The Challenge of Costly Discipleship (a sermon on Mark 6.14-29)

It will be nineteen years next month since I was interviewed by the search committee for the position of rector of St. Margaret’s. It was a memorable interview in many ways, but one thing I especially remember was a question I was asked by Murray Tait, who was People’s Warden at the time. He said, ‘Do you consider it to be part of your job as a preacher, not just to comfort us, but also to challenge us?’

Preachers often have difficulty with that question – after all, we’re dependent on our congregations to pay our salaries, and it can be so tempting just to tell people what they want to hear! And yet we know that passing on the challenge of Jesus is also an important part of our calling. The message of Jesus won’t always sound like good news, especially when he calls us to leave selfish ways behind and put God’s word into practice in our daily lives. How do we react to that challenge? Today’s gospel tells us about two people who were challenged by God’s message, and how they reacted to it. 

I need to clarify that the Herod in this story is not Herod the Great, the one who tried to get the wise men to lead him to the baby Jesus in the Christmas story. Our Herod is his son, Herod Antipas; Herod the Great had divided his kingdom between his sons, and Antipas got Galilee, where Jesus was brought up. 

There are two things you need to know about Herod Antipas. First, he was a puppet ruler; he kept his throne because it suited the Romans to have him there. Because of this, keeping the peace with Rome was always a priority for him. But secondly, like his father, he really wanted the people he ruled to recognize him and accept him as their legitimate king. You see, the Herod family weren’t really full-blooded Jews – they were Idumeans, and this was one of the reasons they were very unpopular with the Jewish people; how could God’s true anointed king not be one of God’s chosen people, the Jews? 

And the choices Herod Antipas made in his personal life didn’t help the situation. Herodias had been the wife of Herod’s brother Philip. Herod had met her at his brother’s house; the two had become infatuated with each other and had left their previous spouses to marry each other. It’s actually not clear whether a formal divorce ever took place between Herodias and Philip; in Jewish law a woman had no right to divorce her husband, and there was a lot of controversy at that time about the proper legal grounds for a husband to divorce his wife. It’s fair to say that a large percentage of the population of Galilee saw Herod and Herodias as living in sin – and, to them, this was further evidence that Herod Antipas simply could not be God’s true anointed King. 

And this was why Herod Antipas had to arrest John the Baptist. Our text says ‘John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife”’(v.18). We shouldn’t understand from this that John and Herod had enjoyed a quiet fireside chat over a glass of wine, discussing Herod’s matrimonial woes! No – when it says ‘John had been telling Herod’, it means, ‘telling in public, in his sermons’. And if John was saying this about Herod’s marriage, the people would have understood him to be denying that Herod could be God’s true anointed king – which, of course, would have been an act of sedition on John’s part. At this point – as a ruler interested in keeping his throne – Herod had to arrest John.

But now comes the curious twist: Herod had a soft spot for John, too! In fact, he was more than a little afraid of him, knowing that ‘he was a righteous and holy man’ (v.20). Even more curiously, we read that Herod ‘liked to listen to (John)’ (v.20). It sounds as if there was an internal struggle going on in Herod; he was angry at what John was saying, and yet deep down he knew there was truth in his words.

But Herod and John were no match for Herodias; she was a manipulator, determined to get what she wanted, and she wanted the Baptist dead. A dance on Herod’s birthday gave her the opportunity to get what she wanted. Our NRSV translation opts for a minority reading of the text and identifies the dancer as ‘Herod’s daughter Herodias’. However, this makes no sense; there is no evidence that Herod had a daughter who was also called Herodias. The majority of manuscripts identify the dancer as ‘the daughter of Herodias’ – presumably by her marriage to Philip. The Jewish historian Josephus gives her name as ‘Salome’. Herod, an impetuous man, was so infatuated with her dancing that he made a rash vow promising to reward her with anything she wanted, up to half his kingdom. This was Herodias’ opportunity; the girl asked for advice from her mother, and her mother had no hesitation about using her daughter as a pawn: she was to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a plate. ‘The king was deeply grieved’, but felt bound by his oath, and that was the end of the matter. 

Now – what can we possibly learn about Christian discipleship from this grizzly story?

Well, let’s look at the three main characters. Let’s start with Herodias. Here’s a woman who sets out to get what she wants and doesn’t mind who gets hurt along the way. She’s not afraid to use power to better her own position, and if people try to stop her, she crushes them mercilessly. 

It’s possible that her own personal insecurities were fuelling her determination to have her own way. She knew her marriage to Herod was doubtful in the eyes of the people, and she knew Herod was hungry for their approval. She knew he had a soft spot for John the Baptist. And she knew if he chose to listen to John’s message, she stood to lose her marriage and her position as the wife of the Tetrarch of Galilee. You can imagine how she must have felt. 

Of course, that’s often the way it is with bullies – they often have a deep-seated insecurity inside, an insecurity they’re determined not to reveal to anyone. So they overcompensate; they come across as forceful personalities, and if you dare to stand in their path, they trample you down without mercy. To them, the world’s a ‘dog eat dog’ sort of place, divided into winners and losers, and they’re determined to be the winners every time.

The lengths Herodias was prepared to go to in order to get what she wanted are quite shocking when you think about it. Do you think it was a pleasant experience for a young girl to be presented with the head of John the Baptist on a plate? But Herodias was quite prepared to put her daughter through this trauma in order to get what she wanted. Apparently she saw people, even people she loved, as pawns to push around so she could get her own way.

Sad to say, this sort of thing isn’t unknown in the Christian church. We Christians can be just as determined as anyone else to get our own way, and I sometimes think Christian congregations are particularly vulnerable to the activity of bullies. This is because we try to be kind to everyone, and so bullies can throw their weight around in a church for a long time before someone confronts them with their behaviour and challenges them to stop it. 

And of course, if we’re ever going to grow as Christians, we dohave to stop. Herodias saw herself as the lead actor in her own play; everyone else existed for her benefit alone. But if we’re ever going to grow in the Christian life, we have to learn to take ourselves out of the centre of our own universe and give that place back to the one to whom it rightfully belongs.

So Herodias exemplifies the person who uses power to get what they want. But now let’s turn again to her husband, Herod Antipas. He’s a fascinating character! If ever there was a man with conflicted emotions, it was Herod! Deep down inside, he knew what was right, but over and over again he showed himself unable to do it.

