Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Being a Disciple

Team Evening Worship
3rd Feb 2008
Exodus 13.17-14.end

Discipleship: To be a Pilgrim

I can remember a day my life changed – after a few hours of delay (something for which my wife is still struggling to find complete forgiveness) I found myself driving at a slightly faster speed than I am used to up the road past Wood Green to Hinchinbrooke Hospital, where I rushed through the corridors with a very pregnant, very ‘in labour’ wife and voila – well, not really ‘voila’ there was a fair amount of pushing, breathing, pushing and even some shouting involved – just under an hour later (yes, I had left it a bit late) a little person appeared who (along with her brother) has never let life be the same again.

I used to get annoyed with people for saying how much having children changed lives. I knew it was the case, having come from a rather extended family children were very much a feature of my own upbringing – brother and sisters younger than me, lots of nephews and nieces etc etc. It was all there, in my head, the knowledge of what it would be like having children. I knew it changed things, I didn’t want to be told – again and again!

But actually, the knowledge, even the experience of having young children in my life over the years didn’t come close to what would happen when these little people actually appeared! I now realise that those people who used to annoy me were genuinely trying to help me, and prepare me for the change of having children of my own.

Now this is isn’t meant to be a trip down memory lane, nor – if you don’t have children – is it meant to annoy, distract or frustrate you. I use this illustration because it is something that changed my life completely. I could have used the discovery of motorbikes, but that’s even more of a specialist interest, or being married, or…. well, the list goes on and on.

But there is another moment that changed my life so profoundly, so radically, that nothing has been the same since. This was in 1980, when I was 11 years old, and took place in a field near the beach at Polzeath in Cornwall. Having been at ‘Covenanter Camp’ for a week (Covenanters were a young people’s Christian organisation which anyone over 11 in the Church I was sent to as a child joined) and having heard again and again this message of salvation, and seeing all that Jesus had done for me, I went to have a chat with the ‘padre’ for the camp and on that sunny August afternoon I gave my life to Jesus Christ.
And nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, has been the same since. Oh I’ve backslidden, made mistakes, got mired down in sin, doubt, despair, struggled with unbelief and deserted my faithful God more times than I want to remember – but since then I know that Christ has walked with me on this journey of faith ever since. And I have never once felt him desert me. At no time can I remember not having that something, a kernel, a mustard seed, or whatever image you prefer, of peace and faith within me, somewhere deep within.

But the best way I can think of to describe what happened at that time is that I started a journey – or to use more common Christian imagery, a pilgrimage. That becoming a Christian wasn’t ‘arriving’ – though many Churches seem to proclaim that the act of giving your life to Christ is the be all and end all of faith – in fact, it was just the start of a long, sometimes complicated, often joyful, always surprising journey. For many people I meet there isn’t any one moment where they could say that they made a particular decision or prayed a particular prayer which started their journey, they grew in faith and have continued with Christ. Not so much a conversion, more a growing into faith. Both are valid, no matter what some might say!

And this theme of journeying is one that has been in vogue in the church for the past twenty or more years. The Church is described in the baptism service as ‘God’s pilgrim people’. We have a shared journey to make, a common destination and a common companion on our journey. Pilgrimage is probably a better word than ‘journey’ because there is a sense of purpose to a pilgrimage, and though sometimes we may wonder where we are being led, if we are open to the spirit of God then we are being led, rather than wandering aimlessly.

And it is with this metaphor of pilgrimage that I want to begin a short series on discipleship. I was going to go through how discipleship is related to discipline, sharing the same root word etc etc but as I think I might have done that before I decided to think slightly differently. Then it struck me – the Exodus!

The Exodus is the defining moment in Jewish history, when taken out from a strange land, the People of God are led by God, and everything changes – from slavery, to freedom. From death to life.

But that moment when they make their way out of Egypt is not the end of the story. In fact the reason I had such a long reading from the book of the Exodus is because there is so much in there that talks of our journey, our pilgrimage of faith.

Lets start at the beginning of today’s reading at verse 17 of chapter 13 of Exodus.
17 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, "If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt." 18 So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle.
God starts off this mammoth journey by taking the Israelite’s the scenic route – though they were prepared for battle, God saw that facing up to this so early on might actually make them give up together.

