TRA 22nd June, 2003
The Promise of Impossible Achievement
In the barren, windswept high mountains of Afghanistan the world's most powerful armies are locked in battle with terrorists that live among stockpiled armaments in tunnels and caves. We watch as high altitude bombers drop their powerful explosives to earth guided onto targets by lasers from soldiers on the ground. Watching at a great distance there is a feeling of utter helplessness. People pray. But does prayer influence the land advance in Afghanistan over the windswept, rocky country, covered with hidden land mines? In small gullies and trenches, men fire at each other with the most up-to-date weapons. We watch the TV news - helpless! It may appear we are helpless, but at the very time we feel most depressed about the news of our world - in Israel, Zimbabwe, Iran, Afghanistan - God is at work. Sometimes it takes years to show that, back then, God was working.
Once Britain was locked into its worst social degradation for a century. In the middle of the 18thcentury the Industrial Revolution had brought with it a phase of utter misery. One in every five houses in London sold gin. Four out of every five children born in England died before their fifth birthday; thousand of families were herded together in the most unsanitary conditions; unemployment and scourging sickness swept the land; poverty of a kind we find rare today even in places like Bangladesh was commonplace in the great cities of Britain. France was in a similar state and continued to decline for another 40 years until the nation exploded in the French Revolution. It was in that era of darkness and overwhelming misery and squalor, when the church was weak, that a man went into a small prayer meeting in Aldersgate Street, London.
There a different kind of revolution began which changed Britain and saved the people from the bloodshed that was soon to engulf France. No one knew what was happening in Aldersgate Street, but in the Houses of Parliament an angry debate began when a British seaman, Captain Jenkins, displayed his severed ear to the shocked politicians. He announced that it had been cut off by the captain of a Spanish warship. The outrage was so great that Britain declared against Spain the war known to history as the war of Jenkin's Ear. Yet the most important thing that happened in the year 1738 was not what happened to Jenkin's ear or the war against the Span. It was what happened in the prayer meeting in Aldersgate Street. What happened changed history forever.
The man was 36 years of age and had he died at that time, nothing in his life would have been worth remembering. That encourages us older people who wonder if we have missed the boat! The years to come can be the most significant and fulfilling. He was a loser and a failure. He had had an unfortunate love affair. He was a Church of England minister unsuccessful in his ministry.
He related badly with people. He had gone as a missionary to Georgia in America but had done so badly that he literally fled from the territory. He became abjectly afraid in a fierce storm when he feared for his life. All that was to change. John Wesley, that timorous, upright, pedantic boring Anglican preacher, met with Peter Bohler of the Moravian Church. For two months they talked together and then, in a prayer meeting in the small room in Aldersgate Street, John Wesley underwent a strange heart-warming experience he made him a different man.
During the next 51 years he preached 40,000 sermons. He rode his horse over a quarter of a million miles of Britain, more than any other traveller. He wrote 200 books. He influenced life in the United States, and his influence spread to many other countries, including Australia. The newspapers of 1738 were full of Jenkins' Ear, and the coming war with Spain, but God was at work in Aldersgate Street. I cannot tell you where God is at work at this moment but while we are watching countries at war, God is somewhere at work for His people.
How does God work in a person's life so that He will use that person to change lives, to change the destiny of a country, and perhaps change the course of history?
There is an example of such a man. We call him the Rich Young Ruler. He was decent, well educated and upright. He was a polite and clever young man, much the same as John Wesley. Maybe he had also been disappointed in love and had areas of failure in his life! We know that, like John Wesley, he had been careful to keep all the commandments and do all the right things. He came to Jesus and said, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" In that question there is a mistake we often make. We are always saying to God, "What must I do?" The essence of the Gospel is not at all about what I do. It is what God does! This is the way Paul expressed it: "Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved. ..through faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast." Ephesians 2:4-9
With the Rich Young Ruler we often say, "Lord, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" It is not the result of anything you can do, it is God's gift to you. God has made us what we are. In our union with Christ Jesus, He has created us for a life of good deeds. Note the difference! It is not what we do that saves us but when we are saved we are expected to live lives of good deeds. Jesus showed the young man that very point. At first Jesus spoke to him in the man's own terms.
