64. Farmer or Seed

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 64. Farmer or seed

Mk 4:3,4 Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.

We start to consider what is possibly one of the best known of Jesus’ parables. We normally refer to it as the “Parable of the Sower” for that is how Jesus referred to it (Mt 13:18), and yet most of it is about the seed and the ground. In fact the ground is the focus of Jesus’ teaching here, and so it is a wonder that it is not referred to as the “Parable of the ground.”

Who is this sower of seed? Is he a hired workman? No, he is the farmer, the owner of the land. It is important to note this for there is something here that might be so easily missed. The farmer is in the business of growing things. That is why he exists. That is what his whole life is given to. In this mini-story, this parable, we see him performing a necessary part of his work – sowing seeds. Without this there can be no plants and no harvest.

Now this parable is rare in that Jesus later goes on to explain it: The farmer sows the word.” (v.14). So this is about one who sows God’s word. This farmer is God Himself, or perhaps Jesus himself. The word is surely the Gospel. In a wider sense we might say it is anything God speaks to us. I am convinced, and have often said this when writing meditations, that God speaks to everyone many times in the course of their lives.  Whether they hear and how they respond is another matter – and this parable is all about responses.

Now let’s note something very obvious about this farmer that we’ve already hinted at: he sows the seed so that it will grow and produce a harvest. He expects a harvest, it is why he is sowing seed. Everything in him, while he is sowing this seed, envisages the seed growing and the field being full for a great harvest.

Now if this is a picture of God speaking to His world, then the same must be so: God expects what He says to be received and for it to bring change, for it to bring new life, for it to bring spiritual fruitfulness in the hearts and lives of those to whom He speaks. When God speaks to you and me, whether is His word as we read, in our minds as we pray, or in our minds as we listen to a sermon or prophecy, He expects it to bring forth change in us. He speaks with a purpose – to change us for that, in His love for us, is His intent for us.

 

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11. Gifts Change

Meditations in Romans : 11 :  Gifts are for Change

Rom  1:11-13   I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong– that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.

While we stay with these verses we need to focus on something different, that we have only made brief reference to and which deserves greater consideration; it is about the impartation of gifts and the harvest brought thereby. Paul’s desire to come to the Christians in Rome is partly motivated by a desire to come and “impart to you some spiritual gift.” It is not until he comes to chapter 12 do we see further references to ‘spiritual gifts’. For his greatest exposition on such gifts we need to go to 1 Corinthians 12-14 but all we need say here is that when Paul uses the phrase he is quite clear that he is speaking about some particular manifestation of the Holy Spirit that is used primarily to build up the church. Now some people are very negative about spiritual gifts, more I think out of fear and the recognition that we are talking about a godly supernatural dimension which ‘naturally’ we are unable to operate in. For those of us who like to keep the Christian faith purely in the intellectual realm, the activities of the Holy Spirit, especially when in harmony with us, are particularly threatening.

So Paul is aware that he, as an apostle, has the ability to pray over others at God’s directing and impart these gifts or release these gifts in them. He sees that these gifts will help the Christians in Rome and make them strong. Strength comes when we are flowing in harmony with God’s Holy Spirit, for He is the source of all strength. He is also aware that as he comes with the faith that God has given him, it is an encouragement to the church. Looking back on my own life, I don’t know how many times I have been encouraged and strengthened by being in the presence of others who are gifted by God. Such supernatural gifting helps us realise that this is not merely about intellectual assent; it is about living in relationship with the all-powerful God who is real and who brings His power to bear in our everyday lives as we allow Him to.

Everything about this subject challenges the concept of Christianity being a passive and static faith that is all about just believing certain things. That is where the crusading atheists of the twenty first century are blind, for they do not realise that it is not merely about arguing about specific beliefs. They don’t realise that they are having to combat the living experiences of God that Christians have. It is impossible to explain away the changes that have taken place in my life on purely psychological grounds. It is impossible to explain away the many experiences of God that I have had on purely intellectual or rational grounds.

If only we did have such a thing as time travel then such silly atheists could travel back and watch and investigate the incredible works of Jesus while he was on earth, and then the things that happened to the early Christians as recorded in Acts. Seeing such simple and naïve people doing the impossible again and again would truly upset some of these carping critics. Sadly today most of them seem to lack the integrity that would go and investigate the millions of changed lives that can be observed in those who have encountered Jesus today. Travel the globe and you encounter millions of such people whose lives have been dramatically changed by encountering the living God and His Son Jesus Christ. Where are the other world religions that testify to such changes? Where are the millions of atheists who can testify to their lives being dramatically changed when the heard the good news of atheism, who found a new power source flowing in them that set them free from addictions and bad habits and bad behaviour when they received that good news. We can testify to such things because we have encountered the forgiveness, the love and power of the living God and we know that these are the things that have changed us.

