26 May 2019 – Talk by Michael Cotton

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The subject is of the readings we’ve heard – the sower. This is a well known parable. In fact, it’s one of the parables that appears in all three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. And of course it brings up the question, well, why did Jesus speak in parables? The disciples, in fact, asked this very question in the bit of Matthew that we had read out now and his reply was characteristically oblique. So we have to again, ask ourselves why? Why did Jesus speak in this manner that wasn’t immediately obvious to his listeners what he was trying to say? Even the disciples who were with him asked him, why do you speak like this? What’s the aim and Jesus’ reply is because the knowledge of the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven has been given to you and not to them. In other words, this has been the knowledge of the secrets of the heaven have been given to the disciples and not to all those other people. Now what does that mean? It’s because the disciples were the ones who were with Jesus. In other words, if we want to hear about the secrets of the Kingdom of God, we’ve got to be with Jesus. There’s really no other way.

He then goes on to say in explanation. To those who much is given an abundance can be expected and those who don’t have much even that will be taken away. Now I guess this makes you recall another parable that of the talents so called. Actually of the minas, minas being coins or gold bags. In Matthew 25 and Luke 19. This message is Jesus’ injunction to believers, not just to play it safe, to do little or nothing, but to serve God fully and expect to get results. In other words, if you seek spiritual gain, you’ll get more and more. But if you don’t, your spiritual poverty will lead to spiritual bankruptcy. It’s pretty hard hitting stuff. But I digress a bit. In the parable of the sower. Jesus actually says he speaks so that his disciples will hear and understand. In another part of Isaiah, Jesus quotes the Lord speaking to the prophet saying; “Be ever hearing, but never understanding, be ever seeing, but never perceiving.” He understood what was actually going to happen to the Israelite nation, that they heard the message, but they didn’t want to hear it. And ultimately they came a cropper.

Isaiah 55, a bit later in the passage we heard says, “my word that goes out from my mouth, it will not return to me empty.” In other words, we can be confident that when Jesus speaks, it has an impact.

The prophet was sent to the people of Israel, but their hearts were hardened and the end result was the destruction of their nation. And in the same way that the Jewish leaders had closed their minds to Jesus himself and the very religion that they wished to preserve was all but swept away. Now, so therefore, do we hear and understand. A parable is a story with a para. In other words, a meaning aside, a place aside. It’s something known from the Psalms from ages back. Psalm 78 verses one and two says: “My people hear my teaching. Listen to the words of my mouth, I will open my mouth with a parable. I will utter hidden things from all.” And Jesus of course was the King of parables – this was typically his genre. He used a well known situation that everyone could grasp and gave eternal meaning. In our passage he tells us the meaning. He interprets his own parable. There is no doubt of what he wanted to say. So we can ask well, is there really anything more to be said? Well, I think so. The seed falling on different types of ground, the path, the rocks, the thorns, these are the places obviously where the seed did not last, where it got eaten by birds, scorched by the sun or choked by weeds. The first is equivalent to where there’s no understanding. The second to where acceptance remains superficial and the third where they’re just too many worries and cares. I wonder, does this sound familiar to you? Let’s fix some landmarks. The farmer, who is actually not mentioned, is Jesus himself. The sower is his church. The seed is his message and the ground is the people of the world, or us. Well, surely we are not those who can’t really make out what the message means.

The message is of course none other than the Gospel itself. What is though this Gospel? And I think that’s why we say the creed every Sunday. That is the Gospel in a nutshell, that Jesus is the Messiah who demonstrated the nature of God because he was indeed God. He was condemned by a Roman governor, verifiable historically as having lived. Was crucified, died for our sins. Paid the price for our judgment, ensured our forgiveness and rose again proving him to be divine. This is what we say, and this, I hope, is what we believe. The message is full of untold mystery and depths. Though we may not ever fully understand its profundity, we aren’t really those who don’t understand any of the message. Nevertheless, I think we all have roving imaginations, a mind that wonders and memory that is perhaps dulled and attention that is distracted. Or perhaps we’re too ready to argue, too ready to speak our mind, which is already made up. Or even perhaps we’re just so sleepy, weary and tired, we don’t listen at all. So please don’t miss out. This message is of vital importance. We may be like those for whom, the message is swept away by evil, by other desires, by the devil himself. That would be the seed falling on the path. But more likely it is for us to be the rocky ground. In the dry land of Israel the sun came up and scorched the seed because it could not develop roots on the rocks. Jesus compares this situation to being in the heat of trouble or opposition or even persecution. Or for a younger person, this might be just not being cool enough. When we simply cannot stand up when things get tough. When we simply haven’t got the trust or the faith to hold on to, then the seed just doesn’t grow. But all we need is a little crack in the rock where the soil can gather some water. My wife comes from Zimbabwe and I worked there for 20 years. And if you go to Zimbabwe, you’ll see trees that seem to grow straight out of the rocks. It’s an amazing sight. These massive trees and you say where’s the soil and what they actually have are roots that disappear. And the length of the root is often longer than the tree itself. It’s an amazing sight. And it is, I think an illustration, that even a little earth can establish, a growth that can in fact split the hardest rock.

