Ordinary People Used in Extraordinary Ways
“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” (Lk.10:18)
An old farmer sat on the steps of his small shack chewing on a piece of straw. He was approached by a passing stranger who was looking for a cool drink of water. Wishing to start a conversation with the farmer, the stranger asked, “How is your cotton crop coming this year?”
“I ain’t got none”, replied the farmer.
“Didn’t you plant any?” asked the stranger.
“Nope,” said the farmer, “I was afraid the boll weevils would get it.”
“Well,” asked the stranger, “how is your corn?”
“Didn’t plant no corn neither,” replied the man, “I was afraid there wasn’t going to be any rain.”
“If you didn’t plant any cotton or corn, what did you plant?’ asked the man.
“Nothing,” said the farmer. “I just played it safe!”
Here we have a metaphor for one of the dangers faced by the modern church. It is understandable. For centuries the church has set about planting its seeds but, of late, it has been getting little apparent return for its efforts. It is tempting to give up the seed planting, gather behind closed doors, and focus on the spiritual feeding of its members. Why invest time, money and effort in a losing cause out there in the world? I have read that 8 out of 10 church members have never even invited anyone else to church but, somehow, I think even this statistic is too optimistic.
How different the situation in Jesus’ day! He has been busy – very busy – travelling about healing, teaching. Many have responded to his message, so there is good reason for today’s episode. Talk about a good return on investment! The harvest is so large and ripe, Jesus needs a bit of help. He can’t be everywhere, so he appoints helpers and send them ahead of him to every place where he himself intended to go. In the symbolism of the number 70, that means to every nation of the world.
Here we have a a model for the organisation of the church. Too often in the church today, a few faithful people do nearly all of the work. Ministers get in the bad habit of doing the work themselves (and I’m as bad as any), rather than asking for assistance from the laity, simply because it’s easier just to do it than take time to try to find help.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell of the call of the twelve to serve with Jesus, but in today’s reading, Luke depicts Jesus as establishing a more extensive, broader-base. This is good management, good organisation.
But, in my experience, that is just the problem in the church: good organisation. It is frustrating to ministers and lay people alike to have a vision of a mission church at work, spreading the gospel, yet spending so much time and energy keeping house: endless meetings and mundane details that seems a long way from the kingdom of God and not having much to do with planting seeds. Much of a minister’s time is expended in activities that have nothing to do with theology, biblical interpretation or proclaiming the Gospel to a needy world.
Instead of attending meetings, trying to smooth over people’s ruffled feathers, and occasionally worrying about deficiencies in income, ministers would much rather be in the full-time pursuit of the kingdom of God. Wouldn’t you?
But this is the church. Here we are today, mired in the winter blues of July. Attendances down. Members that aren’t in Queensland would rather be. As usual the budget is over-spent and under-subscribed.
Oh, we have our occasional high points. We can get worked up for a week or two about some great community need. We give a bit of food to help the hungry and serve the community through “the dove”. But then enthusiasm wanes as we realise that our little offering won’t save the millions perishing from hunger around the world. Welcome to the nitty-gritty, everyday reality of the ordinary church.
Jesus sends us out, two by two, or three by three, flings us up against the great injustices of the world and we break like waves dashing upon the rocks. Our vision wavers, our enthusiasm dissipates. We look at those churches which seem to have more commitment and more youth, and envy sets in. We admire the courage of those who, like the seventy, door knock with the gospel, but shake our heads at the futility of their effort. How they march forth on a Sunday afternoon, returning at tea time. They knocked, but no-one was home, or it was not a convenient time to talk, or they were allowed in to talk while the occupants stayed glued to the football game on TV.
Then the door-knockers return to the church on Wednesday night to make their reports. George couldn’t make it because he had to work late, Sue had something else to do – wax the floor or something like that. The apologies rolled in and, as usual, half were there to make their reports. And after the reports are collated, Jesus says, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning!”
“I saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning!”
They look at their reports; they scratch their heads. The chairperson glances down at the agenda for the meeting – nothing there.
“I saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning!”
Obviously Jesus knows something of which no one else is aware.
And then it starts to sink in. God intends to use us for some goal that is beyond our seeing. In our ordinary, everyday lives, God is working on some larger matters. We look at the church and see mundane meetings, ordinary folk, an unspectacular routine. Yet Jesus sees heaven and earth being transformed through us. We have been commissioned to be part of a revolutionary overthrow of the powers of death. We can’t always see it, human as we are, caught in the everyday, ordinary stuff of the church.
Yet in us – in our meetings, Sunday school classes, food collections for the poor, passing the offering plate, taking the time to speak to a child after the service – the reign of God is taking shape. Two by two, God sends ordinary people like us to be a sign, a signal, a witness, an enactment of God’s evolving kingdom. Through us God’s kingdom is breaking forth. In us.
We look around at our congregation and we see the church, the poor old, ordinary, ageing church, full of ordinary people like you and me. But Jesus looks at us and our witness here, with all of its deficiencies, and says to our delight and amazement, “I saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.”