Mat 8: 15-29 and Acts 19:13-20
Looking at the two readings chosen for today, its quite easy to spot a common theme running through. In the gospel of Matthew we hear Jesus at the end of a long passage which started two chapters back with the Sermon on the Mount, and was followed by a number of other quotes regarding that which we might call lifestyle, warning his followers to beware, to be on the lookout for anyone trying to persuade them that there was perhaps an easier way, one that didnt demand the commitment that Jesus was telling them was required of anyone who wanted to be a disciple, and receive the benefits that this brought - both in the present and the future.
Watch out for false prophets, he warns, the sort that come up brimming over with innocence, a wide smile on their face, soft voice and the sweetest of words which sound so convincing. Treat them with the same suspicion as a door-to-door salesman who offers you no proof of identity, just an enticement to get a foot through the door. Jesus didnt say all of that, but I think thats probably what he meant. They are like wolves in sheep's clothing, he says. Theyre like the one particular insurance salesman I grew to dislike intensely after he sold me a poor pension plan on the basis of confusion over numerous graphs and figures. He was so plausible, his sales pitch honed by years of practice. But his product was poor.
By their fruit you will recognize them.
In our reading from Acts, we heard of some other slightly dodgy characters. Not door to door salesmen this time, but exorcists. Jews who went around trying to drive out evil spirits by using the name of Jesus as if it was some form of magic wand. They would say, we are told. In the name of Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.
This doesnt sound like the words of someone who was a follower and believer in Jesus, more like someone trying to make a fast buck, on the back of all the exciting miracles that the disciples were seeing happen as they laid hands on people. Listen to the previous two verses;
God did extraordinary miracles through Paul. Handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.
By their fruit you will recognize them What was the outcome of these Jews trying their hand at exorcism? The spirit answered them Jesus I know and Paul I know about, but who are you?
Jesus had already warned his disciples that such things would happen. Many will say to me on that day "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and drive out demons and perform many miracles?" Then I will tell them plainly "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!"
False teachers, and people going around miss-using the name of Jesus. That was well over a thousand years ago. It was different then of course, wasnt it? Wed soon recognize someone trying to sell us something other than the gospel message that weve come to know and love.....wouldn't we? Its easy to spot the difference between the person with a gift of healing and the faith healer who has no allegiance to our God and sells his gift as given by nature....isnt it?
Let me throw a few choice phrases across to you. Toss them around in your mind and see if any of them seem familiar. See if you can spot any that seem to fit in with your view of Christianity. Are you ready?
I could go on, but then perhaps you think I already have. Theyre all views expressed by the world and the media, and at times no doubt like me some of them seem so plausible, but they all clash with the lifestyle contained within the teaching of Jesus. What the world sees as right and wrong is not always what Christians believe.
We live in an age that is entitled Postmodernism. Strangely enough, it followed on after a long period of 300 years called Modernism. I know youre dying for me to give you a detailed explanation of just what Modernism and Postmodernism are, but Im not - mainly because I find it all fairly confusing, I must confess. But they exist and I mention them both because I want to bring out just a couple of points which show us where the world was, and where it seems to be heading very quickly now. Hopefully you will recognize some of these ways of thinking.
Modernism, with its roots in the C18 emphasized human reason and logic as the basis for society, saw science and technology as the instruments of progress, was set in the context of a residual Christian belief within the nation, and asked of life What is the meaning?
Postmodernism, which has crept quite quickly onto the scene due to the failure of its predecessor to come up with the goods - to do away with hunger, disease and war - the negative aspects of science such as the atomic bomb, inequalities in wealth and power - failure to satisfy the spiritual and emotional dimensions of life - now says that anything can be true for anyone, and that what may be true for you may not be true for me. Its set in the context of a virtual absence of residual Christian belief within the nation, is often suspicious of science and asks not What is the meaning? but rather Whats the point? It is demonstrated in such things as
Enough of long words and explanations. What Im trying to get you to see is where this world of ours is at with regard to how men and women believe they ought to live their lives. This is the lifestyle which is being peddled at the moment. These are the influences among which our children are growing. You might quite rightly say that Carmarthenshire is not exactly at the forefront of such thinking, and that you dont see a lot of evidence for this round here, but look hard enough and you will. Watch the television, read the newspapers and magazines.
