Sunday, February 13, 2011

Breaking the shell to get at the nut - the secret of the kingdom

To get from Felicity’s sister’s home to visit Felicity’s mum in hospital last Monday we had to drive through the centre of Leicester along the Welford Road. We paid homage to the home of Leicester Tigers as we drove past their incredible new stand, past the forbidding prison, past the Demontfort University and the magazine, a castle-like building, and then we drove through the Underpass. The road goes through an underground tunnel for the shortest of stretches. And you have to juggle lane changes that take the visitor to Leicester unawares. I remember that being built way back in the 60’s. It involved the demolition of rows and rows of terraced houses.

My parents took me to a short service by one of those houses just before it was demolished. It was William Carey’s cottage. The story of William Carey, the humble bootmaker from Northamptonshire and Leicester who gave up all to travel to India as the father of the modern missionary movement was a thrilling story. How he learned not one but many languages, set up a college and seminary that still stands to this day, translated the Bible into more than 20 languages and waited more than 20 years for his first convert. It was a story that inspired. Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.

It was one of many stories I grew up with that fired me with a vision for the Christian faith. It is something that makes a difference to the world. It is something worth sharing.

I had supposed William Carey to be the first person to take the Christian Gospel to India. I have had to re-visit the story. We have been thinking of Sue Cole and the Children’s Homes in Kerala State that she is visiting in support of CHIKS in the last three weeks following on our Christmas collection for CHIKS. It was not long before Christmas looking forward to that collection and Sue’s visit that I told the story of Thomas. Tradition has it that he journeyed eastwards and took the Gospel of Christ to Kerala and Southern India in the first century. Archaeological evidence of Roman remains on that South West coast of India dating to the first century is circumstantial evidence for the plausibility of the tradition preserved in the Coptic, Syrica, Orthodox churches of that part of India that can trace their history back at least fifteen hundred years.

Little did I know that Dan Moses would be taking his daughter Andrea to celebrate Dan’s mother’s 90th birthday over Christmas. And that the family home is within sight of the cathedral that marks the supposed place of the burial of Thomas! It was wonderful this morning to see the fruits of Andrea’s research over Christmas and hear her tell the story of Thomas.

It too is a story to inspire. The Christian message, the gospel we share is a gospel to thrill. A Gospel to make a difference. It is a faith to inspire.

William Carey felt the call of God to share the Christian message just as Thomas had done centuries before. We may not be called to travel the world, but we each of us are called of God to share our faith, to share the inspiration and the thrill of the difference God can make in all our lives through Jesus Christ our Lord and our Saviour.

Hear the call in the words of Isaiah 6:1-8

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said:‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;the whole earth is full of his glory.’ 4The pivots* on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph* touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

Can you hear the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send, who will go for us? What is the task God is calling you to do now?

Hymn: I the Lord of sea and sky

What I found an inspiration about the call to missionary service as a child was the thought that the task William Carey had begun was one I could help finish in my lifetime if I put enough in my Missionary society collecting box. I think as a child I thought Gladys Aylward the missionary to China had almost made China entirely Christian and with a bit more work the task could be finished in my life time.

I think there is a certain expectation I had then and sometimes find myself yearing for again that my Christian faith will sweep the board. It is something that not only can make a world of difference to people, but is something that will change the whole world instantly.

Faith is something that will bring about instant change. In some ways it’s the world we live in. Have you noticed how if you want an assortment of nuts it’s easier to buy a bag of nuts that have already been shelled than it is to buy a bag of nuts that require the much harder work of cracking each of them open with a nut cracker. I for one am drawn to the ease of a bag of shelled nuts.

It’s easy to have that kind of expectation of faith and of the Gospel.

As the child in me grew up and became a man, I have come to realise that the real world isn’t like that.

After the first flush of enthusiasm for our missionary faith we can move on in our thinking.

Funnily enough, however, I would not say that I have become disillusioned. To the contrary I would say I have not become disillusioned.

I want to tease away at what it is I am called to, and what this Gospel and this faith is like. I have found it fascinating to dig a little more deeply into the missionary story behind William Carey and Gladys Aylward, fascinating to dig away at the traditions around Thomas.

More significant still, however, is to go back to the Bible and the roots of that sense of missionary call.

I come back to Isaiah chapter 6 and as I read on in the story there I discover that all is not as it first appears.

Here am I, send me, says Isaiah in the response to the call of God. And then the voice of God speaks to him and what the word of God says is very strange, very enigmatic. Much more down to earth than the imaginations of my childhood response to the missionary call.

