Faith

To properly understand and rightly put into practice Jesus' teaching in Luke 17.5-6 it's important to understand what Jesus has just been talking about. And it's a passage which very much applies to world mission as well as to outreach here in the West End of Newcastle. At the end of Luke 16 Jesus spoke about the danger of spending eternity in hell. He's giving us a loving warning. Look at verses 27-28 of that chapter:

"And he said, 'Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.'"

Now if you really believe that there is a place of everlasting torment or punishment called hell; a place of just judgment where people pay for their sin themselves instead of having let Christ pay for it through his death on the cross; a place without God and all his goodness, where people go who reject Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord and therefore get what they think they want – to be without God forever, it will change the way you live and witness to Jesus.

One of my friends had the opportunity to discuss his Christian faith with a well-known professor. The professor was very respectful towards my friend as they talked. He said that he'd never met someone who really believed Jesus' teaching about the danger of experiencing eternal punishment in hell, until now. My friend was puzzled at what he meant as this professor had met many Christians. The professor said what he meant was that he'd never previously met a Christian who really believed Jesus' teaching about hell, because anyone who really believed it would surely have to tell everyone about it and no Christian he'd met had ever told him. My friend was very challenged. I was challenged by him telling me this. Yes, if you really believe Jesus' teaching it will change your life - it really will deeply affect your life, how you live your life, how you witness to Christ or show Christ to others, how you make the most of the time you have on earth and what you talk to others about – not just the bad news, of course, but also the good news of Jesus.

But in verses 1-4 of Luke 17 Jesus doesn't say go and tell everyone, as he does earlier in Luke and at the end of Luke – so that's still absolutely vital, but rather he says this: never cause someone to sin, never cause someone to give up following Jesus and reject God. Look:

"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."

So, for example, it's definitely not OK to say to people that it's OK to do things Jesus forbids and warns us about. Such as on moral, marital and sexual matters or on issues that relate to how can we get to heaven rather than the torment of hell. Woe to those who cause others to sin, Jesus says! Whether that's me or any other Christian leader or any other Christian believer for that matter who are teaching people or leading people to go against the clear teaching of the Bible. I'll never forget one of my Bible College lecturers, who later became a Bishop, telling us all that everyone will go to heaven whether they have put their faith in Christ or not. I was thinking nonsense! Has he read Luke 16 and 17? Another lecturer taught that pornography can be a good thing and that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is not a problem. What does Jesus say about those who teach such things and are unrepentant? Verse 2:

"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."

Jesus says it's that serious. So, we must pay attention to ourselves, Jesus says. And not just in how we teach and lead but also in how we live and relate to others as we witness to Jesus. Verse 3 and 4: If a Christian sins, rebuke them and if he repents forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times (meaning however many times in the day), and turn to you seven times, saying, 'I repent', you must forgive them, however much they've hurt you, caused you pain and difficulty. Forgive them as Christ forgave you. Even to rebuke or tell someone off for misleading people can be hard enough, even when you know it's for everyone's good.

So how do Jesus' disciples react to this? How do you react to Jesus' words? Look at verse 5 - the disciples or apostles said what? 'Jesus that's so easy – I certainly don't need any help with that? O Lord that's great, yes Lord whatever you say – no problem I can do that? Look Jesus don't worry that's not a problem – nee bother like – hey it's so simple following you Jesus!' No! And I'm sure you're not thinking that either! Basically, they were thinking that humanly speaking it's pretty much impossible to do that. Look at what they said to Jesus: "Increase our faith". In other words, 'how can we live like that? Lord make us more full of faith to be able to live like that as we witness to Christ and perhaps particularly to be able to forgive like that.' Maybe you're thinking the same. What does Jesus say in response? Well, look at 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.""

The apostles want more faith but Jesus' answer says it's more about the genuineness of our faith and who our faith is in. He says that if there's real faith, then effects follow. Therefore, it's not so much great faith that's required but faith in a great God, which leads me to my main point.

Even Small Faith can Enable You to do Great Things

Or better: 'Even small faith (the size of a mustard seed) can enable you to do great things', or even better: 'Even small genuine faith (the size of a mustard seed) in a great God can make it possible for you to do great things.'

