On this Mission Sunday, as you have already heard, we take time to think about how we can support and play our part in getting the good news about Jesus to everyone in the whole world. We are also continuing our series in Luke's gospel focusing on a couple of those verses read for us earlier – Luke 17.5-6:
"The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" And the Lord said, "If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea', and it would obey you.""
That passage is clearly all about faith and the very simple but profound truth – that faith means depending on our God who is so staggeringly powerful that nothing is impossible for him. That is what Jesus says to us in these verses and I have three main questions to ask that flow from that. First, let's back up a bit to see the context. Jesus has just been teaching his disciples. We see that in Luke 17.1:
"And he [Jesus] said to his disciples…"
So what Jesus has to say here refers to those who are his disciples. Disciples are those who had begun on the journey of faith – who had taken what Jesus says seriously and who were learning to live it out in their lives. Luke records the moment when Jesus called the first disciples in chapter 5.
My daughter is 3. And quite often she pushes me away when I'm trying to help her and says – in a surprisingly fierce voice – "I do it all by myself". That's generally a good thing – she's growing in independence. But it's a powerful picture of the natural tendency all of us have: to imagine we can live without reference to the one who created us. We rebel against his authority and refuse to listen to him. That is the very essence of sin – and it destroys our relationship with the only source of life and love and leaves us under his judgement. But the good news is that Jesus came on an infinitely costly rescue mission and once we grasp who he is, he calls us to listen to his word and to trust him to save us from the coming judgment. To be his disciple, is to leave everything and follow him. Luke 5.1-11:
"On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon's, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch." And Simon answered, "Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets." And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking.They signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men." And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him."
"They left everything and followed him". My first question is this:
1. Are you a disciple?
Have you taken that step of faith yet? If not, why not – what holds you back? Have you read about what Jesus did and read what he said and realised that he is God? If not, then why not read for yourself what he did and said – you can pick up one of these free gospels at the exits. Have you come to trust in his death on the cross in your place so that your sin can be forgiven? If not, then doing that is the first thing you need to do in your journey of faith. Pick up a copy of 'Why Jesus?' that explains how you can take that step, or speak to someone you know who has already done that. Have you left everything to follow him? Then Jesus wants to increase your faith. He wants you to trust him more and more. He wants you to join him in his great rescue mission. We all have a part to play to get the good news of Jesus to the everyone in the whole world.
So back to Luke 17. Verse 1 tells us that Jesus is speaking to his disciples. He speaks to those who want to obey his word. What does he say? Verses 1-4 tell us – we looked at that more closely last week. Let me read them in case you were not here or as a reminder.
"And he said to his disciples, "Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent', you must forgive him.""
He warns the disciples not to do anything that would cause others to stumble or sin. He also tells them to point out sins in others when they see them and to forgive those who sin against them – no matter how many times they mess up. If we fully grasp what those verses are saying, we will react the way those first disciples did! What he was teaching seemed impossible to them! So, they go on to ask for more faith. Luke 17.5:
"The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!""
They had faith already – they wanted to obey his word. But what Jesus was teaching them showed them that without his help they could not do it. 'I do it all by myself'. I don't think so! Their response is a good example and we would do well to ask the Lord to increase our faith too! When was the last time you prayed like this? That brings me to my second question.
2. Do you want your faith to grow – or are you content with where you are right now?
Listen to this from a book called 'Fearless Faith' by Jonathan Stephen:
"To those who would say a simple, undeveloped faith in Jesus is enough, we must ask, 'enough for what?' Is it enough for personal salvation? Perhaps. But is it enough for a God-honouring, joyful, fulfilling, fruitful and fear-free Christian life? That I very much doubt. And what kind of Christian is it who is simply satisfied with securing their own passage to glory without showing any concern for the spiritual destiny of those around them?"
Jesus wants to grow our faith! So, we can confidently ask him – like those first disciples did - to increase our faith. Jesus wants us to join him in his great rescue mission - to play our part in getting the good news of Jesus to everyone in the whole world. He wants us to live godly lives – where we reject evil and forgive one another as he has forgiven us. He wants us to play our part in changing Britain – even in the face of opposition. We cannot do that on our own – we need God's help.
Perhaps, like me, you feel challenged by these words because you see in the disciples a hunger that you lack. Your desire to listen to Jesus and grow in your faith, has grown somewhat cold. Then ask God to create that hunger in you. But, however you feel right now, ask God – simply and boldly - to increase your faith. And then listen to his response in verse 6:
"And the Lord said, "If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea', and it would obey you"
Two things to point out about this verse. First, a mulberry tree had deep roots and took a huge effort to dig it up. I don't think anyone tried planting a tree in the sea! It's just describing a situation that seemed impossible, an apparently insurmountable obstacle. Second, a mustard seed was well known for being really tiny but when planted resulted in something huge. Jesus had used the same image earlier when describing the explosive power of the Kingdom of God. So, Luke 13.18-19:
"He said therefore, "What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.""
