Preached 11 March 2007 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
Nearly 20 years ago, in 1988, when we were on holiday in Crete, I did something a bit daft. I went paragliding. Now I don’t know if you know what that involves, but let me tell you. You stand on a jetty and you are helped into a harness. The harness is then attached to an open parachute that is spread out behind you. And then, at the front, it’s attached to a rope which snakes all over the jetty and down to a motorboat with its motor ticking over in the bay. Once you’re ready, the boat accelerates away; the rope uncoils until it begins to tug you, and at that point you run for the end of the jetty and launch yourself in the air. And off you go. Up, up and away!
Now, as you imagine that scenario, I want you to ask yourself: When does faith become trust? When did my faith in the parachute, the harness, the rope, the boat and the boatman, become trust in all those things? The answer, of course, is when I started running, because that was the point of no return. That was the point at which shouting “Stop, I’ve changed my mind” would have been too late. And that’s why someone has called trust “the step beyond faith”. Peter took the step beyond faith when he stepped (not off a jetty) but out of a boat onto the Sea of Galilee to go to Jesus who was waiting for him on the water.
If you’ve been looking at your Lent Leaflet you’ll know that “trusting” is our theme for this morning. It is the second of the five key qualities or characteristics to which we as a church will be committing ourselves on Easter Sunday as the means whereby we shall “live and work together to see our community transformed by the love of Jesus”. And I thought it was very important to make it clear at the outset that the quality or characteristic we are dealing with this morning is indeed “trust” and not “faith”.
You cannot, of course, have trust without faith; but you can have faith without trust … and many individuals and churches do. Indeed, when you look at the skyline of Britain and see the number of spires punctuating it from the tops of empty or half-empty churches, you are seeing a testimony to the truth of what I’ve just said. Lots of faith but little trust. Congregations who through the decades have been proud to declare their belief in God but slow to trust him beyond the limits of their increasingly meagre financial and human resources. Our mission statement is a declaration that we are not going to join them; or that, if we already belong to them, we shall no longer do so after 14 April.
St James Church Bolton. Loving God, loving Community. Living and working together to see our community transformed by the love of Jesus … through … TRUSTING. “We commit ourselves to base our decisions not on our own strength or resources, but on what we believe God wants.” Wow! That is some commitment. And will it be tested? Yes it will? At every end and turn.
But it is so, so right. And I hope to show you how right it is in the next few minutes. And I want to do so by looking with you at the passage I chose from Matthew 7. Now the parable of the two houses might seem to you an odd passage to pick in connection with the theme of “trusting” but I think it has everything to do with it because from start to finish that parable is about obedience; and as our mission statement makes clear, trust and obedience are two-sides of the same coin. How did the old hymn put it: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” Trust is stepping out in obedience to what God wants … in the faith that what God wants he will accomplish … in the faith that he will supply all our needs according to his riches in glory … in the faith that our weakness and our poverty actually open the door to God’s power and resources, and that trust will trigger their outpouring.
Matthew 7. 21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, `I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
Hard, hard words. So hard that I was tempted to start the reading at verse 24 and miss them out; but no, it’s vital that we hear them. For what they are saying is this: That it is very possible not only to use all the right “Christian” words – “Lord, lord” and so on (and we’re all good at that) – but even to do what seem to be all the right “Christian” things – good things, wonderful things – and still to be so far out of the will of God as to be unrecognisable to him! Please, let’s take heed of what Jesus is saying here. For too long, churches (and maybe this is one of them) have worked on the principal that if the things we engage in are what we might call “proper Christian activities” they are by definition within the will of God and God is bound to bless them.
Not so. Not so. And the proof lies all around us. Perhaps the decline of the church throughout this land is God saying very loudly “I don’t know you. You do stuff in my name – but it was never my will.”
A house built on a disregard for the will of God is a house built on sand, says Jesus. And of course it will collapse when the hostile winds of consumerism, materialism, self-sufficiency and wordly-wisdom sweep across the land. It cannot stand. It will fall, is falling, has fallen with a great crash. For a house to stand – for a church to stand – it must be built on the rock. And what is the rock? Exactly what we are committing to on Easter Day. Doing what we believe God wants.
Matthew 7.24: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on 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 foundation on the rock.”
The rock that is foundational to any life or any church that would withstand whatever the world, the flesh and the devil throw at it is the rock of trustful obedience to what Jesus says. Nothing else will do. Everything else is sand. No wonder the church is sinking – and has been for decades now.
But … questions, questions. I can hear them. And the first is “Yes, but how do we know what Jesus is saying? What are “these words of mine” that he calls us to put into practice through trustful obedience? What are these words that, as we obey them, will become a rock on which this church will stand?”
That is so easy to know for God-centred people and a God-centred church. You see, this week’s quality hangs on last week’s quality. The commitment Jenny spoke about last week was God-centredness – committing ourselves to developing our own relationship with God and to helping others to do the same. Well, when the Lord Jesus is truly at the centre of our lives and we are surrendered to him, individually and as a church, we shall know what he wants us to do. It’s a promise. John 10.27. “My sheep hear my voice,” he says, “I know them, and they follow me.”
