Mission Impossible

Mission Impossible

Have you seen the Mission Impossible films?

Tom Cruise, this message will self-destruct in 5 seconds, a mission that no-one can else can accomplish but it’s yours, should you choose to accept it –

Of course they do accept it, and then we are on an action roller-coaster for the next 2 hours with amazing gadgets, stunts, and a lot of improbable plot lines!

I wonder if we had to imagine a Mission Impossible scenario for Jesus, what would that look like?

If I was to ask you,

‘what is the worst case scenario for salvation?’

I wonder what you would think of?

What kind of person, in what kind of situation would be too difficult even for Jesus to save?

What kind of person is least likely to turn to Jesus, and what kind of life circumstances would make their journey to God the most unlikely?

If I had to imagine who might be the hardest person for Jesus to win to faith I might think of a person who has set the direction of their whole life against God.

Perhaps a hardened criminal, someone who has lived a life with no thought of anyone but themselves and haven’t given a moment’s thought of who they were hurting.

Thinking about the circumstances of our Mission Impossible for Jesus is a bit trickier.

Perhaps it is easier if we come at the problem from the other direction and try and identify the things that usually help people find God.

If we can identify those, then the Mission Impossible case is one where none of those are present, right?

So, when you hear people talk about their experience of coming to faith, what are the things they talk about that help them find God? Any ideas? What are the things that generally are helpful in our faith journey?

  • Church attendance, exploring the Christian message.
  • Reading the Bible.
  • Experiencing a genuinely Christian community where acceptance of love are experienced.
  • Holy Communion
  • Being baptised and confirmed.
  • Confession and absolution.
  • Encountering God in prayer.

So if we put all this together the most difficult case for Jesus to save would be someone whose life has been characterised by sinfulness and who has no access to any of these things that would normally be helpful in a person’s journey to faith.

So, imagine the scenario,

a hardened criminal,

who has been arrested (again)

and found guilty of a crime so serious that it carries a death sentence

he has been sentenced to death for his crimes,

but suddenly, moments before he dies, he turns to Jesus and says,

“Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

The questions is, will salvation even be possible in this case?

I mean, look at the problems;

• He can’t be given a clear explanation of the Christian gospel – at this point there isn’t a clearly defined Christian gospel.
• He can’t read the Bible – half of it hasn’t been written yet!
• There is no Creed for him to understand and declare as his faith.
• He can’t be baptised.
• He can’t be confirmed.
• He can‘t receive Holy Communion.
• He can’t confess his (many) sins and be absolved of them.
• He can’t even show evidence of a real change of heart through a transformed life.

Is it possible for this kind of a person – a career criminal – to be saved without any access to any of the things which are normally a vital part of the Christian faith journey?

This really is ‘Mission Impossible’ in terms of salvation.

But what is Jesus’ response to this ‘Mission Impossible’?

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise”.

Isn’t that the most amazing thing you have ever heard!

What makes this even more significant is that there are only 4 people in the Bible who we absolutely know are saved and with God in heaven.

Enoch Moses Grandfather

Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away. Gen 5:24

The prophet Elijah,

As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. 2 Kings 2:11

Jesus, who we are told ascended to heaven,

When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them.
While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Luke 24: 50-51

The only other person in the whole of the Bible who we absolutely know is saved, is this unnamed criminal – we know this because Jesus promises him that he is saved.

It is like God is making a point –

You want to know how amazing my grace is?

You want proof of how far my grace can reach?

Let’s find the least promising candidate in the whole of the New Testament.

Let’s put him in the least promising situation in the whole New Testament.

Let’s give him the least access to anything that would normally be thought of as helpful.

And let me show you what I can do!

Such is Jesus’ incredible power to save that in a single moment of time, this hardened criminal turns towards Jesus , expresses faith in him, and he is immediately saved.

Isn’t that the most incredible thing you ever heard!? The power of God to save!

Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, Jesus – Saviour of the Universe.

A Saviour who, even when dying on a cross, can still extend salvation to the most difficult case, in the most difficult circumstances, with the lest possible help.

So who do you think can’t be saved?

In your mind’s eye, go through all the people you know.

The people you’ve written them off. The one’s of whom you’ve said well maybe so and so is a possibility, but them, NO CHANCE!

In the light of today’s gospel reading I challenge you;
• Who is too hard a case?
• Whose life is too far away from God?
• Who is too distant from church, Bible reading, prayer, that you can’t even imagine how they might come to God?

Do you really believe those people can’t be saved?