Like a mustard seed, the Kingdom of God starts small but grows exponentially. So, putting those two images together, Jesus says here that what matters is not the size of their faith but the object of their faith. The focus is not on them and their faith, but on God and his greatness. Or as one of the books about this passage I read put it...
"It is not so much great faith that is required as faith in a great God"
But that doesn't mean that Jesus wants them to be content with their little faith. He wants to grow our faith and there is only one way to do that. We need to allow the incredible truth of who Jesus is to fill our mind and soul. The more we understand how great he is, the greater our faith will be. We more we grasp hold of the truth that nothing is too hard for God, the more our faith will increase! So, here is my third and final question.
3. Do you believe that our God is so powerful that nothing is impossible for him?
That is the key to living a life of faith. Believing God can do the impossible – and trusting him! Romans 10.17 says that,
"faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ"
God's word shows us a God who is powerful – for example, we see him create order from chaos, something from nothing just with his word. So making sure we are reading the Bible on our own and with others will help our faith to grow. So come as often as you can to Sunday services like this. And many have found the habit of also meeting together in smaller groups between Sundays has grown their faith. If you've never done that and would like to, or want to restart – you'll see from the yellow notices that we're about to start something called Discipleship Explored – which is a small group meeting for 7 weeks to study the book of Philippians. Why not join in with that?
Our faith also grows when we pray about apparently insurmountable obstacles and see God answer those prayers. What situations are you facing right now that seem impossible? I asked that to our mission partners. Let me share a few examples with you.
Jon and Lisa Short work with students in Spain and two years ago when they moved to Madrid, it seemed impossible to get a Christian student group started in the University of Alcalá. Most of the Christian students they knew were medics and doing rotations in different hospitals. What happened? They prayed and the Lord sent several first year students with a desire to encourage one another and reach out to their fellow students with the gospel. The group is now established and growing, and they even organised an evangelistic video night a couple of weeks ago and have the desire to do more. Right now, they are praying another faith stretching prayer: for five staff workers in Madrid.
Robin and Alice's work includes encouraging the small churches where they are to see that they all have a part to play in what God is doing to grow his church. They had a number of discouraging conversations with people saying "Why do we need to share the gospel with people - that's a job for you foreigners!". So they organised a weekend away, and ran four sessions giving church members a vision for what God could accomplish through them, and also giving simple ways to share the gospel. The weekend was long and hard work. But they felt the real work was in the weeks and days beforehand. They had many prayer meetings with the team, and lots of individual prayer asking God to change the situation. Some of us prayed with them too. Those who came, left the weekend full of excitement and asking God to help them bring the gospel to their own people. As a result quite a few new Bible studies were started in villages all over the region.
Geoff Brown works for Scripture Union and part of his role includes organising Christian holiday camps for young people. Bookings for one of those holidays were very slow last summer and in the end they decided to go ahead with it just 5 weeks before the holiday. The task seemed insurmountable – plan a holiday from almost scratch in 5 weeks! However, Geoff said he was reminded of the disciples response to Jesus asking them to fed the 5000 (Luke 9). They looked at the problem and thought it was impossible. However, all they had to do was bring what they had to Jesus and he'd do the rest. This is what they did and God helped them to plan a great holiday for 24 young people and he used it to touch many of the young people and draw them closer to him.
Some of our mission partners work in countries where becoming a disciple of Jesus is a capital offence and can get you and your family killed. Can a church really be established in those places? This week, friends of one of our mission partners in such a country were given 14 days to leave yesterday. They are the only Christian workers in their town and after 15 years there they have only seen one local come to true faith.
What about you? What situations are you facing right now that seem impossible? Perhaps it is an area of temptation that seems impossible to overcome, or someone has hurt you very badly and it seems impossible they will ever get to the stage of asking for forgiveness, let alone you being able to forgive. Or no one around you seems interested in hearing about Jesus. As a church, we will need to overcome considerable obstacles if we are to see the vision we believe God has given us to grow to 2,000 realised. Let alone our long term vision of 5000 people belonging to a large multi-site church that incorporates and grows out of JPC, and another 5000 in churches that we have planted in this region and around the country and the world.
How do we respond? We remember that God is in total control and nothing we face is beyond him. We ask God to increase our faith. And we come to him in prayer, knowing we come to one so powerful and loving that he can grant our requests before we even ask for it!
1. Are you a disciple of Jesus?
2. Do you want your faith to grow?
3. Do you believe that our God is so powerful that nothing is impossible for him?
Luke is saying what John Newton puts in his hymn:
"Thou are coming to a King!
Large petitions with thee bring!
For his grace and power are such —
none can ever ask too much."