Monday, 1 August 2016

When the storms come

Our reading today is about a journey.

The journey we read about here is not long. It is a nautical journey, from one side of the lake to the other. But it was eventful: something happened and the people who went on that journey were changed.

It was a journey that began with obedience.
It was a response to Jesus. Jesus has been teaching the crowd all day. It was a large crowd, and they were pressing on him, and he had to use a boat as a pulpit. And now, as evening comes, he says, ‘Let us go across to the other side’ (4.35). [That is why it says, ‘They took him just as he was’. In other words, he didn’t even get out of the boat.]

And it was because they were obedient that those first followers
·         learnt about themselves
·         learnt about Jesus

1.    They discover that they don’t really trust Jesus

When the storm comes, they panic. They shake Jesus awake and they say to him ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’
And Jesus challenges them, after he has calmed the storm, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ (v40)

It is easy to put our trust in Jesus when things are going well.
But when things become difficult, costly or even dangerous, we panic.
Yes, the waters threatened to overwhelm the disciples. But they allowed fear to overwhelm them.

But they didn't need to panic:
Jesus had told them that they were going to the other side. In fact he had a job to do on the other side.

And yes, he was asleep, but he was with them. And the fact that he was asleep should have reassured them. Jesus wasn't fazed. He slept through most of the storm (Ps 3.5: ‘I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the Lord sustains me’).
Last summer we went on a little boat trip from Ireland to the isles of Aran. It was terrifying. We thought we were going to die. But on the way back I looked at the crew. They weren't worried (at least not on the outside), so I assumed it was OK! And because Jesus was OK the disciples should have realised that they were OK.

And the disciples knew that Jesus was special.
They had seen some of the works he had done

He cast out an evil Spirit (and, interestingly, used the same sort of language that he is about to use on the wind and waves. He tells the demons to ‘be silent’).
He healed Peter’s mother in law; and the many sick people and those possessed by evil spirits who came to him.
He healed a man with leprosy; and a paralysed man - he was the one that they let down through the roof; and a man who had a withered hand.
And Jesus speaks about how he has come to bind the strong man, satan, and plunder that which satan thought was his own.

So the disciples had seen Jesus’ power, and yet when the storm came, they panic.

2.    They discover that Jesus has power over creation

When Jesus calms the wind and the waves they are astonished.

Jesus has healed people and cast out demons. But, it seems, others also did those sort of things.
But others did not have power over nature

Jesus speaks to creation with a word and it obeys him.

There are echoes of the Old Testament here:
·         of the story of Jonah, when it is God himself who calms the sea.
·         of Psalm 107.23-32, when it is God who again brings relief from the storm.

And so the disciples ask each other: Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?

The disciples had much still to learn - about themselves and about Jesus.

We think of Peter who, at the last supper, declared that he had such a strong faith he would never let Jesus down. Early the next morning he denied Jesus, not just once but three times.
But Peter also discovered so much more about Jesus: about the love of Jesus, which took him to the cross; about the mercy of Jesus that reached out and brought forgiveness even to him; about the power of God which did something even more amazing than calming a storm. It brought Jesus back from the dead.

But through their journeying with Jesus, the disciples grew in their faith, and in their understanding of the Lord Jesus.
And they were able to trust him, not only when things were going well, but also when things got very scary.  They were able to trust him even when it seemed that he was asleep. And they were able to trust him even when they were called to face death for the sake of Jesus.  

And if we are obedient, there will be journeys that we have to take

Tom and Jemma are being called to go on a journey. For them and the family it is a big journey

But this is not just about the big journeys. The fishermen would have often crossed the Sea of Galilee. It was second nature to them. This is about little journeys, the sort of journeys that we make every day of our lives.

And please note that just because it is right for us to go on a journey, it does not mean that storms won't happen. I’m sure Tom and Jemma will have several of them. And there will be times when it seems that Jesus is sleeping and that he doesn't care.

But what we do know is that he never will abandon us; and when we cry out to him - whether in faith or panic - he will answer. He will grow us in our self-understanding and in our knowledge of him.

