Notes for the sermon I preached this Sunday evening.
“Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.”
Richard Foster from the introduction to Celebration of Discipline
We live in a fast food era. We want our food served quickly at a restaurant, our news piped to us 24/7 and instant access to any product or information. We want it all and we want it now! As soon as we’ve got what we want, we move on to the next thing. I see this all around me, and if I’m honest, I see it in me. I find that disturbing.
Some things are worth waiting for, worth cultivating.
Occasionally I have a bash at painting. There’s something very satisfying and therapeutic about bringing a picture to life on a canvas. Choosing the right brush and colour you start with big blocks of colour. When they’ve dried you can gradually add the detail, shading or highlights. Bit by bit the final image emerges like a butterfly from a chrysalis. If to save time you do only one layer, the resulting painting is as lifelike as a stick man, or if you don’t let each layer dry, the result is a brown mush…
Sometimes we go out as a family and visit Knebworth house or somewhere like that. I love wandering around the gardens and exploring the nooks and crannies, stumbling across exotic flowers, or surprising features. Such gardens take time to grow. You can’t throw one together overnight – you might be able to buy the plants ready grown, but it will look new, not grown in.
It’s the same with relationships. It’s no surprise to me that speed dating is so popular today. We don’t have the time to get to know people, to develop relationships anymore. We’re too busy. But what relationship can be formed through a couple of minutes Blind Date style questioning? We hanker after something more than that. Something real, something deep. Such relationships can only develop if we nurture them, work at them. Take time, make time.
Have you ever met someone who clearly has a deep relationship with God?
There are a few that stick out in my memory. People who clearly have an intimate relationship with their God – to use a phrase that we over use I suspect, but in their cases is definitely appropriate. These people weren’t pretentious about it, weren’t other-worldly (quite the reverse in fact). These people had a passion about their God that shone through them and gave them peace.
I don’t know about you, but I want this. I want to know the joy of being constantly aware of God’s presence. I want to have a depth of prayer that goes beyond a list of requests. I want to hear God when I pray. I want the kind of relationship with him that doesn’t need constant reassurances, but is constant and secure. I want to know God beyond the clichés. I want something that is more than just a passing acquaintance don’t you?
More than that, I want to be Christ-like. To love as he loves, to have boldness as he was bold, to make a difference as he makes a difference.
Is there a way we can do this? Is there something we can do to make this happen?
The answer of the Bible and experience is no.
We all know that it is almost impossible to change our fundamental personalities – who we are and how we respond to things. It can be done, but its extremely hard work. But to transform ourselves to be Christ-like by shear force of willpower is a losing battle. You might make it for a day, even a week, but sooner or later the cracks will show. Something will happen that will cause you to slip, and reveal what’s really on the inside. I am who I am, and there’s nothing I can do about that. I can’t replace my ingredients with anything else, just as a computer can’t reprogram itself without out someone typing in the instructions for it to do so.
Similarly, we can’t force God to have an intimate relationship with us – just as you can’t force anyone else to. I remember being on an overnight vigil once. I was determined to hear from God. Like Jacob wrestling I kept on calling out to him, resolved not to stop until he spoke to me. He never did – not that I noticed anyway. I learnt a lesson that night.
It is God’s work to change us, to make us Christ-like. We are unable to do it ourselves.
It is God’s decision to relate to us. We cannot force him to. We can’t manipulate him to – I’ll be your best friend if… just doesn’t wash it I’m afraid.
The good news is that the Father has revealed that it is his will to transform us to make us Christ-like, to restore the fallen image of God that we were created in. Through the sacrifice of the Son we are adopted as his children, offered a relationship with him. By the power of the Spirit, these things are made real in our lives.
This is an act of grace – self giving love on behalf of God, Father, Son and Spirit.
We have not, and cannot earn, force or deserve this, but God still offers it to us.
We can’t make this happen, but this isn’t to say that there is nothing that we can do.
Remember the parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25:1-13?
1″At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
6″At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
7″Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
9″ ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
10″But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
11″Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’
12″But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’
13″Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
Usually this is understood to be a call to be ready for when Christ returns, the second coming. But I think it also applies to whenever God chooses to come into our presence, to reveal himself to us. Five of the women had made no preparations at all. When the bridegroom came, they weren’t ready to meet him, and as a result they missed their chance. But the other five had got themselves organised. They were ready for the call. Not only had they got the oil for their lamps, but they weren’t going to let anyone else distract them from their objective. Consequently, they got to meet the groom.
What can we do to make sure that we are ready and available when the groom comes? We can’t make God speak to us, but is there anything we can do that will help us hear when he does?
We can’t make ourselves Christ-like, but is there anything we can do that makes us more open to the work of the Spirit?
The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about the danger of cheap grace – the idea that all we have to do is accept what God does for us. It’s not that simple – Jesus called us to take up our cross and follow him. We have a part to play in this relationship, there is work for us to do.
Over the years Christians have found ways in which we can put ourselves in a place where we are open to receiving God’s grace. These practises are often called spiritual disciplines, and in case anyone is concerned that we are adding something here to what God has revealed to us, they are all found in the Bible.
Catch is, once these were commonly understood and practised. When the Bible talks about them it assumes that what you have to do is known and understood by the reader, and so the Bible doesn’t go into great detail to give us instructions. Problem is, in our ‘want it now’ culture, these have been lost and are not longer commonly used and understood, as they take time and effort and commitment, and so we have to be taught again. And so that is what we’re going to explore together over the next few weeks, using Richard Foster’s book ‘Celebration of Discipline’ as a basis. It’s a modern classic on Christian spirituality, one that certainly changed my approach to Christianity almost overnight when I first read it, and I know that God has used it to the same end with many others.
What are the disciplines:
Inward: Meditation, Prayer, Fasting & study
Outward: Simplicity, Solitude, Submission & Service
Communal: Confession, Worship, Guidance & Celebration
As an aside I think it is important to stress that this is for everyone. These disciplines are something all people can do – not just the super-spiritual.
I also think it’s worth noting that there is a danger in looking at these things that we turn them into a new law or a source of pride! This is why I’ve taken care to say that there is nothing that we can offer to God that he hasn’t given us, or that there is nothing we can do to earn his love or force him to relate to us. In no way should we think that we have to do these things to be a true Christian, or that if we’re not good at them, then we are a second class citizen of the kingdom of heaven. These are practises that should become burdens, imprisoning us like the Old Testament law did. Christ came to set us free, these are things that can help us enjoy that freedom.
There are some who make it a source of pride that they’ve fasted for forty days, or that they spent an hour in prayer a day. These disciplines are good things, I’ve no doubt about that, but the objective is not to show what we can do, but to make ourselves open to what God wants to do in and through us.
So, taking into account these points, what approach are we going to take to the disciplines? Each week we shall have a talk about one discipline. I suspect that these may well be interactive at times – for example when it comes to meditation, nothing beats learning how to meditate than by doing it. Having explored it together in this way, each week we’ll have an exercise or set of exercises to take home to try (again there is no rule about this!) and then the next week there will be a chance to share our experiences – what worked for us, what God did, what we found difficult and so on.
It’s going to be an exciting journey! I am sure that as we seek to make ourselves available to God’s Spirit in this way, that he will honour that. Who knows what he may chose to do amongst us in the coming weeks.