seems a little out of place: Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. What is the connection between this verse and everything else Paul is saying here? Simply this, that however different we are from one another, we have this one common factor – Christ dwelling in us by His Holy Spirit and speaking to us through His word. You see, no matter our background, no matter what label other people might put on us, when we hear and respond to the good news of Jesus Christ each and everyone of us receives a new identity as a child of the living God. And there can surely be no greater witness to the change and transformation that God produces in us than a whole mixed bunch of people who otherwise have nothing in common worshipping and working together as the body of Christ.
As Paul might say today: “Here at St Michael’s there is no Man United and no Liverpool supporter; no Cornish and no Devonian; no Baptist or Anglican; no black and no white, but Christ is all and is in all.” Because at the end of the day the most important identity that we all have is this – that we are one in Christ. So let’s seek to guard, uphold and strengthen our unity, as it really is one of the most precious gifts the Lord gives us through His word.
The word of Christ brings transformation to His people
Secondly, and following on from this theme of unity, the word of God brings transformation to His people. This morning I can only really scratch the surface of verses 12-15 but we can sum up what Paul is saying here as a call to become like Jesus Christ. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
After all, the whole point of the Christian life is not only that we believe but that we become more like our Lord and Saviour. So if Jesus is compassionate, kind, humble, gentle and patient, then that is what we must become, as we allow His word to do His work in and among us. If Jesus has given up His life to forgive us our sins, then we must be prepared to do whatever we can to forgive others. If Jesus is full of love and mercy, then we too must show love and mercy in our lives. That is what it means to follow Jesus.
And becoming like Jesus also involves behaving like Jesus. One reason why I put the parable of the Good Samaritan alongside this passage was to remind us what love really looks in action. We sing and talk so much about the love of Jesus, but it all means very little if we are not prepared to take risks to reach out to the wounded and the vulnerable, if we are not prepared to welcome others who are different from ourselves. As I have said all along, it’s one thing to know what Jesus expects us to do. It’s another to actually put His words into practice.
The word of Christ brings about thanksgiving and joy
So God’s word brings unity. It brings transformation. And finally, it should bring about thanksgiving and joy in our lives. Let’s go back to where we started, to verse 16 and go on through to verse 17: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. You see, a church which is growing in numbers and in faith is a thankful church. Its members give thanks for all that God has done and is doing in their lives. Its praise and worship expresses genuine love and wonder for Jesus and His saving love. And the sense of thanksgiving isn’t just confined to Sunday mornings. As the people of God go out on a Monday morning, they continue to be full of thanks wherever they go, aware that no matter lies ahead of them, they belong to God through Christ Jesus and they belong to each other.
Now I realise I have covered a lot of ground this morning, and yet I feel there is still so much more we could all get out of this passage. So in order to allow this particular word of Christ to dwell richly in our hearts, we are going to look at it again at our next praise party on Thursday evening. And I very much want you to set the agenda. What questions or issues does this passage raise for you? Maybe some of you want to look more at the theme of forgiveness, maybe some of you want to think about how we engage in a culture which so often celebrates sexual immorality. Whatever your questions or issues bring them along. I’ve put a few questions down on the notice sheet to get you started, but let’s spend some time on Thursday evening really seeing what the Lord might be saying to us through this passage.
Let’s sum up where we have got to so far. Jesus wants us to be a growing church, like the seed sown in good soil. So all of us need to put ourselves in a position where we can hear God speak. We mustn’t be afraid to ask questions, or join in with small groups. And we need not only to hear God speak but to take action in response to His word. That involves being honest about the desires of our hearts, and aware of what comes out of mouths. It also involves deepening our unity with God’s people, becoming more like Jesus and being thankful to God our Father for everything. And as the word of Christ dwells in us richly, let’s pray that we will have many, many stories of the Lord speaking to us as He changes our lives for our good and His glory. Amen.