Tom said on one occasion that there were people on his Reader training course who had some great stories they could tell about God's faithfulness, love and power but that he didn't really have those stories. Well, I suspect that he does now, and there will be more.

We grow most when we go through the storms.

I have grown most in my Christian faith when I have been well and truly out of my depth. When as a curate I crashed; when we were in Russia and things were humanly impossible (like, for instance, how to get our things out of customs. The Russians have a word for miracle, wonder – chuda – and there were several times when we were simply dependent on chuda). And it has been the times of conflict, or of failure, frustration or fear; or when events have not gone as I expected or when I have had to let go of something that I have put my trust in – those are the times that I have most grown in my faith and understanding.

There will be storms. Some of the storms, like this one, come because we are obedient; some come to us because we are disobedient; some come to us because we are fallen human beings who live in a fallen creation. There will be times of sickness, bereavement, deep disappointment, abandonment.

In fact, the more you trust Jesus, the greater the challenges there will be.

But if we turn to him we can grow through them.

I’d love to pray that as you go through life on your journeys that you face no storms.
But I can’t pray that.
What I can pray is that – as you go on this journey – whatever storms you do meet will bring you face to face with Jesus.
and that when you come back, you will be changed people, and you will be filled with the power and the love and the beauty and the truth of the risen Lord Jesus.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Learning to pray the Lord's Prayer

The disciples come to Jesus and say, 'Lord teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples'.

It is interesting to see how Jesus does not answer that question

He does not give them practical instructions.
He doesn’t tell them to put their hands together and close their eyes. He gives the practical stuff, elsewhere, in Matthew 6.6-7: go to a room, shut the door, pray in secret, don’t use many words and trust that your Father in heaven will hear you.
But here he doesn't.

And he does not begin by telling them to silence or still themselves
Again, meditation (or mindfulness), the discipline of seeking to silence all the thoughts that are coming in, often linked with sitting correctly and making sure that our breathing is correct, is an extremely helpful way of stilling ourselves and becoming aware of that something or someone who is so much bigger than ourselves. It is very precious and it is something that I do – when I stop, focus on my breathing, and meditate on the Jesus prayer. I’m also wondering whether it could be something that we do a bit more of as a church, perhaps offering a time for coming together for silent prayer. But I am also aware that even though it can give you a deep sense of peace, it is not necessarily prayer.

And Jesus does not tell them to pray from the heart, to pray whatever is on their mind.
There is, I suspect, a good reason for that. Most of the time our heart is very confused and our mind is full of rubbish. We don’t know what we want, and when we do, we usually have got it wrong! We are very mixed up!

I am currently reading a fascinating book called The Spirit Level. It is not a Christian book, despite the title, although it is what I would call a Kingdom of God book. The thesis is that what our society needs is not more affluence but greater equality. The evidence seems to show that when the gap between the richest 20% and the poorest 20% in society is small, then people tend to be happier and healthier, and more at peace with themselves and others.
But the book begins with this paragraph: 'It is a remarkable paradox that, at the pinnacle of human material and technical achievement, we find ourselves anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, worried about how others see us, unsure of our friendships, driven to consume and with little or no community life. Lacking the relaxed social contact and emotional satisfaction we all need, we seek comfort in over-eating, obsessive shopping and spending, or become prey to excessive alcohol, psychoactive medicines and illegal drugs."
We don’t really know what we want.

So Jesus doesn’t give practical instructions, he doesn’t tell us to still ourselves, and he doesn’t tell us to pray from the heart. Instead

1.    He gives us a specific prayer to pray

It is a dangerous prayer. It is so dangerous, so subversive that it was banned from the cinemas! We know it as the Lord’s prayer, and what we have here in Luke is the shorter of the two versions that we find in the bible. The other, fuller, version is in Matthew 6.9-11

When you pray, say ..

It all begins with God.

And that is helpful, because most of what we call prayer begins with ourselves: 'God, I'm in trouble; God, I really want that job or that car or that place in university or that person to love me; God heal me or heal them, because I love them and I can't live without them'.

But Jesus begins with God. He begins with God's honour.
Hallowed be your name'.
Not my honour, reputation or status, but his honour and reputation and status.
If you love someone, you want others to see how great they are: if we love God we long to see God's name honoured and revered.