Where your children used to watch Yogi Bear and Booboo pinching picnic hampers in Jellystone National Park and being told off by the ranger, today's kids want to watch Beavis and Butt-head, who spend a lot of time sat in front of a television watching meaningless music videos and making astute comments such as This sucks or This is cool. Times they are a changing, as a sixties song said. None of us are immune to the influences that are around us, and none of us must be fooled into thinking that what the world is offering our children is a better.
What did Jesus tell his disciples? Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them.
Its so easy to fall into the trap of picking up what seems to be perfectly sensible ideas, hopes and ideals and apply them to our lives without even thinking about whether they fit in with the teaching of God. Let me give you just one example, and one which I freely admit to. I have two children, and naturally enough I want the very best for them. We are fortunate in that when we started off on our marriage house prices werent too high, and as weve moved around with jobs to different areas of the country weve been able to get a better house each time. A better job and better pay was where I was at - and wasnt that the call of the Thatcher years in the eighties?
Theres a childrens story called Hope for the Flowers about an ambitious caterpillar named Stripe who decided to go climbing - not a mountain but a pillar. Have you ever seen the way some caterpillars seem to form a wriggling mass on a plant, well this was a mountain of caterpillars all climbing over each other and trying to reach the top. As Stripe plunged into the pile and began his climb he turned to another one and asked Whats at the top? I dont know said the other caterpillar But it must be good because everybodys rushing there.
Stripe was pushed and kicked and stepped on from every direction. It was climb or be climbed. Dont blame me if you dont succeed. he yelled at the competition. Its a tough life!
Well, Stripe struggled towards the top, and then saw something disturbing - a tremendous pressure and shaking was sending many at the top crashing to their death below.
Stripe felt awful with this new knowledge. The mystery of the pillar was clearing - he knew now what must always happen on the pillar. Frustration surged through Stripe. But as he agreed that this was the only way up he heard a tiny voice whisper Theres nothing here at all! It was answered by another Quiet fool! Theyll hear you down the pillar. Were where they want to be. Thats whats here.
What a disappointment to find that theres nothing at the top, and that it only looks good from the bottom? And yet thats what the expectations of my generation were - to reach the top however hard the struggle might be to get there, but without being told what there was at the top. Without ever asking Why am I doing this?
This is no different than the Great American Dream, and this is the same dream that we are so often guilty of selling to our children. We want the same, if not better for them. My children have an expectation, based upon the life that they have now, and that expectation is that they will do as well if not better than we managed. And I admit that I would love them to be able to achieve that.
But is this right? Surely we have to ask ourselves as we send them off to University to take out student loans in order to survive, as they come out with their degrees into a shrinking job market already in debt, as they contemplate having to take on a job with only a short-term contract, and look around for somewhere to live and find they have to borrow vast amounts to buy a small house. Where debt, and a pocketful of credit cards is the accepted norm. Where uncertainty and long-term job security are a thing of the past - have we been as guilty as the door-to-door salesman of selling a lifestyle that is false?
There is only one answer to this dilemma, and its contained within the reading from Matthews gospel, and is rooted in the words of Jesus.
Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts then into practice is like the wise man who built his house upon the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundations on the rock. But everyone who hears these words and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the wind blew and beat against the house, and it fell with a great crash.
The first Christians didnt set out to impose the standards that God had made known to them on the rest of society. Rather they provided a living model to the rest of their community as to a better way to live - rooted and grounded on the rock of their faith in Jesus. And this is our defense against the variety of false teaching which rains down on us from every direction, the streams of frustration that seem so prevalent in today's society and threaten to engulf us, and the wind of change which tries to batter us into weakening our faith in the word of God.
We have to examine our own lives and our cherished lifestyle and hopes for our children, in the light of the teaching of Jesus, for the Christian lifestyle, based on love, compassion and often self-sacrifice, is often at odds with the lifestyle that the media is promoting. We cant have both, sit on a fence dangling one foot into one camp and one into another.
At times we have sit back and take stock of where we are - struggling like Stripe the caterpillar up the pillar only to discover that the effort was for nothing, or busying ourselves cementing our foundations to the rock - hearing the words of God and putting them into practice in our lives.
© John Birch TOP OF PAGE