If there are people for whom you think salvation is too hard,

then

YOUR GOD IS TOO SMALL.

We must never, ever, ever underestimate the power of Jesus to save.

Mustard and Mulberries

Mustard and Mulberry

In Luke 17 Jesus describes the nature of a community of His followers.

In some ways it is a very realistic portrayal of the reality of human society.

  • People will cause each other to ‘stumble’, that is, to fall short of the calling of a follower of Jesus, to behave in inappropriate ways.
  • People will offend each other and fall out.

None of this is a surprise to anyone who has lived with other people in a tight-knit group.

What does come as a surprise is what Jesus says next.

  • That those who cause other people to stumble in their faith are in serious spiritual trouble, akin to mortal danger.
  • That offenses committed within the community of Jesus’ followers are to be forgiven in an unlimited way.

The Apostles are staggered at the difficulty of this calling.

As they honestly examine themselves, they are most acutely aware that they are not the kind of people who are capable of either not causing others to stumble, or of being able to forgive offenses in an unlimited way.

Their shocked response to Jesus’ description of the demands of this impossible community, is to ask that they might be given more faith,

‘Increase our faith!’

Jesus turns things around and states that any real faith can accomplish the impossible,

“If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree,

 ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”

The image is significant. The Black Mulberry (Morus Nigra) is a tree that has exceptionally deep roots. The roots under the ground are as thick as the branches above. It is therefore an image of steadfastness, immovability.

This is related to a similar saying of Jesus in Matt 17:20, where Jesus talks about ‘casting mountains into the sea’.

One of the titles of honour given to great Rabbis was ‘Uprooter of Mountains’ i.e. those who can remove great difficulties.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together – a book about the reality of Christian community – about the fact that,

Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize;

it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.

The great difference in Christian community is that whilst human love is directed to the other person for his own sake, spiritual love loves him for Christ’s sake.

Dietrich BONHOEFFER was under no illusions as to the difficulty of living in Christian community. He came up with 7 ministries that he felt were essential if we were to create Christian community approximating to the ideal that Jesus sets out.

You might want to consider these ministries.

 

The 7 Ministries of Community

The Ministry of Holding one’s Tongue –

Often we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words.

Thus it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him.

The Ministry of Meekness –

Only he who lives by the forgiveness of his sin in Jesus Christ will rightly think little of himself.

Brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others; only for my sin is there no apology whatsoever. Therefore my sin is the worst.

The Ministry of Listening –

The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them.

Just as love for God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.

The Ministry of Helpfulness –

This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters.

One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.

The Ministry of Bearing –

The Christian must bear the burden of a brother. He must suffer and endure the brother.

The service of forgiveness is rendered by one to the others daily. It occurs, without words, in the intercessions for one another. And every member of the fellowship, who does not grow weary in this ministry, can depend upon it that this service is also being rendered him by the brethren.

The Ministry of Proclaiming-

Where Christians live together the time must inevitably come when in some crisis one person will have to declare God’s Word and will to another.

The basis upon which Christians can speak to one another is that each knows the other as a sinner, who, with all his human dignity, is lonely and lost if he is not given help.

The Ministry of Authority –

Jesus made authority in the fellowship dependent upon brotherly service.

Genuine spiritual authority is to be found only where the ministry of hearing, helping, bearing, and proclaiming is carried out.

(from Dietrich BONHOEFFER, Life Together, London: SCM Press, 1954)

 

 

Clocks With No Hands

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At Peterborough Cathedral I came across this very early clock which dates from the 15th century.

We would struggle to recognise it as a clock, given the fact that those things we most associate with clocks- a face and hands – are entirely absent.

It was an interesting co-incidence coming across this clock, as I just happen to be in the middle of reading a book by John Swinton called ‘Becoming Friends of Time’.

Swinton reminded me that the driver for creating some of the earliest clocks was the monastic life.

It was important for monks to turn to God in worship and prayer at regular times during the day and night, and the earliest clocks were made to enable them to fulfil this vocation.

This was why a face and hands were irrelevant, all they needed was a bell to ring, to remind them to stop working and turn to prayer.

So the measurement of time was conceived originally as something that helps us in our spiritual life.

When I was studying theology one of the students was from Africa. I remember his horror when we were told that we had two minutes to get from one lecture room to another between classes. He could not conceive of a unit of time as short as two minutes.

At the end of the first year, he was invited to address the college and give us his reflections of a year living in a European culture. He said,

‘I have learned that you Europeans have watches, but we Africans have time.’

