A sermon by David Raey
Those of us with children or grandchildren may be familiar with the so called magic writing boards. You write or draw something on them and then by turning a dial or sliding a handle what you write or draw is erased. The plastic sheet is clear once again. If you made a mess it is instantly cleared up and you can start again from scratch.
If only life was like that! Those words we spoke in haste or anger. Those wrongful things we did out of spite or carelessness. Those entangled and utterly complex relationships. Those twisted family sagas. Those haunting memories. If only we could turn a dial or slide a handle and make everything fresh and clean again.
The truth is that life is not like a magic writing board. What we have done or said cannot be undone or unsaid. We can’t actually go back to the starting line of life. And yet we can have a fresh start. Today we look at how Jesus offered a fresh start to some people in his time and how he can bring a fresh start to us.
Back in my schooldays we would play games in the playground during lunch break. Teams would be chosen by the individuals who seemed to be the natural leaders of the playground society. The fitter and faster people were chosen first. Those who were considered a liability in the game were left to last. They were picked grudgingly, if at all. Some discovered at an early age what it was like to be rejected, to be on the margins.
Back in Jesus’ time, it was not the bumbling and fumbling schoolboy that was on the outer. It was rather the tax collectors. They were despised because they were working for the hated Roman occupying power. And because they tended to be corrupt. And of course, no one truly likes someone who takes money from their pockets.
They were just the sorts of people Jesus tended to mix with. He was severely criticised for such associations by those who figured they were morally superior. Jesus responded to such attacks by using an analogy. He likened himself to a doctor. If he was going to make sick people well he had to meet with the sick people. A doctor who refused to have contact with sick people was in the wrong profession. He came to seek and save the lost, and you couldn’t get much more lost than these tax collectors.
He brought a fresh start to a tax collector called Matthew or Levi. He went from pocketing customs duties from the populace to writing an account of Jesus’ life and teaching. Matthew was so delighted with being given such a fresh start that he threw a party and invited Jesus as well as his old cronies. Jesus mixed with this bad bunch not because he approved of their behaviour but because he wanted to bring a fresh start to them. He reckoned that he couldn’t take them forward to a new life unless he first met them where they were in their old life.
And then there was that famous tax collector called Zacchaeus. This short of stature reject heard Jesus was in town. He wanted to see him for himself. Unable to get a good view because of the crowds, he climbed a tree. Jesus stopped near the tree and noticed him. He invited him down. And very radically invited himself to eat at his house. This was a very significant gesture in those days. It was a mark of acceptance rather than a mere social formality.
This caused consternation among the religious leaders. They would run a mile from consorting with such corrupt collaborators. They might be tainted by such contact. But Jesus turns this idea on its head. Rather than being concerned about being infected with the badness of such people, Jesus wants to infect them with his goodness. Cleaning up the mess in the lives of needy people involves getting our hands dirty and yet without betraying our own ethical standards.
But we must not reduce Jesus’ message of a fresh start to giving tax collectors and the like an indulgent pat on the head. He wants them to change their ways. Which both Matthew and Zacchaeus did. Such a change of ways is called repentance. It didn’t make Jesus accept them but made it possible to receive his acceptance. Jesus didn’t call them to repent before he met with them. Repentance is what happened once he met them.
Then as now, we change for the better in a climate of love and acceptance not harshness and rejection.
Back in 1905 a young physics student submitted a doctoral thesis to a University in Switzerland. It was rejected as irrelevant and fanciful. That student didn’t let such a failure be the last word and so reworked his thesis. This time he succeeded, and so the name of Albert Einstein became famous as did the proposal in his thesis: the theory of relativity.
Back in 1894, an English teacher at the prestigious Harrow school in England wrote a scathing report on one of his students. He summed up this student’s achievement with the phrase “a conspicuous lack of success.” That student didn’t let that failure be the last word. So it was that Winston Churchill went on to be one of the all time great leaders, ironically largely as a result of his command of English!
Failure need not be final. Especially when we bring Jesus into the picture. Jesus brings a fresh start to those who think their failures consign them to the scrapheap. Jesus doesn’t have scrapheaps. He knows we all fail and he reminds us that we overcome not by our human heroics but by helpless dependence on him. We see something of this in how he dealt with Peter.
Peter presented himself as the bold and brave one. The others might let Jesus down but not him. Jesus suggests otherwise. Sure enough, Peter disowns Jesus three times during his arrest and trial. We can scarcely imagine what Peter felt like during the crucifixion. An utter failure himself and perhaps even a disciple of another failure. Then again, we can scarcely imagine his feelings when he discovered the empty tomb a few days later. And we might wonder what went through his mind that early morning beside the lake when Jesus appeared to them all. Great delight no doubt, but perhaps tinged with some apprehension. Particularly after Jesus wanted to have a few words with him.