The third illustration that we may be are those for whom the priorities of the world simply take over. That’s a very 21st 22nd century thing. I’m sure. Where, work, social obligations, ambitions, recreations pursuits or financial worries just supervene. I’m sure that sounds familiar enough. Just too busy. Too busy for church, too busy to read the Bible, too busy to meet for fellowship, too busy even to pray. Then the gospel is literally choked out. It’s interesting of course that Jesus doesn’t mention the seed that is washed away. Presumably because Israel was such a dry climate and it didn’t really happen. Though that might be a synonym for our age when there are a million alternatives to his message.

So the meaning of the parable is explained by Jesus himself. We can listen but hear nothing. Now, every day practically, I drive on the motorway through the Glion tunnel. I’m sure you know it. And I like listening to classical music on the radio and so I tune into Espace 2 and an interesting thing happens. As you enter the tunnel, suddenly the music disappears and is replaced by all kinds of funny noises, crackles and the vague sounds of people talking all mixed together and you can’t make anything out at all. There’s total confusion and by the middle of the tunnel you can’t make anything out even the loudest noise. Then suddenly just a little before you exit the tunnel, when you see the light, the music comes back perfectly clear. Isn’t that an illustration of our life battered by noises and voices and messages and and all kinds of things. News that just drowns out the message of God. But when we see the light, when we look at Jesus, it all comes clear. Even if we’re tuned in right, and the vision ahead is not clear, our goal is obscured. And finally of course there is the good soil where the seed multiplies a hundred fold, sixty fold or thirty fold.

I think there are things to note too, about the sower. Some hidden gems in this story. The sower, that is us, the church, strews the seed deliberately. He wouldn’t waste seeds on useless terrain. He would know the value also of fertilizing and preparing the ground beforehand. He knows he’d need more seed than expected to cover and allow for inevitable wastage. And he’d know that the ground may be deceptive. It isn’t always obvious where the weeds and the thorns are.

But he wouldn’t stop till the whole field had been sewn. He would know that some seed produces an abundant crop, but not all grow at the same rate or the same strength, and he’d know that you might as well only have a one in four chance of success. This is challenging for anybody who speaks, but I think it’s also encouraging because we may feel disappointed dissuaded when we speak to somebody about Jesus. To sum up courage and we talk about what we believe about our faith. And the response may be “not interested” or maybe superficially interested and we think we’re getting nowhere, But let us just be true servants of the farmer himself, of Christ and get out there sowing the seed. Amen.

5 May 2019 – Talk by Clive Atkinson

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It’s worth reminding ourselves that Easter doesn’t end with the empty tomb. The Easter story doesn’t end with Jesus appearing physically, bodily, to people. Because whenever you read the Easter story in all four of the gospels, the telling of the Easter story doesn’t end with the empty tomb or the appearances. There’s something more. And so whenever you get to the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew 28, we have the risen Jesus saying to his disciples, go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. You go to Mark’s Gospel and you go to chapter 16 to the end of Mark’s Gospel and you read this. Go into all the world and preach the good news to all of creation. You get to the end of Luke’s Gospel and Luke isn’t satisfied with one or two verses. He adds on an entire second book to describe how the disciples go into all the nations and make disciples and preach the good news to all creation.

We call it the book of Acts. And then we come to the gospel of John. And yes, in John, you have Jesus commissioning his disciples to go out into the world. But John has something more. John, as part of this commissioning tells us the story of Peter. Peter who had denied Jesus three times. John tells us the story of the restoration of Peter, the recommissioning off him and I want us to think about that this evening. And we pick up the story. If you’ve got your service booklets to hand, in John 21 and here’s Peter and some of the other disciples. They’ve gone fishing. Peter’s gone back to his former occupation. It’s worth noting. And it’s interesting because the scene in John 21 is very, very reminiscent of the first time, three years earlier, that Peter had met Jesus. Do you remember that story? Peter had been fishing all night. He had caught zip, but at the insistence of Jesus, he goes out again, this time in the blazing sunshine and they cast their nets out and what happens? They catch the most enormous catch of fish. And this has a profound impact on Peter. And he falls on his knees in the boat before Jesus. Do you remember what says to him? He says, go away.