Now for Paul it was a two-way street; it wasn’t merely about him, as an apostle, imparting something of a supernatural dimension to those Christians he encountered. Oh no! What he imparted had an effect on the lives of those Christians and they would thus bring forth ‘a harvest’ or a crop of fruits if you like. When Paul speaks about a harvest he surely means first of all a harvest of salvation of people coming to Christ and giving their lives to him and being born again. That is surely the first ‘harvest’ that he refers to. But there is also the fruit that comes forth in those lives and this goes back to what we were saying earlier.

The Christian faith is not static or passive, it is all about change. It is not about turning up at church once a week, it is about a radical life change that starts when we repent and surrender our lives to Christ and he forgives us and puts his Spirit within us. It is that power that changes us as we allow Him to work in us. Paul was able to write to the Galatians about the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ or the outworking or changes that the Holy Spirit brings in us when we come to Christ. He listed some of those fruits there: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22,23). There will be a steady growth of all these things in the true Christian – and a lot more. It is a life of change, the New Testament declares, a life of becoming more Christ-like. That can only come about as we submit ourselves to the Lord and He, by His Spirit, empowers us and brings about the work of change. That is what Christian leadership is all about – about bringing change to lives through the direction and power of God’s Holy Spirit. Hallelujah!

40. Misc. (1)

Meditations in the Law : No.40 : Miscellaneous Laws (1)

Lev 19:1,2 The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: `Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.

Chapter 19 takes us into a batch of miscellaneous laws, a number of which pick up on those found either in the Ten Commandments or in the covenant laws of Exodus 21 to 23.  The point that is made from the outset is that these are laws given by God to make Israel distinctive (holy) like He is distinctive. This distinctiveness is because God is pure and perfect and this people is thus to be the same. These laws will make Israel stand out in the world, as a people who live according to God’s design for humanity, and as such they are to be a light to the rest of the world.

Immediately after this introduction we have a double relationship reminder: Each of you must respect his mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the LORD your God,” (v.3) echoes of the fifth and fourth commandments (Ex 20:8-12) Relationship is at the heart of community – of life with others. The family is the basic building block of society and a respect for God built into community life is the umbrella over it all. This is followed by a warning against idol worship: “Do not turn to idols or make gods of cast metal for yourselves. I am the LORD your God.” (v.4)  which echoes the second commandment (Ex 20:4,5). Hold fast to the One True God!

Verses 5 to 8 basically say, if you want fellowship with the Lord then make sure that when you bring your fellowship offerings you do it in the prescribed way. Fellowship with God is not to be equated with casualness: “When you sacrifice a fellowship offering to the LORD, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf. It shall be eaten on the day you sacrifice it or on the next day; anything left over until the third day must be burned up. If any of it is eaten on the third day, it is impure and will not be accepted. Whoever eats it will be held responsible because he has desecrated what is holy to the LORD; that person must be cut off from his people.” (v.5-8). Thus, as with the Ten Commandments, the initial commands are about relationship with the Lord. If we get that right, then there is hope for everything else to follow and fall into place.

This is then followed by instructions that were meant to bless the poor: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.” (v.9,10) Thus the ‘leftovers’ of harvest are to be accessible and available to the poor, as an additional form of God’s provision for them. God’s concern for the poor and needy also comes a few verses later: “Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD,” (v.14) as an obvious protection for the disabled.

The verses that follow are a mixture of laws about property and ownership, and truthfulness in life. First the property and ownership laws: “Do not steal” (v.11a) is a repeat of the eighth commandment (Ex 20:15), “Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him,” (v.13a) is a general instruction to let there be right dealings in society, and “Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight,” (v.13b) takes the right dealing into the work place so that employers do not hold back what they owe employees.

The laws of truthfulness are, “Do not lie,” (v.11b) which is a simple and straight forward call for truthfulness to always be yours, followed by, “Do not deceive one another,” (v.11c) which takes truthfulness into behaviour as well as speech. Indeed part of that deception may include making false oaths, and so they are forbidden: “Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.” (v.12) i.e. don’t try to use God’s name to bolster up your wrong doings. He is holy and so if you invoke His name in such dealings you will be in serious trouble!  This takes us into the area of justice: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” (v.15) Again, let honesty prevail in society. Again, more on truthfulness: “Do not go about spreading slander among your people.” (v.16)

From there the Law becomes more general in concern for well-being in society: “Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the LORD,” (v.16) but it is not only actions but attitudes: “Do not hate your brother in your heart.” (v.17a). It is not only negative or passive, it is also positive and active: “Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt.” (v.17b) i.e. if you see your neighbour moving into wrong, do something about it, go to him and talk to him. Wow, that is community care!