Was this to be the exit interview? Was this to be a stern lecture about the need to be strong and committed? Was he to be put on some sort of probation? It was none of these things. Jesus rather invited Peter to continue his journey with him. And he did so by asking him three times if Peter loved him. And in so doing he gets to the heart of the matter. If Jesus can be assured of our love for him, he can get to work on all the other things. Love is the defining quality of our relationship with Jesus.
Jesus brings a fresh start to Peter by showing him failure is not final. He sees something genuine in this weak and cowardly and impulsive man. He doesn’t despise him for his weakness. He will help him in it. And he is likewise with us. We let him down repeatedly, we break our promises and fail in our commitments. Jesus invites us to start again, only wanting us to love him in our own imperfect ways. He knows we change for the better when we know we are accepted and loved in spite of our failures.
Jesus isn’t off looking for spiritual super heroes. He is looking for people who seek him in the midst of their fallibilities and frustrations. He reminds us that just because we fail we are not failures. He brings a fresh start. He tells us that to fail is not to end our journey but to make a new beginning on it.
Some relationships just can’t seem to be put right. No matter how hard we try. This is a reminder to us that it is humanly impossible to ensure all relationships are as they should be. Not even God can do that. It takes two to make a relationship work. And yet we need not despair. There can be times when God steps in and brings a fresh start to an otherwise damaged relationship. Let’s look at one such example from the Bible. It concerns Paul the apostle and a young man called John Mark, the one who wrote the gospel.
Even in the good old days of the early church there were relationship difficulties. One such was the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas about their colleague Mark. Barnabas wanted to take Mark along on their next journey. Paul refused and so they went their different ways. Apparently Paul didn’t trust Mark as a result of some earlier incident. And so there is a clouded relationship with Barnabas and a fractured one with Mark.
We now fast forward to a few years later. Paul is in a Roman prison and Mark is with him, though not likely imprisoned with him. Paul is ready to send Mark on an important mission to the Christians in Colossae. And on another occasion, still in prison, Paul writes to Timothy and asks him to send Mark back to him as he is useful in his ministry.
It seems that out of the rubble of a ruined relationship has come a fresh start. Over some years, in some ways we do not know, things have been put right. Not just in some polite or formal way, but in a deep and even affectionate way. We can assume Paul applied his own teaching to his situation. He speaks of the need to forgive. He warns against harbouring anger. He cautions against hasty and unwise speech. He urges humility, after the example and pattern of Jesus. It seems that in relation to Mark he practised what he preached.
In his case, forgiveness, forbearance, self control, humility, all made a difference. Paul took those steps and obviously Mark bore no ill will to Paul either. God was at work reconciling these two disciples so they could together fulfil his purposes. Sadly, it doesn’t always work out this way. As has been said, it takes two to make it happen. Or more accurately, it takes three. The two parties involved plus the work of the Spirit of God.
A fresh start in relationships is possible, with the gracious help of God. Will we resolve not to chew the cud of our hurt and resentment and instead offer forgiveness? Will we resolve not to let anger consume us, leading to words which will penetrate and wound? Will we concede that perhaps we need to a bit of tidying up of our own lives as well as hoping the other person does likewise?
It is possible to breathe the fresh air of God’s forgiveness and grace instead of succumbing to the stale fumes of old hurts. Our God specialises in mending broken relationships, although he doesn’t barge in and do it irrespective of our attitudes. He helps us start again because he is always the God of the second chance, the fresh start.
This excerpt from a poem by Patricia St John sums things up well:
My Master an elixir hath that turns
All base and worthless substances to gold.
From rubble stones He fashions palaces
Most beautiful and stately to behold.
He garners with a craftsman’s skilful care
All that we break and weeping cast away.
His eyes see uncut opals in the rock
And shapely vessels in our trampled clay.
The sum of life’s lost opportunities,
The broken friendships, and the wasted years,
These are His raw materials;
His hands rest on fragments, weld them with His tears.
He comes, with feet deliberate and slow,
Who counts a contrite heart His sacrifice.
And stooping very low engraves with care
His name, indelible, upon our dust;
And from the ashes of our self-despair
Kindles a flame of hope and humble trust.
He seeks no second site on which to build,
But on the old foundation, stone by stone,
Cementing sad experience with grace,
Fashions a stronger temple of His own.