It started with the arrest of John the Baptist. As a shrewd politician, Herod knew that if he was going to keep his throne he had to arrest John, but he seems to have felt guilty about the fact. He liked to listen to John! No doubt John talked about the things he’d always talked about – the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the need for people to turn their lives around so they could get ready for that Kingdom. John had never shied away from spelling out specifics, and no doubt he continued to do so when he talked with Herod; no doubt he told Herod “It’s wrong for you to have your brother’s wife”. We read that Herod was ‘perplexed’ about this, but I don’t think this means he was ‘perplexed’ about what John meant. No one could miss John’s meaning! No – he was perplexed about his own response to the message he was hearing: would he obey, or not? He knew what he should do, but he couldn’t summon up the moral courage to actually do it.

And of course the same thing happened when Herodias’ daughter asked for the head of John the Baptist. No doubt Herod saw immediately that he’d been in the wrong in making such a rash oath, but he cared too much for the good opinion of those around him to retreat from it. Once again, he knew what he ought to do, but he didn’t do it.

Most Christians will recognise themselves in Herod. We all ‘like to listen’ to Jesus and his message – we do it here every Sunday – but we’re often ‘perplexed’ about putting it into practice. It seems so costly! It’s so hard to actually do the things Jesus says. Nonetheless, if we’re going to grow in our Christian lives, we have to face the fact that it isn’t enough just to ‘enjoy listening to’ the Christian message. Jesus told us that if we do that, we’re like a person who builds their house on the sand: the rains come and the floods rise and beat upon the house, and down it comes. Obedience in theory won’t help us build a life that can stand up when the storm comes; only obedience in practice will do the job.

So the story’s telling us we have to be willing to take ourselves out of the centre of our own lives and commit ourselves to following God’s anointed king, Jesus. It’s telling us we have to be willing to put Jesus’ teaching into practice, rather than just listening to it and agreeing with it in theory. And the story’s warning us: if we do this, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee a happy ending for us.

John the Baptist was a faithful and honest man of God. He’d given his entire life to the proclamation of God’s message. He’d spoken the truth fearlessly and seen huge crowds responding to his words, accepting baptism as a sign of repentance and commitment to God’s kingdom. He’d pointed to Jesus, the lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. And then he’d followed God’s call to speak the truth to powerful people, and he’d come to a sticky end. 

Mark – and the early Christians who read his gospel – didn’t see this as something strange. Mark wrote for Christians in Rome who were being savagely persecuted by the Emperor Nero. They understood that this was part of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Two chapters later in Mark, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). In all likelihood Jesus meant this saying literally; many of those who followed him would take up their crosses and go to the place of execution, just as he had. To be a Christian meant being unafraid to nail your colours to the mast, identify yourself publicly as a follower of Jesus, and accept the consequences. 

Of course, we know the final outcome is very different. In the short term, Herodias is victorious and John is dead. But a decade later Herod was deposed from his throne by the Romans and ended his life in exile in Gaul, while John was already looked on as a hero by the growing Christian movement. Even more than that, as Jesus said, “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (8:35). John lives in glory today, and one day he’ll be raised to live with Jesus forever, and I’m sure he has no doubt that he made the right decision. But – when he was looking at the executioner’s axe, I’m sure he was just as scared as we would have been in his place. 

Speaking of fear – one last thing. In his brilliant little book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says that the virtue of courage – which he calls ‘fortitude’ – is something we need whenever we try to practice one of the Christian virtues. Here’s what he says:

Fortitude includes both kinds of courage – the courage that faces danger as well as the kind that sticks to it under pain…You will notice, of course, that you cannot practice any of the other virtues very long without bringing this one into play.

I know what he means. You believe God is calling you to do something, but you can see the possible negative consequences. You might not literally lose your head as John the Baptist did, but you might lose some financial security, or some comfort, or the good opinion of your friends. You can’t help feeling some fear and anxiety about that. So are you going to let the fear control your actions, or are you going to do what’s right? That’s where the rubber hits the road!

Don’t make the mistake of praying that God will give you a feeling of courage. Courage isn’t a feeling; courage is the habit of doing the right thing, even when you’re afraid of the consequences. There’s an old saying: “Courage is fear that has said its prayers”. And the content of the prayers is simple: “God, you’ve called me to do this difficult thing, but I can see the path ahead is going to be hard. Quite frankly, I’m scared. So can you please help me not to let fear control me? Help me do what you’re calling me to do, and give me a sense that you’re with me in it”. 

I can’t begin to count the number of times in my Christian life I’ve had to pray a prayer like that. And I’ve learned from experience that the prayers don’t take the difficulties away, but they do give me a sense that I’m not alone. “I am with you always”, says Jesus, “to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). He was with John the Baptist, and he’ll be with us too. So let’s pray for the courage to follow him as faithfully as John the Baptist did.

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Charles Wesley (1707-1788): ‘Author of Every Work Divine’

I came across this hymn lyric in Bruce Hindmarsh’s brilliant book ‘The Spirit of Early Charles_WesleyEvangelicalism‘, in a chapter describing the attitude of early evangelicals (the Wesleys, Jonathan Edwards,  George Whitfield) toward the emerging science of their day. It turns out that they were very curious about it and wrote extensively on the subject.

I find this lyric interesting. It is addressed to God the Holy Spirit, who traditionally is seen as being involved in creation (‘and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’ – Genesis 1.2 KJV). However, in today’s evangelicalism I think it would be rare to find much discussion about the Holy Spirit’s role in the creation and sustenance of the universe; the emphasis would be almost entirely on the Spirit’s role in the work of human salvation. This lyric, then, is a salutary reminder to us of the attitude of an earlier generation: ‘Author of every work divine who dost through both creations shine’ (i.e. the old creation of the universe, and the new creation in Christ). The Spirit is not only the God of grace, but also the God of nature.

Charles Wesley: ‘Author of Every Work Divine’

Author of every work divine,
Who dost thro’ both creations shine,
The God of nature and of grace,
Thy glorious steps in all we see,
And wisdom attribute to thee,
And power, and majesty, and praise.

That all-informing breath thou art,
Who dost continued life impart,
And bidst the world persist to be;
Garnish’d by thee yon azure sky;
And all those beauteous orbs on high
Depend in golden chains from thee.

