Notes from a sermon preached at Wormley Free Church, 20.02.11
Do you think you could be a missionary? Do you think you have what it takes to make a difference for God – if not upping sticks and travelling to some foreign country, maybe here in Wormley? I don’t know about you, but there are times when I wonder if I know the right things. Can I afford to do it? Do I have the right background? I recently discovered the story of a local woman, Gladys Aylward from Edmonton, whose story of putting faith into action is quite inspirational, and casts my fears in a different light.
The first thing that struck me when reading her story was the realisation that there was in many ways nothing special about her. She wasn’t from a special background, but was a child from a working class background. She wasn’t affluent, working as a parlour maid from the age of 14, nor was she particularly bright or academically trained – her education described as being ‘adequate’.
When she was 18, she attended a church event where she heard a speaker talking about giving your life to the Lord’s service. This stirred something inside her. Later she heard about China, and a vision to go to work there for God began to grow.
She received various knockbacks to her vision, but in the end got a job as an assistant for an aging missionary there. Unfortunately she couldn’t afford the cost of the fare to sail there, the preferred method travel. She didn’t let this put her off. Instead she put her affairs in order and with only her passport, her Bible, her tickets, and two pounds ninepence, set off for a perilous, overland journey to the inland city of Yangchen, in the mountainous province of Shansi, a little south of Peking. An area where few Europeans visited and the people didn’t trust foreigners.
When she arrived she dedicated herself to learning the language, slowly mastering it, and living amongst the people. This was a time of war between Japan and China, and she devoted herself to caring for orphans and wounded soldiers, sharing stories of Jesus as she did so. At one point she was forced to trek 100 miles with the children in her care to avoid capture by the Japanese, ending up seriously ill. This did not stop her. Before long she had set up a church and was continuing to tell others about Jesus, and demonstrating his love for them. She was known as ‘Ai-weh-deh‘, (Virtuous One) by the Chinese who grew to love this foreigner they initially distrusted.
If God can use her, then he can use anyone! And so it is in today’s passage. Jesus has been up into the mountains to elect the troops who will lead his revolution with him, a rag-tag bunch, and now he sends them out to work in a manner very similar to Gladys Alward’s journey to China:
Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. 7 Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.
8 These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. 9 Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. 10 Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11 And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”
12 They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.
Go, do the same work that I’ve been doing! Take nothing! Heal, preach and cast out demons!
This is one of those passages that at times has inspired and terrified me. The demands Jesus makes of his followers can seem challenging to say the least. Go out to potentially hostile audiences to tell them about me and to demonstrate my power, and take nothing with you other than a staff and the clothes you’re wearing! Sounds a far cry from the comfortable work that we sometimes put on…
So what does this passage have to say about our work today? The first thing to say is that these are specific instructions rather than a general manual as to how to do mission. Just because Jesus sent out his first followers in this way, doesn’t mean that it is the blueprint for all work to come. This is for specific people in a specific context at a specific time to do specific work amongst a specific audience. That said, in a general way, we are called to demonstrate and declare the coming Kingdom, its power and God’s love as well. That endgame has never changed, even if the context has.
So what can we learn from this?
Many have read this passage and taken it to say that in mission work we should go out in complete dependence upon God, that he will meet our needs if we’re doing his will. There is something scary about this. Do we have the guts to say that we believe that God is calling us to do something, and then go and do it even if the resources we need don’t seem to be there? We touched upon this with the story of Gladys Aylward who had neither the obvious qualifications for the work, nor the resources – she didn’t have the money, couldn’t speak the language and so on – and yet in faith she went.
There are many other stories of Christians who have gone relying purely it would seem on God’s provision to be able to do what he is calling them to do. I’m sure many of our friends at All Nations could tell us stories of living on faith. I can remember times when at university I went on missions not really knowing how I would manage financially, and yet time and time again God provided the way. Catch is, as you grow older, this gets harder to do as you gain responsibilities – work, family, dependents and so on. When you club a number of us together in a group such as the church, it is too easy to add all of these reasons for not stepping out together. Risk is a great inhibitor of action, but risk-taking is also a hallmark of Christian living. Perhaps sometimes we need to embrace the joyful abandon of simply trusting in God when we seek to do his will, and discover the freedom that comes from his provision again. After all, isn’t that what he promises in Matthew 6:25-33;
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?… 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Going to Sierra Leone, however, has given me another dimension to this story – and many others – having been exposed to a way of living that is perhaps nearer to that of the people we find in the Gospel stories.
We stayed not in the isolated and Westerner ‘enclave’ of Aberdeen to the West of Freetown, but to the East in a small African village called Jui in a missionary organisations head quarters. Walking through Jui, I felt very conspicuous, although safe (different story on the ferry or in Freetown!) In small communities such as this, visitors and strangers stick out; you would be instantly noticed. So it would be for these disciples as they travelled through the towns and villages. I soon opted to leave behind everything except perhaps my passport for ID reasons. If I had no wealth on me, no important items, there was no chance of them being stolen or lost. Made me wonder as I read this passage there, is Jesus giving these instructions for similar reasons? Is he protecting his disciples from generating unwelcome interest? A staff could be used to help walking but also as a deterrent to attack. A bag, money, food etc. could be items bandits could become interested in (don’t forget the story of the Good Samaritan).
This idea is supported by the sections around it in Mark which tell of Jesus being a prophet without honour in his own town, and the beheading of John the Baptist. Not everything is plain sailing. The sense of opposition is growing. There is a clash of kingdoms and philosophies.
This picture of Jesus contrasts with many of Jesus where he is painted as super-spiritual and not down to earth. Here Jesus is shown as being concerned for the well-being of his followers, streetwise, aware of what might happen to them and the practical steps to reduce the risk as much as possible. Is Jesus calling us to be streetwise rather than naïve, to be aware of the culture around us and to work accordingly – embracing what is good to be embraced, adopting what is necessary for communication, but being wary of that which stands against the Kingdom?
We are living in the in between age, God’s Kingdom is coming, but isn’t fully here yet. To succeed we need to be alert to both worlds. This is not to say that we don’t trust God, as Jesus himself said:
“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” Matthew 10:16
To finish, there is one other element to this story. As was writing this I was very aware of the deadline of getting it done before the weekend came, and typed more urgently as time went on. Equally, preaching it I am now aware of the urgency of getting the job done before time runs out! As time passes, it’s a case of abandoning the unnecessary detail and focussing on the essential. Like oversleeping and waking up late. Do you stop and have a full English and a shower before leaving? Do you sit down to read the morning paper? No! You throw on your clothes, down a quick coffee and dash for it.
So it is here. The Kingdom is coming, and the Disciples are sent out as forerunners. Time is short. They’ve got to get the word out to as many as possible. No time for packing, no time for goodbyes – out and on with it. Are people interested in hearing? Good, stay and talk. Are they not? Don’t stop to argue with them – no time – leave straight away and find someone who does, shaking the sand from your sandals as you go.
The Kingdom is coming! Time is short! Mission has got to be our focus, there’s no time for distractions. Are we seizing every opportunity to declare it in word and deed?
The Kingdom is coming, let us path the way with faith, pragmatism and urgency.