You know, I honestly don’t think we have a problem knowing the will of God. Once there is a commitment to do it, to move out in trust, to take the step beyond faith, God will not be slow to tell us what he wants us to do – in an unmistakable voice. I’m sure he has done so many times in the past. That has never been the problem. The problem has been an ability to trust and a willingness to obey. The scenario is one that is repeated every week in a thousand committees and PCCs across the land, and it’s familiar to us all … “My chairman, I feel very strongly that God is calling us to do X.” “Yes,” says another, “I think that too.” “And me,” says a third.” “Oh, but hang on a minute,” says a fourth (usually an ‘elder statesman’) “Where’s the money going to come from, eh? And who’s going to provide the manpower? Have you thought about that? It would be madness to embark on such a project while we’re as stretched as we are. We simply don’t have the resources”
Resources. I confess I hate the word. For too long the church is and has been resource-driven – a house on the sand – rather than trust-driven – a house on the rock. How can we get it so wrong?
Mark 6.7-9: “Calling the Twelve to him, Jesus sent them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits. These were his instructions: ‘Take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic.’”
In other words: Get rid of your resources. Only when you step out in trust without human-resources are God’s resources available to you. “When I am weak,” says Paul, “then I am strong”. That’s the principal of Kingdom life and Kingdom achievement. And it’s written in big letters all over the Bible.
At the age of 80, Moses, who’s been tending sheep in the far-side of the wilderness for so long that he’s almost forgotten how to talk to humans, is told by God to go and confront Pharaoh and deliver the Hebrews from their slavery in Egypt. An aged shepherd against the mightiest war-machine the world had ever known. “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” says Moses. And God says, quite simply, “I will be with you.” Exodus 3.11.
“I will be with you.” Can we begin to get it into our heads and hearts that that’s the only resource we need; for believe me it’s only when we start believing that, trusting that and moving out in such trust that we will begin to see our community transformed by the love of Jesus.
When will we learn that God makes us weak for a purpose – so that we can find our strength in him; makes us poor for a purpose – so that we can find our riches in him.
Psalm 20.7: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” The church has so reversed that principal that most of the time it won’t move because it’s still waiting until it has enough horses and chariots to do the job – whether God’s with it or not!
“I have given you an example” says Jesus. He shows us the Kingdom way of getting things done and changing the world. It is quite simply finding out what God wants and doing it, trusting in him alone. “I tell you the truth,” he says in John 5.19, “the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”
So when Jesus is faced with an enormous crowd of hungry people – 5,000 men plus women and children – what does he do? The church in the form of the disciples says “Send them away – we do not have the resources. We have here only five loaves of bread and two small fish”. Jesus takes that “nothing” looks up to heaven, gets the go-ahead from God, and steps out in trust. And the crowd are fed. With twelve basketfuls left over!
It is the Kingdom Way. The way of trust and obedience. Have you all heard of Jackie Pullinger? She was a student at the Royal College of Music when God called her to go and work for him in Hong Kong. The call was clear and confirmed in many ways, so she decided to go. The trouble was, no one else agreed with her. She applied to every missionary group she could think of, and also to church organisations and the Hong Kong government – but all the doors closed in her face. You’re too young, you’re too inexperienced, you have the wrong qualifications, she was told. No proper resources, in other words. Not fit for purpose in human terms. But her Vicar, God bless him, said “If God’s calling you, you go.” So in 1966, Jackie Pullinger got together every penny she had and bought the cheapest passage to Hong Kong that she could find. She only had enough money for a one-way ticket, so there was no turning back. (Trust, you see – the step beyond faith.)
She almost didn’t make it past Hong Kong immigration. But she was eventually allowed in and found a job teaching at a primary school in the Walled City. This was an area where the Hong Kong police had no regular jurisdiction, and as a result, it was Hong Kong’s most deprived and dangerous area. Ruled by the Triad gangs, full of drug addicts, prostitutes and the dregs of human society, Jackie (still just in her early twenties) began to live and work to see that community transformed by the love of Jesus. (Yes – she had our mission statement!) And yes there was great danger, opposition, death-threats, set-backs and sadness.
But the transformation came. Hundreds of lives were changed as Jackie did impossible things, trusting in her trustworthy God; and now today there is the St Stephen’s Society that she founded, that continues Jackie’s work in Hong Kong and south-east Asia – one of the most successful drug rehabilitation programmes in the world, rescuing thousands of young people from a life of misery on the streets. Read her story in the paperback: Chasing the Dragon. What a read!
But her story is only one of many that could be told. And it is meant to be our story too. It is a story of trust. A story of hearing what Jesus says, and doing it. A story of looking not at what we haven’t got – money, premises, people and so on – but at what we have got: Jesus himself. The one who, as Psalm 50 puts it so beautifully, owns “all the cattle on a thousand hills”; and who says to us: “I am with you” and “All that I have is yours”. That’s what we have got. That’s all we need. And that’s why, both individually and as a church, we are called upon to trust, to move out in dependence on God, doing what he wants us to do, where and when and in the way he wants us to do it.
I am trusting thee, Lord Jesus, trusting only thee.
I am trusting thee to guide me
Thou alone shalt lead
Every day and every hour supplying
All my need
It’s hymn number 258. We’ll be singing it very shortly, but is it true – for me, for you, for us as a church? Where might God take us if it is? What might he achieve through us in this place, in this parish, in this city … if only you, me, each one of us is committed to a trust like that: a trust that is real and radical, a trust that is truly a step beyond faith.