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EFAC Australia

Bible exposition

Each of us tends towards optimism or pessimism, and both present dangers. It is certainly possible to lose heart in ministry due to pessimism. The difficulties and trials can seem intractable, the fruit all too scarce, and we lose heart. It is also possible to lose heart in ministry due to over optimism. When the courageous vision collapses around us it is crushing, and we lose heart.

Paul knew all too well that Christian ministry has both its tribulations and triumphs. In 2 Corinthians 4 he makes it clear that losing heart in ministry is a very real phenomenon (2 Cor 4:1, 16). However, he is equally confident that he and his co-workers will not lose heart. Our aim here is to consider the theology and philosophy of ministry that fuelled Paul’s persistence in ministry.

What Paul holds out is a realistic optimism grounded in his understanding of the gospel itself, his own commission, and a clear grasp of the season of salvation history in which we live. He knew and expected the tribulations of ministry, but he also knew and discerned the glorious triumphs of ministry.

In 2 Corinthians, his most personal letter, the apostle Paul identifies death as a metaphor for the normal experience of ministry. His ministry is an ongoing slow death, but one that brings life to others:

We are afflicted in every way… always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Cor 4:8-12)

When facing the temptation to lose heart as he was confronted by disdain, division and discord, Paul could say to himself, “Of course it’s like this, ministry is death.” Ministry is a long death march that simultaneously and gloriously brings life, and we must not fall for the lie that it was ever supposed to be anything else. The normal reality of Christian ministry is to feel like a useless clay pot, and yet nevertheless look around and see signs of life because of the all surpassing power of God at work (2 Cor 4:7). For Paul the link between ministry and suffering goes back

to his commissioning. God declares through Ananias that Paul “is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16). He is transformed from the one actively engaged in causing suffering for those who bear the name of Christ, to the one who himself suffers for the name of Christ. His commission came with a cost, but a cost he is willing to bear.

It is Paul’s particular role as the initiator of the mission to the Gentiles and their apostle that especially connects him with suffering. Paul makes the link explicit at a crucial turning point of his first missionary journey in Acts 13. He quotes from one of Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’ songs and claims that his ministry is a fulfilment of those prophecies. Paul and Barnabas’ heightened focus on Gentile mission was driven by theological and not just strategic or pragmatic considerations. In quoting from a servant song (Isa 49:6) Paul declares, “For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth’” (Acts 13:47). In Isaiah 49 the ‘you’ refers to the suffering servant, but here Paul and Barnabas take it as directly referring to them. It is what “the Lord has commanded us”—that is, Paul and his missionary coworkers. The commission to the servant has become for them a command to engage in Gentile mission. As he and Barnabas are engaged in that ministry of the servant, as they plant Gentile churches, Paul unequivocally sees them as fulfilling the ministry of the suffering servant to be a light for the nations and bring salvation to the ends of the earth. In his commission God set Paul apart to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth, and as he does the work of the servant, so he will also bear the stripes of the servant. Furthermore, God includes in that commission those who partner with Paul in the work.

As Paul addresses the Corinthian church he can say “we do not lose heart”, and this despite his “light momentary affliction” (2 Cor 4:16-17). A life dedicated to sharing the truth about Jesus to the ends of the earth is hard, but in the context of eternity Paul can brush aside these tribulations. Such things as being beaten up and whipped, thrown in prison and shipwrecked, abandoned by some of his closest friends and co-workers, watching as churches he worked hard to build are torn apart by false teachers, and seeing people abandon Jesus, are but light and momentary troubles (see 2 Cor 11:23-29).

It is instructive that the culmination of his list of sufferings is the “daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches”, for in the midst of the beatings and imprisonments it was Paul’s passionate burden for the health of the church that was his most abiding trial. When they faint, he faints; when they rejoice, he rejoices; and when they wander, he is downcast. And yet as we read on with Paul in 2 Corinthians 4, we see that in the face of eternity these trials are light and momentary; they are preparing us for “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:17). It is on that reality that the believer must fix their eyes. Paul grounds his ministry philosophy and self-understanding on the figure of the suffering servant, and the way that frames his own experience in the light of the experience of Christ.

The tribulations of ministry are real, but temporary. The triumphs are often unseen, but they resound for eternity. And so we do not lose heart.

The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast
(Luke 13:18-21)

This is the text of a sermon originally preached at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, for the Bush Church Aid Centenary Celebration Service, 26 May 2019 by Adrian Lane, the Victorian Regional Office of The Bush Church Aid Society.

