Whose voice are we listening to? John 10:11-18

My sermon this week, reflects the nature of our calling as Christians to listen to Jesus, and those who live, love and speak truth in his name, even, perhaps especially, when it’s counter to what is peddled by political leaders and news-mongers. 

This afternoon at the St. George’s Day Parade service, I’m going to (and did) briefly touch on the fact that St. George – the real one, no dragons here – had a Greek father, and a mother who was a Christian from the large Roman province of Syria Palestine. He lived out his soldiering career as a Christian, possibly protecting and releasing those who were falsely imprisoned, neither of which would have made him popular. He was martyred for his unwillingness to denounce his Christian faith. The thought-provoking irony of having a Christian Syrian Palestinian soldier as our Patron Saint should not be lost on us in the next few days.

There is a priest in the Greek Orthodox Church in Aleppo, called Ghassan Ward.

“[His] bishop was kidnapped in April 2013, [his] church was destroyed, and [his] house was bombed. [His] two sons left the country, [his] wife died of cancer and [he] lost two… close family members because of the bombings.” But despite all this, Ghassan chose to stay in Syria, and care for his hurting community. “Many of my parish were rich before, now they are poor. They have no work, no income and all the savings are spent during the years of war,” he says. “The role of the church is not only having the services – we welcome the people and we try to help solve their problems. God gave us the love. It’s not easy to do this… The needs of the people are very big; we’re trying to meet their needs… We also help non-Christians. They are our neighbours, we live with them, and we cannot neglect a person who is hungry. When we give them a loaf of bread, the love of Christ is written on it.”

This story was told this week by the Open Doors charity, that serves and supports persecuted Christians. I have had it verified directly via one of the clergy and peers travelling in Syria this week, as typical of the work churches in the region are undertaking.

So what have these two people, St. George and a contemporary Syrian clergyman, got to do with this morning’s very famous, and deceptively simple parable?

Jesus is making some important points about who he is, but also about us. They are based round a claim that he fulfills the Old Testament prophesy of Ezekiel 34, where the Lord says he will rescue sheep “from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness” (Ezek 34:12) and that he will “place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.”

Why it is that Jesus is in the position to be both the Lord God and King David, and thus the Good Shepherd of all God’s sheep, is one of those things that this parable seeks to explain, and leads up to at the end of John 10. There Jesus declares “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Everything Jesus says and does, is based on, and returns to, his relationship with his Father; that is the means by which he has the willingness, love and authority to both lay down his life, and take it up again.

Jesus is also reminding his listeners, Jews like himself, children of God’s covenant with Moses, that God has always been interested in bringing more than just them into a relationship with him. This is being fulfilled in him, because it is through his death and resurrection that God reaches beyond the old covenant to the rest of the sheep in the world, a world that 3-4 centuries later would boast a Christian martyred soldier of Greek and Syrian heritage, and today includes a beleaguered Syrian priest with nothing left but his faith, funding from Open Doors, a team of like-minded survivors, and his desire to love all those in his community. Jesus came to create one single universal flock of people who know and love God, and have the freedom to do so.

The bond between the sheep and the shepherd, as well as the Father and the Son, is one of trust and love. When he styles himself as the “Good” Shepherd, there’s a lot more depth to the meaning than the bland little English word “good” suggests. It is more emphasising that the trust and love that Jesus offers people is attractive – it is what motivates people like Ghassan to be risking their lives in places like Aleppo. We, and more importantly those who’ve not encountered Jesus before, should see something beautiful, inspiring and ultimately counter-cultural in who he is revealed to be, and through what he calls us to do. When Jesus says, ‘My own know me… [and] listen to my voice’ (John 10:14 and 16), he is demanding our willingness to trust and love him, as he did his Father, and at the very least, to be willing to be obedient to the example that he sets us, through the inspiration of his voice, in this parable as among many others he told.