Positive heart attitudes will have strong effects in society: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” (v.18). Again and again where we have that final reminder, “I am the Lord” we are being reminded that this is to be a holy people, a people who are distinguished from the self-centred, ungodly, sinful nations of the world – or at least, that is how it was supposed to be if Israel had heeded these laws. What a wonderful society it could have been but, tragically, so often it wasn’t as they ignored or forgot about these guidelines from the Designer on how to create a good, secure and caring society. The blueprints were there, but they just didn’t follow them – just like we don’t in modern Western societies today!

25. Feasts

Lessons from the Law: No.25 : Three Annual Feasts

Ex 23:14-15 Three times a year you are to celebrate a festival to me. Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread; for seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in that month you came out of Egypt. No one is to appear before me empty-handed.

If we’ve had a religious upbringing then perhaps a feast simply indicates a particular festival in the church’s calendar. However, a dictionary defines a feast as “to eat sumptuously” and the sense is of a big meal. You have a big meal when you have something to celebrate and that was true of Israel. We have feasts at a wedding or the celebration of a special birthday or wedding anniversary. It is a way of celebrating. In verses 14 to 19 that cover the feasts, the word ‘celebrate’ occurs four times, once in the introductory sentence and then once for each of the three feasts mentioned. A dictionary will tell you that to celebrate something means to make public by rites or ceremonies. Some older versions don’t use the word celebrate and just say “you shall keep….” but the word ‘keep’ doesn’t emphasise so much to us today the sense of honouring by ceremony.

So, says the Lord, three times a year hold a special ceremony based on food, to remember the crucial things that have happened when you came out of Egypt, and then of my provision for you. There is, therefore, a sense whereby these three feasts are all celebrations of God’s provision. The Feast of Unleavened Bread celebrated God’s provision of freedom from slavery. The Feast of Harvest (v.16a) celebrates the arrival of the first crops or fruits – God’s provision of food. The Feast of Ingathering (v.16b) celebrates the completion of bringing in all the harvest – again God’s provision of abundance. These are times of rejoicing in the wonder of God’s provision. Why legislate for these? Because we are notoriously bad at taking things for granted and forgetting the origin of all we have! So let’s look at the law for each of the feasts.

First there is the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Now the Passover was a one-day celebration but the Feast was a seven day celebration! It reminded them of the hurry with which they had to leave Egypt, not having enough time to use yeast in the usual way to make bread. By spreading it over a week they could fully reflect on the wonder of what had happened when God delivered them from Egypt. If that had not happened then they would not have been able to be constituted a nation at Sinai. They only were a nation because of the Passover. The remembrance of this meant that this was never forgotten for this was no quick one-day memorial but a whole week’s worth of celebrating.

Next we find, Celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the first fruits of the crops you sow in your field.” (v.16a) This feast was otherwise known as Pentecost. Then we find, “Celebrate the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in your crops from the field.” (v.16b)  This was otherwise known as the Feast of Tabernacles and we’ll see more details of each of these in later studies.

Verses 17 to 19 are all ‘shorthand’ comments about aspects of these feasts. First comes, “Three times a year all the men are to appear before the Sovereign LORD,” (v.17) a simple reiteration of the importance of these feasts. Men were the breadwinners and the warriors but nothing was to stop them coming to these feasts of remembrance. Then comes, “Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast.” (v.18a) In the later laws of sacrifice when blood was poured out, it was the sign of life being given and it was often accompanied by flour but, as a continual reminder of the haste of their deliverance, it was never to have yeast mixed with it, especially at the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This was followed by, “The fat of my festival offerings must not be kept until morning.” (v.18b) The fat, we will see, was to be the Lord’s portion so it would  be disrespectful to feast with the meat in the evening and not bother with the Lord’s part until next day. No, make sure you perform the whole together, especially that which gives respect or reverence to the Lord. Then comes, “Bring the best of the first fruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God.” (v.19a) Whenever first fruits were brought (especially at the second Feast here) this is a gentle reminder to give the Lord the best. Sacrifices and offerings should never be from the leftovers, but from the best.