'Your kingdom come'.
This is the radical bit. We are praying that things will not be done my way, but his way.

Luke in his gospel speaks a great deal about the coming kingdom, rule of God. He reminds us that it will be a place of justice.
Think of the Magnificat (Luke 1.46-55), the song that Mary sang when she was told that she would give birth to the Son of God. She speaks of the future reality of the Kingdom as if it was a present experience:
'He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the Rich away empty'.

I wonder whether that is a prayer that we really do want to pray?
But I hope we long for the kingdom, for that time when Jesus will be so present, when there will be justice and mercy and all things will be in harmony, when there will be no more pain or tears or death.

Give us each day our daily bread
It is the prayer that God will meet our daily needs. Note the plural ‘us’. One of the questions we need to ask is who does the 'us' include?

Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who sins against us.
Each of these could be a sermon in itself. All I will note here is that without the recognition that we need forgiveness there can be no real prayer, no relationship with God. You cannot have a real relationship with another if you are not honest. There is a barrier. And if you are pretending before God that you have not walked away from him, that you have not rebelled against him and lived your way and not his way, then you are not being honest. We need to get real with him.
And because God longs to forgive, and has forgiveness at his very heart, if we do not, in turn, offer forgiveness to others, then we have no part in God.
So this is a prayer that nothing will hinder our relationship with God or with others.

Lead us not into temptation
Other versions translate this as, ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial’. Do not take us to that point beyond which we will break, that point of utter darkness, of God forsakenness, of hell. Only Jesus has really known it. And he went there so that we need never go there. And this is a prayer that he will give you the strength and comfort to face the very worst that life can throw at you without abandoning him.

So Jesus gives us a prayer to prayer

2.    Jesus teaches us to pray this prayer from a position of emptiness

The danger of praying the Lord's Prayer is that it can become an exercise in legalism. I must pray it or God will not like me.

One man I used to visit when I was a vicar in Islington told me how he had to pray the Lord's Prayer every day, along with a whole set of other prayers; if he didn't, if he missed even just one of the prayers, he felt guilty, he felt that he had let God down.
I tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade him that that is not the case.

Prayer is not simply about speaking some set words. To say your prayers because you think those prayers need to be said is to miss the point. It is to treat God as if he is sitting up there with his notebook. He looks down at us and says, ‘Now has Jenny said her prayers today? Yes, very good, tick; No, cross, she needs to do better tomorrow’.

But we don’t pray the Lord’s prayer because it is something we have to do for God.
We pray the Lord’s prayer because we have nothing else to depend on, and it is God’s gift to us.

Look at the story Jesus told.
I hate asking anybody for anything. I guess it is partly because I don't want them to have to say 'no' to me. That’s a bit of a problem for a vicar! But I don’t think I am on my own. We don’t want to be a nuisance to someone.
And this man will have been no different.
But he asks. And he asks at midnight. There is no way I would go next door and ask our neighbour for bread at midnight. And when his friend says, 'Shove off. I'm in bed, the children are in bed, the wife is in bed, the dog is on the bed and you should be in bed', he doesn’t get the hint. He still goes on asking. And we are told that his friend finally gets up, not because he is his friend, but because of his boldness, because of his persistence.

The point, says Jesus, is that he asks - he seeks - he knocks on the door of his friend because he is desperate. In middle eastern culture, if someone rocks up at your door, even at midnight, you have to offer them hospitality. And he had nothing. It was Mrs Hubbard and her cupboard. It was bare. 'I have nothing to set before them', he says. And that is why he was prepared to go to his friend at midnight, hammer at his door, and continue to knock until he got what he needed.

We pray the Lord’s prayer not because God expects us to pray it, but because we have got nothing else to depend on. It is a cry to God for the utter basic necessities: for that world of peace and justice, for bread, for forgiveness and for strength to get through the times of trouble.

The Lord’s prayer begins to become real for us when we realise that we come before our Father in heaven because we have absolutely nothing. It becomes real when we recognise that we are utterly dependent on him.

It is to our shame that we forget that.

