Ploughing New Ground - Sunday, 5th January, 1997
There are many similes for commencing a new year. We are starting a new chapter in the book of life. We are turning over a new page. We are venturing where no man had been before. This year I have been thinking: we are breaking new ground.
There is something of the explorer in each of us we start our venture into the New Year. It is like an owner of a new home, who plans where the trees and lawns and garden will be, then starts digging the first sod. We are like farmers who have taken over a new farm, and the fences have been erected and the crop planned, and now we start the tractor and commence ploughing new ground.
I do not have any farming experience of any worth on this subject. I speak from ignorance. But I can imagine what it is like to plough new ground. Jesus gave us a telling use of this simile when he was speaking about the perseverance required for a person to be a disciple: Luke 9:62 "Jesus replied, "No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God."
It is good on this first Sunday of the year to remind ourselves what it means that we have elected to be a disciple of Jesus. There are a number of points in this verse that bear repeating:
1. BE WILLING TO TRY SOMETHING NEW. "No one who puts his hand to the plough..." Jesus is calling us to try something different when He calls us to follow Him. To be His disciple is not like anything else we just elect to do, or to try. It is a commitment from our willingness to put our hand to the plough.
Work in the service of Jesus is open to anyone, of any race, culture, colour, social or economic standing. Anyone in this church is entitled to use their gifts in God's work. We encourage it. I am thrilled by the diversity of people who support our activities. The week before Christmas we had a dinner to thank our volunteers who serve as part of this congregation. Over a hundred people were named from over a dozen different races and countries of origin, and included people from the most diverse social and economic backgrounds. Anyone is invited to serve, to put her or his hand to the plough.
This is not a life time entrapment. Jesus wants you to follow Him all the days of your life, but the place of your service and the kind of service you offer will change from time to time as your skills are enhanced and your opportunities allow.
Jesus called his original twelve disciples. Now more people wanted to follow Him. In Luke 9, Jesus asks them if they are willing to pay to price of being a disciple. He raises a number of issues where discipleship and following him will mean a totally new way of evaluating your possessions and home, your family and relatives, your responsibilities and what is required of you. To be a disciple means a total commitment. It is like a farmer who starts to break new ground and who needs to keep his eye on the task.
There is an interesting echo here from an event in the Old Testament. When the great prophet Elijah was seeking someone to be his disciple and continue his ministry, he found a man called Elisha ploughing with his oxen outside his village.
Elijah placed his cloak round his shoulders as a symbol that Elisha had been chosen. Elisha, immediately killed his oxen, made a fire from his plough and oxen yoke, cooked the meat and gave the meat to all the villagers, and left following Elijah. That was commitment. There was no going back. The farmer had burnt his plough behind him. When Jesus calls us to follow Him, it is open to anyone to respond. But following Him requires a total commitment from anyone who follows.
2. KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE GOAL. I know nothing about ploughing. My entire experience is confined to once driving a tractor pulling a plough when I was aged eight! But I did learn some important lessons then. My Uncle Jack and Aunt Bella grew potatoes on a hundred acres at Nar Nar Goon, Victoria. When the time for harvesting potatoes came I was enjoying school holidays with my cousin John on the farm. The field was covered with potato plants as high as my waist. Each potato could spread over two metres and so the whole field was densely packed with the green vines and leaves. What you could not see were the lines of plants as they mingled together. Underneath were furrows and mounds in which the potatoes were growing.
Uncle Jack told us the night before of a local farmer who was training a monkey to drive the tractor while he sat on the potato harvester. He roared with laughter. His neighbour could drive his tractor with a monkey, but in the morning he would teach his eight year old nephew to drive the tractor. He was open to bets on which was the better driver: Gordon or the monkey! The monkey was limited, but Gordon came from the city.
I was excited to learn the gears and how to steer and the tractor took off dragging the plough and the harvester behind it. The combine harvester was much bigger than the tractor, and uncle and aunt sat on low seats watching the potatoes being turned over. It was important to keep the tractor directly over the planted furrows so the four plough shares could cut deep into the earth, turn it up and over the continuous metal belts which sifted the earth letting that fall back to the ground but keep the potatoes moving upwards along the metal belts shaking the earth from them, until they eventually fell into the big boxes on the back of the harvester. Later they would be washed and graded.
