Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 24 September 2017.
During the Indonesian Revival of the 1970s, all sorts of wonderful things were happening. People were fording deep and fast-running rivers, eating heavily poisoned food and surviving, and finding that when they had no wine, even the water in their chalices was being changed into wine.
One of them, when in the US, prayed and asked the Lord why there were no such miracles there, and he got a reply. If people wanted wine they could get it from the supermarket, and if they wanted to travel they could go by car, bus, rail or air. There simply was not the same need for such miracles.
But when we see the lessons, both Exodus and the gospel tell of people who could never bargain or secure their own needs were being thrown onto the mercy and the provision of God.
In Exodus, the people were in the wilderness, and they were hungry and fed up. There was no food and what they had was dull and repetitive. Hence their complaints and hence Moses extreme prayers.
In the place where there were no fields to cultivate and no wildlife to hunt, God would and did provide: not only the bread of the desert – the manna, but also meat – the quails. And so the people ate and ate miraculously. It was a memory that the Israelites hold to this day, of how God met them in their need and satisfied them.
Similarly, in the gospel, Jesus told the parable of the workers in the vineyard.
Those hired early in the morning were able to expect a full day’s wage for a full day’s work and they got it.
But those hired later in the day were not so sure of their position. Those who went to the vineyard in the forenoon might be able to expect at least some kind of payment, but what of those hired just an hour before evening?
They had been promised a fair treatment, but could have absolutely no expectation of what that might be and they certainly could not bargain. They could only rely on the fairness and generosity of the vineyard-owner. There was going to be no other income available for that day’s part-employment.
And so they trusted and so they were rewarded for that trust.
And yes, it definitely points us to the need to rely on God’s provision in our lives, without special pleading or bargaining.
But that is the easy bit, because in our era of 24-hour shopping, our ease of travel and of personal communication, we are largely self-sufficient in meeting our needs, provided that we are sufficiently organized and provident.
God forbid that we should be confronted with times of war or famine or general national disaster, when we also might find that our social and economic infrastructure has fallen apart.
So where do we grasp control of the things of our lives that affect our relations with one another and especially with God?
What are the things that absorb our energies but which we do not really control, even if we have the illusion of doing so?
One is our sense of life and death. For Paul, his life was taken up in that of Jesus Christ, and yet the prospect of death was the prospect of entering the closer presence of God in Jesus Christ. Death held no fears for him even as he contemplated his martyrdom at the hands of Rome. For Paul, his sense of being was tied up in his life in and through Jesus Christ and not just in the circumstances of the day: his imprisonment, his journey to Rome and the hearings of his case before Caesar.
For Paul life was wholly that of Jesus Christ and his present circumstances were incidental.
Another is our sense of the future: what does it hold? What of our homes, families, friends, occupations and retirements? When global circumstances seem so fragile and liable to sudden change, when even our retirement funds can change suddenly?
It is easy to be distracted by the headlines and by the more lurid news reports. But Jesus had taught at length about worry: the God who feeds the birds of the air and who glorifies the herbs and grasses of the field will certainly not abandon those who call upon His name. So just why are we worrying?
Then there are our relationships, with family, friends and colleagues. We can never guarantee the favour of those close to us as they change their minds in important matters – but we certainly do not have to guarantee their hostility by our own attitudes and actions. But these can never be fixed or certain – and yet Jesus commands us to love one another as He had loved us, and to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.
Perhaps we should add our sense of salvation, which is never earned and can only be received. Yet it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that our salvation depends on the good works that we perform, and so is also fragile.
And yet Jesus had prayed: ‘for those who will believe in Me through the word’ of His disciples. He prayed for the disciples themselves as having been given to Him out of the world by His Father, a gift for eternity, and which He would never release or abandon.
Perhaps today our sense of depending is more subtle, and more fragile. But it is still real, and that same sense of abiding and resting and trusting in God through Jesus Christ is what keeps us alert to His leading, teaching and blessing. And He still looks for the occasion to bless us in total and extravagant abundance.