Go Away from me Lord. For I’m a sinful man. And Jesus looks at Peter and makes no comment about the fact that Peter is a sinful man. Jesus knew that already. But instead begins to paint a picture for Peter of what his future’s going to be like. And he says to Peter, today, you will become… What? Fisher of men. And so this adventure begins. Peter becomes one of the central disciples, probably the inner three, Peter, James and John of the 12. Peter’s there at the raising of Jauris’ daughter. He’s there at the transfiguration. It’s Peter who proclaims for the very first time, Jesus, you are nothing less than the Messiah, the son of the living God. So Peter has been center stage for the three years of Jesus’s ministry.

But then, at the very moment that Jesus needed Peter most, what does Peter do? He denies it. Not only does he deny him, but he denies him to a teenage girl who’s a slave. So here’s Peter the burly fishermen, intimidated by a teenage girl and he denies Jesus. And the teenage girl says to him, yeah, you were, you were one of those guys. You were one of his disciples. And Peter point-blank just denies the very fact – nothing to do with them. You must be mistaken. And it wasn’t just once nor twice. It was three times. And so Peter has gone back to his former occupation, he’s fishing and he’s been fishing all night. And what does he caught? Absolutely nothing. So not only has he failed Jesus, but he’s a pretty pathetic fisherman as well, to be honest. So things are not going well for Peter. And then there’s a voice, there’s a voice from the shore.

Caught any fish? And you can probably imagine the disciples turning round to see who’s asking such a stupid question. A question you never ask a fisherman.

And then the voice says. Why don’t you try casting your nets on the other side? Advice that you never ever, ever give to a fisherman. But they do and what happens. The net is full of fish. And it’s John who twigs who the person on the shore is. Who is it? It’s Jesus and Peter who’s short on brains and big on enthusiasm jumps in and starts swimming to shore and just leaves the disciples to do all the hard work. And when he gets to shore, there is Jesus and what does he find? He finds a fire that’s been lit. He finds bread that’s been baking and fish that’s been frying. It’s as if Jesus was expecting them.

Can we just pause things there for a minute? Just press the pause button. I’m struck by a number of things so far in the story. I’m struck by the fact that Jesus knew where his disciples were. Jesus knew where they were, so this is Galilee. The sea of Galilee and Jesus knew where they were. I’m struck by the fact that Jesus knew what they were doing. I’m struck by the fact that he knew what their needs were, and happily met them.

I’m struck that Jesus wanted to help them. I’m struck by the practical way that Jesus meets their needs. It’s not a sermon this time. It’s a fire. Who doesn’t love a fire? It’s big, freshly baked bread in the morning. Isn’t that wonderful? I’m sure you get up in the morning and do that all the time. There’s something beautiful, about the smell of freshly baked bread. Now, I’m not so much sold on the frying fish. I have to say. Give me a bowl of muesli anytime. Fish in the morning just doesn’t do it for me. But maybe for the disciples, that’s exactly what they needed. But isn’t it really practical? And I think as Jesus met the needs of his disciples, I think we can be pretty confident this evening to say that Jesus does exactly the same for his disciples 2000 years later. So Jesus knows where I, am.

He doesn’t need Google maps. Jesus knows where I am and he knows where I am even if I have wandered off. Jesus knows what I’m doing. Even if I have gone back to the old ways. Jesus knows my needs and he knows the best way to meet them. Jesus wants to help me and Jesus wants to be with me. I think we can be pretty sure of those things tonight.

It’s at this point where the story goes from here – Jesus and all the disciples and it narrows down to Jesus and Peter. One-to-one, just the two of them together around the fire. And I’m guessing that for all of us, there will be moments in our journey with Jesus, in our walk with Jesus, that it will be just Jesus and me. There will become a moment where it will be important where it’s not just part of a congregation, but where it’s just me and Jesus, no one else

Watch out for those moments and when they come make the most of them. So it’s just Jesus and Peter and Jesus is very tender and he asks Peter three questions. Peter responds with three expressions of sorrow and Jesus recommissions Peter three times. Just want to look at those just briefly before we finish. So the three questions are actually just one question asked slightly differently. And you see the question there in verse 15. Jesus looks at Peter – Interesting how he calls him by his old named Simon-Peter. Simon, son of John. Do you see the question? Verse 15. Do you love me? Do you love me more than these? When was the last time somebody came up to you and asked you that question? I hope it wasn’t a stranger because it would have been really awkward if it had been a stranger. Do you love me? It’s an awkward question, isn’t it? Because actually the answer to that question, do you love me – that answer could potentially define the rest of your life. Because if somebody comes up to you and says, do you love me? And I say, no, I don’t. That’s going to be significant in that relationship. If I say yes, I do. That’s going to be really, really significant in that relationship as well.

