Here’s my offering for last Sunday, the gospel reading being Luke’s account of how Jesus sent out the seventy.
Holidays are supposed to be relaxing. So why does getting ready for a holiday seem to be so stressful? Trying to decide what to pack and what to leave behind. Deciding what things might prove to be indispensable. Making sure that you’ve got all the right clothes. Then trying to fit it all into the luggage.
When our children were younger we regularly had holidays in North Wales. The problem with holidays in this country, and particularly in Wales, is that you can never be certain what the weather will be like. So you have to pack clothes for hot weather, cold weather, wet weather – and it all has to go in somewhere. And the children could never quite grasp the concept that the space in a car is limited. A car isn’t like the Tardis, and you can’t pack your entire wardrobe and all your games and your portable TV so you can watch it in your bedroom and your entire family of cuddly toys. Trying to fit everything in was a nightmare. We were even known on occasion – and I’m almost embarrassed to say this – to give in and take two cars because it was easier. We could have done with something like the luggage in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, a chest which had infinite room inside and ran around after you on its own legs.
Modern society no longer travels light. I used to look back with longing to family holidays when I was a child. We had no car so went on holiday by coach or train. This meant that all the luggage had to be carried. All the clothes we needed for four of us – my parents, my sister and myself – went into two suitcases. And not particularly large suitcases either, like today’s lightweight luggage with wheels and pulling handles. My mother, being the liberated woman that she was, made it quite clear that it wasn’t a woman’s job to carry a suitcase, so my father would carry them both on the half-hour walk down to the station. We always seemed to have everything we needed and I’ve often wondered how we managed to get everything in.
Today’s gospel lesson is about travelling light. Which brings me to this week’s joke which by pure chance I read last night in an article from The Independent newspaper on jokes scientists tell each other. I’m afraid you need to be a physicist or a Start Trek fan to understand this one!
A photon checked in to a hotel. The man behind the desk said to the photon, “Do you have any luggage?” and the photon replied, “No, I’m travelling light.”
Travelling light! Jesus instructed the Seventy to travel carrying no purse, no bag, and no sandals. That doesn’t sound very comfortable. We like our comfort. But this reading is also disturbing to us because of its tone. Jesus sent out seventy disciples, not on holiday to relax and have a nice time, but to proclaim the message, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” From the sounds of it, they may have gone door to door. Or they may have preached on street corners. They may even have managed to get an occasional invitation to speak in a synagogue. Jesus didn’t seem to care where they preached – only that they did it. The message from Jesus is – get out there and tell people I’m coming, and leave behind anything and everything that is going to get in your way or hold you back!
Now, we tend not to like to talk to other people about being a Christian. We think it would be nice if more people came to church but “Each to his own” we say. But Jesus didn’t say, Live and let live. Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into the harvest.” And when Jesus speaks of a harvest, he injects a real urgency into his call. When the harvest is ready there can be no waiting around while you think about getting the harvest in. At any time, a bad storm or hail or blight or any number of things can ruin the crop. A crop that is ready for harvest this week will rot next week. When a crop is ready, the farmer has to be ready too. When the harvest is ready it is not the time to overhaul the tractor. It is not the time to start looking for help. It is the time to bring in the harvest. Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few.” He is telling us that we are dealing with an urgent crisis. And that’s is as true today as it was when he first said it. There is a job to be done and we must get out and do it!
And so Jesus sent seventy disciples to get the job done. He told those first disciples not to waste time. Travel light! Don’t engage in small talk along the way! Don’t look for fine accommodation! Eat what they put in front of you! Do something to help people as a way of establishing your credibility! Heal the sick! Feed the hungry! Then proclaim – to those who listen and to those who don’t – “The kingdom of God has come near.”
That is still the church’s task today – the proclamation of the kingdom of God. We are always tempted to forget that. Or we are tempted to think that it’s only the clergy’s job. Jesus didn’t do everything himself! Neither did Jesus just send out the twelve disciples – those he had chosen especially! He sent out seventy – he sent out ordinary people to proclaim the kingdom of God. We are tempted to believe that our job is just to keep the doors open. Or to preserve an historic tradition. Or to be friendly. Many congregations more closely resemble a twenty-first-century civic club than a first-century church. We gather together to worship and to do good works – and sometimes all we accomplish are church fêtes and building maintenance. And sometimes we go to church – and sometimes we don’t because we think we’ve more important things to do. It may be a fine thing to have fêtes or to maintain a building for the sake of Christ but they are simply a means to an end – they are not the heart and soul of our mission but simply things we do in order to help us achieve it. For the heart and soul of our mission is the worship of the king of all, and the bringing into relationship with that king those who do not know him.
Jesus told these seventy disciples, “Cure the sick who are there.” Then “Say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” Our mission is to proclaim the kingdom of God. To do that, first we must become loyal subjects of the king – we must let Jesus be Lord over our lives. And the problem is too many people haven’t done that yet! The kingdom of God is the most important thing in our lives! It must be – or else what’s the point? And we must make the decision, each and every one of us – either Jesus is Lord of all, or he is no Lord at all. There’s no halfway measure here.
And we must do all we can to ensure that we personally obey the call of Jesus to proclaim, to preach, the kingdom of God.
And that means that we must personally proclaim the kingdom of God to family, friends and neighbours – proclaim it to all who will listen and all who won’t. The next time you have relatives round on a Sunday, instead of saying, “I won’t be in church next week – I’ve got family coming over,” bring them with you. And tell them why going to church to worship is so important! And why you’re going to church even if they don’t want to. Most people who join a church in this country do so because of someone they already know – either someone from the church took them or someone from the church ministered to them in some way. Not many people go because they woke up one morning and thought it might be a good idea!
When Jesus told the disciples to travel light and not to greet people along the way, he was really telling them to approach their task with great urgency. Don’t worry about your personal comfort! Don’t waste time in conversation! Get out there and proclaim this message: “The kingdom of God has come near….” Jesus clearly believed that this was an urgent message. He clearly believed that he was sending these disciples on a life-and-death mission. He clearly believed that people’s lives, people’s eternal destiny, hung in the balance.
The question for us today is whether we still believe these things. Do we really believe that ours is an urgent message? Do we really believe that we are embarked on a life-and-death ministry? Do we really believe that lives hang in the balance? Many of us have lost that sense of urgency. We live in a world that stresses tolerance. Whatever you believe is fine. We find this business of proclamation mildly embarrassing. We are far more comfortable with a ministry where we open the doors and see who comes rather than a ministry where we go to the people. But Jesus tells us to go out into the streets and to proclaim, “The kingdom of God has come near….”; to go and tell people who believe in no Lord at all that Jesus is Lord of all!
Jesus says to us – to all of us – Go! Travel light! Forget about your personal comfort! Take no thought for the quality of your accommodation! Do good works! Cure the sick and feed the hungry! And then get on with your real mission. Proclaim, “The kingdom of God has come near!” Tell people about me! If we cannot do that then it is no wonder that so many people in this country think that Jesus is no Lord at all! We must go out into streets, make sure that people know that the kingdom of God has come near, and let them know that Jesus is Lord of all!