Very soon I got the hang of driving the tractor and looking round watched the others at work on the harvester. Uncle Jack roared: "Keep your eye on the marker. You are driving off the furrow. You are slicing up the potatoes, not harvesting them. God, you are dumb. Even the monkey keeps on the track! Don't turn round. Drive along the furrows!" The furrows were there under the vines and leaves. What the man or boy or monkey driving the tractor had to do was to keep his eye on the marker on the fence at the far side of the paddock. That's how you ploughed a straight furrow. Jesus said: "No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God." Whatever else discipleship means Paul put it clearly in his experience: Phil 3:13 "One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." The author of Hebrews put it: Heb 12:2 "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith."
3. CONTINUE AND DON'T QUIT. The furrows that day went on and on without end. The day was so long. The hours passed slowly. It was hard work. I had no option. Once I said I wanted to drive the tractor, the plough and harvester the job was mine. If a monkey could do it, so could a boy from Box Hill. But no monkey ever felt as I did that night at dusk as we returned home. Uncle Jack let me drive the tractor along the road and park it in the shed. Then we wearily trod the path to the farm house. Uncle Jack was impressed. He said as he sat down at the meal table. "That was a good day's work young fellow. Worth about ten bob. You worked like a man. Want a beer?" He was saying something like, "You have passed the test. You have been accepted. You stuck at it and you are OK with us." But I have always wondered if the bit about the monkey was true.
All discipleship in following Jesus requires hard work, effort and persistence. Sometimes you feel like giving up because things are difficult. Discipleship requires that you do not quit. Clinton Howell wrote it like this:
"When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you're trudging seems all up hill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest if you must - but don't you quit.
Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As everyone of us sometimes learns,
And many a failure turns about
When he might have won had he stuck it out;
So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit -
It's when things seem worst that you mustn't quit."
4. KEEP FIT FOR SERVICE. That is why you are called to be disciple - to be fit for service. I noted at our "thankyou" to our volunteers they all kept themselves fit for service. There are other people in this church and others who want to have the places of distinction and do all the talking, but they are full of themselves. Discipleship is not a status, it is a service: "fit for service in the kingdom of God."
People who are well motivated to help others improve their skills sand abilities. Tom Peters, the world famous management expert, states in "In Search Of Excellence" (p.58/9) that "researchers studying motivation find that the prime factor is simply the self-perception among motivated subjects that they are in fact doing well. In one experiment, adults were given ten puzzles to solve. All ten were exactly the same. They worked on them, turned them in, and were given the results at the end. In fact, the results they were given were fictitious. Half of the exam takers were told that they had done well, seven out of ten correct. The other half were told they had done poorly, seven out of ten wrong. Then all were given another ten puzzles (the same for each person). The half who had been told that they had done well in the first round really did do better in the second, and the other half really did do worse. Mere association with past personal success apparently leads to more persistence, higher motivation, or something that makes us do better."
That is a key concept for this new year: make yourself open for some area of service in God's Kingdom. Offer yourself. Associate with successful people and a great church to grow in your skills.
5. LIVE IN THE KINGDOM OF GOD. Beverley and I have ten grandchildren with another two on the way. They were all together on several occasions over Christmas and the New Year. Our four children and their spouses have produced their marvellous young families of cousins who enjoy each others' company a great deal. As I thought of how we can help their parents prepare these children for the years ahead, one fact grabbed my attention. Here we adults are thinking about entering the third Millennium in three years, and the Olympics 2000, but all of these grandchildren, according to actuarial tables should still be alive in the year 2070. What should they be learning now to help them in 2070?
Nothing we can teach them now about science, technology, information, education, transport, finance, economics, business, will be any longer relevant. All of that knowledge will be superseded and old fashioned. Only knowledge of faith which determines how we should live together will abide. The one thing that will influence them to year 2070 is what grandparents can still give them. Faith in the Kingdom of God is abiding over the centuries. "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever." Their lives can only we enriched as they participate in the Kingdom of God.
Their discipleship to Jesus will be the one continuing influence on their lives throughout this year and the next seventyfive years to come! We have a task still to help them into the Kingdom, and they will have the task to grow in His service. And none of us "who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God." What a message of commitment to commence the New Year!
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