And it’s not just at the start of our journey that God sometimes takes us on a circuitous route… We may feel that we are going nowhere, and indeed part our discipleship is that we often have a sense of frustration, that God is not taking us where we are expecting to go! But if we are seeking God’s way, if we are praying and asking God for guidance and are open to him taking us where he wills rather than we will there will be times that God takes us the way that is good for us rather than the way we want! There will also be times when we don’t feel that God is there, that our prayers go into dead air – what some Christians call the desert experience, where our spiritual life seems dry and arid. Through these times God will be with us, though we may not see or feel Him… We have to be faithful (as Moses was in verse 19, taking the bones of Joseph with him in fulfilment of a promise given to Joseph) even though it may not seem to bear fruit. God is with us, just as he was with the people of Israel. We are told that he was always with them ahead of them (and behind them when they needed protection) in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. We may not have such a visible reminder of God’s presence – in fact the last time I followed a pillar of cloud was when I followed a group of vintage motorbikes down the road from Eltisley to Gransden after a car blessing (but that’s another story) – we may not have these visible reminders of God’s presence but we are assured in scripture that God is with us, always, unseen, the comforter, our companion. “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age” says Jesus at the end of Matthew’s Gospel – reminding us that his Spirit is always here, invisible, unseen – as the wonderful line from ‘Immortal invisible, God only wise’ says ‘Unresting, unhasting and silent as light’.

Then we have the Israelites, at the start of chapter 14 being led by Moses to turn back and to camp by the sea. It seems a pointless, confused act – but God is going to use it to show his power.

And we carry on through this passage to see one of the most uncomfortable stories in the Old Testament – at least uncomfortable to our modern sensibilities. What happens to the army of Pharaoh seems to our modern eyes nothing less than mass murder – but we remember that these were those who wanted to enslave the Children of Israel, and even to kill them. The importance of this story is to show that nothing, not even the might of an army, is more powerful than God.

And though we may not like the implications of this story of the crossing of the Red Sea, within it there are reminders firstly that our God is not to be trifled with. God is a God of love, but also a God of power and might. In the hymns and songs we sing, in our choice of Bible readings, in many of the sermons and prayers we hear, we tend to make God out to be a rather pleasant, fluffy, often misunderstood God. A sort of divine Teddy Bear. We talk about our friend Jesus, and we find comfort in our worship.

We must always remember that if we are to be disciples we are called to discipline, and that we follow a God who is awesome, powerful, mighty and far beyond our mortal minds. We cannot have the immanence of God without the transcendence of God – our God is both intimate and awful, close to us and far beyond us. To strip him of his power and might is to make him nothing more than a divine comfort blanket. This is not the God of scripture, the God whose glory blazes, whose voice splits the cedars of Lebanon and shakes the mountains. Our God is great.

But God is on our side too! Amidst the awe and power of this story we also see a God who is gentle, a God who reassures and who saves. Moses answers the people verse 13 of Chapter 14 ‘Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today’.

Did you know that ‘Do not be afraid’ – or ‘fear not’ is one of the most frequent phrases you will find in scripture! Through the Old and New Testaments you will find again and again the Lord (or those speaking on his behalf) saying ‘Fear not…’ To Abram receiving the Covenant, to Moses at the burning bush, to Shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem, to Joshua about to take over leading the children of Israel, Boaz to Ruth, Jesus to the disciples again and again in the Bible we have this command – even more frequently than the command to love, or to serve one another – Fear not!

And both in facing up to our Awesome God, and to the calling to be a disciple, a pilgrim, we need to hear that command ‘fear not’. We are told in the first letter of John chapter 4 verse 18 – Perfect love casts out fear. That is God’s love, perfect – awe inspiring, daunting, life giving, surprising, disturbing and challenging – but perfect.

And we see the Israelites having to overcome their fear, both of the Egyptians behind them and the Red Sea before them. They have to step out in faith in order to continue on their pilgrimage, they need the discipline of faith to keep on their journey with God. It is daunting, it is scary – but they take that step, and God saves and blesses them.

Now I am very aware that I have been speaking now for some time and I have only really scratched the surface of this passage! I don’t want to go over and over it – but to finish I want to give some thoughts to take away with us.

Firstly being a disciple means going on a pilgrimage of faith, our Christian life is not static. We are followers, not sitter-arounders. We have to step out in faith.

Secondly, that journey may seem to go to places we don’t understand, or like, or expect – but if we are truly open to God’s Spirit we will be going the way that God is leading us, the way that is best for us.

Thirdly, God is always with us, no matter how it feels, or even how it seems. Trust Him.
Fourthly. Fear Not!

And lastly, we won’t arrive at our destination this side of death! We will always be a pilgrim people – and we should be restless, even as we rest in Christ! We as disciples of Christ, are those called to usher in the Kingdom – to work for peace and justice, to love beyond our limits, to forgive and know ourselves forgiven, to live lives worthy of our calling in Christ. The journey is as important as the destination, let us be faithful in our travelling and travel well, with Christ at our side.


Sank said...

Well written.

Dr.John said...

Another sermon I could have written.