Watching my African fellow-student, he always had time to chat, to respond to people, to say ‘hello’. Whereas I was often rushing from one place to the next, trying not to be late.

One of us was a slave to time, and one of us was a master of time.

This African approach to time was also experienced by a group from the college who went to deliver some training in an African context. They were given 3 days to deliver training on a particular subject.

They had prepared a 3 day programme starting at 9 am and going through until 5pm every day. Each session was allocated in terms of content and who would deliver it. A full programme in effect.

Early on the first morning they went to the place where the training was taking place and set up everything ready.

9 o’clock came and went, no-one was there. 10 o’clock likewise. At 1130 the first people began to arrive. Finally by late afternoon all the expected participants had arrived and they could begin.

They learned that in Africa things start when everyone is ready, not when the clock demands.

Europeans have watches, Africans have time.

I often think about my own relationship with time.

Is time for me like monastic time, something that helps me to orient myself towards God at regular moments in my everyday?

Or do I experience time as a tyrannical pressure that works more to squeeze out ‘God-time’ from my day and which also prevents me form being available to others?

The God who Runs

Prodigal

By any measure the story of the Prodigal Son is an amazing story.

If just for a minute, we forget that it was Jesus who made it up, if we forget that it is a story from the Bible – just hear it as a story – it feels REAL.

You can imagine myself opening up a newspaper and reading this story, it just feels authentic, the characters are so compelling, the twists and turns so captivating.

And we read this story and we kind of ‘get’ it, but perhaps we miss some of the shocking nature this story would have had to Jesus’ audience.
In Jesus’ time the more important a person’s place in society, the slower they walked.

So the Father in this story – a wealthy and significant person in his society – should have had a slow majestic bearing that befitted his social status.

But what does the father do when he sees his returning, wastrel son – he runs!

Jesus’ hearers would have been shocked and stunned to hear this.

They would never have heard or seen anything like it in their lives.

Effectively the Father shames himself in front of the whole village, he ridicules himself.

But he is so relieved to see his son alive, so delighted to have him back safe and sound, so happy that his family is restored, that he runs.

But what is Jesus telling us through this story?

In this story both the sons are estranged from their Father.

The elder son is outwardly obedient to his Father, but his behaviour and subsequent conversation shows that there is no love in his heart for his dad.

The younger son is more honest in that he wants money so he can get as far away from his father as possible. So he can reject his father’s rules, live in any way that pleases him, do his own thing.

In the story the Father is meant to represent God – a God from whom his children are estranged.

Do we see ourselves in this story?

Maybe, maybe not.

Maybe we know that we have already been restored to God’s family. We know that He loves us and we are daily trying to love Him and to live in a way that pleases Him.

Or just maybe we do see ourselves represented here – if not constantly, perhaps from time to time.

Perhaps we live in a way that outwardly looks like we are in relationship with God – but actually it is all for show, and we know in our hearts there is no real love for God.

Or perhaps our separation from God is more obvious, our rebellion more evident?

There is one thing that we need to know absolutely:

God loves us deeply, desperately, unflinchingly.

And the very moment that we realise that God is good, the second we desire to be living in relationship with God, the instant that we accept that living with God is something wonderful and to be desired, at that exact moment that we turn around and head back towards God, what will we find?

We will find a God that opens his arms and runs headlong towards us, who will wrap us in his embrace and restore us into his family.

We will discover ACCEPTANCE.

And the ACCEPTANCE of God is a glorious thing.

The Recipe for Making a Disciple

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Jesus final commandment to his followers was very clear;

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations,

baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

(Matthew 28:16-20, NIV)

Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples to make converts, or even to make Christians; they are to make disciples.
And there is the problem. For the one thing that churches, of all spiritualties, have struggled to do throughout history, is to consistently make large numbers of disciples.

However, the Spirit of God is doing something remarkable in our time. Across the whole of the Christian Church there is a renewed focus on discipleship and mission.

The World Council of Churches recently put out something called the Arusha Call to Discipleship.

In the Roman Catholic world in Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) which calls for discipleship to be our primary focus.

Closer to home, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Nottingham has recently expressed how he wants his diocese to respond to Pope Francis’ call.