This was completely revolutionary and counter cultural to Jesus’ world, filled as it was with hatred and suspicion, violence and counter-violence… a world that perhaps sounds all too similar to our own?! In the context of his conversation with and in front of the Pharisees, Jesus is saying, stop listening only to your traditions, your senior religious figures, whether what they are saying sounds good or not. Instead, Jesus is saying, start listening direct to God, to a vision of a world that is different, where people share what they have with their neighbour without worrying about where they fit in any particular religious or political picture or ideal.

Do we want to be ‘good’? Do we want to be beautiful? Do we want to be shepherds, shepherds who welcome all-comers to the fold? Do we want to listen to the voice of Jesus, the voice of truth, the voice of love?

There are two levels, two areas of the world stage, on which we are invited today to respond to those questions; there’s the macro level, and rather closer to home, the micro.

On the macro-level, where is the beautiful love of Jesus for all God’s people, most visible? One place it would seem, is Aleppo where Ghassan Ward works bravely and painstakingly with other churches of many denominations to feed Jesus’ sheep. That, I hope you agree, is beautiful. The same could be said for the work of the Open Doors organization which supports him, supports vulnerable Christians in Egypt, India, Iran, and nearly 50 other countries where it is dangerous to be a Christian. If that work and those places are where the love of God for his people, and the love of his people for Jesus is most visible, perhaps theirs are the voices we need to take most care to listen to.

Still on a macro-level, perhaps we need to start questioning more carefully what we’re told by our political and dare I say it, our religious leaders, and certainly by today’s mainstream press. Where are we reading the counter-cultural voices, the stories of love, the hidden truths – even if they’re unpalatable or unpopular and don’t fit the current zeitgeist? Jesus says false shepherds flee the sheep in their care, and so we see those with authority playing fast and loose with the security and welfare of our neighbours, because their paperwork isn’t complete or they can’t contribute financially to society because of their disabilities. Sometimes even not knowing who to believe about the reality of whether a chemical attack happened or not, is better than believing the stories of either side without question. What would Jesus have us listen to and believe?

Which brings things rather closer to home, closer to the micro-level of our own parish and benefice, perhaps pertinently on this the day of our Annual Parochial Church Meeting, with St. Barnabas’s to follow on Wednesday. I’m sure you will want to listen later to Rev’d Lerys, as our Priest-in-Charge, but collectively we need to listen to how Jesus wants us to care for his flock, to look at the neighbouring ‘folds’ or parishes, to see where they need help to do the same, or where they might be able to help us.

And what about the other sheep, those that walk past the church in the sunshine, ride down the lane into the forest, stand at the school gate, sit at home and knit, sew or garden, and use the village shop and pubs? They need to know that Jesus is attractive, beautiful and good too, and that can only be done through what we say, and do.

Jesus had a two-fold vocation: to save the sheep currently in his care, and to enlarge the flock considerably by bringing in a whole lot of very different sheep (John10:16). That vocation is ours, because we already know Jesus. Our responsibility now, is to listen to his voice, so that we know where and how to seek the other sheep that he wants brought into his fold.

 

 

 

 

Getting out from under the fig tree – John 1:43-51 and Rev 5:1-10

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I was grateful when after several attempts I located some figs late Saturday afternoon – else my introduction was going to have to be changed!

 

Service intro:

I’ve got a puzzle… I’m going to describe something to you, and I want you to tell me if you think you know what it might be.

It’s a bit bigger than a ping-pong ball, but a shape that is something of a cross between a football and a rugby ball, so one end is round-ish, and one end is oval-ish. The oval-ish end has a small stick in it. The round-ish end possibly has a slight hole in the middle, like a miniature cave disappearing inside. The whole thing is a green-ish, purple-ish, brown-ish colour.

Any ideas? (Hopefully blank looks.) Even vague ideas?

Get out a fig. Shhhhh, if you know what it is! Go through the description again.

Do the words make any more sense when you can see what I’m talking about? Yes, great. No, take the blame for poor description.