Now Jesus isn't suggesting that we as his followers occupy ourselves with pointless things like actually moving deeply rooted trees, such as a mulberry, into the sea. No, he's using the picture to make a point. So, what point is Jesus making? His concern is with the difficulty of doing so. He's saying that nothing is impossible to faith in a great God, such as living as a witness to Jesus as in verses 1-4, but also more besides. Genuine faith in a great God can achieve what reason, experience, and probability would deny, if it's done within God's will. You see the tree Jesus refers to was known for having roots which went down extremely deep in the ground. In fact, it was known for having roots which remained in the earth for 600 years. So even to move it at all would have been pretty impossible, never mind planting it in the sea. You certainly could not do it alone, if at all. And notice Jesus says here,

"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."

Now that is humanly impossible even with all the help in the world! Even Prince Charles who reportedly does talk to his plants and trees and who can call on lots of help as a member of the Royal Family can't do that. Have you ever tried telling deeply rooted trees or even short rooted trees to be uprooted and planted in the sea or even in the neighbour's garden? And have they ever obeyed you?! So, do you see, Jesus is talking about something that's huge and humanly impossible. And because of what he's already been talking about in this part of Luke he must be talking about people who are deeply rooted in sin and who are in danger of ending up in the torment of hell. We by ourselves can't change them but as Luke says earlier, nothing is impossible for God. And there are folk you know who are deeply rooted in sin, in ignoring God and going their own way, and you're tempted to think – it's impossible to reach them with the good news of Jesus, they would never even listen, never mind turn to Christ! Those people you love but who show no real interest in the Christian faith and who you think will never put their trust in Christ. And you're worried about where they will end up for eternity – because at the moment it doesn't look like heaven. But Jesus says here:

"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."

Even small faith can enable you to do great things. Even small faith (the size of a mustard seed) can enable you to do great things. Or… Even small genuine faith (the size of a mustard seed) in a great God can make it possible for you to do great things. You see I do want you to get this! Even small genuine faith (the size of a mustard seed) in a great God can make it possible for you to do great things, such as to believe that those who are deeply rooted in sin can be rescued from a lost eternity. And that's a huge thing – it's like moving a firmly rooted mulberry tree and putting it in the sea.

I remember one big guy, a tough looking naval officer, coming along to Christianity Explored a few years ago. I thought to myself I wonder what he's going to make of this! But his friend, a godly Christian who clearly had faith the size of at least a mustard seed in a great God, was a faithful witness to this guy, forgiving him when he got rather arrogant and abrasive, and in the end the naval officer was really keen to learn. He repented of his deeply rooted sin and put his trust in Christ and then went almost immediately to serve as an officer on board Mercy Ships – a Christian charity ship which brings health care and the gospel to many at African ports. He was literally like a tree which was moved into the sea! Nothing is impossible with God. Even small faith (the size of a mustard seed) in a great God can enable you to do great things.

Later we had several guys come to Christianity Explored who were pretty wild. Some didn't stay but one, an ex-offender, saw various people's faith and witness to him in the way they were very patient with him and forgave him again and again as he said sorry. And then this guy one Sunday just said he wanted to become a Christian. So, he prayed a prayer of commitment to Christ with me and another guy who brought him to me with faith that he was now ready to do so, after several run ins and close shaves.

Last Friday I took the funeral of a successful businessman. He knew the Christian message but gently rejected it. But last July his wife stepped out in faith and explained the good news of Jesus to him again. She then asked him – will you pray to accept Jesus into your life? To her great joy he said yes to Jesus just three months before he died. He'd come to realise that Jesus was now his only hope.

There are also the prodigals – those who turn and go their own way – do we have faith in a great God that they will return, saying sorry and putting their trust in Jesus and so find forgiveness and freedom?

We don't always see the results of our even small faith in a great God this side of heaven. Imagine that when you're in heaven someone comes up to you saying: 'do you remember – you pointed out what I was doing wrong before Jesus returned – thank you, it was so worth repenting and turning to the Lord Jesus. I didn't thank you at the time, in fact I was pretty angry and treated you badly – yet you kept on forgiving me. Your example showed me that real repentance does bring about forgiveness and a restored relationship.' You see even small faith in a great God can help us to live a godly life and can move people who are deeply rooted in sin. And don't we long to see that happen more and more? For St Joseph's to continue to grow with new believers and in its related ministries. And for us all to grow in faith in a great God and in living out the Christian faith so that others see Jesus.

But all that can, if we're not careful, lead to us become very proud, so Jesus goes on to teach us that this faith in a great God and what it leads to is simply what's expected of us as servants of God. It's not that we are great but that our faith is in a great God. But more of that next time.

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