Thou dost create the earth anew,
Its Maker and Preserver too,
By thine almighty arm sustain;
Nature perceives thy secret force,
And still holds on her even course,
And owns thy providential reign.

Thou art the Universal Soul,
The plastick power that fills the whole,
And governs earth, air, sea, and sky;
The creatures all thy breath receive,
And who by thy inspiring live,
Without thy inspiration die.

Spirit immense, eternal Mind!
Thou on the souls of all mankind
Dost with benignest influence move;
Pleas’d to restore a sinful race,
And new create a world of grace
In all the image of thy love

‘Are We Too Familiar with Jesus?’ (a sermon on Mark 6.1-13)

When families get together, sooner or later the legends start coming out. Perhaps one of the family members has done quite well for themselves in the world – made a real success of their career, or become a well-known politician, or something like that. If that’s the case, it’s quite likely that at some point during the family gathering someone with a wicked sense of humour is going to say, “Do you remember that time when Jack did ____?” Everyone will collapse in fits of laughter, the person in question will be suitably humiliated, and the family gathering will continue!

There’s a story about me that used to get regular airings at family gatherings years ago. It concerns a time in my mid-teens when I was sent down to the local laundromat to take some dry-cleaning to be done; it included stuff like the blazers and dress pants my brother and I had to wear for school uniform. Now, to be quite honest, at that time I was completely oblivious to the distinction between laundry and dry cleaning. And I must have been incredibly dense, too, because I never stopped to ask myself why I would be sent to the laundromat to do ordinary laundry, when we had a perfectly good washer and dryer at home. But anyway, I stuffed all those clothes that needed dry cleaning into the washer and dryer at the laundromat, took them home afterwards, and then experienced a rather spectacular family explosion. I didn’t do too badly out of it in the end; I got a new school blazer. My brother didn’t do quite so well, he got to wear my shrunken blazer, with black leather extensions to make the arms a little longer. I don’t think he’s ever forgotten that.

I expect that’s the sort of story the people of Nazareth were remembering about Jesus when he came to preach in their synagogue:

‘They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2b-3).

“This is just Mary’s boy? Do you remember the time Joseph sent him to drop off a plough at Avram’s house, and he went dreaming his way through the field and dropped it off at Amminadab’s instead? Do you remember when he was little and he looked so cute? Do you remember the scrapes he got into? Too bad he’s gotten big ideas about himself now; I wonder where all that came from!”

In Mark’s story, this passage comes at the end of a section about the early ministry of Jesus in Galilee. It started in chapter three, when Jesus chose the Twelve. Immediately following that, we heard about how his immediate family were so worried by the things they were hearing about him that they came to take him home, because they were convinced he’d gone out of his mind. Then we had a chapter of parables, like the farmer scattering seed in his field, and a number of miracle stories, like the healing of Jairus’ daughter and the stilling of the storm on the lake. Now, at the end of the section, we’re back to the same two themes: those who have known Jesus since he was a child don’t believe in him, but his disciples do believe in him. Consequently, he sends them out on a mission in which they are able to do some spectacular things because of their trust in him. 

The theme of faith and unbelief has been simmering all through this section of Mark. Jesus is the farmer who is scattering the seeds of God’s message wherever he goes, but not all of them come up – in other words, not everyone hears with faith. The disciples and Jesus get caught in a storm on the lake; the disciples are afraid, but after Jesus stills the storm he says to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (4:40). Jesus delivers a man from the power of evil spirits by casting the spirits out of him and into a herd of pigs. The pigs run off the cliff and drown in the lake, and immediately the people of the area beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood! Jairus and the woman with the flow of blood, who we heard about last week, are able to believe in Jesus and experience his healing power, but the people of Nazareth won’t believe, and as a result Jesus can’t do much to help them. 

Let’s look at little more closely at this. What does it mean to say that the people in Jesus’ hometown didn’t believe in him? What exactly were they saying about him? In a nutshell, it was this: “He’s nobody special! We’ve known him since he was a child; why does he suddenly think he’s better than we are?”

I think this attitude to Jesus is alive and well in the contemporary world: “He’s nobody special!” Many of the people I meet in non-Christian circles feel the same way about Jesus. I was having coffee with a friend a while back, and we got talking about the Christian message. My friend has no patience with the idea that Jesus is the Son of God. He said, “Christ makes much more sense to me when I think of him as a man”.

I didn’t have time to give an adequate response, but what I wanted to say was something like this: “You know, I have exactly the opposite experience. When I read the Gospels, it’s when I try to think of Jesus as just an ordinary man that he makes no sense to me at all!”

What do I mean by that? Well, Jesus wasn’t just a first century self-help guru wandering around giving sage advice about how to live. Jesus actually believed some very weird things about what was happening through his ministry! The heart of Jesus’ preaching was not ‘love your neighbour as yourself’; rather, it was an announcement that because he was present, the Kingdom of God was at hand. 

In other words, Jesus believed God was working in a unique way through his ministry to set the world free from the dark forces of evil. He believed God was working through him to establish a kingdom of justice and peace, in contrast to the kingdoms of exploitation and violence and injustice that everyone was so familiar with. Not only that, but he also believed some very strange things about his own coming death – which he seemed to know was coming. He said he was going to give his life ‘as a ransom for many’, and his blood would be ‘the blood of the covenant’ – which was the sort of language Jewish people used when they offered animal sacrifices to atone for their sins. 

Speaking of the things he said, what about this sort of stuff: “My friend, your sins are forgiven”? In Judaism there was a clearly defined way of receiving forgiveness for your sins: you went to the temple and you offered a sacrifice. Now here is Jesus acting and talking as if his presence makes the temple unnecessary! And, of course, that wasn’t the only strange thing he said. He claimed to be the one who had sent the prophets and preachers of the Old Testament. He said that if you had seen him, you had seen the Father. And so it goes on.

What I wanted to say to my friend was this: ‘When I think of Jesus as just a man, he doesn’t become a good man in my mind: he becomes either a bad man or a lunatic. Today, a man who was just a man, but who said and did the things Jesus said and did, would be referred for psychiatric attention. We certainly wouldn’t have trusted him as the pastor of a church; he was far too unbalanced for that!’