Any ideas now what it is? Hopefully someone, child or adult, might know it’s a fig.

There’s a big difference between just hearing something said, and actually seeing it. There’s a bigger difference still when we can eat and taste the thing… but that will have to wait until after the service. [Pray for us all to both hear and see Jesus this morning.]

Sermon:

Nathaniel had been watched.

It was perfectly sensible to sit in the shade of a spreading fig tree. You might sit there on your own, making the most of the peace and quiet for meditation and prayer. You might sit there with friends or a teacher, for a quiet discussion. It was perfectly normal in the climate and culture of the time, and would have excited no comment at all.

Yet, Nathaniel, under a fig tree, was being watched.

The story of the law and the prophets that he had heard read from the scroll in the Temple or Synagogue, might well have been explained to Nathaniel under a fig tree by the rabbi of his community. It was also quite possibly a place where he’d have learnt the prejudices of his elders, listening to their stories of the rivalry that existed between villages. Nathaniel had heard, and learnt, many things, about God, about his religion, and about his community, whilst sat under a fig tree.

But whilst he was sat under a fig tree listening to others, he was being watched… By Jesus.

Of course, Nathaniel didn’t know that. All he knew was that today his friend Philip was full to bursting with a bit of news. Philip and his friends thought they’d found the person who would fulfil the prophesies of Isaiah, the promised ruler for King David’s throne, the Messiah (Is 9:6-7 and Is 11:1-5) But it was just that, news. Something else to listen to.  And the fact that Philip said this person came from Nazareth fed all the prejudices that Nathaniel had learnt; Philip’s excitement was just words, easily dismissed,… until Philip said “Come and see”.

Sitting under a fig tree listening to others was no help. Getting up and discovering that the man Philip spoke of had been watching and listening to him without him being aware, made a significant difference.

It was only when Nathaniel had been drawn away from his place of safety under the fig tree, the place where his hearing senses dominated, that he is able to actually see the truth of Philip’s words, and use his natural abilities as a down-to-earth Israelite to recognise Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah. There was no point just using words with Nathaniel, he had to see for himself.

In some senses Jesus was just like him, a down-to-earth, blunt-talking Israelite who knew his scriptures. But Israel’s purpose as God’s people had been to provide the means of bridging the gap between heaven and earth, repairing God’s broken creation, initiating God’s rescue plan among people’s who were intent on destroying God’s handiwork. Unfortunately Israel was a little too hung-up in it’s old prejudices, rather more intent on reciting scripture than getting out and looking to be it’s fulfilment. Until he got out from under the fig-tree, Nathaniel was a good representation of an Israel too fractured and hidebound by tradition to be able to break the seals on God’s rescue plan.

Jesus was the image of what Israel should have been, had indeed been created for. What Nathaniel saw in Jesus in those first moments of personal engagement, and the realisation that Jesus had been watching over and listening to him for a significant period, was the power of Israel’s royalty, combined with a gentle vulnerability that enabled people to encounter him on their own terms. Jesus: the lion and the lamb, something to be spoken about, and something to be seen for yourself; a true Israelite of the house of David and the ‘lion-cub’ tribe of Judah (Gen 29:9), and the slaughtered sacrificial lamb of Passover, through whom Israel was saved, and by whom all the people’s of the world would now be bought the opportunity of new life. Jesus was a piece of news worth getting out of the shade of a fig tree for.

  • Only Jesus could show Nathaniel that he was visible and listened to by God.
  • Only Jesus could be both the lion and the lamb of Israel’s people.
  • Only Jesus could provide from Israel the fulfilment of God’s original creative intention to heal the world and it’s people of the broken-ness which had become endemic.
  • Only Jesus could bring about a new covenant and a new kingdom that would start to bring earth and heaven together.
  • Only Jesus could enable us to sing a new song to God as the priesthood of all believers.

We are being watched.

