The Rev’d Billy Graham told a story about a time early in his career when he arrived in a small town to preach a sermon. Wanting to post a letter, he asked a young boy where the post office was. When the lad told him, Billy Graham thanked him and said, ‘If you come to the Baptist church this evening, you can hear me telling everyone how to get to heaven.’ ‘I don’t think I’ll be there,’ said the boy ‘you don’t even know your way to the post office.’
So even the greatest evangelists can occasionally get unstuck! Today we’ve coming towards the end of our sermon series on sharing our faith. One of the clearest and greatest passages about living as a Christian witness is the Epistle reading we’ve just heard, Colossians 4:2-6. It’s a very practical passage, so today’s sermon is very applied.
The passage starts with prayer. – in v.2 ‘Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving’. Before we talk to people about God, we talk to God about people. The wonderful thing about praying for people by name is that God draws us closer to them. Maybe I begin to see things from that person’s point of view and get some empathy with them, maybe something she mentioned to me comes to mind, perhaps I get a sense for what to say when I next see them.
Perhaps you don’t know what to pray for – well make that a subject for prayer: Lord I’m praying for Bill but I don’t know what to ask, give me some guidance please. Like the guy in the Mikado, you could have a little list – of those you pray for. There’s something effective about praying regularly for someone and in time you can see what God does. If you want to be committed to it, then having a prayer triplet of two other people you meet up with monthly can be a great way to be accountable. If there’s only one thing you do out of this evangelism series, please do this –pray for someone you know to find faith.
Paul then asks his readers to pray for him. V 3 ‘Pray for us as well that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ for which I am in chains’. He’s in prison – I’m told that important prisoners might be chained to two guards, one on each hand – imagine being the guard chained to St Paul. No getting away from that evangelist!
Seriously though, both the epistle and the gospel remind us of the cost of following Jesus and witnessing to him. Paul was in chains for proclaiming the gospel, and many are imprisoned for sharing faith now, others suffer just for being Christians. We’ve all heard of the tragic case of Meriam Ibrahim, sentenced to death in Sudan, for apostasy from Islam even though she has been a Christian all her life. Her story has caught the headlines, but there’s many more that go unreported. North Korea, Pakistan, some former Soviet republics – in many parts of the world people are imprisoned, beaten or even killed for following Christ.
Compared to them, Christians in Britain are not troubled by persecution. And yet the fear of what people may think of us, concern over their reaction, can hold us back from sharing our faith. Jesus addresses that fear.
In the gospel, Matthew 10, Jesus tells us that trouble is bound to come. If they persecuted him, the teacher, the master, then we the students and servants can hardly expect to be exempt. But in verse 26, ‘Have no fear of them’. For their power is limited – in v 28 they can kill the body but not the soul. Even the hairs of our head are counted. Our eternal destiny is secure with God – temporary security pales in comparison with that and it is not worth jeopardising eternity for the sake of an easy life here. So do not let fear overcome you, says Jesus, but speak boldly: ‘proclaim from the housetops’ and in v 38 be prepared to take up the cross.
So turning back to St Paul, he not only asks that he may have courage to proclaim the gospel, but also that he may proclaim it clearly. We may have a sense of what we believe, but explaining it to someone who hasn’t got any background in Christianity, or who’s misunderstood, can need a lot of patience and some thought. That’s why it matters to really listen to what the other person says, and keep in the conversation even if we seem to be floundering – remember God is there too and he can use our efforts.
Our actions need to be consistent with our words, otherwise what we say will be undermined, so Paul says in verse 5 ‘conduct yourselves wisely towards outsiders’.
‘Make the most of the time, or opportunity’ – pray that opportunities to share our faith will come our way, that we may have the spiritual awareness to spot them, and the courage and wisdom to grasp them when they come. Be warned though, only pray for opportunities if you mean it! If you ask for opportunities to share your faith, God will send them. Dangerous but exciting!
In v.6 ‘Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt’. A pinch of salt when cooking brings out the flavour, makes a dish interesting. This is not pious conversation, full of dull religious platitudes, but engaging and personable, gracious in the sense of generous and kind. Seasoned with salt though, not salty!
‘So that you may know how to answer everyone’. Everyone? Really? The guy in the pub watching the football? The 8 year olds doing wheelies on their scooters? The Regius Professor of Geology? Mrs Tibbs next door? Knowing how to answer everyone seems a pretty impossible task, but actually there’s nothing like a personal story.
I once heard about Thomas Henry Huxley, the great Victorian evolutionist who was also vehemently anti-religion. He got into a conversation with an ordinary woman and set about trying to demolish what she believed. Her response: ‘Your arguments are clever, but I know God and I know who I have believed.’
There was no answer to that. I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that our faith depends on suspending our critical faculties. Nor would I think that it’s a waste of time putting forward arguments in favour of Christianity. But a personal testimony allowed an old lady to hold her own with a great scientist and a well told story can carry real power. If we can tell a testimony in our own words about what faith means to us or how we found it, it can be very effective. If there’s only two things you do out of this sermon series on evangelism, make prayer the first, and make this the second: think about your story, what would you say?
Part of being ready to answer everyone may also be to know what’s going on in the world around us. We all talk about the news – so maybe rather than reading through the newspaper quickly, you could occasionally take a few minutes thinking about one article – what’s your view on the issue? Is there a Christian angle on this? How would Jesus respond? You may find you get a new perspective to share.
There have been lots of idea in this passage from Colossians, and to some extent this sermon has been lots of hints and tips. But if there was one unifying idea, I’d say it is this: Be intentional. By which I mean: recognise that at some point you will need to nail your colours to the mast; sometime someone will ask you a direct question. It will happen, and Jesus calls us to do it, so you might as well be ready. Make a decision to be prepared. Be deliberate about sharing your faith.
The things Paul describes in this reading are all positive decisions to act, speak or pray. Most of them involve some prior action. In other words they are all intentional. Sharing our faith can just happen to us, but so much better to be open to making it happen?
So as we draw to the close of this sermon series, here’s three steps. If you only do one thing: pray for someone you know to find faith. If you do two things, think about your story so you can share it. If you want to go to the next stage, be intentional. Be prepared, ask God for opportunities, and see what comes your way. And when you do, please let me know, I’d love to be encouraged by what you’ve been doing.