Finally comes what appears at first sight a very strange exhortation: “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.”(v.19b) It is only when we realise that this was a pagan practice believed to be carried out both in Egypt and Canaan as an occultic magical charm, that this makes sense. A broth was made in this way and was poured out on their gardens and fields to make them more productive. This injunction which appears in the Law three times (see also Ex 34:26 & Deut 14:21) is a shorthand warning a) not to turn to occult means of blessing on food provision and b) not to let there come any substitute for the second two Feasts mentioned here which are all about proclaiming the Lord’s goodness in providing for them.

These introductions to the laws of the Feasts are here, simply reminders to be kept year by year of the Lord’s provision for them. Thankfulness to the Lord keeps us from the sin of taking Him and His provision for granted. May we too remind ourselves of His constant goodness to us!

Walk of Anticipation

WALKING WITH GOD. No.39

1 Kings 18:43 “Go and look toward the sea,” he told his servant. And he went up and looked. “There is nothing there,” he said. Seven times Elijah said, “Go back.”

Sometimes in the Christian life, in our walk with God, we seem to be waiting and waiting and nothing seems to change. At those times it is easy to give up, but that is something we must resist. The writer of the Proverbs understood this: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” (Prov 13:12). The Message version speaks of ‘unrelenting disappointment’. Hope that keeps on getting put off, disappointment that keeps on and on, these are things that wear us down and perhaps these are the things the apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.(Gal 6:9). Perhaps that was also in Jesus’ mind when we find, “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (Lk 18:1). No, the Bible writers clearly understood the human condition and they knew that when we expect something and it doesn’t happen, and keeps on not happening, there is a strong temptation to give up.

This makes the example of Elijah all the more helpful, so let’s see what is behind our verse above. Elijah has just been through the amazing tussle with the prophets of Baal where God turned up for him and brought fire down on his sacrifice to confirm His presence with Elijah. The Lord has stood up for His man, and that must have felt good to Elijah. After the prophets of Baal have been disposed of, Elijah turns to King Ahab, “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.” (1 Kings 18:41). Now that is an amazing prophetic command because there has been no rain for three years and the sky is still perfectly clear. For there to be rain there needs to be clouds – and there are none! Elijah is saying to the king, it’s all right, you can go and celebrate now, the drought is over. Elijah has just stood in faith against the prophets of Baal and now he stands in faith against the drought. So what does he do? “So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees” (v.42). He prays! There is an interesting example to follow here. It is all very well to know the will of God (the drought is ending) but we are still to be part of the process of bringing it about by praying for that will to come into being. Elijah knows rain is coming, but he now needs to pray it into being. It’s just how it works.

But Elijah needs to know how long to pray, so he sends his servant to go to look for the clouds. There are none. Now I wonder why Elijah did this? Why couldn’t he have just looked himself? There may be two answers. First he may have been too burdened and felt he needed to totally immerse himself in prayer and, second, he may have felt he wanted to involve his servant and teach him something about spiritual realities. This servant would remember what happened because he was involved in it. His part was to walk the walk of faith, or the walk of obedience, or the walk of anticipation; we can call it a number of things. This servant could have just sat round the corner and not bothered to go. He could have thought, “This is crazy, Elijah has finally flipped after all his exertions with the false prophets,” and not bothered to go. After all, where he was standing he could see around him that there were no clouds!

But this servant doesn’t do that. The man of God has spoken the word from God and so his role is to follow through as requested. He hadn’t had the word but he knew the man who had had it. That was enough. So he goes to the lookout point where he can see across the sea, but there is no cloud. He returns and tells his master. Seven times at his master’s bidding he goes to look and six times he sees nothing. Humanly speaking, with every additional time he would be thinking, “This is a waste of time!” but there is a spiritual dimension to all this – God has spoken, the man of God has spoken, and so ‘sometime’ it IS going to happen. Eventually the word IS fulfilled: “The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” So Elijah said, “Go and tell Ahab, `Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.’ Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain came on and Ahab rode off to Jezreel.” (v.44,45)

Prophetic people are notorious for getting the timing wrong, but that need not put us off. For decades now we had heard prophetic words saying ‘revival is coming’, and it hasn’t. It’s all right, don’t be put off when dates were attached that didn’t work out, it will happen, in God’s time. Just keep walking the walk of anticipation. He’s said it, so it will come – eventually.

Listen to how Jesus finished off his parable in Luke 18 about persisting in prayer: “And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?(v.6-8). Keep on praying, he taught, because the answer will come, and by the way, when I come back and you’ve been waiting and waiting for me, will you still be faithful? Will you still be walking the walk of anticipation, knowing it’s just a matter of time? Hang on in there! Walk the walk!