It is sheer arrogance to think that because we live in a society where there is an abundance of bread, and an abundance of butter and jam and cake, we don’t need God.
(The reason, for instance, that it is good to say a prayer before we eat a meal, is that it is - at the very least - lip service to a recognition that everything we have comes from God.)
It is utter pride to think that we can waltz into the presence of God without recognising that we need forgiveness
It is breath-taking conceit to think that we can rescue ourselves from the pitfalls of life.

I tried to imagine what the opposite of the Lord’s prayer would be, and I came up with this statement:

I will live life so that
People will know that I matter. They will honour me. I will get the respect that I deserve, and nobody will walk over me.
I will be the head and not the tail. I will do what I want. Others need to fit in with me. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to be nice, but I will be nice on my own terms.
I will be in a position to get what I want.
I will be in a position so that I never need to say sorry to anybody for anything. And people will quickly learn that they don’t mess with me.
I will be fit enough, strong enough, rich enough and am sufficiently well-connected so that I can save myself

The Lord’s prayer can only really be prayed by people who know that there is a God, that they are not God, and that without God we are nothing and we have nothing.
It is a prayer that can really only begin to make sense when we realise that we need God’s provision, need God’s forgiveness and need God’s protection.
It is a prayer that can only really be prayed by people who know that they are empty.

3. Jesus teaches us to pray this prayer with confidence

You will notice that I have not mentioned that in this prayer, we do not pray here to God as Almighty or Eternal or All-knowing. We do not address God as Creator or Judge. We pray to God as Father.

That is an astonishing reality. That we can address the Creator and Sustainer and Judge of the universe as our Father in heaven.
And Jesus, in verses 11-13, expands on what that means.

He says, think of human fathers. Even though you are evil (that is quite strong!), you still want to give good gifts to your children. If they ask you for an egg you don’t give them a scorpion. So, he says, God is your Father in heaven. He is good, and he delights in giving you good gifts.
Actually, it doesn’t say that. It says something even more remarkable: ‘How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him’?

God does want to give us good gifts – he does want to give us bread, to offer us forgiveness, to protect us from trials that are too hard for us to stand – but he wants to go further. He longs to give us Himself, his Spirit to come and live in us.

And we can pray and ask God for his Spirit. And we can pray in confidence. And even if we don’t experience anything, we by faith can believe that he has answered that prayer, and we can welcome his Spirit, and his Spirit will change us and make us more like the Lord Jesus. And his Spirit will begin to pray from within us, and his Spirit will start to shape our prayer (which is really his prayer): that his name will be hallowed, that his kingdom will come, and that we will know his perfect provision, his wonderful forgiveness and acceptance, and his comfort and protection.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Receiving from God

This is a passage for people who have forgotten what it is to be saved by faith.

When the Galatian Christians first came to faith, it was because they realised how much God loved them and what he had done for them. They realized that, however good or religious they were, they could not save themselves; that they could not do anything to earn the love of God. But they also understood what God had done for them in Jesus – and so they received his love, his forgiveness and his Spirit simply by putting their trust in him.

But some false teachers have come to the church in Galatia, and they are telling them, ‘You need to do more than just receive the Spirit of God. You need to earn it. You need to be good; you need to be circumcised; you need to keep special days in special ways’.

That is what Paul is on about when he speaks about observing special days, months, seasons and years. He is not having a go at Christians who fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday or Wednesdays or Fridays; he is not having a go at those who keep Sunday special or who celebrate Easter or Christmas or the special church festivals. He is having a go at those people who are saying that if you do not do those things – if you don’t celebrate those days – then you are not a proper Christ-follower. He is challenging the people who say that you need faith in Jesus plus something else in order to be a proper Christian.

And Paul is saying that when you do that, you are turning back from a God who offers you unconditional love, who offers you the freedom to be his son or daughter, into a system of slavery (v8) – of slavery to the law – of slavery to a system that says, ‘If you do this and this and that, then God will like you and bless you’.
Listen, he says!
It is hard to miss the passion in the letter: ‘I am astonished you are so quickly deserting the one who called you’ (1.6); ‘I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!’ (1.9); ‘You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you’ (3.1); ‘I wish those who unsettle you (who demanded that they should all be circumcised) would go and castrate themselves’ (5.12). And here in v20, ‘I am perplexed about you’.