So it seems the people of Nazareth were correct: if Jesus really was just the hometown boy, and nothing more, then they were right not to be impressed. Religious fanatics were two a penny in those days; they arrived on the scene, and before too long they were put in their place – usually by the Romans, with nails.

I want people to take the New Testament picture of Jesus seriously – to realize that if he’s just a man he makes no sense at all. He only makes sense if he’s morethan just a man – if he’s a prophet, or even, dare I say it, the Son of God. If Godhas come among us in Jesus to show us the way, and to live and die for us, thenJesus makes sense. Of course he still challenges us, and turns our notions of what’s real and what’s not upside down – but then, if God is coming to us in him, we’d expect that, wouldn’t we? 

But I can’t stop there. So far this reading of the text has been very comfortable for me, hasn’t it? In this interpretation, I’m the faithful one, and my friend is one of the faithless Nazarenes who didn’t accept Jesus’ authority. But that’s a slightly inaccurate way of reading the text. After all, the whole point of the story is that the Nazarenes were Jesus’ own people, his flesh and blood: they ought to have been the ones to recognize him and welcome him. But that’s exactly the opposite of what actually happened; as John says in his Gospel, ‘He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (John 1:11).

Who are Jesus’ family today? Who are the ones who ought to be the closest to him? Surely it’s us, his church? In Mark 3, when Jesus’ family came to take him away, he looked around at the disciples and the people sitting listening to him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34b-35). So perhaps we need to ask the question, have webecome too familiar with Jesus? Are we so comfortable with his story that we don’t see it for the dynamite that it really is?

Jesus came to announce the Kingdom of God, an upside-down kingdom where the little people would be honoured and the proud tyrants brought down. He taught his followers not to accumulate money and possessions, but to give generously to the poor and needy instead. He told them to love their enemies and do good to them, and to pray for those who hated them. He told them that the point of life wasn’t riches or success or popularity, but learning to love God with all their heart and love their neighbours as themselves. He told them to be a people who were known for their honesty and integrity. He reached out to lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors and Samaritans – the people on the margins of society – and he taught his followers to do the same. 

So often, we Christians miss all this. So often, our way of life bears little resemblance to the way Jesus taught us to live. Could it be that we’re just too familiar with this stuff, and so subconsciously we screen it out? Jesus was quite clear that he had come to show us the way, but it sometimes seems that in the past two thousand years we’ve been so busy building impressive churches for him that we’ve got no time to actually follow the way he showed us! 

And what’s the result? In Mark 6 we read, ‘And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them’.Now that’s a rather strange sentence! I don’t know about you, but if I could lay my hands on a few sick people and heal them, I’d think of that as a pretty impressive deed of power! So what did Mark mean when he said that Jesus could do ‘no deed of power there’?

Here’s what I think he meant. The gospels are clear that Jesus’ miracles are signs pointing to the coming of the Kingdom of God. When the kingdom comes in all its fulness, evil and sickness and injustice and death will be no more. The miracles point to that future reality.

What would have happened if the people of Nazareth hadbelieved in Jesus? Would there just have been a lot more healings? No – the entire community would have been transformed. People with resentments would have forgiven each other. Rich people would have given away most of their wealth to people who didn’t have enough. Some impending divorce actions would have been cancelled. People would have stopped hating Roman soldiers and started inviting them for meals in their houses. The whole community would have started practicing love and contentment and reconciliation and peace and justice. Now there’s a deed of power for you!

And here’s the tragedy of what we’ve often done to Christianity in the western world. Because of our lack of faith, we haven’t actually done the things that Jesus told us to do; we’ve tamed Christianity down, and the result is that all he can do is lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. In other words, yes, some people do come to church, and they are helped by what they find there, but the world isn’t transformed as Jesus had intended when he started his Kingdom revolution in the first place. The world stays pretty much the same. 

So here’s the challenge of this text: we, the church, have often become like the Nazarenes in the time of Jesus. We think we know him well, but we’ve dulled the sharp edges of his message and avoided the challenges. So this text is calling us to faith – realfaith, faith that trusts Jesus so much that it follows his example and obeys his commands. When we do that, then Jesus is able to do the ‘deed of power’ he wants to do – transform the world into a place of compassion and justice, a place of reconciliation and peace. 

So – have we become too familiar with Jesus? If so, maybe it’s time for us to take a fresh look at the gospels and think about what Jesus was really up to when he sent his followers out to announce that the Kingdom of God was at hand. One Mennonite author says that the movement Jesus started was ‘the original revolution’ – a nonviolent revolution, but a revolution nonetheless. Let’s not allow familiarity with Jesus to dull the sharp edges of that revolution in our lives. Let’s pray for the courage to trulybelieve in Jesus, and to show our belief by doing the things he taught us to do.

‘Out of the Depths’ (a sermon on Psalm 130)

When I was in college my Old Testament professor used to say, ‘the rest of the Bible speaks tous, but the Psalms speak forus’. I think this is true, and I’m really glad that we use them week by week in our Anglican worship.

The Book of Psalms is a book of prayer songs written by Old Testament people. Some of them perhaps date as far back as the time of David, a thousand years before Jesus; others are more recent. In the psalms we find the whole breadth of human experience and emotion – joy and suffering, praise and anger, love and hate – every part of our human life, even the nasty parts, all presented to God in prayer. I hope you’re getting to know the psalms, and I hope you read them regularly. This extraordinary collection of prayers is telling us that everypart of our human life can be prayed; there’s no experience and no emotion that can’t be brought up in our conversations with God. The psalms invite us to behonest and beourselves in our prayers. God knows all about us anyway, so we may as well tell him the truth.

Today’s psalm, Psalm 130, is definitely speaking for us in our troubles. It speaks of a painful aspect of our human experience, when we say to ourselves, “I’m in trouble, and it’s my fault:I’m the one that caused it”. So we’re not only dealing with despair and difficulty, but guilt as well. If we’re religious people, we may find ourselves thinking “God must be punishing me for what I did”.

This was a common view in Old Testament times – the idea that if you were suffering, you had obviously done something wrong, and God was punishing you for it. Of course, this view  is still with us; we still hear people who are going through hardship asking, “What have I done to deserve this?”