This year is a great celebration! On the 26 May, 1919, one hundred years ago, “on a wet and windy night, a small gathering of 26 met to form the Bush Church Aid Society.”1 The first Organising Missioner, Syd Kirkby, wrote, “‘A day of small things’ it appeared to be, and, in point of numbers, carrying no great promise to those present.”2

In our gospel reading we read of another “small thing”: a mustard seed, “which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.” (v19)3 We also read of another “small thing”: “Yeast, that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour, until it worked all through the dough.” (v21) And Jesus says, “This is what the kingdom of God is like.” In other words, “It starts

small.”

Jesus has in mind here a kitchen garden, with its vegies and herbs, and perhaps a few fruit trees or olives. Now, the mustard seed is not necessarily the smallest of seeds, but it’s pretty small. I’ve got one here between my fingers and I can hardly see it. It’s inconspicuous and easily overlooked. Yet when it is sown in good soil and watered, it grows into a substantial tree in the garden: 3 or 4 metres high, so that even “the birds of the air make nests in its branches.”

Or think of the woman adding a small bit of last week’s yeast to her dough. Jesus is talking about a lot of fl our here – probably 22 litres worth. Yet a small amount of yeast works through the whole batch, so that when it’s baked we now have bread for over 100 people.

This is what the kingdom of God is like. It starts small. And it

grows imperceptibly, quietly. You don’t even realise it’s growing till you go away, perhaps for holidays, and come back – and, “My goodness, hasn’t the garden grown!” It’s a bit like teenagers who grow through the summer – you don’t even realise how much they’ve grown till they put on their old school shoes – and they just don’t fi t! They’ve grown, steadily, quietly. Or it’s a bit like some Australian eucalypts that just keep growing, even in tough times, through drought and heat.

Bush Church Aid’s history is a bit like that. Those early founders in 1919 wanted to serve those in isolated parts of Australia – beyond the railway line. Yet think of the difficulties they faced: The First World War with its terrible loss and trauma had only just finished. The Spanish Flu was now taking an even greater toll. Our nation was just 18 years old. And returning soldiers were being sent to dry Mallee blocks that would never be sustaining.

Yet those early founders were committed to reaching all of “Australia for Christ.” They wanted every man, woman and child to hear of his love, of his care, of his death on the cross to pay the penalty for all the wrong they’d ever done, of his physical resurrection from the grave, proving that penalty of death had been paid. They wanted everyone to hear of his gift of his Spirit to all who believe. And they wanted every Australian to have the sure hope of eternal life, in new bodies, with believers from every tribe and nation.

Within 10 years, Ministers and Bush Deaconesses had been sent to Menindee, Cobar, East Gippsland, the Eyre Peninsula and the South Australian border. Hostels had been established at Wilcannia and Mungindi so that isolated kids could go to Primary School. A Sunday School by Post was now reaching 700 children. A hospital had been established at Ceduna, way out on the Bight. Even a plane had been purchased for Padre-Pilot Len Daniels. And 13 students preparing for country ministry were being supported at theological colleges – 8 men and 5 women. Yet all this started small – very small.

I don’t know if you’ve thought about this or not, but all through the Bible we see God starting substantial and eternal things in very small and ordinary ways. God began his people through Abraham and Sarah, who never believed they’d even have children – Abraham was 100 years old! God rescued his people through one man, Joseph, who’d been sold into slavery by his brothers for 20 shekels of silver. God rescued his people again through Moses, who miraculously escaped murder as a baby in a little floating basket! Yet again God rescued his people in exile through Esther, an orphan and a foreigner, who put her life on the line with the king of the empire! And ultimately God rescues his people eternally through a baby born in a cowshed, who himself miraculously escaped murder as an infant. And whoever would have thought that a small dispirited band of followers who’d gone back to fishing after the crucifixion would start a church that now numbers billions?

God loves to make something out of nothing! – just like he rescued the widow and her sons in our first reading – through a little bit of oil, all that she had, that just kept flowing. Don’t despise the small! God’s kingdom starts with the small. God’s eternal, massive kingdom starts with the small.

Secondly, do you notice how the kingdom of God completely transforms?

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a cheese factory. Into these vast vats of churned milk they throw a couple of handfuls of starter culture. And just like the yeast it quietly works through the whole. A little goes a long way.

Or it’s just like the glassmaker I saw down near Lakes Entrance. Into the clear molten glass she threw the tiniest piece of coloured glass, which completely transformed the whole. So it is with the Kingdom of God. It transforms. It transforms those who believe it. And it transforms those with whom it comes into contact.

I used to work for the Navy. I discovered that whenever I returned from leave, the language on my floor had significantly deteriorated. But as soon as they realised I was back, it suddenly transformed! I hadn’t even told them I was a Christian. And I hadn’t made any comments on their language. In fact, I’d been a bit overwhelmed by the whole culture and was keeping my head down. Yet somehow my shy presence made a difference.