It’s perfectly appropriate to have places of meditation and prayer where we feel at peace. It’s perfectly reasonable to sit in the shade of a metaphorical fig-tree, listening to and discussing what it is that scripture says about the future. It’s indeed not uncommon for those discussions to wander off and feed our own prejudices about different elements of the community we live in.

But it’s worth remembering that we are being watched, and listened to, by Jesus.

If we haven’t already, soon we’re going to have to leave listening and talking behind, get out from under our fig-tree, and go and meet the Jesus who has been watching and listening to us, and knows us through and through, prejudices and all. Are we ready to see more? Are we ready to encounter the power of the lion and the sacrifice of the lamb?

Some of us have got out from under the fig tree before. We’ve recognised that through those that come and talk to us, we hear news about what God is doing that is worth going out and seeing for ourselves. But when the fig tree provides plenty of shade from the heat of the sun, and life wears us to a frazzle, a little comfort and company can do wonders for our energy levels. However, then we have to remember it’s not necessarily where we’re going to encounter Jesus. We have to get up and go meet the next piece of good news.

I can’t necessarily tell you where we must go to find Jesus, but it means knowing we are being listened to and seen by Jesus as we work out where we go, and will involve listening to and seeing others. Part of that starts over the next ten days as our two PCCs coming together to listen to each other and God as to the direction we go in making sure Jesus is seen in our communities, our mission and our worship. A small group of us are also going to listen and help Jesus and this church be seen at the wedding fair at Warbrook House next Sunday.

There will be other things. It might be sitting and listening to children read in school, seeing whether the school want people to return to gardening for them, or joining the Open The Book team so that the children meet Jesus. It may be that we have to spend time finding a non-threatening way to tell the people who come and sit under the local trees about Jesus, like the horse-riders who frequent Church Green, or the families who use the play area. It could be that in encouraging the community to recycle things the council won’t accept, and finding a site and a mechanism for doing so, we might be more like Jesus himself, bringing healing to God’s creation. Whatever the things are that we do, they will be a new song, a song that lives and celebrates the power and the sacrifice of Jesus, if we not only listen to what people say, but also go out and meet Jesus, the lion and the lamb.

Tuning-in to God – Matthew 13 v1-9 and 18-23 Romans 8 v1-11

TMS wavelengths
Tuning in can be difficult and once we’ve found the right frequency, what we hear can be difficult to listen to and/or accept! (As true for divine guidance as cricket!!)

 

I have spent much of this last few weeks listening.

In the last week I’ve spent a few concentrated days fulfilling a long-standing commitment to take an annual personal retreat. I have sat in warm, dry surroundings and listened to the sound of rain on a flat roof, and then the creak the next day as the sun warms and dries the wooden construction – listening to the same building respond to the changes in the weather. I’ve also tried to listen to what God is saying in and to my life, and my ministry; why it is I am with you for the next few months, and what that might mean for you, and me; how might it grow us? This sort of spiritual listening is not just something to do one week a year, but something that I try to do all the time, it’s just easier to reflect on the big picture when you take a concentrated run at it!

In the last few weeks, I’ve also been trying to listen to what God has done, and is doing, through you. You as individuals, and you as a church, a community working together to extend his Kingdom on earth. It is helping me to discover who you are, what it is that makes you tick and gives you life and growth, and where there may perhaps be stuff that is making life difficult, and growth limited. It is about listening as a third party observer to what God is doing through the pattern of your lives, and it too is an ongoing process.

Much of all this listening is about tuning in to what God is telling us through the practicalities and problems of our everyday lives, the typical issues that we face. Tuning in to what God is saying can be tough, not least because the noise of the many things that have calls on our time and energy constantly try to crowd him out. We have to remember we’re not using a nice modern DAB radio, giving us crystal clear reception at the press of a button. It’s a bit more like good old analogue which requires much twiddling to get a clear reception, especially if we’re on longwave trying to tune in to the cricket commentary! Sometimes, as with that image, God uses the very ordinary things with which we interact regularly, to speak to us… if only we’re tuned in.

