St Stephen's Lewisham,
4th July 1996
Persevering in the Faith
Year A Week 15 in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 55: 10-11
Romans 8: 18-23
Matthew 13: 1-23
If we look at the first of the three Readings this morning it teaches us one simple lesson.
Things aren't always what they seem at first sight.
"Think of the rain watering the earth" says God to Isaiah. When the land is parched dry and nothing seems to be going to grow and there is a sudden rainstorm it doesn't seem to make very much difference, does it?
"The Earth soaks up the rain and and unless it continues raining for a long time it looks as though nothing has happened.
"But it has: under the surface of the Earth, the rain, now invisible, is making it yield and give growth to provide seed for the sower and in turn bread for the eating.
"In the same way", God continues, "the Word that goes for from my mouth doesn't return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do."
The lesson, that we have to be patient and persevere if we are to reap the benefits which God has prepared for us is one which some people today find it hard to accept.
Perhaps because we have grown used to modern technology being able to make many things happen instantly we come to the conclusion that everything ought to be like that or else it's not really worth having.
So for example the fact that we can get instant light or heat at the flick of a switch instead of having to bother with flint or tinder and laying a fire and cleaning the grate; or the fact that we can get instant entertainment by turning on the television set; or the fact that we can go out and get an extra loaf of bread at the local mini-market round the corner without having to need to go and bake it.
All these things conspire together to give the impression that anything we want ought to be immediately available; - or if it isn't, then we didn't really want it anyway, because it's not worth having.
To see the falsehood of this let me give you three examples.
Firstly: learning knowledge and getting skills are both worthwhile, but both require effort and time - going to classes, reading books, writing essays, practising the piano or the violin or our golf swing.
Secondly: a Family is worthwhile, but it doesn't come ready-made. A child takes nine months before we can even lay our hands on it or cuddle it. Children then take many years before they learn how to play a full part in the extended family. There's certainly no instant and permanent gratification about that.
Or thirdly: think again of our relationships with each other. They are extremely valuable; but people don't simply become our friends just like that. It takes time for our relationship to develop before we can decide whether someone is really our friend, or whether our mutual attraction is something more superficial, more flash-in-the-pan.
This lesson, that the best things in life are sometimes slow-growing, is one to which the Bible comes back over and over again. Without patience it's impossible to be a good husbandman.
Let us turn to the third reading. The Parable of the Sower. How much of the seed went to waste because, so to speak, its recipients did not get instant gratification! Those that fell amongst thorns discover that being a Christian interferes too much with their everyday life. Those on stony ground find that there's a price to be paid for everything that's worth having, the price in this case being a certain amount of unpopularity with their friends and family over their new found relationship with God through Jesus Christ; whilst those seeds on the path-side discover that being instantly attractive to the birds is more immediately gratifying than the tedious business of growing up into Christ.
Is it any wonder with so many lovely birds around that your average young male doesn't have much time for the things of God!
But supposing someone does make that leap of faith and allows themself - their soul and body to become the garden ground where the word God grows and multiplies. Does it follow that, after a certain amount of perseverance, they too will be rewarded with everlasting Ate gratification and never feel dissatisfied again?
Unfortunately not. Yes, there will be periods of harvest when we share, so to speak, in the glory as yet unrevealed which is waiting for us. But after the harvest has been reaped the field needs ploughing and sowing all over again.
All of us who have taken up the cross to follow Christ have discovered (or if we haven't yet discovered we soon shall) and there are going to be plenty of occasions when that patience we spoke about earlier will be called for again. In the second reading St Paul talks at length or about those sufferings from which we shall never be entirely free this side of the grave
Indeed it seems to me that the most important part of some people's ministry (and this of course includes both clergy and laity) consists in helping our fellow Christians to persevere in the faith which they have been given to look after.
Of course there are the practical day-to-day troubles as well. People from St Stephen's often come to talk over something that is troubling them about their health, their money, their job, their children, their marriage, and between us we have been able to discover that the problem in question is not nearly so insoluble as it appeared - indeed people often wonder why they didn't think of talking about it before.
But alongside those problem which necessarily differ from one person to another, there is one problem which most of us have in common, most of the time: the problem we have been thinking about this morning. A problem of persevering in the Christian faith.
It has to be said that this problem like the other ones, is easier to face are up to if we talk about it with a fellow Christian, lay or Ordained; it also needs saying that the very action of talking about it with someone may go a long way towards providing a solution.
But there is also one big difference. Whereas many of life's problems have a solution, however easy or difficult it may be to put them into practice, and however long it takes to work, or the problem of perseverance in the faith is a never-ending one.
Just when we think we've got a relationship with God taped so to speak, he will present us with some new challenge.
The form that particular challenge takes may well be triggered off by one or more of those familiar "heartaches and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" - bereavement, illness, finance, unemployment, failure of one sort or another. But the particular side kick that we are concerned with is the one that makes us ask "is it all worthwhile? What's the point in carrying on?"
There is no simple answer - other than the ones we have already been given. God's word is to be trusted. It will achieve in our last what it set out to do. It will not return to him empty. The seed will bear harvest of a hundredfold in God's good time.
It is worth remembering that the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ, saw all the work of a lifetime apparently undone over the course of the 24 hours between his betrayal and death on the cross. Yet his passion was not the vanity it seemed. We should, as the writer to the Hebrews says, "look to Jesus, the Author and Perfecter our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endure the cross- despising the shame."
It is also worth looking around us this morning at our fellow-Christians, part of that great "cloud of witnesses" by whom we are surrounded. Most of us here have no idea whatever of what each other has gone through in the process of remaining faithful.
One day we shall know. And the probability is that we shall be amazed, not just that we have seen it through to the end, but that we should have been considered worthy to sit and stand and kneel alongside people whose heroism in the faith has been so many times greater than ours.
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