But even in the Old Testament not everyone agrees with this, and when we turn to the New Testament we come across a completely different view. In John chapter 9, Jesus’ disciples look at a man who was born blind, and they ask Jesus, “Who sinned – him or his parents?” Jesus replies, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:3). Throughout the gospels Jesus lives out a message of grace– God’s unconditional love for all people – people like Zacchaeus the tax collector, and the bandit who was crucified with Jesus, and even Peter who denied three times that he even knew Jesus. In each case, instead of sending trouble on the sinner to punish them, Jesus reaches out to them with the message of God’s steadfast love.

Psalm 130 is one of those places in the Old Testament where we catch a glimpse of this truth. Let’s explore it together. I’m going to base my comments on the NRSV translation in our pew Bibles.

So let’s start by asking ourselves, what is the writer of this psalm experiencing? Look at verses 1-2:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!

The ‘depths’ are a common Old Testament metaphor for suffering, despair, and depression. The writer is talking about the ocean depths, or maybe the floods: ‘Lord, I need your help! I’m in the depths of despair here!’

Our readings for today give us examples of these depths. In our first lesson, David is crying out to God in grief for his dear friend Jonathan, who has been killed in battle with the Philistines. We know that grief is one of the hardest things we go through as humans. The death of someone we love – and the continual experience of their absence – is something we find it very hard to get through.

In our Gospel reading, one of the characters in the story is about to experience that grief. Jairus has a little daughter, and he’s frantic with worry about her; she’s very ill – at the point of death. The serious illness of a much-loved child is one of the great fears of all parents; if you’ve ever lost a child, you know how black those particular depths can be.

There’s also a woman who has been suffering hemorrhages for twelve years; she’s spent a lot of money on doctors, and we can guess she’s prayed a lot too, but nothing has changed. Twelve years is the age of Jairus’ little girl; all the time that Jairus and his family have been enjoying their lovely daughter, this poor woman has been suffering, and there’s been no relief. A long, chronic illness, and years of unanswered prayer – that’s a very, very dark valley. Some of you here today have been walking that valley.

In 2 Corinthians 8 there are hints of another dark valley. Paul is organizing a relief fund in all his Gentile churches to help the Christians back in Jerusalem, who for some reason are going through a time of severe economic hardship. Very few of us in this church have to deal with that sort of thing; even if we’ve been out of work for a while, we usually haven’t had to worry about where our next meal is coming from. But of course there are people in the world who are overwhelmed with worry about that; they have no idea whether or not they’ll be able to eat today.

These are some of the ‘depths’ that Bible people experienced – bereavement, chronic illness, unanswered prayer, crushing poverty. They’re all with us still, along with many other hard circumstances that threaten to overwhelm us.

I wonder what ‘depths’ you are experiencing that are causing you to cry out to God in fear or desperation? Maybe it’s the depths of grief at the loss of a loved one, or panic as you find yourself in serious financial difficulties. Maybe it’s the pain of the breakup of a marriage, or conflict with children or parents. Maybe it’s the unexpected diagnosis of a serious illness – perhaps a mental illness – that you just can’t find relief from. Maybe it’s a sense of guilt at some things you’ve done, and a fear that God has turned his back on you and abandoned you.

These are all common human experiences that many people go through, whether they’re Christian or not. Sometimes it’s harder for us as Christians, because we’ve been told that if we follow Christ, God will always bless us and look after us. So we find ourselves asking, “Have I done something wrong that he’s punishing me for?” Or again, we’ve been taught that we’ll always be joyful if the Holy Spirit lives in us, and now we’re not feeling that joy.

So how does the writer of Psalm 130 deal with this experience? What does he have to say to God? Where does he find hope in the midst of despair? Let me point out a few things to you.

First, the writer arrives at what seems to us to be a blindingly obvious conclusion, but it’s surprising how many people don’t seem to get there without some help. What’s is it? Simply this: If God was sending thunderbolts to strike sinners dead, there’d be no one left standing. Look at verses 3-4:

If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.

We tend to think of ‘sinners’ as people who are guilty of some particularly heinous sin – and what we classify as a ‘heinous’ sin changes with our culture. To some people, it’s anything to do with sex; to others, it’s anything to do with social injustice. In the Middle Ages, it was daring to charge interest when you lent money to anyone!

But we can’t be so selective in our definition of sin. In most of our services we confess our sins together: “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves”. This is based on Jesus’ two great commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. If we’ve neglected to do this, then we’re sinners. And as soon as you start defining sin to include the good things we don’tdo, then we know we’re all included. As Paul says in Romans 3, ‘Allhave sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’ – which is pretty much a New Testament Christian way of saying exactly what our psalm writer said.

That’s the first thing the psalmist reflects on: everyoneis a sinner, so whatever else my troubles might be, they can’t be God’s punishment for my sins – if they were, everyone would be going through the same punishment. The writer then goes on to reflect on three aspects of God’s character that give us hope.

First, God is a God of forgiveness. Verse 4 says, ‘But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered’. The wording seems strange to us, but this ‘with you’ language is actually the writer’s way of pointing out different aspects of God’s character; he might say ‘there is courage with you’ or ‘there is patience with you’. So in verse 4 we have ‘forgiveness’, and in verse 7 we read ‘For with the Lordthere is steadfast love, and with himis great power to redeem’. And these three ‘with you’ characteristics turn out to be just the things that give us hope in our despair.

So – first, forgiveness. Of all people, we who follow Jesus don’t need to be in any doubt about that. Over and over Jesus met people who were in despair over their guilt, and he assured them of God’s forgiveness. He reached out to people who were considered to be the worst sinners, to the point that he was even described by his enemies as the ‘friend of sinners’ (they didn’t mean that as a compliment, by the way!). He taught us that God is like a father who welcomes his prodigal son home after he’s wasted all his property, or like a king who forgives an embezzling servant a debt bigger than the entire revenue of the kingdom. Paul says, ‘The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15). ‘There is forgivenesswith you, so that you may be revered’.

Secondly, God is a God of steadfast love.The Hebrew word is ‘chesed’, which means ‘stubborn love’, or ‘love that never gives up’. And so the NRSV has this wonderful translation, ‘steadfast love’.

What’s it telling us? It’s saying that God has made a covenantwith us that he will not break. In that covenant he’s adopted us as his children, forgiven our sins, given us the gift of the Holy Spirit, and promised that nothing can ever separate us from his love. His love for us is patient, stubborn, steadfast and sure, and we can count on it. His love will never let us go. Never.

