Mark 4: a fruitful gospel

In Mark 4, we get various parables about preaching and the Kingdom of God. A lot of these are quite well known, especially the first, which is the Parable of the Sower. The interesting thing is, though, that other than the initial planting in each of the parables, the farmer does not do much else until harvest.

First, in the Parable of the Sower, the farmer only does that. He casts the seed. The rest of what happens is not really due to any effort on his part. The destruction of the seed is not because of faulty action of the farmer; there is no judgement on him for where his seed lands. Then the seed that does produce the crop does so because of the soil, not the efforts of the farmer. Even the multiplication of fruit seems arbitrary. Jesus says that some seeds produce crop thirty times the original, some sixty, some one hundred. What Jesus doesn’t tell us is the reason. He doesn’t say, because the farmer was diligent in his weeding, watering and fertilising. It just says the seed that fell on good soil produced crop of some number.

In another parable within this chapter, it seems to be making this point more explicitly. Again it uses an analogy of seeds. Verses 27-28 says,

Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.

The passage literally tells us that it does not matter what the farmer does. The farmer could rest or toil, but the seed, which symbolises the Kingdom of God here, grows regardless. The farmer does not even know how it grows; we, if we are honest with ourselves, don’t know how the Kingdom of God grows either. The seed produces crop all by itself.

Of course, that does not mean that God does not use us and that we do not have a role in spreading the gospel. (This has been used as an argument against mission; it’s up to God not us.) But what it does tell us is that it is not under our control. So I don’t know why some churches are number obsessed when the Bible literally says, sometimes it’s thirty, sometimes it’s one hundred but there is no reason. Basically, our job is to sow the seeds. Then we watch as God allows his Kingdom to take root and to grow. And what a marvellous miracle that is.

Hear, Believe, Go

Sometimes, it’s easy to wonder why I do what I do? Why become a missionary? There are lots of theological reasons and positions on the matter (Is it for some? Is it for everyone? Is it for no one?) and mine is probably not particularly refined. This post is also a tiny part of my own reason for going on mission, however, it is one If you do want a theological discussion on what is mission, this post isn’t it.

If you asked me ten years ago whether I would become a missionary, the answer would have been no. If you said it would be to Asia, I probably would have been even more firmly adamant. However, here I am.

One Bible passage that is often used is this one.

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Romans 10:14-15

There are billions of people that have not even heard the about Jesus, so have no chance to believe. They will never hear that Jesus can save them and therefore will not be able to call on him for rescue. We know that they have no access to the gospel; we know their situation. We know the importance of our message.

I don’t know what the day of judgment will look like. But imagine if we had to listen to the accounts of the people that had never heard the gospel. What would they say? “They heard but did not speak. They believed but did not proclaim. They knew but they did not come.”

Book Critique of “Apostolic Exhortation: Evangelii Gaudium”

For my MA application, I had to write a book critique. We were given a selection of texts and I picked Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation: Evangelii Gaudium. The next post is just shy of 1500 words long, so if you’re not particularly interested, don’t worry. I just didn’t want my efforts to fall into the chasm of nothingness.


Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium, published in 2013 as his first apostolic exhortation, is an encouraging document that offers hope and optimism for the Church. It admits that the world, and, too often, the church, is flawed and sinful, but also reminds us Jesus is triumphant. Reading it in 2020, it almost seems to be a prophecy for our time; however, it was very much influenced by the theologies of Latin America and Vatican II formed in the last century. It offers few new ideas but fervently enlivens those who read it.

Continue reading “Book Critique of “Apostolic Exhortation: Evangelii Gaudium””

Titus 2

Here, Paul tells Titus how he is to instruct pretty much every aspect of society. He’s already discussed leaders and those who preach an incorrect message in the previous section. Now he discusses old men, old women, young women, young men and slaves.

What’s interesting about this chapter is that it discusses common stereotypes (older, gossiping drunk women; lazy, argumentative slaves), and tells them to counter these stereotypes in how they live. A lot of the ideals mentioned were in fact Greek ideals (being busy at home, for instance), so it’s perhaps a lesson of how we need to be seen as upright not only in a Christian context, but also the context in which we live. Titus was in Crete, a Greek island which had a reputation of being somewhat immoral. Therefore, it was important that the Christians there were an example.