Many, many years ago I was in a counselling session with a professional counselor with a married couple. And the professional, counsellor turned to the husband, pointing to his wife and said, do you love her? And everyone, every single person in that room that evening knew that how he answered that question, was going to define the future of their marriage. Do you love me, Is a profound and deeply significant question. And Jesus looks at Peter and says to Peter. Peter, do you love me more than these? I want to suggest to you tonight that that for each and every one of us, myself included, this evening, that Jesus asks us that question. That this question isn’t just for Peter, that it’s for me. And It’s for you. Jesus will come to us at some point and he will ask us. Clive, he may come to me and said, Clive, do you love me more than these? And he will come to you and he will say your name. And he will say, do you love me more than these? And can I say to you that your answer to that question, will define the rest of your life

Please note that it’s not do you love me? What’s the question? Do you love me more than these? And the question that Jesus is asking is, is your love for me greater than your love for anything else in your life? Clive is your love for me greater than your career? Clive is your love for me greater than your retirement? Clive is your love for me greater than your wealth? Clive is is your love for me greater than all of your relationships? Clive, do you love me more than these? You see in that question you have what the Christian faith is all about. Do you get that? The Christian faith is a worldview and it’s a beautiful world view. For me, the Christian faith makes sense of this world more than any other worldview. The Christian faith is a philosophy and it is a world defining philosophy. The Christian faith is a lifestyle. It’s a set of behaviors. It’s all of that. But before it’s any of that, it is a love affair. So here’s my first challenge to you this evening. Why don’t you play this out this week? As you live out this week, Monday through to next Sunday, live out your faith as if it’s a love affair.

And just mull that over. Reflect on that. Think that through. What does it mean for me today to love Jesus more than anything else? Think of it as a love affair.

This phrase defines for us what it means, what Christianity is all about because it says to me that my relationship with Jesus has to be the defining relationship above everything else. Above my relationship with my boss, my company, my wife, my kids, my desires. It has to be the defining relationship. If that scares you, don’t let it scare you because I promise you, I promise you, I promise you that as you love Jesus more than anything else, then everything else falls into place actually. And so there are three questions and they’re all the same question. Do you love me? And then not only do we have three questions in this passage, but we actually have three confessions, three expressions of sorrow. So if you’re looking at verse 15, Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these? Yes, Lord, he said, you know, I love you. And Jesus asks Peter that same question. And Peter responds with the same statement. Yes, Lord, you know, I love you. I just wonder what’s going on in Peter’s heart and mind as Jesus asks him those three questions. Here’s Peter who has failed big time and he knows it. And he hears these words of Jesus. Peter, do you love me? And probably deep down in Peter’s heart he’s saying, yes, Jesus, I know I do honestly love you. But you know what I’ve done to you. And Peter is wrestling with his failure right now. And I think in that statement, Verse 16 “Yes, you know that I love you”, I think behind that Peter is saying – I’m conscious of my failure. I’m conscious of what I’ve done to you, how I’ve failed you. But with all my heart, this is what I want more than anything else. Jesus, I want to love you.

I don’t know if you’re here tonight and you’re asking the question about what it means to be a Christian and I need to be careful how I say this, but I want to say that being a Christian is not about being perfect. Because the Peter who says to Jesus here, in John 21, you know I love you. We know from the acts of the apostles, he blows it again.

So loving Jesus isn’t about living the perfect life. Yes, we want to pursue holiness. That’s our goal. But in this love relationship in this love affair with Jesus, it’s going to be about vulnerability. It’s going to be about honesty. It’s going to be about confession. That’s why on a Sunday evening we always have a time of confession. Because that’s part of of walking with Jesus. It’s this ongoing recognition. I feel I’ve done it, yeah, I’ve sinned. I have sinned against God. I’ve sinned against my friends, my wife, there’s things I’ve done. There’s things I haven’t done. And I want to be honest with you, Jesus, about this, recognizing that in my honesty, in my desire to be open with you, that with you, there’s grace that with you, there’s forgiveness.

