On a very warm morning on Sunday this past weekend (the 18th), with still in force social distancing carefully observed, the Parish community gathered for the monthly Valley Worship service, which was held outdoors in the field adjoining St John’s Church in Itchen Abbas.
With the band and speaker able to shelter from the blazing sunshine under a gazebo generously lent by Alex Pease, and with the congregation seeking shade where possible, the service proved a really uplifting one. Tim Clapp led both the band and the service itself with his customary skill, interviewing a relatively recent arrival to the Valley, Georgina Fuggle, about her faith journey as well as family and professional life (Georgina was wonderfully open about the fact that, despite being raised as a vicar’s daughter, she attended three Alpha courses before coming to a real relationship with Jesus of her own in her early 20s).
Once again the congregation entered into the opportunity to sing aloud with gusto, with a stirring rendition of ‘Days of Elijah’ proving perhaps the favourite of three excellent choices of songs.
Nicky Barber preached powerfully on all we can learn from the examples of Paul and Barnabas, as recorded in Acts 12 and 14, as they contended with the highs and lows of spreading the good news of the Gospel on their first missionary journey (the text of the readings and of her talk can be found below; Lavinia Owen demonstrated great mastery of complicated and unusual names of people and places when reading the Acts passages and brought them alive with theatrical flair). At the conclusion of the service James Wright led the prayers beautifully, drawing on inspiration from the readings and talk as well as from matters raised earlier in the service.
Grateful thanks are due also to John Bouldin, who with quiet efficiency ensured that a discreet camera recorded the service and broadcast if via Zoom, which had the benefit of expanding the congregation by a third via those joining in it online.
All in all it was a great team effort and a spiritually refreshing service – a recording of it can be found below.
The readings we listened to:
Barnabas and Saul Sent Off Acts 12 v. 25 – 13 v. 4
25 When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from[a] Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark. 13 1 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. 4 The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus.
The Return to Antioch Acts 14 v. 21 – 28
21 They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, 22 strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. 23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders[a] for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. 24 After going through Pisidia, they came into Pamphylia,25 and when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia.
26 From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. 27 On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.
This is the transcript of Nicky’s talk:
Acts 13 and 14: Paul’s first Missionary Journey
Tomorrow is what some people are calling Freedom Day. I wonder what you have planned to do with your freedom. In addition to spending time with family and friends, there may be hobbies and sports which people will be able to take up again, long distance trips that have been eagerly anticipated, hopefully not to France!
Our reading today covers the beginning and end of a long trip Barnabas and Paul made. Having just returned from a 600 mile round trip to Jerusalem, now they are about to embark on another journey which will take them two years and cover about 1,200 miles by land and sea.
We drove to Scotland a couple of weeks ago which was a journey of about 400 miles and took us almost seven hours. We felt quite stiff and tired getting out of the car at the other end.
Barnabas and Paul might have felt more than stiff. There were no cars, planes or even bicycles to help them on their way. No mobile phones to communicate with home or with the places they were going. No taxis or buses just donkeys or mules or their own feet.
Look at v.2 and imagine Barnabas and Paul worshipping and fasting with the church at Antioch and the Holy Spirit telling them to set off again, just when they may have been looking forward to settling down for a bit, sleeping in their own beds and nursing their blistered feet. Were they daunted or excited at the prospect?
Why did Barnabas and Paul say yes when the Holy Spirit told them to set off again? Would you have said yes in their shoes (or sandals)? Lets look more closely at how they responded.
- Listen and Obey
The first thing that we may notice is their unwavering obedience to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and their willingness to give him space to speak to them. They were worshipping and fasting when God spoke not watching Netflix or down at the pub.
A bit later in v.22, we hear that God said that King David was: “a man after my own heart; [who] will do everything I want him to do.”
God is looking for people who are like him in their hearts and who will do everything he asks them to do. Everything. Not just the things that we like the sound of or which fit in with other things we have planned.
We have a young spaniel puppy at the moment and I am trying to train her to come when I call or whistle her and to do it immediately and without even contemplating chasing a bird or butterfly instead. The training involves calling her again and again and rewarding her when she comes so she learns to trust that when she responds to my voice good things happen. This also works the other way round, when I reward her for not touching things that I ask her to “leave”, like a sock stuffed with very smelly fish which is hugely appealing to a spaniel nose if not to humans. Actually, it doesn’t always work, it is a bit of a learning curve but, if we persevere and are consistent it should work, I hope.