Listen, he says!
‘Haven’t you got it?! Don’t you remember the joy when you realised that God knows you and loves you, and there is nothing you can do to make him love you more or love you less?
Don’t you remember the freedom that comes from realising that you don’t need to do anything in order to be forgiven or filled by the Spirit of God – apart from to simply receive the Spirit!’

Listen, he says!
Don’t pay attention to these false teachers.
Don’t become slaves to a system that promises you glory but gives you the gutter.
Never ever think that you can earn the love of God.

And in this letter, he challenges the pride of the man or woman who thinks that they can be good enough or religious enough.
He challenges the arrogance of the man or woman who thinks that they can do something for God which will put God in their debt.
What a joke! It is as if I give you £10 million, and then you give me back £5, and expect me to say thank you. How can we do anything that puts the One who has given us everything in our debt.

When I was about 18, I remember – in a moment of devout fervour - praying, ‘God, I will do anything for you’. And immediately I had a thought. It was so clear and sharp and counter-intuitive and penetrating that I can say with some confidence that God spoke to me. He said, ‘Who are you to do anything for me?’ It was astonishingly liberating, because in that moment I realised that I couldn’t do anything for him – but that I didn’t need to, because he loved me and had done everything for me.

And Paul goes on to say that when he first visited the area – and he turned up at the door of the Galatians not because he planned to but because he was ill – they welcomed him and they welcomed his message.
Because he told them that whatever they did - not even if they gave away all their money, gave their life to bring hope to people living in desperate poverty, dedicated the rest of their life to be in church or saying prayers, or devoted their lives to meditation or mindfulness – they could never ever get themselves right with God.
But he told them they did not need to.
He told them that God knows them. Do you notice that strange verse (v9): ‘Now however that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God’? God knew them – the good in them and the muck in them. He knew their pride, self-centredness, their refusal to trust in him.  And yet despite that, he loves them, has forgiven them, and he has reached out to them to offer them forgiveness, the Holy Spirit and a future hope. And the only thing that they need to do is to receive the gift that he offers to us.  

That is why, at the heart of the Christian faith, it is not about what we can do for God but about what we can receive from God.

The perfect example of this is Jesus’ story of the two brothers in Luke 15.11-30

The younger son has lost everything and really messed his life up. He thinks that he has to show his Father how repentant he is. He prepares his speech: ‘I am not worthy to be called your son. Make me your servant’. But his father doesn’t even let him get his speech out. He runs to him – and all the younger son has to do is to allow his Father to embrace him. And as for the older son – we all feel for him – it does seem unfair. But it seems that all along he was trying to earn his father’s love by working hard in the fields, by being good, by doing everything that his father asked him to do - when actually he had never really received his Father’s love. He had never allowed his Father to embrace him.

And what is interesting in the story of the Prodigal Son was that it was only when the younger brother suffers a catastrophic moral failure that he began to realise the depths of his Father’s love. And it often is the moments of deep failure - moral or spiritual – when we are brought to our senses, and we realise we have nothing to offer God but can only receive his forgiveness. I think that is one of the reasons why Luther said, slightly tongue in cheek, that if you are going to sin, make it a big sin.

So when we come to church: we begin by receiving. We receive from God’s word; we receive the declaration of his forgiveness; we receive his word; we receive at communion; we receive the presence of God – his Holy Spirit – to come and live in us.  

We’ve had an amazing service of choral evensong. But I have to confess that a few months before I came here to St Mary’s, I had two problems with choral evensong.
The first – and I am ashamed to say this - was because I was arrogant and judgmental. I remember sitting in a cathedral listening to a choir singing the Nunc dimittis, and thinking, ‘They’re singing it, and it is beautiful, but how many of them believe it?’ And I had another of those very sharp penetrating thoughts: ‘Forget about them. What about you?’
Who am I, who are you to pass judgement on the faith of another? The only person I can judge is myself, and most of the time I get that pretty wrong.
And my second problem was that I didn’t do anything in the service.
I have had the privilege of spending the last 10 days on a conference at St George’s House in Windsor Castle. Every evening, at 5.15, we had choral evensong in the chapel. And the only thing I did in that service was to sit when I needed to sit and stand when I needed to stand, and say the creed. But that, I have come to realise, is one of the glories of the service. This is the place where I have come first of all to receive. To receive from you – and I want to say thank you – but also to receive from God.