He said, "If you want to enter life, obey the commandments." "Which ones?" the man inquired. When Jesus replied He did not mention all of the commandments, He referred to those that have most to do with our relationships with others. These are mostly in negative terms. "Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony." Then Jesus added in positive mode: "Honour your father and mother," and "love your neighbour as yourself." "All these I have kept," the young man said. "What do I still lack?" Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." To receive eternal life, it was necessary that one's behaviour must be scrupulous. This means keeping the commandments. The way to be right with God is to live a clean, decent life. Wesley tried. He prayed, he fasted, he did not commit adultery, he did not steal, he did not lie, he respected his father and mother. That might be the way to start, but it is not the finish. Much more is needed for a person to have eternal life. It is never enough to say, "But I'm going to heaven, aren't I? Am I not a good person? I don't lie or cheat. I've never murdered anyone. I keep out of jail. I brush my teeth!"
Good for you! But that does not mean that you are going to receive eternal life. All that means is that to date you have lived a scrupulous life. It does not make you a Christian. It makes you a good living person. No one can point the finger of suspicion or guilt at you, but you must do more. Jesus said that more is required. You must care for others as well as yourself. You must love your neighbour. The young man had a good record. He said: "All these I have kept. What do I still lack?" There was an obstacle in the path of the young man. He may not have recognized it, but Jesus knew it and He said, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven."
Jesus turns the young man from inward looking at his own life to outwardly doing something for others. Whatever you have, don't hoard it. If it is money, give to the poor. If it is musical talent, use it for others. If you have a gift for hospitality, share with others. It is not only money that may stand between us and God. It may be anything about which you are proud. It may be any possession that occupies your time, or that keeps you from caring. Jesus said, "Live a clean, scrupulous life, take whatever you value and use it for others, and you will have riches in heaven." Jesus moved from the selfish to the social. When God moves us from thinking about ourselves to thinking about others, we build up energy and strength that otherwise we would not have. Jesus says, "If you want to be perfect, sell whatever it is that stands between you and God and give it to the poor". Not just scrupulous living, but social living, caring for others. John Wesley, in that Aldersgate Street room, had led a life that was personally scrupulous.
But he now found a concern for people everywhere. That was what sent him around the kingdom on that horse, travelling a quarter of a million miles in all weathers, preaching an average of 15 times a week. Among his 40,000 sermons were some given to miners at 5 o'clock in the morning as they came off shift, some to people as they went to market, some during personal attacks and vile abuse, as people hurled excreta and cow dung, showering him with slime and mud - but he kept on speaking for the poor and needy. "I love the poor," he said. Time and again, John Wesley showed his concern for the unemployed, the poor, the exploited seamstresses, the conditions of the miners, those who worked in the mills. He attacked slavery. He cared for those in the work houses, the seafarers - over and over he showed his concern: labour relationships, liquor reform, wherever there were the poor and the hurt.
The Methodist Church grew up with this example, caring for the social needs of people. Here at Wesley Mission Sydney, in our 190th Anniversary Week, we call people to scrupulous living, but also to social concern, especially for the poor. But it would be wrong to stop there. Jesus not only said, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." Then He said "Come, follow me." Not only was the call to go to others, it was also to come to Him. Here is an emphasis upon the spiritual life. This too was a part of John Wesley's new experience. There was a call to scrupulous living, social welfare and care for others, but there was also the call to a deeper spiritual life. The changed life, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the spiritual disciplines were all essential.
The early Methodists gathered in prayer groups, in Bible study groups, in cell groups, to memorize scripture, and to sing the great hymns of faith - many written by his brother Charles. Standing at John Wesley's memorial in Westminister Abbey, I walked around the three sides and I noted three great sentences he uttered: "All the world has become my parish." Here is the evangelistic thrust of Wesley. "God buried His workmen but His work continues." Here is the faith of John Wesley. "Best of all is, God is with us." Here is the trust of John Wesley. It is not enough to live a good scrupulous life. It is not enough to care for other people in acts of charity and kindness, social commitment, good though those things are. There must also be spiritual dedication in trust.
It all came together for Wesley that day in Aldersgate Street, London. He tells us in his journal, "I went unwillingly." Someone took him along because it would be good for him. The evening wore on. "At a quarter to nine, as the minister was reading from Luther's preface to Paul's Letter to the Romans, and describing the change which God makes in a heart through faith in Christ, Wesley said, "I felt my heart strangely warmed, and an assurance was given to me that He, Jesus Christ, has taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death?" …Then it pleased God to kindle a fire which I trust shall never be extinguished." If you can say that, you should externalise it. Move it into the open. When you feel that your heart strangely warmed by the Spirit of God, you should witness to the wonderful thing that God has done. Scrupulous living. Social concern. Spiritual commitment! That type of life is His promise to us to enable impossible achievement.
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