He expressed three elements;

“I would like to ensure that people of all ages in our parishes, schools, and chaplaincies are helped to discover, or discover more deeply, the importance of a personal ENCOUNTER with Christ; so that they can become convinced that they are each loved by God and are invited to grow in their relationship with him.
Because of that personal encounter with Christ, I would like to encourage each of us to hear and respond to his invitation to be his DISCIPLES, to follow him more closely, and to seek to serve him generously in our daily lives.
…with a greater recognition of, and openness to, the help, guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we can all become MISSIONARY DISCIPLES; faith-filled, joyful and outward-looking Christians who are growing in confidence to speak humbly of the difference that knowing Christ makes to our lives…”
(Right Reverend Patrick Joseph McKinney, Bishop of Nottingham, Pastoral Letter November 2018)

In our own Anglican church, we have seen the recent publication of the ‘Setting God’s People Free’ report. This report is a clarion call to put discipleship and mission front and centre.

In our own diocese, Bishop Martyn’s recent initiatives are all seeking to follow the impetus of this report.

Now it cannot be an accident when Churches across the world and across the broadest spectrum of spirituality are all converging on the same call to make disciples who are on mission with God.

Someone once told me that the Christian life can be summed up as praying for the Holy Spirit to move, and then when He does, trying not to fall off!

So if the Holy Spirit is moving across the whole world calling the people of God to put discipleship front and centre, how can we join in with what God is doing, how can we join in with making disciples?

Perhaps we can best understand the process of making disciples if we focus our attention on Jesus’ calling of his first followers;

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted,
and they came to him.
He appointed twelve that they might be with him
and that he might send them out to preach
and to have authority to drive out demons.

(Mark 3:13-15, NIV)

If we consider this passage about the calling of the first disciples, I think we can see 4 elements that show us how disciples are made.

And perhaps that is something we need to state right at the start. Disciples are only made intentionally – they don’t happen by accident.

If you don’t have a process, or a programme, or a model for making disciples,

then you probably won’t make any.

So how does Jesus go about intentionally creating disciples?

The first element is having a sense of Jesus calling us to follow Him and making a response to that call.

‘(Jesus) called to Him those He wanted and they came to Him’.

As churches cannot make disciples without being intentional about it, neither can we become disciples without a chosen and serious engagement.

There is a sense here that these followers of Jesus allowed Him to interrupt and re-orient their lives. They chose to centre their lives on Him.

Their relationship with Jesus would no longer be peripheral, some vague and sporadic meetings, but rather it was to be at the very centre of their lives and their primary concern.

So the discipleship question is;

How central is Jesus in our lives?

How far up our list of priorities does Jesus come?

The second element in discipleship is that the primary calling of a disciple is to BE with Jesus;

‘that they might be with Him.’

These would-be disciples were called to spend time with Jesus, and this in community.

This is what is going help them to become disciples and this is what will enable them to go out on mission.

This is a key fact about discipleship, it only happens in small groups, or one to one. It almost never happens in large assemblies of people.

That’s because discipleship is more like a virus than a training programme. You catch it from someone that has it, and in order to catch it you have to live in close proximity to them.

A man joined a fresh expression that my wife and I led. He had been an Anglican his whole life, but to be honest he’d never really connected with the spiritual side of things.

Like most blokes he was happy doing the practical stuff. He was certainly always ready to help others with their car problems and DIY, but the spiritual practices – prayer, engagement with the Bible, had never really been his thing.

With the result that he was a kind helpful person, but not an effective disciple who could lead others to Jesus. He couldn’t really talk about his faith, he didn’t really know how to pray. He was a cultural Christian not an engaged disciple.

He and his wife started to come to our fresh expression of church – primarily because it was a warm friendly group of people who had fun together, who supported each other, and who shared their lives with each other. And as they grew closer to this group of people, things started to happen.

When we decided as a group that we needed to start praying seriously for our community, this man and his wide came along to the prayer times.

We would introduce a topic for prayer for our community – perhaps local businesses, the schools, sports clubs etc. and we would pass a holding cross around the group. When you received the cross, it was your turn to pray. We made it clear that you could pray silently, or out loud.

The first few times this guy prayed silently, but after a while, hearing others pray, he gained confidence and started to pray out loud.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so overjoyed to hear a prayer. Not because it was an eloquent, impressive prayer, but because it was a real step forward in this guys practice of his faith and his prayer – however inarticulate – was genuine expression of his heart for his community and a desire to see God’s blessing upon it.

Over the months and years that followed, this man’s faith grew through the support and encouragement of the fresh expression community. He started to have spiritual conversations with other dog walkers that he met, simply sharing his faith when there were opportunities. He even grew in confidence enough to start leading sessions of the fresh expression.