So God is a God of forgiveness, and God is a God of steadfast love. Thirdly, God is a God who comes to the rescue.The NRSV uses the old word ‘redeem’; it says in verses 7-8, ‘…and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities’.

The word ‘redeem’ is often used in the Bible to mean paying a price to set slaves free, or rescue them. But it’s also used in a military sense: God rescuing his people from a hopeless situation by what the Bible calls ‘the strength of his right hand’. Our psalm writer asks the question ‘What are the enemies that are too strong for me to defeat all by myself?’ And the surprising answer is, ‘My sins’:

‘…and with (the Lord) is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities’ (vv.7b-8).

In other words, our own sins – or ‘iniquities’ as the psalm calls them – can be our worst enemies. How many times have we made New Year’s resolutions about dealing with our bad habits, and how many times have we broken them? And, on a less humorous note, how many times have we said of someone, “He’s his own worst enemy?” Positive change is very, very difficult for us humans; if eternal life is a reward for good behaviour, we’re in a desperate situation indeed.

Very, very difficult – but not impossible – at least, not with God. Jesus says, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God’ (Luke 18.27). ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts’ (Zechariah 4:6). Sometimes the Spirit’s power delivers us from the things that are binding us. Sometimes the Spirit gives us the strength to keep going, even though we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes the greatest gift the Spirit give us is the sense that we’re not alone – that God is with us – that right down here in the depths, when we’re tempted to despair, God will never let us go.

We’ve seen that God is a God of forgiveness, a God of steadfast love, and a God who rescues us from the sins that bind us. What’s the conclusion? The conclusion is two words: ‘Hope’, and ‘wait’. Look at verses 5-6:

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.

This is honest and realistic; the writer isn’t promising that the answer to our prayers is going to come instantly. Whatever this ‘flood’ is that’s threatening to overwhelm him, he’s not expecting that God will instantly taking it away. Far from it: he’s expecting to have to wait.

This lines up very much with life as I experience it. My Dad once said to me, “I’ve been impatient all my life, so every time I’ve really wanted something, the Lord has made me wait for it!” And I remember that in Luke’s gospel Jesus tells us a parable to encourage us ‘to pray always and not to lose heart’ (Luke 18:1); there would have been no need for him to tell that parable if we always got everything we asked for right away!

So – keep on praying, and don’t lose heart. ‘I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope’. Whatever trouble we’re going through, let’s keep bringing it to God in prayer, confident that God is not punishing us, because he’s a God of forgiveness and steadfast love. This trouble we’re going through isn’t a big stick he’s using to beat us up or punish us. Rather, he’s walking through our dark place with us, just as he came and lived and died as one of us in Jesus, experiencing all the trouble that we go through as human beings, all the way to death on a cross. So we can come to him with confidence, knowing that nothing can ever change his steadfast love for us.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Book Review: Donald C. Posterski: ‘True to You: Living Our Faith in our Multi-Minded World’ (Wood Lake Books, 1995).

35659952_10156956550960400_7003163623187021824_nDon Posterski died last week (see this tribute from Tyndale College in Toronto). Don was the author of a number of excellent books and the news of his death has prompted me to revisit one or two of them. ‘True to You’ is my first ‘revisit’.

This is a book about living as a faithful Christian in Canada today. Note: I say ‘today’, but the book was written in 1995 and uses many illustrations that were contemporary at the time. The pace of social change has not been slow in the intervening years; same-sex marriage is legal now, and so is assisted dying, and many more Christians have made their peace with these realities than would have been the case in 1995.

Nonetheless, the topic is still a vital one. Older Canadians can remember a time when Christianity was the assumed frame of reference for questions of truth and morality in our society, but that is no longer the case. So what does it mean to be a faithful Christian in this strange new world? Or, as Don Posterski puts it:

  1. ‘How can we live peaceably and productively with our increasing diversity?
  2. ‘How can we construct a society that allows us to live with strong convictions while giving others the prerogative to do the same?
  3. ‘As God’s people, active in our different denominations and religious traditions, are there ways for us to understand and even appreciate our differences so that we can celebrate our common faith commitments?’

Two classification systems reappear regularly in this book, and I found them quite helpful. The first was taken from an Angus Reid poll about religious preferences conducted in Canada in 1994. it uses four broad categories:

  1. Committed participants (those who attend church weekly and are likely to help make it happen)
  2. Conditional participants (those who attend, but less often, and are less likely to get involved in other ways)
  3. Cultural Christians (those who claim a Christian identity but do not participate in organized religion)
  4. Religious ‘nones’ (‘no religious affiliation).

Percentages will have changed since 1994, but at that time two-thirds of Canadians claimed the ‘cultural Christian’ category. Posterski points out, however, that their actual values and practices were virtually indistinguishable from the ‘nones’.

The other classification system addresses how practising Christians respond to their current marginalization in western society.

  1. Reclaimers want to turn the clock back to the good old days when this was a ‘Christian country’.
  2. Tribalisers want to be sure there its room in society for their views and choices, but their approach to those who disagree with them is very confrontational (in 2018 North America, one can see very clearly just how nasty tribalism – and tribal loyalty – can be).
  3. Accommodators enthusiastically embrace divergence but have very little to offer in terms of distinctive beliefs and practices.
  4. Cocooners disengage from any real involvement with concerns that affect public life.
  5. Collaborators are quite prepared to give other people the room to be true to themselves, but are also assertive in claiming that right for themselves as well.

The seven chapters of the book go on to examine the issues raised by diversity in modern Canadian society. In Chapter Two Posterski defines different forms of pluralism: ideological pluralism is an enemy of faith, but cultural pluralism (everyone is entitled to believe and practice their own convictions) is a friend of faith. In Chapter Three he attempts to outline some common values and commitments for modern Canadian society (personally, I found this the least helpful chapter of the book). In the remaining chapters he explores what he calls ‘principled pluralism’ and what it would look like, both in terms of how Christians should live and how society as a whole should make space for people of differing convictions. One of his more telling observations is that toleration for different viewpoints in modern Canada is easily extended to those who do not believe in clearly defined beliefs and morals (tolerance for the tolerant), but is not so easily extended to people of clear conviction, who are often seen as ‘intolerant’ and are therefore not tolerated!