‘Go and say to this people:“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;keep looking, but do not understand.” 10 Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes,so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears,and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.’ 11

The very first thoughts that come to Isaiah are that there’s no instant fix. As you can understand, that takes Isaiah aback. Won’t his message make a difference to people as soon as they hear it! You can almost hear his exasperation …

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”

The response is even gloomier.

Until cities lie waste … and the land is utterly desolate.

The call is to share the message in spite of the fact in the absence of instant results … but there is a hope.

Isaiah is directed to the image of an oak tree, felled in the middle of a wasteland … but a stump remains standing when the tree is felled.

That stump – that’s the hope.

That is ‘the holy seed’.

Keep at it … don’t get disillusioned. Hold on to the word – share the word. The seed will grow in the fullness of God’s time.

When Jesus comes on the scene he has a wonderful message about the rule of God breaking into the world. And people who hear him are amazed at the authority of his teaching. He has a powerful message of love for God, love for neighbour and love for enemy. And he lives it out as he brings healing into the lives of people who hurt. As you read his story you might expect everyone to be swept along. Instant change.

But as the story unfolds in Mark’s gospel especially it isn’t like that. From the very outset he encounters opposition. There is a hardness of heart around. It is not long before he has caused onetime bitter enemies to join forces together in a plot to destroy him. Wherever he turns there’s opposition. What’s more by the time he sends out the twelve he warns them they too will face opposition.

How can you make sense of this?

It’s very early on in Mark’s telling of the Gospel story – to round off the first quarter of his Gospel that he tells of an occasion when Jesus shared teaching with the crowds, and let the disciples in on the secret of his teaching.

He is nothing less than that ‘holy seed’ … as the crowds are by the sea of Galilee he invites them to picture a field – a typical field. It’s tough ground for the kind of farmer Jesus knows well – often hard limestone rock just beneath the surface. The method of farming is different – for the Palestinian farmer

Sowing pecedes ploughing. The sower strides over the unploughed stubble. He sows intentionally on the path which the villagers have trodden over the stubble, since he intends to plough the seed in when he ploughs up the path. He sows intentionally among the thorns standing withered in the fallow because they too will be ploughed up, nor need it surprise us that some grains should fall upon rocky ground; the underlying limestone, thinly covered with soil, barely shows above the surface until the ploughshare jars aginst it[Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus 2nd ed(New York) 11f quoted in Ched Myers Binding the Strong Man (Orbis, 1988), 176

Reading: Mark 4:1-12

Again he began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. 2He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. 6And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. 7Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ 9And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’

10 When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret* of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12in order that“they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand;so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.” ’

This is the reality – a hard reality to learn and take on board.

The Christian faith does not offer a quick fix.

Such is the power of Satan, the force for evil, the powers that be, that some will stay by the way … and not walk on the way that Jesus maps out.

Tribulation and persection wil come … and some will not be able to stand their ground.

The cares of the world, the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things will also come in and choke the word. And it yields nothing.

As with the experience of Isaiah, so with the experience of Jesus, and with the disciples … and down through the ages there is going to be a resistance.

Hold on.

The value of what we do is not measured in terms of the instant fix.

This is the inspiration we need to hold on to.

It’s not just a holy seed. A Palestinian farmer could hope for a 7fold yield, a bumper harvest would be a tenfold yield. That would mean he would have just enough but would still beholden to the landowner. The wonderful good news that Jesus has is that the seed bears a remarkable crop – thirty, sixty, one hundred fold. And that’s enough to set the farmer of the parable free from the landowner he is tied to – and set him up for life.

Let’s hold on to that promise.

This story was important to Thomas as well … in the Gospel of Thomas, discovered only a hundred years ago, the parable is included.

Jesus said, "Now the sower went out, took a handful (of seeds), and scattered them. Some fell on the road; the birds came and gathered them up. Others fell on the rock, did not take rood in the soil, and did not produce ears. And others fell on thorns; they choked the seed(s) and worms ate them. And others fell on the good soil and produced good fruit: it bore sixty per measure and a hundred and twenty per measure." ( )

It’s worth keeping at it. Hold on to the vision. Look to the seed. Work at it … there isn’t an instant fix. But the good news of Christ with that love of God has the power to transform us and working slowly through people individually to make a world of difference around. That’s the secret. But you have to work at it – there are no ready to eat nuts, you need to break open the shell to eat the kernel and discover the secret of life.

“Translation it is
that breaketh the shell,
that we may eat the kernel.”

Let me in on the secret, the secret of life,
as I read the words of Scripture
that I may be nourished by your Word
in those words
and know it to be true ...

To you has been given
The secret of the kingdom of God.

It’s one to take to heart in the face of all that is around us.

Our faith offers us no easy fix. We have to work at the nut break the shell to get at the kernel.

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