And that’s our prayer at Bush Church Aid – that each of our field staff and their families would make a transformative difference in their communities – as they seek to reach Australia for Christ, whether it be Alfrene as she serves as an Indigenous School Chaplain at Gulargambone, or Ayumi as she teaches Scripture at Gilgandra, or Dale as he cares for people up at Red Cliffs, one of the poorest parts of Victoria. The kingdom of God transforms.

Finally, do you notice how wonderfully delightful the Kingdom of God is, as the birds nest in the mustard tree with their little babies and as we share fresh, crusty bread?

Some years ago I went through a period of chronic illness and was confined to bed. Outside my bedroom window were some fuchsias. The birds just loved their nectar. But fuchsia flowers hang upside-down, on very thin and supple stems. So to get to the nectar the birds had to do a constant variety of upside down acrobatics on bouncing, bending stems. Watching those birds feeding and dancing in the sun in my garden was such a delight – it kept me going through some of my darkest days.

What a delight it is to be part of the kingdom of God, with people from many nations, each seeking to “declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous deeds among all peoples,” as we read in Psalm 96:3. My prayer is that each one of us here has given back to God all that he has given us, and that each one of us here is using all that God has given us to extend his kingdom, to declare his glory among the nations.

God leads each one of us to the harvest fields he’d have us work in – through our prayers, our life, our gifts. My prayer is that we would commit ourselves afresh to reaching Australia for Christ, to serving those in remote, rural and regional Australia, through our prayers, our life, our gifts.

God’s kingdom is like a mustard seed, it’s like yeast. It starts small. It transforms. It’s an eternal delight. Let’s praise God for all that he has done to build his kingdom through Bush Church Aid these last one hundred years, and let’s commit ourselves afresh to growing his kingdom, to reaching Australia for Christ, especially remote, rural and regional Australia.

REFERENCES

1. S. J. Kirkby, These Ten Years, Bush Church Aid, n.d., 5

2. ibid

3. Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version, 1973, 1978, 1984

THE BIBLE AND ME

The wedding at Cana: Just what hour is it?

Recently, I heard some excellent teaching on John’s Gospel. Setting the cultural scene for the wedding at Cana (John 2: 1-11), the speaker explained that in first century Jewish weddings, it was the duty of the bridegroom to provide the wine and so the lack of wine at the wedding would be the cause of great embarrassment for, and possibly even legal proceedings against, the bridegroom. That led me to reflect on that awkward verse 4. Mary had explained to Jesus that the bridegroom (a friend or cousin?) at this wedding was facing exactly that situation, and whatever his mother expected of Jesus here, she clearly thought he was not going to leave his mate in the lurch. But Jesus responds, ‘Woman, what to me and to you? My hour has not yet come.’ I have looked at the dozen or so commentaries I have access to and, besides a few which are rather vague, largely suggesting Jesus’ time for miracles has not come, most say that the 'hour' referred to is Jesus’ glorification in his death, resurrection and ascension.

God’s love for Cain and for Abel   Genesis 4:1-10

T he story of Cain and Abel speaks to guilty people who have screwed it up, and to innocent victims. It speaks to those who are tempted to resentment and bitterness, and to those who despair when believers fall prey to evil. It speaks most fully when seen together with the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

When considered on its own, Genesis 4:1-10 is a story about Cain, and how the Lord deals with him as he becomes a murderer and an outcast. Cain is angry when God favours Abel’s sacrifice, but not Cain’s. Perhaps Cain felt he was the victim of some divine unfairness. Perhaps he wanted to be lord of his brother, but God’s favour threatened this aim. The Lord draws near to Cain, precisely because he is in this sullen, angry state, and asks him some hard questions: ‘Why are you angry? … If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?’ These questions challenge any assumption Cain may have that he has a reason to be angry, or that God is treating him unjustly. The Lord does not explain the favour thing to Cain. He simply but earnestly warns Cain that he is at a crossroads. Will he do what is right, despite being the unfavoured one, or will he let the vampire sin in, and become himself one who crouches to spring, and take the life of another? This is not perhaps, what Cain would have liked from God, but it is, nonetheless, the good gift that the Lord has for Cain on the verge of Cain’s selfdestruction; it is what he needs.

No mere political manifesto

Jesus’ campaign launch at Nazareth: Luke 4:16-21

Marc Dale is the Rector of Highgate in the Diocese of Perth.

16He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Political leaders give some of their most memorable and powerful speeches at their campaign launches and inaugurations. In May 1940, Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons with these words, ‘You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory. Victory at all costs—victory in spite of all terror—victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.’

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