But I also want to issue a spiritual health warning. You give so much, week in and week out. And yes, I know (because you tell me) that you love singing, and being part of the choir – but if church is simply becoming the place where we come to give or to perform (and I now include myself as vicar in this), we are in serious danger of declaring the truth of the grace of God but also missing the truth of the grace of God. Before we give we do need to receive. We need to receive from God.

So can I urge you to realise again that it is not about you trying to get to know God, but it is about God who already knows you and who loves you. It is not about you trying to please God. Instead it is about first receiving from him. He gave the most precious thing that he has for you: his son. He longs to give himself to you. For me, that place of receiving is when I am often on my own with his word; It is when I come to services like this; it is when I hear the bible read and taught; it is when I am receiving communion

And while I appreciate that it is great for you to have your Sundays back for a few weeks, please don’t completely stop going to church. You don’t need to come here (although we would love to see you!). Go to a church near where you live or where you are on holiday; go to a church that is very different; and even if it is a rubbish service, still try and find something to receive: prayer, reading (word of God) or communion. It is not about what we can do for God. It is about what he has given to us.
The false teachers want to turn what could be an open family of people who know that they have nothing to offer but can only receive, into a club of like achieving people. Get so many marks and you are in. They want to turn a party that is open to everybody, into a party that is only open to people who can bring along a very expensive bottle of champagne.

So Paul is saying to them, in verses 12-20, please don't become like that. You haven’t done me any wrong, but if you go down the route of saying that you need to be circumcised or you need to keep special days in special ways, then you will do me wrong. You will exclude me. You will cut me out. Because, he says, I have nothing to bring to the party apart from my sinfulness and my inadequacy.

The thing about the gospel that Paul preaches, the gospel that the Galatians believed and that we have believed, is that you have got nothing to bring and everything to receive. That is what unites us in one family. We are not here because of our achievements, our religiousness, our knowledge, our moral success or even our ability to sing. We are here because we have realised that God knows us. We are here because we have chosen to receive the free gift of his love, forgiveness, of the Holy Spirit and of eternal life. And it is all gift. 

Thursday, 23 June 2016

A prayer for referendum day

Father God, who gives us the gift of freedom and choice, we pray for all who today will be exercising their right to vote. We pray for your wisdom and understanding. We ask that whatever the result, you would give us hearts that are not only motivated by self-interest, but by a vision of what is good for our neighbour. And as we bow before you, the one from whom sovereignty comes and who is sovereign over all, we place the future of Europe, of our nation and of ourselves into your hands. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, who is King of kings and Lord of lords. Amen.  

Sunday, 12 June 2016

How can we change the world?

How can we change the world?
It is an important question. It is also part of our Diocesan vision: ‘To grow in influence’

How can we be salt? How can we influence society – bring healing where things are going bad, preserve what is good, and add flavour to what has gone flat?
How can we be light? How can we show people the way to Jesus, and to the good life, in a world that can be very dark and in which so many have lost their way?

Perhaps we need a new Constantine?
Constantine lived 272-337AD, and our history books tell us that he was probably one of the most significant people in the history of Europe. It was because of his decision, that Christianity became the religion of the empire, and subsequently the dominant political and cultural force for almost 2000 years. It is because of him that so many of our laws are rooted in the bible.
And surely, if we wish to grow in influence, we should be praying for significant godly leaders, politicians, academics, broadcasters, even celebrities: people who will shape the culture in which we live and influence this nation and Europe for Christ and for good.