I want to want to tell you a story. It’s a small story, a brief story. But this, this happened to me this week. I want to tell you about somebody, and I can tell you about this person because you will not know who I’m talking about. I got a phone call from an old people’s home and it was quite a drive from Vevey. And so I drove to this old people’s home to meet someone who I had never met before and they had never met me. But they were looking for an English speaking pastor to come and visit them. And I walked into this room and that there was this person in a wheelchair probably in their 90’s stooped over with age.

There were some pleasantries. Nice to meet you. I’m Clive. Understand that you’re looking for and English=speaking, pastor. I’m happy to meet you. How can I help you? And this elderly person began to pour out an event that took place in their lives 50 years previous.

And I have to say it was an issue of significance. And they shared that with me. And I find it very emotional, on two levels, one that somebody would be willing to be so vulnerable and honest. And secondly, the thought that that person had carried that for 50 years. It’s incredible thought, isn’t it? And then they said this to me. Do you think God can forgive me? That’s why they had asked me to come. Could they be forgiven? And we talked. We talked about the death of Jesus on the Cross and resurrection and the empty tomb and what Jesus was doing as he was dying on the cross. And this person was a chorister in a choir in their younger years. And we talked about Handel’s Messiah. Cause I thought, I wonder whether you knew my Handel’s Messiah. And I said to them, do you remember that piece in Handel’s Messiah where you sing “And the Lord has laid on him the inequity of us all.” And we talked about how Jesus had taken all of our sin, the inequity of our sin on to himself. And this person in their 90’s stooped over with age, prayed a prayer of confession. Asked for forgiveness with the assurance that through the death and resurrection of Jesus that there is forgiveness even of the greatest sins. And as that person – their face lifted after that prayer there was tears but there was joy as well. And I think one of the reasons why John 21 is recorded for us of the restoration of Peter is recorded. It’s recorded for people who perhaps have carried something for years and have wondered, can I be forgiven? And Jesus’ restoration of Peter is an answer to that. And the answer is yes. Yes there is full and free forgiveness. Not just for Peter, not just for my friend in the EMS, but for us all, whatever it is, there is forgiveness.

Three questions. Simon, Simon, son of John. Do you love me? Three statements of confession and finally, three statements of commission. And, I just love this because Jesus turns to Peter who had blown it, failed him big time and Jesus three times recommissions Peter and redefines his future. Peter thought the door was shut. Peter thought that it was over. Peter thought it was going to be fishing on the Sea of Galilee for the rest of his life. But Jesus says to Peter says, no, it’s not over. It’s not over, Peter. I’m recommissioning you. I have a future for you.

And he would say that to each and every one of us tonight. I have a future for you. I was in Romania, came back Saturday, week ago. I’ll tell you all about it at some point. Absolutely fantastic trip. But we were there with a bunch of 30, 40 teenagers and we took some adult men a men’s team, to Romania. And we were digging trenches and laying concrete floors and putting water into houses. It was just fantastic. But we had a speaker every evening and the speaker was primarily for the teenagers. And so the old duffers like myself, we all sat at the back row and listened. But one of the things that the speaker did at the end of some of his sessions, he sent these young people out and he said, I want you to go and sit by yourself for 15 minutes and I just want you to think about what we’ve been talking about it. And do you know, if it wasn’t snowing tonight, I might send you out for 15 minutes. But here’s my question to you. What is Jesus commissioning you to?

What’s Jesus commissioning you to? Now, some of you here tonight, have just said to yourself, he’s not commissioning me. He’s not commissioning me. You’ve just said that to yourself. You’ve just said to yourself that question is irrelevant to me. Can I just say to you that’s a lie? Just cast it out of your mind right now. So let me ask you that question again. What is Jesus commissioning you to. In your retirement, what’s Jesus commissioning you to? For the next week, for the next month, for the rest of 2019 what does is Jesus commissioning you to? What is he calling you to? And I’m forcing this a little bit because I’m guessing that for many of us, we would not even dare dream that God might commission us to something. But I want you to, I want to dare you to dream tonight that God may be standing before you tonight and commissioning you whatever age and stage you might find yourself in young or old. Jesus stands before you tonight and commissions you. And could I encourage you to spend some time this week and just ask that question. Lord Jesus so what are you commissioning me to right now?

It’s a dangerous question. It’s an exciting question. I wonder what that might be for you. Because the God who stood before Peter that day, who called Peter to love him more than anything else who spoke words of restoration to Peter and who give Peter a future is the same God who stands before each and every one of us tonight. And calls us to love him more than anything else, and who speaks words of healing and restoration and hope into the darkest recesses of our lives. And who gives us a future – gives you a future.