The conclusion suggests a program for Christians who want to exercise both conviction and compassion.

  1. Trust God and follow Christ – keep saying ‘yes’ to Jesus’ invitation to ‘come unto me’.
  2. Be true to yourself: know what you believe, who you are, and how you aspire to behave.
  3. Give regard to others. ‘Rooted in the security of their own convictions, God’s people extend compassion to others who are different from themselves…They realize that, rather than coercing creation, God gives people choices; they aim to treat people like God treats people’.
  4. Relinquish rights for the common good. God’s people know that a society cannot be built exclusively on diversity; ‘beyond the requirement to live within the boundaries of the criminal code, all citizens must be willing to sacrifice private desires for shared public goals’.
  5. Fly your flag in the pluralism parade. A democratic society invites its citizens to participate and to influence public policy; we can take advantage of that right, while also respecting the rights of others to do the same.
  6. Love and lobby. We are called both to live a life of love and to lobby for the ways of God, in answer to Jesus’ prayer ‘Your will be done on earth as in heaven’.

Despite the fact that its statistic and illustrations are now somewhat dated, I found this a very helpful book. Posterski believed that it was possible for Christians to be true to their own convictions and yet also respectful of the convictions of others. He believed that Canadian society could and should be a place where different convictions are respected and welcomed in the public square. Not all Canadians believe this, and neither do all Christians, today as in 1994. But this book gives solid suggestions for positive Christian life and witness in the context of our modern pluralistic society. I highly recommend it.

‘The Lord looks on the heart’ (a sermon on 1 Samuel 15.34 – 16.13)

‘I never knew a guy who carried a mirror in his pocket
And a comb up his sleeve just in case
And all that extra hold gel in your hair ought to lock it
‘Cause heaven forbid it should fall out of place
Oh-oo-oh you think you’re special
Oh-oo-oh you think you’re something else
Okay, so you’re Brad Pitt
That don’t impress me much
So you got the looks, but have you got the touch?
Now don’t get me wrong, yeah I think you’re alright
But that won’t keep me warm in the middle of the night
That don’t impress me much’.

Well, there’s a first time for everything, and that’s definitely the first time I’ve ever begun a sermon with a Shania Twain lyric!

And of course, what makes this song very apropos is that even after years and years of being taken in by shiny looking con artists, outward appearances still do ‘impress us much!’ The politician with the bright smile and the bubbly personality is likely to connect with people and win votes. The rock singer who conforms to the current expectations of beauty is far more likely to sell albums than the one who doesn’t. And, to frame the issue in the words of our Old Testament reading this morning, the Lord may look on the heart, but we human beings are still very, very taken with the outward appearance!

Today in our Old Testament readings we begin the story of King David, the shepherd boy who became the shepherd of God’s people Israel. Let’s give a bit of background.

For many generations after Israel entered their promised land they had no king. They didn’t even have much of a unified central government. They had twelve tribes dispersed throughout the land; in theory God was their king, and when they needed help, God sent them leaders. We’ve traditionally called them ‘judges’, and certainly hearing cases and giving judgements was part of their job. But they also led the people in battle against their enemies.

The last and perhaps greatest of those judges was Samuel, who was probably born around 1100 B.C. It was in his days that the people came and asked for a king; ‘We want a king like the nations around us, to lead us in battle’. On the face of it this was a smart request. All the other nations had kings, and that gave them a military edge: a strong central government with a unified purpose that could raise up an army and give it strong leadership.

But the request didn’t sit well with Samuel. To him, it was a rejection of God’s leadership (and his own as well). And the authors of 1 Samuel don’t seem to be of one mind on the issue too; I get the sense that the book incorporates several earlier accounts with different viewpoints on this subject. But eventually God agrees, and there’s a process by which Saul of the tribe of Benjamin is chosen as the first king of Israel. One thing we’re told about Saul is that his appearance was impressive. ‘When he took his stand among the people, he was head and shoulders taller than any of them. Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see the one whom the LORD has chosen? There is no one like him in all the people”’ (1 Samuel 10:23-24).

It’s not entirely clear how much territory Saul was actually king of; it may be that it was just the central area of Israel, the tribes of Ephraim and Mannaseh and their neighbouring clans. But what is clear is that he very quickly became a disappointment. His appearance might have been impressive but his heart was not obedient to God. I don’t have time to go into the story in detail this morning, and some of it is actually quite disturbing to us as Christians; it involves what appear to be commands from God to commit genocide against an enemy of Israel. These are tough passages and hard to reconcile with the teaching of Jesus.

Be that as it may, eventually Samuel speaks a word of judgement against Saul: “You have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel” (1 Samuel 15:26). But of course Saul still was the king, and so from that day forward Samuel’s position became more precarious; he was highly respected as a prophet and judge, but he was obviously on the outs with the king, and that’s never a comfortable position to be in.

And so we come to today’s passage, where God sends Samuel to anoint a new king. It seems like a foolish and dangerous mission: Saul is still on the throne, and choosing someone else to be designated as ‘the LORD’s anointed’ would be to make both of them a target of Saul’s hit squads. We can hear that fear in Samuel’s voice as he replies to the LORD’s call: “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me” (16:2). We can hear it in the voices of the elders of Bethlehem as they meet Samuel trembling: “Do you come peaceably?” (16:4). They don’t want to get involved in this power struggle!

But the narrative focus is on David, and there are four things we learn about him.

First, he was an outsider. Samuel went down to Bethlehem at God’s command, with explicit instructions to anoint one of the sons of Jesse to be the next king. God already knew who the successful candidate was: “I have provided for myself a king among (Jesse’s) sons” (16:1). But when Jesse and his sons came to the sacrificial ceremony, they didn’t even bother to bring David with them. Jesse brought seven sons – ‘seven’ in the Bible is the number of completeness, so there was no need for any more. David was outside the number – he was the youngest, and he was out in the hills looking after the family’s flock of sheep. No one thought he was of any importance. No one considered that his attendance at the sacrifice would matter one way or the other.

But the God of the Bible seems to have a soft spot for outsiders. There’s a long Bible history of God choosing the younger son over the older, or the less impressive leader over the more impressive. Even Bethlehem itself was a strange choice; it was far to the south of Saul’s domains around Ephraim and Manasseh. It was a little village in the tribe of Judah, which seems to have been only loosely connected to Israel at the time. It would be as if we were looking for a prime minister of Canada in the days before Newfoundland joined confederation, and we decided to elect someone from a tiny fishing port in Newfoundland who wasn’t even really a Canadian citizen!