Being obedient to God is not about following a set of rules and trying to be good Christians. It is about tuning the ears of our hearts to recognise his voice, then doing what he says. It is about getting to know him well enough that we know what his heart is like and what he might want us to do in a particular situation.
Reading and meditating on the Bible is the main way we discover what God’s heart is really like and how he wants us to live our lives. As we store up its truth in our hearts we begin to “know the way of the Lord” and to sense from deep inside what is the right path to take or thing to do.
Sometimes God gives us more personal guidance for specific situations. He might bring someone to mind for us to contact or pray for or support in some way, or birth an idea in us of something he wants us to do.
Some of us may even find he calls us to other countries to serve him, others like Alex did many years ago, might hear a call to the ordained ministry or to start a particular project.
What matters is how we respond to him when he calls and whether we are listening for his voice in the first place or allowing our ears to be filled with the “white noise” of the other things which constantly clamour for our attention.
What would have happened if Paul and Barnabas had said no, or if their church had tried to hold onto them? We probably wouldn’t be sitting here in a Christian church field today because it was from this first missionary journey that the gospel began to spread throughout the known world.
- No turning back or giving up
Barnabas and Paul chose to listen to God, to obey him and to trust him even when the going got tough. However, we know from v.5 that a third person also set out with them. John also called Mark.
In v.13 we then see that he left them and returned to Jerusalem and later Paul says that Mark deserted them. He did so as they set off for a place called Pisidian Antioch. This was a trip of about 100 miles over the high Taurus Mountains, which were infested with bandits, so it would have been a physically arduous and dangerous journey.
In Acts 12 it says that many people gathered in Mark’s mother’s house in Jerusalem and that they had at least one servant so Mark had presumably grown up in a reasonably large house and had a comfortable home life. Was Mark just homesick or, looking up at the mountains, which would soon be covered in snow, was he realising that being obedient to God’s call was harder than it first looked.
What calls each us away from following God and wholeheartedly obeying him? Is it fear of where he might lead us or what others might think? Is it the desire to stay in control, or, sometimes is it just laziness or not wanting to let go of our creature comforts? Maybe it is that the demands of work, sport or perhaps even our children or grandchildren are too great. What a tragedy if any of these things mean that we miss the best of the plans God has prepared for us and the rewards he has waiting for us. What an even bigger tragedy if we become those opposing God’s plans for someone else just as we know that some of the God-fearing and leading men and women opposed Paul and Barnabas in these places they visited.
Modern life tells us we “need” to accumulate more and more. A young man who I know said recently that he wants to be poor on this earth so he can be rich in heaven. What a fantastic way to say no to so much that tries to lure us away from God’s best for us.
We think that having more and more resources will give us a comfortable life but strangely God’s kingdom often works the other way round.
Before I was married, I left my job as a director of Sotheby’s to work for a church on a very low salary. It meant living in a tiny flat and having no money for anything other than the essentials but the extraordinary thing was that many of the “extras” I longed for began to appear. I cried out to God one night saying how much I would love to go on a sunny holiday abroad and the next day someone at church said that God had asked her to pay for me to go to a holiday in the sun! At other times I would find people had put envelopes of cash in my pigeonhole at work or through my letterbox.
It was a time of extraordinary freedom from worries about money, as I had no alternative but to hand everything over to God and then leave it up to him to provide me with those things he wanted me to have.
Wouldn’t it be fun for us to be those secret givers who God uses to bless others who have needs?
I expect that when Barnabas and Paul set off they took almost nothing with them, just as Jesus had instructed his disciples in Luke 9, and that they were dependant on God to provide for their needs through people they met on the way. Scary, but perhaps also very liberating.
Paul and Barnabas were called by God to do a specific task for him. They set off to do it and didn’t stop until they had finished it. No turning back, no giving up.
I wonder if any of us are feeling like giving up at the moment. What do our snow capped mountains look like?
Perhaps our churchwardens are feeling the weight of carrying this church through the interregnum, as may the PCC and ministry team and also Beccy as she tries to hold everything together for the rest of us.