How did that all happen? By being part of a small group with some mature Christians in a space where spiritual practices were engaged with in an accessible and non-threatening way.

So the discipleship question is, where are the spaces in your community where people can grow in discipleship through engagement in the spiritual practices – prayer, engagement with the Bible etc. with a small group of Christians?

The third element in Jesus’ model for making disciples is that they are sent out to preach;

and that he might send them out to preach

How do we preach?

Do you remember at Primary School taking part in ‘Show and Tell’?

You brought an object to school and then told your classmates the story of the object – here’s a shell I found on the beach on my holiday etc.

Well when we are sent out to preach we are sent out to ‘Show and Tell’. We Show by our life, and we Tell by our conversation.

The Early Church saw rapid expansion before there were structures, training centres, professional missionaries, even church buildings.

Why? Because ordinary Christians lived differently to their neighbours. They were loving, kind, they shared together, they looked after the poor and oppressed in their communities.

In Peter’s first letter we read his advice to Christians living in a culture that was hostile to them;

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, …
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect

(1 Peter 3:8-9, 13-15, NIV)

Do you see here how the ‘show’ and the ‘tell’ of Christian witness are intertwined?

A life which demonstrates the kindness and generosity of God provokes questions and these questions give an opportunity for witness to the difference Jesus makes.

The greatest weakness in the Christian Church is that we often separate the ‘showing’ of the faith and the ‘telling’ of the faith.

Some groups are very good at showing Christian love in service to their communities, but they never get around to sharing how these actions are an expression of their faith in Jesus.

Other groups are very good at telling people about what they believe, but they don’t demonstrate it in generosity towards, and loving service of, those around them.

A recent book ‘The Desecularisation of the City’ has looked at the churches in London that are seeing vibrant growth and this is their conclusion;

“The strongest growth seems to be occurring where congregations are committed to social transformation, without reducing the faith to a purely social gospel.”

In Leicester Diocese we are trying to hold both the showing and telling of gospel proclamation together.

Bishop Martyn’s ‘3 Questions’ challenge us about growth in numbers of disciples, growth in the depth of our discipleship but also about growth in loving service of the world.

So the discipleship question would be, are we showing the love of Jesus in concrete ways to those outside of the Church and is that accompanied by an explanation of why our faith motivates us to this action?

The fourth and final element of Jesus’ discipleship model is seen in the spiritual power that is given to them.

and to have authority to drive out demons

Those who have grown in their relationship with Jesus through putting Him at the centre of their lives, who have developed through spiritual practices in community, who have been obedient to the call to go out and preach the gospel in word and deed, these people are imbued with spiritual power.

The reality of our lives is that we are in a spiritual battle for people’s souls.

We are fighting against determined opposition to establish the Kingdom of God in a hostile world.

You can only do that effectively when you have spiritual power. You can only be filled with God’s power through a life of discipleship.

So to conclude, the question to ask ourselves is, ‘Where are we in our discipleship?’

Have we heard Jesus’ call to come to Him, to make Him the centre of our lives? Have we responded to that call?

Are we engaged in spiritual practices with a small group that will enable us to grow in our faith?

Are we engaged in a life that preaches the gospel by word and deed?

Is the power of God’s Holy Spirit evident in our lives bringing change, destroying that which diminishes human life and establishing the kingdom of God?

In this time of Lent may God enable us to examine our lives and the activities of our churches and respond to this world-wide movement of the Spirit of God to place the creation of disciples at the centre of all we do.

May God help and bless us all.

Wearing the Mark of God

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It is quite an odd thing to do to put a smudge of ash on our foreheads.

Why do we do it?

What does it mean?

When you look in the Bible you see that it has a rich significance and meaning.

If you know your Bible you will remember that Cain and Abel were the two sons born to Adam and Eve. But that, horrifically, Cain murdered his brother.

What makes it even worse is that it is a religiously motivated murder.

Cain is jealous because God accepted his brother’s sacrifice but rejected his.

Which is a salutary warning that in worship, it is not what we bring in our hands but what we bring in our hearts that counts.

As a punishment God curses Cain and banishes him to a life of restless wandering.

Cain is terrified and says that wherever he goes people will try to kill him because of his crime.

But God puts a mark on Cain and this mark is both a sign of his guilt, but also a sign of God’s protection of him.

Then in Ezekiel 9 we have a story that occurs when the people of God are turning their back on Him.

They have abandoned God, embraced violence and vice and even set up idols in the very temple of God.