Or perhaps we need people of significance who can influence the church: that God will raise up in our generation evangelists like Wesley or Whitefield or Moody or Jonathan Edwards (not the triple jumper!) or Billy Graham. We should be praying for a new influential spiritual figure, with a significance that touches many for Jesus: a new Mother Theresa, CS Lewis, John Stott or Henri Nouwen. We should be praying for real spiritual leaders who can make a difference.

I suspect that most of us think that if we wish to influence people and society we need to go big. We need big people, with big ideas and big power and big events.

But that is not what Jesus teaches.

If we look at vv13-16, you will notice that Jesus does not tell those who are his followers, his disciples to become salt and light. He doesn’t say to them, ‘Be saltier’ or ‘Shine more brightly’. Instead he says to them:
‘You are the salt of the earth. Keep your saltiness’;
‘You are the light of the world. You can’t be hidden’.
And please remember that Jesus was not speaking to political or religious or business leaders; he was not even speaking to a big crowd. Instead, although a large crowd has gathered, he specifically goes away from the crowds (v1) and chooses instead to speak to his disciples, his first followers: fishermen, tax collectors, freedom fighters and some of the women who were already following him.

And it is precisely these sort of people, and not the rich and strong and powerful, who will influence and shape people – not just for a few years, or for a lifetime, or even for 2000 years. They will influence people for eternity. It is these people who will be ambassadors for the Kingdom of God. They are the real game changers.

So what are these game changers like?

Well, in vv3-12 Jesus describes the heart of a woman or man who is following him.

1.      They are the poor in spirit.

These are not the people you would expect to be game changers.

These are the people who have realised that they are nothing, but that God is everything. They live not by trusting their own abilities or gifts, but by trusting him. They have no self-confidence but complete God-confidence. Catherine of Siena was praying one day when she heard God speak to her. He said, ‘There are only two things you need to know. You are she who is not, and I am He who is’.
So people who are poor in spirit have nothing to prove and nothing to lose. They know that they are known by God and beloved by God. They know that everything they have is unmerited gift from God. They live in a constant daze of gratitude and thankfulness. They pray. And they are set free to love and to serve.

2.      They are those who mourn.

How can those who weep change the world?

Well, perhaps they are the honest ones. They realise that life is not simply about moving from one party to the next. It is not about a constant smile.
We tell people to smile for the camera. It is a very cultural thing. In earlier times you never smiled for the camera. If you look at the photos of your great grandparents, it is all very formal and they all look serious.  Why? Is it to show the world that we are enjoying ourselves? It is what we want to say to eternity: ‘It was all about enjoyment’.

But the person who mourns is the person who is real. They can be game changers because they are prepared to look at the pain, to take the pain in, and bring the pain to one who has taken onto himself all the pain, and so is bigger than the pain.

3.      They are the meek.

These are the very last people we would expect to change the world.

They don’t push themselves forward – they push others forward. And that is not because they have a sense of inadequacy, but because they delight to see others use their gifts and grow in their gifts.

Meekness is not about weakness. It is not a ‘The meek will inherit the earth if that is OK by you’. Think of a stallion at a dressage competition. It has immense power, but it is power that is submitted to another.

In CS Lewis’, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan – the king, the Christ figure – walks into the camp of the evil witch. Even though he has more strength than all of them put together, he allows them to bind him, to shave his mane, to mock him and to kill him. He chooses to do it in order to save Edmund.

4.      They are those who hunger for righteousness.

They are game changers because they have a different set of values. They don’t hunger for the things that this world hungers for. They are not out for money, for status, for comfort, for new experiences, for power or for things. Significantly they don’t even hunger for influence. Instead they have a deep longing for God and for the things of God.

On one occasion Jesus is told that Herod has made a death threat against him. Jesus says, ‘I am not going to change anything. I have to do the work that I have been given’. On another occasion he spoke about what he ate. He said, ‘My food is to do the Father’s will’. He hungered for righteousness. Doing what God wanted was his daily bread. It is what sustained and strengthened him.

Game changers are people who begin to have that deep passion, who hunger to see God’s will done. 

5.      They are those who are merciful.

The world tells us that we have to stand up for ourselves.
If someone hurts us we need to show them that we can’t be messed with.
And if we feel that we have the right to get what we can from them because of what they have done to us – then we should exercise that right. We should make them pay.