Some of the parents with young children may have times when they feel like giving up; exhausted, drained, barely able to face cooking another meal or doing another school run.
There will be some who have been working flat out, those who are struggling to make ends meet, or who are caring for others.
What would Barnabas and Paul say to us? “Listen to God and do what he says. Don’t give up! Keep going. Finish the race.” (To echo Paul’s words in Acts 20)
But I think they might also say “Keep being filled with the Holy Spirit – you can’t do this on your own!”
- Be filled with the Holy Spirit and his power)
During their two-year journey these men planted at least 12 new churches and endured opposition and persecution, wherever they went. Paul talks in 2 Corinthians about being beaten, stoned, flogged, lashed, shipwrecked, lacking sleep and other horrors but we see in chapter 14 that he still returned to these places he had visited and set up church leadership teams to look after them.
How were Barnabas and Paul able to do all this?
We see throughout the book of Acts mentions of a very powerful helper – in chapter 13 it says they were filled with the Holy Spirit and with joy, The Holy Spirit who called them and sent them on their way, who enabled them in 14 v.3 to perform signs and wonders. This book should really be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit through the Apostles, rather than the Acts of the Apostles.
The same Holy Spirit who lives in us and enables us to do all that God calls us to do.
Being Christians, building God’s kingdom, is not about us and what we can do, it is all about God and what he can do through us when we make ourselves available to him and call out to him from our hearts and ask him to help.
Too often I jump into opportunities rashly when I come across them but frustratingly, forgetting that it is his work not mine, I often then land up in trouble when my own resources run out and I struggle to finish what I have started. I push myself harder and harder, driving myself to finish well and wondering why it is all so exhausting until at some point I remember – its His work not mine. And so I say sorry to God and start again, asking the Holy Spirit to come and fill and empower me to do what ever he has asked me to do. It’s often like an internal wrestling match – who is in the driving seat, God or me, throw myself into a task or wait and pray first? Things are so different when God is the driving force.
Lets think back over what we have learnt from seeing Paul and Barnabas on their journey. They made time to listen to the voice of God’s Holy Spirit. They obeyed God’s call and allowed him to send them out from all that was known and comfortable. They kept going even when things were tough and didn’t give up; completing the task he had given them to do. They kept being filled with the Holy Spirit and his power.
What do our journeys with God look like at the moment? Are we moving forward or stuck in a rut? Travellers on the Way or settled in comfortably at home? Do any of us feel we have reached a dead end and may have missed a turning somewhere? Maybe some just feel exhausted, drained and lacking in any sense of God calling us to action or just wanting to give up, to take it easy for a bit? Perhaps we are not even sure we have really embarked on the journey. We may feel as if we are at the station and can see the train but have not yet wanted to get onto it.
I hope some, or even many, of us are excited, wanting to see what God has planned next, sensing him moving us on, looking forward to discovering where he is taking us now.
God won’t call all of us to be missionaries or church planters but he does call each of us to be faithful to everything he asks us to do and to keep going even when the going gets tough, helped by his Holy Spirit.
Whichever of those we most identify with, the best thing we can do today is to be real with God in our hearts about how we are feeling, whether that is a place of excitement and enthusiasm or a place of fear, numbness, exhaustion or hopelessness. Then choose to make space in our everyday lives for worship, fasting and prayer and ask God to draw close to us, to call us into action and to equip us with all that we need. He wants this more than we do.
Jesus went through an agonising and lonely death in order to bring each of us into a living dynamic relationship with God where we can be partners with him in his kingdom work.
All he asks from us is that we trust him and that we do everything he asks us to do and try to keep doing so even when the going gets tough or scary.
Many of you will know that we have a small flock of sheep. They know and trust us and will come to us and follow us if we need to lead them somewhere but they will be scared and run from a stranger. King David was a shepherd before he was a King and he wrote Psalm 23 showing how God is like a loving shepherd to us.
We are going to sing a song now using the words of Psalm 23 and as we sing it let’s turn it into a prayer from our hearts, using the words repeated in the chorus which declare that we will trust in him alone and that His goodness and mercy will lead us safely home to the end of our journey. If you think there is anything God might be calling you to do, however big or small, maybe this is a moment to say yes to him and perhaps to ask someone to pray with you after the service ends.
This is the recording