The importance of this is in verse 10 and 11. We are to make the teachings about God attractive so that more may be saved. The grace of God is for everyone, therefore, we should let no one despise us. We were redeemed from wickedness, we are purified and should be eager to do good.

Colossians 4

Colossians 4 has some further instructions. These include prayer, watching and thanking. Then the instructions turn to the work of evangelism: pray that the gospel spreads, praying for those who preach it to be clear, being wise towards non-believers, making the most of opportunities, considering your words and how they proclaim the gospel, having the answers.

Then the letter ends with specific greetings and words of encouragement. What amazes me is the level of the care between the believers. Paul had never actually met the believers in Colossae but here he is writing a long letter. There are also so many connections and people Paul commends, that it suggests that there was some sort of network. Furthermore, they just seemed to want to know news from other churches. In the UK, often other churches don’t really know what each other are doing. Here in Cambodia, especially among the expat churches there seems to be more cross-over. However, there is perhaps a lack of unity among local believers and denominations, which is sad. It’d be nice to see this level of care between different congregations here.

Ephesians 3

Ephesians 3 again holds many blessings. The first section, which the NIV versions titles “God’s marvellous plan for the Gentiles”, is again a great encouragement. The main reason of this: I am a beneficiary of this plan. I am a Gentile. (I do in fact have some Jewish ancestry, but not enough to count.) Without this plan and without it being revealed to Paul, I would not have known the grace of Jesus. It’s wild to think that my parents, who told me the gospel, were told by someone else, who in turn, heard the gospel. Someone told them, and someone told them, and someone told them. If you go far back enough, it would have been the first missionaries around Europe that told them the gospel, and then eventually to the first Christians and perhaps even Paul. Isn’t it mad that nearly a thousand years ago Paul could have initiated the chain of people that would eventually reach me?

It’s perhaps why I think missionary work is so important, because we all can all thank a missionary at some point for spreading the gospel. I just wonder how my contribution in this chain will continue.

When I think of that, it becomes so much more personal when I read the following verses:

I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ.

Ephesians 3: 7-8a

So tonight I am grateful for all the people who were servants of this gospel before me.

Then Paul prays a prayer and asks for various things for the recipients of the letter:

  • strengthened with power through the Spirit
  • Christ may dwell in their hearts
  • to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ
  • to know this love that surpasses all knowledge
  • to be filled with the fullness of God.

What amazing things to pray for! I definitely pray for them for myself!

Then this chapter ends with some very famous verses. These verses are such an encouragement, reminding us of the sheer, incomprehensible goodness of God and that his power is in us. He is definitely deserving of the glory.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurable more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and Christ Jesus throughout all generations for ever and ever! Amen.

Amen, indeed.

Galatians 3

Galatians 3 is a bit weird and confusing at times, but also quite interesting. In it, Paul seems to explain that the law was for a time between Abraham and his descendent that would fulfil the law. Those who did not fulfil the law were under a curse, but Jesus became that curse for us. Therefore, all who are justified in Christ are heirs to the promise.

It’s interesting as throughout this chapter, Paul reiterated that the gospel is for all people. All are able to become descendants of Abraham through faith. In verse 8, it reminds us of the promise made to Abraham in Genesis that “All nations will be blessed through you.” It’s reassuring to read this as a missionary, that the gospel for the nations was the plan all along.

I also like what Paul does with the idea of the law. He remarks that following the law is not an act of faith. That’s a really interesting idea that has been mentioned to me in a few contexts before. It might be because I have a slight Pharisaical bent. If I do what I should, I will get what I want. That isn’t faith. That is me being in control of my destiny and the outcome of the situation. Faith is that Jesus’ grace is available to me, no matter what I do or my attempts to control it. It’s not that I shouldn’t be obedient. But I should be obedient out of love, not out of a manipulative desire to have control. It’s like a toddler saying please just because they want to get the thing they’re asking for, not because they are showing respect and care.