God decides to act in judgement to bring His people back to their senses, but before He does God sends an angel saying,

“Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” (Ezekiel 9:3b, NIV)

Interestingly in the Hebrew it reads ‘mark with a Tav’.

Tav was the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet and had the symbolic meaning of ‘a sign’ or a ‘mark’. In its ancient form Tav was written as an x.

Image result for forehead marked with a tav

So 600 years before Christ, the people of God are saved by the sign of the cross on their foreheads!

Then in Revelation 7 God is about to execute judgement upon the earth but before He does He sends an angel to mark the foreheads of those who serve God.

“Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” (Revelation 7:2-3, NIV)

And we see that as the waves of God’s judgement fall, each time we are told specifically that the people who bears God’s mark on their foreheads are kept safe.

And then, finally, in the very last chapter of the Bible, in Revelation chapter 22:3-4 we read;

“No longer will there be any curse.
The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.
They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.”

The mark that begins as a sign of guilt ends up as a sign of grace and forgiveness.

The mark that begins as a sign of God’s curse, ends up as a sign of God’s blessing.

The mark that begins as a sign of separation ends up as a sign of belonging.

 

We receive this sign today as people who are living in the middle of this story.

We’re no longer in the Old Testament, but we’re not yet in Revelation.

We receive this sign looking both ways.

This mark that we receive this day has something about it of the mark of Cain; it is a reminder that our lives are still far from perfect and that we are not cooperating with the Holy Spirit as fully as we might to bring about our transformation into people who resemble Jesus.

Lent is a time where we are called to examine our lives in the light of our calling and the coming judgement.

But we also receive this sign looking forward to the end of the story.

We receive this mark as a sign of grace, as a sign of hope, as a sign that God is powerful and faithful.

We receive this sign as a promise that the story ends well.

We receive sign as the mark of God’s promise that He will bring us safely home.

The Power of Bare Trees

bare tree

‘The first time I saw Brother Lawrence was upon the 3rd of August, 1666. He told me that God had done him a singular favour in his conversion at the age of eighteen.

During that winter, upon seeing a tree stripped of its leaves and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed and after that the flowers and fruit appear, Brother Lawrence received a high view of the Providence and Power of God which has never since been effaced from his soul.

 This view had perfectly set him loose from the world and kindled in him such a love for God, that he could not tell whether it had increased in the forty years that he had lived since.’

(Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, 1693, p1)

This is the story of the conversion of Brother Lawrence, an unschooled peasant born in 1611 in eastern France. As a young man he went off to be a soldier and was soon wounded. This led to a life-long disability that made him clumsy and awkward.

He recounts here the story of how he came to faith.

All it took was the sight of a bare tree in winter.

Which is amazing, as I know that I have seen many thousands of bare trees in my life-time, none of which has been a moment of spiritual epiphany for me.

I imagine Brother Lawrence had previously seen many of them too.

Yet such is the power of the Holy Spirit in a human soul that when he chooses to act he can take a mundane ordinary object that we have seen thousands of times before and yet use it to bring insight and whole-life transformation.

I imagine if Brother Lawrence were to have lived in our time the story might have been very different.

There would have been books written about how to use bare trees in evangelism. There would have been conferences and seminars. No doubt there would be good-hearted Christian groups going up and down the country tearing the leaves off trees as a missional act.

Which is, of course, to completely miss the point. What made the moment a spiritual revelation that altered the whole direction of Brother Lawrence’s life and made him one of the most valued spiritual guides in the world-wide Christian church was not the tree – but the activity of the Holy Spirit in his heart and mind.

When the Spirit moves He needs almost no material to work with. He can take anything at all and make that a means of open a person’s heart and mind to God. And that can happen in an instant.

It is interesting to read that Brother Lawrence says that at that instant there was born such a love for God in his heart that after 40 years of monastic life, centred on living for God and for others, he was not sure at all that his love for God had increased one bit.

I suppose that is a bit like falling in love. When you encounter someone and your heart goes ‘boom’ and you feel such an intense attraction to them – does that ever get stronger over the years? I would say it alters, it matures, it widens and deepens, but I am not sure it gets stronger than that initial ‘boom’ moment.

All of which is to say that;

  • we need to have more faith in the accessibility of God’s grace.
  • we need to have a greater expectation that God can reach people where they are in the midst of their ordinary lives and activities.
  • we need to re-focus our energies and efforts less on programs and methods and more on prayerful bringing people to God asking that His Holy Spirit would be at work in their lives, ambushing them with God’s love where and when they least expect it.

A bare tree – who would have thought what it could do?