In our Gospel today, Jesus is using ordinary, every day imagery with which his listeners would have been very familiar, to explain to them the part they are called to play in the Kingdom of God. Unlike us, they were used to the imagery of someone walking a field, sowing the seed corn by hand. They’d have known that whilst the field would have been roughly ploughed and prepared, such a distribution method meant that some seed would fall prey to the birds, shrivel among the rocks, or be shaded out by weeds, rather than grow to productivity. But knowing something is true is one thing, but understanding that it might have spiritual significance is another, which is why Jesus said, ‘the one having ears, let them hear’. Were they really listening, had they really tuned in to what Jesus was saying about their specific role in the kingdom of God?

Hearing spiritually is related to the concept of deep listening. Deep listening is the idea that we listen with compassion, hearing not just what is said, but how it is said; recognising what needs to be said, and knowing how it might best be expressed to be heard. We listen to understand and we listen with intention, specifically the intention to act appropriately based on what we have heard. In other words, to open one’s ears is to open one’s heart, to the person speaking and to God, at one and the same time. Jesus the teacher, is ending the parable by telling the crowd to listen not only to understand, but also to act on the teaching, to obey, and in this particular case by obeying, participate in the manifestation of God’s kingdom on the earth.

As Christians, we can do this multi-tasking mode of listening, because we have the power of God working in us, the Holy Spirit. It is this that Paul is referring to in the passage from Romans this morning, when he compares the focus of those who are concerned purely with matters of the ‘flesh’ and ‘sin’ with those whose focus is matters of the ‘spirit’. Through God’s grace, we are gifted this ability to discern and focus on God’s concern for the world and his desire that we might all know life and peace, but it requires continual practice on our part to stay tuned to God’s frequency.

The Holy Spirit runs on a frequency that can be counter cultural and prophetic, to the life of the church, and/or to the way the world hears itself. As Christians we need to listen to each other’s joys and pains, fears, aspirations, and experiences – as individuals and corporately as a church. We need to do so with compassion and honesty, and with ears tuned to what God is saying to us, so that we can know whether, and if so how, we can contribute positively with guidance, healing or hope. It might be a personal contribution to the problems being faced by particular members of the fellowship, or it might be wisdom that helps us work out the direction and focus of mission in this church. It may require us to do something extra. It may actually need us to do less of something. By doing this spiritual listening, our journey with God becomes a life-giving adventure to extend his kingdom, reaching out to others in ways in which they will recognise as inspired by our love of Jesus, and his love of them.

Often when God is trying to speak directly to us about our own lives, he will do so through what we might describe as intuition. We have to respond positively for anything creative to come of what might be called a ‘holy hunch’. Sometimes we may need to create some space, some silence even, to listen prayerfully to our own experiences, or we may need to be patient wait for the pieces of a jigsaw to fit together as we discern the way forward in a complex situation. But I can also give testimony to the fact that it can be a moment’s sudden realisation that something spiritually significant has just been either said or done, and it’s in the moving forward with that promise that our lives are changed by God.

My listening here at St. Mary’s so far has suggested several things, but I’m not going to share all of them with you this morning. There is a need to be ready to listen corporately, and honestly, in the months after the new vicar arrives, to where and how God wants his kingdom extended in Eversley, in Derby Green and further afield – and to how that dynamic is going to work. But another thing that has struck me, is that for some people, consciously making space for some personal holy listening to God could be helpful. I’m no expert, but I’d be happy to use this book that’s been helping me, to facilitate others to do that too, so do chat to me later, or when I’m back off holiday, if that’s the case, and we may be able to create some plans for the autumn.

The law that brings life, is ruled by the compassion and love of God, and the mechanism for making that compassion and love available both to ourselves and to others, is our belief in the work of the Holy Spirit. Our task is to tune in to what it is saying to us, a process that requires us to be open-minded to this grace-filled gift in the ordinary occurrences of our life, and open-hearted to the needs of others. So, anyone with ears, let them hear.