Mercy is so radical because it is the opposite. Mercy begins by recognising how much God has let us off what we owe him, and it is about letting the other off the debt that they owe us.

It is not the people who are out to get revenge who will change the world. They are just playing the world’s game of dog eat dog. No, the people who make the real difference are the people who say, ‘I forgive’.

6.      They are the pure in heart.

The pure in heart are game changers because they are totally sincere. They know themselves. There is no pretence, no image. What you see is what you get. What is on the outside is what is on the inside. Their visible motives are the same as their invisible motives. They are rubbish at lying. In this world they are almost child-like, naive. But they are beautiful people and one day we will see that beauty and all our mockery or self-justification will be silenced. 

7.      They are peace makers.

I am not speaking of the big stuff, but the little stuff. They want enemies to become friends. They weep when people are in conflict with each other, not because they hate conflict (often peace makers have to be prepared to allow the anger and hatred to be directed at themselves), but because they know that God created us in a way that meant that we need God and we need each other.
Peace makers are reconcilers: they want people to be reconciled to one another
Peace makers are evangelists: they long that people would be reconciled with God.

And now we come to the most surprising category:

8.      They are the ones who are persecuted.

The people who are the salt of the earth and the light of the world are not the people who exercise power. They are the ones who those who exercise power persecute.
They are not persecuted because they are arrogant or offensive (and I am conscious that we can be very arrogant and offensive), but because they are prepared to make a stand for God, for righteousness, mercy, purity and peace – even when they do it in a way that is gentle and shows great respect for others.
In God’s economy it is not the man with the club who is the game changer, but the man who is being beaten.

Our history books tell us that the game changers are the powerful, clever, attractive, rich and significant people in human history.

But God’s history book, while it will include those who have had roles that our secular world considers significant, is packed full of very ordinary people who have done very ordinary things in the name of Jesus.

Jesus said that if you even just give another person a glass of water in his name then you will receive your reward.

I think of Jenny, who is in hospital now and who has been given only a few days more to live. All she can do is lie on the bed, and she is at times in quite a bit of pain. A few weeks ago one of the junior doctors who is caring for her spoke with her. He said, ‘You’ve got a faith. I wish I could believe’. And Jenny, who is now, in the world’s eyes, one of the least of all, is gently continuing to speak about her faith about her Lord Jesus. That is what it is to be light.

I think of one of the mums in our church. Her mother was struggling with a very painful leg. So she said, nervously, ‘Can I pray for you?’ She prayed that God would heal her mother’s leg. God healed her leg, and it was so real that her mother was in tears for all of the next day.

I think of Stuart. He was a young man who worked with us in London. He was a gifted musician. But when he was a student at York, he told of how on one occasion he was invited to lead a time of worship at St Michael the Belfrey. It is a large student church. He had never done it before. He spoke of how nervous he was. But as he stood up and led the worship, the Holy Spirit came on the place with astonishing gentleness and power – God met with people and they were changed. That is what it is to be salt – to do what you are called to do in the name of the Lord Jesus, often out of your depth and trusting not in yourself, but in him.

Do you wish to be a game changer, a history maker?
You probably won’t become a new Constantine
You probably will not be a new Mr Theresa or Billy Graham.

All you and I need to do is to do what these first disciples had done.
They came to Jesus and they listened to him. They confessed their sin, their self-reliance, that they had hungered after the things of this world and not the things of God.
And they turned to Jesus. They believed him when he said that God’s Kingdom, God’s rule was very close. They put their trust in him, they allowed his Holy Spirit to work in them and they began to live for his Kingdom.

You don’t need to read more books, or go on more courses, or get better qualifications to become salt or light. Instead you need to recognise that you are nobody and that Jesus is everything. And you need to throw yourself on Jesus, possibly take a risk or two, trust him with your life and be obedient. 

[When, in a few minutes we come to communion, we come empty handed. We are nobodies with nothing. And we simply come to receive.
Just as we have received God’s gift of life, so we receive his gift of forgiveness, of mercy and help in our troubles, we receive his promises, his strength and his presence.]

That is how we will change the world.