In the New Testament, Mary the mother of Jesus sums this up in these words: ‘(God) has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly’ (Luke 1:51-52). So don’t ever say “I’m not important, so God wouldn’t choose me”. If the world thinks you’re not important, that makes you a prime candidate for God’s choice! God isn’t impressed with the corridors of power; that ‘don’t impress him much!’ God works from the grassroots, with ordinary people like you and me.

So David was an outsider, and yet he was also God’s choice. Second, David was a shepherd. There are actually three different stories of David’s origins in 1 Samuel and all of them mention his role as a shepherd. Today’s passage has his father Jesse saying, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep” (16:11). In the next section David is chosen to play music for the king, to calm him down when he gets agitated; Saul sends a message to Jesse saying “Send me your son David who is with the sheep” (16:19). And the third story is the well-known tale of David and Goliath, where David specifically mentions his experience of defending the flock from lions and bears (16:34-35). Psalm 78 sums up this tradition:

‘He chose his servant David and took him from the sheepfolds; from tending the nursing ewes he brought him to be the shepherd of his servant Jacob, of Israel, his inheritance. With upright heart he tended them, and guided them with a skillful hand’ (Psalm 78:70-72).

So God didn’t call David to oppress or exploit his people; he called him to care for them like a good shepherd caring for his sheep and protecting them. This is a reflection of the character of God who is sometimes called ‘the Shepherd of Israel’ in the Old Testament. Jesus, of course, says “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

Do you know how to care for people, to love your neighbour as yourself? In God’s eyes, that makes you a good candidate for leadership. God has had it up to here with leaders who are only in it to enrich themselves and their families; that ‘don’t impress him much’! He’s looking for people who know how to love others – not just in words but in actions.

So David is an unlikely candidate to be king – which, in God’s sight, makes him a likely candidate. David was a shepherd and he brought a shepherd’s heart to the throne of Judah and Israel. The third thing we’re told is that David’s heart was in the right place.

In the first few verses of the story there’s a funny scene as the seven sons of Jesse are brought before Samuel one by one, for all the world like a police identification parade! Samuel has apparently forgotten how easily he was misled by Saul’s impressive appearance. He sees Jesse’s oldest son Eliab and thinks “Surely the LORD’s anointed is now before the LORD”. But God rebukes this thought: “Do not look on his appearance or the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance but the LORD looks on the heart” (16:6-7).

The implication is that David has a good heart. Nowadays, of course, we usually use the heart as a symbol of the feelings: ‘You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t’, sings Bonnie Raitt, and we know what she means. But in the Bible the feelings are located in the intestines (hence the King James Version’s lovely term for compassion: ‘bowels of mercy’!). ‘The heart’ means the inner person, the choices, the will. In this passage it probably means the inner character. Despite being the youngest and the least likely candidate, David was a boy of good character, and so God chose him to be king.

The books of Samuel never pretend that David was perfect; far from it. He was a human being with a healthy dose of the human propensity to mess things up, and he did it spectacularly on a couple of occasions. But it was not in David’s nature to be stubborn about his disobedience. When he was confronted with his sin he confessed and repented and asked for forgiveness.

So when we say God looks on the heart, we’re not saying that God is looking for a perfect heart, a perfect character. God would have no one, if that were the case. But God is looking for a loving heart, a humble heart, a teachable spirit, a faithful character. He’s looking for someone who strives to be the same person when people are watching and when they aren’t watching.

Expertise is important, but it can be taught. Character takes a lot longer. A few years ago a friend of mine was contemplating a career change, and he went to another friend who owned an oilfield service company and asked about a job. “I don’t really have much expertise, though”, he admitted. The owner replied, “Will you come to work on time? Will you give me a full day’s work for a full day’s pay? Will you show up on time after your days off – and without a hangover? I can teach you what you need to know, but I can’t form your character – that has to be present already”.

This is what God prizes. He doesn’t favour the insiders – he’s far more likely to choose people from the margins. He places a premium on for a caring and loving way with others. He’s not impressed with outward appearances: he cares about your heart, your inner character. And lastly, David is filled with the Holy Spirit.In verse 13 we read, ‘Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed (David) in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward’.

In the Old Testament there is no general promise that the Spirit of God will fill every believer. Kings receive the Spirit; so do priests and prophets and judges. The Spirit makes them God’s special servants, God’s tools, God’s mouthpieces. Ordinary people like you and me aren’t equipped with the Spirit; we experience his touch second hand, through God’s chosen leaders.

But that changes in the New Testament. The prophet Joel foretells a time when God will pour out his Spirit on everyone – young and old, men and women, slaves and free. This happens on the Day of Pentecost, when a group of a hundred and twenty believers – most of them unlikely candidates, just like David – are filled with the Holy Spirit and speak God’s word with boldness. From that point on, this becomes the birthright of the Christian: if you know how to give good gifts to your children, says Jesus, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:13).

My dad was a working class boy from an industrial city in central England; he left school at sixteen and never finished a university degree. Lots of people would have dismissed him, but God didn’t; my dad was called to ordination in his thirties and became a highly effective pastor and evangelist. There are many people alive today who became committed Christians because of his ministry, and I am one of them. He was an ordinary human being with weaknesses just like anyone else, but the Holy Spirit filled him and used him to bless others, and he became a good shepherd.

Today I want you to ask yourself “What’s stopping me from hearing God’s call?” Maybe you feel like an outsider. Maybe you think “I’m no leader”. Maybe you don’t think of yourself as a particularly impressive looking person.

But in the end, none of that matters. God doesn’t look on outward appearances: God looks on the heart. God gives the gift of his Spirit to people just like you and me, so that we can do things we never thought we’d ever be able to do. Most of all, God gives us his Spirit to make us like his Son Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd is always looking for willing sheepdogs to join his team, bringing his love and compassion to the world. Little David the shepherd boy became part of that team. You can be part of that team too. So don’t let a sense of fear or inadequacy hold you back. When you sense God calling you to some new thing, check it out with others to make sure you’re hearing it right, and then step forward in faith and say “Here am I, Lord; send me!”