[I recommend you to click on the link to the YouTube video, and actually listen to the sermon rather than just read it, for the best experience of it and if you are able to do that on the device you are using.]
TREES GROWING BESIDE A STREAM
25th October 2020 (Matthew 22:34-40)
The later chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, describing the events leading up to the crucifixion, contain a trio of threes.
Christ undertakes three symbolic actions: entering the city; overturning the tables of the moneychangers; causing the fig tree to wither.
Then he tells three related parables: the story of the two sons; the story of the tenants in the vineyard; and the story of the wedding feast.
Then he responds to three hostile questions. The first concerned payment of the poll tax; the second concerned the nature of the resurrection; the third concerns the greatest commandment.
After Jesus has made the Sadducees look foolish when they asked about the resurrection, the Pharisees decide to intervene. Matthew does not fill in the details, but I think we are free to understand that the long-established rivalry between Pharisee and Sadducee is at play here: ‘You’ve got nowhere with this interloper, now let the experts have a go.’ We are told the questioner is a Pharisee who is also an expert in the Law: They are putting forward their star player.
The lawyer asks Jesus for a summary of the Law, clearly expecting to be able to trip up this country boy. It’s a test of orthodoxy.
Summaries of the Law are found in several places in the Scriptures. One of the most famous comes in Isaiah 33:
Those who walk righteously
and speak what is right,
who reject gain from extortion
and keep their hands from accepting bribes,
who stop their ears against plots of murder
and shut their eyes against contemplating evil –
they are the ones who will dwell on the heights,
whose refuge will be the mountain fortress.
Their bread will be supplied,
and water will not fail them.
Another summary is found in Micah 6: 8:
‘He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’
Rabbi Hillel (who lived just prior to the time of Jesus) was famously challenged by someone to recite the whole law whilst standing on one leg. He replied:
‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.’
Jesus inverts this idea and recasts it positively as the Golden Mean: do as you would be done by. In responding to his interrogator, he quotes two verses. The first comes from Deuteronomy 6:4: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.’ The second comes from Leviticus 19:18: ‘You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.’
The first of these forms the central confession of Judaism, generally thought in this period to be recited morning and evening by all observant Jews. Known as the Shema, its daily recitation is still practised. Traditionally it is spoken with the hand held over the eyes. It is followed by lines from Deuteronomy 6, starting ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,’ and continuing, from Deuteronomy 11, ‘If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the LORD your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil — I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill.’
I want to focus today not so much on Jesus’s tussles with the Pharisees and their point-scoring, but rather upon the content of his teaching. Jesus makes a link between loving God, and loving your neighbour, and a moment’s reflection will explain the connection. If you love God, you love what God loves.
To love your neighbour can be exhausting and frustrating. It takes energy to notice, and energy to care. Luckily, loving God is a two-way flow.
If we were holding a conventional service today, I would have included a reading from the Psalms. Today’s reading from the Revised Common Lectionary is from Psalm 1. The first verses read:
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
2 but whose delight is in the law of the LORD,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither –
whatever they do prospers.
This image is taken up and developed further in the famous passage from Revelation 22:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.
I delight in this potent expression of the grace of God, and it accords closely with Jesus’s summary of the Law. To paraphrase Jesus’s words from Matthew 22: ‘God is the source of all blessing. His Law runs like a stream beneath you. Send down your tap root into his Law, draw upon it, and be fruitful. As you prosper, help your neighbour prosper too. Share the blessing.’
Most of us are semi-literate when it comes to computers: my own computer literacy barely deserves the name. When we have downloaded some inadvisable software, or got hopelessly lost in correction heaped upon correction, one of the options is to return to factory settings. You will be familiar with that terse little instruction in brackets: ‘(recommended)’.
When things go wrong in our lives, it is very often because we need to follow the Maker’s instructions. We have lost touch with the Source. We need to go back to factory settings. Recommended.
What does it mean to send down your tap root into the stream of blessing? William Booth, inspirational founder and first General of The Salvation Army, advised his followers, ‘Work as if everything depended upon work and pray as if everything depended upon prayer.’ He went on to describe the work of prayer as ‘fervent, effectual, untiring wrestling with God.’ Booth exemplified his own recommendation, remarking once that he had so much to do each day that he needed to spend at least six hours in prayer. This may sound onerous, but the grand old man did not find it so. At his father’s graveside his son Bramwell Booth commented, ‘If you were to ask me, I think I could say that the happiest man I ever knew was the General. He was a glad spirit. He rose up on the crest of the stormy billows, and praised God, and laughed at the Devil's rage, and went on with his work with joy.’
It is never too late to send down a questing root into the river of blessing. As Campfire Church member Laurena Mary posted this week: ‘You don’t stop gardening when you get old; you get old when you stop gardening.’ Or, as Dorothy Frances Gurney wrote:
The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth, –
One is nearer God's heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.
Those whose lives are watered by the river will be capable of growth, of bearing fruit, of blessing those around them.
As I write these words I am aware of my own deficiency. Preacher, hear what you preach. It is all too easy to forget to water your own garden.
You can spot the people whose roots go deep, whose spirit is vibrant and unwithered. This week, via Zoom, I met a man who has learned how to partake of the river of blessing.
Stephen Lungu was the oldest son of a teenage mother, married off by her parents to a much older man and living near Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). When he was three his mother ran away, leaving him and his younger brother and sister in the reluctant care of an aunt. By 11 Stephen too had run away, preferring life on the streets. He slept under bridges and scavenged from white folks' dustbins. As a teenager he was recruited into an urban gang, the Black Shadows, which burgled and mugged with a half-focused dream of revolution. When an evangelist came to town, Stephen was sent to fire bomb the event, carrying his bag of bombs and mingling with the crowd. Instead he stayed to listen, and was soundly converted. The following day he went out and bought a Bible, but there was a problem: he had never learnt to read …
Today Stephen is an international evangelist who has spoken frequently to large gatherings throughout Africa and across the UK, US and Europe. He has been called Africa's Billy Graham. A generous and charming man, he has shrugged off his early life of deprivation and neglect, and radiates goodwill. His story is told in the book 'Out of the Black Shadows'.
Stephen Lungu, his biographer, the head of his mission and I were meeting by Zoom to discuss a proposed film about his life. Stephen, who is in his eighties and now lives in Malawi, arrived a bit late, explaining that he had just come back from visiting the brand-new presidential palace. He had gone there at the request of the President of Malawi, Dr Lazarus Chakwera, who is not only a politician but also a Christian theologian who used to lead the Assemblies of God in Malawi. President Chakwera had specifically asked Stephen to visit the newly-completed palace, pray over it, and lift before the Lord the men and women who will be working there.
Stephen is a man of God, widely respected, an elder statesman, whose roots are watered by the river of life. Speaking to him reminded me that it is never too late to be effective.
The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
In the name of Christ, Amen.