Paul also refers to the law as a guardian. This is quite a nice way of looking at it. I often look at the law as something negative, but it wasn’t. It was a loving covenant between God and his people. So this is a positive spin on it.

The chapter ends with these famous verses, which say it much better than I ever would.

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Galatians 3:27-29

Control

When Christians back home think of missionaries, I expect they often think of sacrifice and what they’ve had to give up. God has been incredibly gracious to me, and has not asked me to sacrifice all that much (or at least has only asked me to sacrifice a few things that are important to me). I know that I have been abundantly blessed here in Cambodia.

However, recently I have moved house. I have gone from living on my own in a cute one bedroom flat to an entire house with an entire family. For the most part, it is great. But this means I’ve had to sacrifice something that is apparently very important to me: control.

They say that a British man’s home is his castle. There’s a sense of guarding it, controlling it and also isolating yourself within it. Living on my own and also back in the UK with my relatively introverted family meant that guests were invited, we knew when they would arrive and approximately when they would leave. It was very much within the realms of our control.

When I invited a family to move in with me, I forgot I would be inviting Cambodia into live with me as well. Previously I had managed to manufacture a British fortress, or enclave, my little colony. My apartment was a tiny Gibraltar jutting out into the sea that is Southeast Asian culture.

However, with British Imperialism long dead (despite nationalist attempts to flog that dead horse), it wasn’t going to last. So I now live in a Cambodian house. Yes, it’s more of a fusion of our two cultures. But it is a Cambodian family in a Cambodian style house living in Cambodia. Therefore, Cambodia has the upper-hand.

As a result, the come and go nature of Cambodian living (cousins, nieces, nephews, grandparents, brothers and sisters all appearing unannounced) is very much a part of my life. And I’ve found it hard. I’ve found it hard that the drawbridge to my fortress has been irrevocably lowered and the gates swung wide opened.

Then twitter post came along to convict me of my selfish thinking.

God has bought me to Cambodia not to set up impenetrable walls and to be at arm’s length from those around me. He called me to be his messenger, his ambassador and his hands and feet. Sometimes it will be messy and uncomfortable and unfamiliar. But me stepping into this situation is nothing compared to Jesus stepping from heaven into the mess and discomfort of our fallen world. So even when I’m tempted to pull up the drawbridge, I’ll remind myself that embassies don’t have them.

How could you stay?

As a missionary, you get told “I couldn’t do what you do.” There is a belief that it takes a special type of person or a particular calling to make the move abroad and work building God’s kingdom there. I would say that isn’t true. (At least I don’t think I’m special but I do think I have calling.) It’s thought that it takes great sacrifice, bravery and zeal to do this.

It doesn’t.

What people who haven’t done this don’t see is the joy, the privilege and the real rewards of moving overseas.

You get such a rich experience of humanity and life. You suddenly see how great and broad and universal and varied the human race is. You hear such stories: heart-warming stories; heart-breaking stories; inspiring stories; terrifying and tragic stories; lovely stories, often from the same person’s life. You get to be a part of these stories and then your story and hundreds of other stories become permanently intertwined. The real privilege is when you get to see God beautifully transform these stories, redeeming, renewing, rewriting them into the story of his perfect kingdom.

Your understanding of God’s grace and goodness and glory grows. As you encounter the needs of nations and the cultural perspectives of different peoples, you see how the enormity of the gospel speaks into these different contexts, not just your own. The faith of believers that face difficulties and persecution and poverty you’ve never imagined challenges you and your mustard-seed faith. Worshipping alongside those from different nations, tribes and tongues gives you a small picture of heaven.

You see the beautiful humanity of the saints that go. Often missionaries are put on pedestals but when you’re among them you learn how human the Hudson Taylors and Jackie Pullingers are. I recently read a book Subversive Jesus by Craig Greenfield. I know his family as I work with his wife and their children attend the school where I teach. The family is as amazing and feisty and cool as they sound in the book. However, I also watched Nay, Craig’s wife, walk into a metal pillar today because she wasn’t watching where she was going. The sense of misplaced awe towards these people is stripped away and replaced with the sense of awe that God uses people like me. That is an amazing and also terrifying realisation to have.

