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Obstacle Courses and Choppy Waters

School sports days have been taking place up and down the country as a highlight of the summer term. This year, instead of the usual anxiety and postponements due to rain, the concerns have centred around keeping children cool and hydrated in the heat. Do you remember the obstacle race in school? Various items of gym equipment were placed on the course over which you had to jump or go around, or tasks you had to perform before you could cross the finishing line? Eagle eyed teachers would sit watching from side lines to ensure you did not cheat.
After school had broken up, on holiday in some British seaside result when the weather was not good enough for the beach, do you remember the crazy golf that parents would fork out for to keep you amused? There are plenty still around. You putt the ball through a windmill or down a helter skelter to get it in the hole. Each obstacle on the course provides more of a challenge than the one before.
Both Paul (1 Corinthians 9.25) and the writer to the Hebrews (Hebrews 12.1) liken the Christian life to running a race; to taking part in the games of the ancient world. But running the Christian race in today’s world can feel more like an obstacle course than a hundred meters sprint. It is not easy being a follower of Jesus; not that he ever said it would be; quite the reverse in fact. The obstacles come in all shapes and sizes. Things happen in our lives which cause us to doubt our faith. Members of our family or close friends challenge our beliefs or put difficult temptations in our way. When we are involved in projects which seek to show God’s love in word or action. It’s not always straight forward. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes think that having put faith in God, he owes it to me to make everything happen smoothly but that never seems to happen. There’s always another obstacle in the way.
If that’s true in our own experience as Christian people, it is also true for the church and the various initiatives which we take on for the Kingdom of God. Even churches and Christian organisations which appear successful will have faced many knock backs along the way and are still vulnerable to one crisis or another. No church or Christian outreach is immune from difficulties and problems.
Each of our scripture readings today remind us of obstacles which faced various people at different times in their walk with God and how they over came them. The first passage from 2 Samuel (5.1-5 & 9-10) continues the story we have heard over several weeks now of how God called David, the shepherd boy, to succeed Saul as king of Israel rather than Jonathan, Saul’s son and the natural heir. Today’s verses are the culmination of that passage of events. David is now publicly anointed king at Hebron; called to be a shepherd of the people of Israel. We are then told how David occupied a fortress, built it up and named it the ‘City of David’. The city was of course Jerusalem, but before David could make it his own, he had to capture it from the Jebusites who put up some fierce resistance. In some other verses from chapter 5 which are difficult to translate from the Hebrew, it would appear that David and his men gained entry to the city via the water shaft, a natural channel in the limestone rock which provided water for the city. (2 Samuel 5.8)
God does not make it easy for David to gain his capital city. He must first overcome the obstacles in his way which he does with ingenuity as well as military strength. As the final words of the old testament reading today tell us: ‘the Lord, the God of hosts was with him.’ As the leader of a collection of tribes, David was in the same position as other leaders of his day facing obstacles of one kind or another. God did not make it any easier for David by removing the obstacles. But he was with him giving him strength to overcome. Just so for us. As Christian people, we face the same problems living as human beings as everyone else on the planet, but God, through his Spirit gives us the resources to overcome obstacles in our way.
While David rejoices in being anointed King, Paul opens our new testament reading with sketchy details about a profound vision which he had had fourteen years earlier before he embarked on his missionary journeys. (2 Corinthians 12.2-10) Such a vision could well have been cause for boasting suggests Paul, giving him spiritual advantage over others, but this is not Paul’s way. He goes on: ‘To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given to me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’’ There is much debate over the nature of Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ a saying which has passed from the bible into the English language. It must have been serious for Paul to describe it as a ‘messenger from Satan’.
Whatever the precise details, Paul makes clear that he sees this obstacle as something that God allows to happen to teach him and keep him in check. The message to Paul is clear from God; ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ This is an important lesson for us all to take on board. It is so easy for us to believe we have the power and resources to deal with what the world throws at us, but this is not God’s way. When Israel was being headstrong, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah to say: ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your salvation.’ (Isaiah 30.15) It is a hard lesson to learn, but sometimes we need obstacles in life to help us learn it. As many Christians in extreme circumstance have found; when all you have is Jesus, Jesus is all you need.
And so, to Jesus himself in the gospel reading. (Mark 6.1-13) It is always good for us to remember that Jesus was not spared setbacks to his ministry. Our reading from Mark’s gospel has Jesus arriving in his home town. Instead of being greeted as a local hero, people are sceptical. ‘Where did this man get all this? …Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary …they took offence at him. Mark records that Jesus could do no deed of power there except that he laid his hands on few sick people and cured them; that he was amazed at their unbelief.
We might have felt grateful for a few healings, but I wonder how Jesus would rate our belief? Certainly, lack of belief was an obstacle for Jesus. But it’s not an obstacle that he tries to overcome nor is it intended to teach him anything. Instead, he just goes around it. He goes off to other villages and sends his disciples to do the same. If the disciples encounter the obstacle of not being welcomed, they are to take their ministry elsewhere. Clearly, people not being in a place to receive the good news and ministry of Jesus is an obstacle to the kingdom of God…but one to go around; to go elsewhere. There are plenty of fish in the sea and Jesus has called us to ‘go fish’.
Today is Sea Sunday. We pray for those who work on the high seas. The sea is full of danger, full of obstacles; rocks, riptides, sandbanks, sharks, you name it. It is a metaphor for life. As Christians we must negotiate those obstacles like everyone else, but our friend and Saviour is none other than Jesus, the light of the world who acts as our light house helping us to overcome the obstacles we must overcome, to learn from the obstacles we should learn from and to go around those that we should by pass. To conclude, words from the Rend Collective Song:
You are the peace in my troubled sea
My lighthouse, my lighthouse
Shining in the darkness. I will follow You
My lighthouse, my lighthouse
I will trust the promise
You will carry me safe to shore

Trinity 6 Sea Sunday     08.07.2018

Rev Jonathan Smith

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