Then, of course, are some of the beautiful sights and sounds that you grow to love.

Everyday, I get struck with a feeling of jaw-dropping confusion that I get to live here in Cambodia, serving God.

When you read the eye-watering statistics, it’s hard not to feel the pull. 3.14 billion people have never heard of Jesus. Over 70,000 people die everyday not having heard the gospel. For perspective 70,000 is about the population of Rugby and Shrewsbury. These people are living and perishing in darkness.

So, if you think you couldn’t go, well, I certainly couldn’t stay.

If you haven’t prayed and thought about joining global missions, then please do so. It’d be such a shame that you miss out on such blessings just because it hadn’t occurred to you to consider going.

Bible in One Year: Day 11

I didn’t manage to wake up at 5 am for this one, so it’s a good job that I’m doing it a couple of days early. I did find doing it just before bed seemed to be conducive to restful sleep.

I am really grateful for the devotions provided by Nicky and Pippa Gumbel. It does make the reading longer, as you have to read the devotions too, but they help prepare me to be more reflective before I start reading the passages. Also, using the YouVersion app means I can listen as I read, which means I’m less likely too skip bits or to read superficially. So, I’ve definitely found the experience meaningful and helpful.

Nicky Gumbel noted that the Genesis passage mentions success five times and that, in some way, all the passages were linked to success. Success is a blessing from God. It makes me wonder how much do I rely on myself for success and how much do I rely on God. Also, it makes me wonder how I measure success. At the start of the year, I did a couple of lessons about attitudes towards work with my students. I told them that their success is not up to them, so they needn’t worry about it. It’s up to God. It’s his problem so let him deal with it. They just need to be obedient and commit their work to God. I definitely need to preach to myself as well.

Psalm 8 repeats the idea of Genesis 1 that humans are the pinnacle of creation. It’s weird to think that humans are God’s greatest success. It’s strange that in one hand we have humanity as sinful and destructive and terrible, whilst in the other hand we have humanity as God’s pride and joy. There’s something to be learned in seeing the potential and the current reality and living in that tension. I think that’s something that as a teacher I have to attempt every day. I don’t think I manage it as well as I should.

I loved this bit of Psalm 8:

Through the praise of children and infants
    you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
    to silence the foe and the avenger.

Psalm 8:2

How powerful are the praise of children and infants! God uses them so mightily: they defeat the enemy. As teachers, especially now as I work in a school that caters for the very little kids to the big kids, do we realise the amazing phenomenon that happens before us?

Matthew 9:16-17 has always been a source of confusion to me. I don’t really understand it in it’s given context. I think that’s an action point for a later date.

Verses 18-26 an interesting passage, as Jesus blesses the whole spectrum of the society of his day: the religious elite to the social outcast. I’m also amazed that people laughed at Jesus. I’m more amazed that we are fearful of being laughed at. Shouldn’t we expect it, after all? Also, if Jesus can deal with it, with the help of the Holy Spirit, so can we.

Again, my interest in mission makes the final verses of the Matthew reading particularly resonant.

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 3Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Matthew 9:35-38

I love the sense of cooperation: we are to join in with God sending his workers through prayer and through being sent. It’s great that we can be a part of God’s global plan for the church.

I’m struck by how exceptional the characters are of the Genesis passage. The servant is faithful and obedient and wishes to be successful for the benefit of his master. Rebekah is awesome and generous. Pouring water for a bunch of camels is no mean feat. She gives a lot of herself to this complete stranger. Her brother seems like a great guy too: he cares for the servant and he considers his sisters thoughts and feelings.

It’s also amazing how quickly God answers the prayer: before it had even been finished. I wonder how often God sets into motion the answer to our prayers before we even finished (or, in some cases, started) praying them. As we don’t have the eternal and omnipotent perspective of God I guess we often don’t know.

Dear God

Grant us success. This is not for our benefit, but for the glory of your son, Jesus Christ.

In his holy name,

Amen.