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s124e03 22nd June 2003 Sunday 12

"We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way" 2 Cor 6:3

One of my favourite pet hates is the word "challenge" which has snuck into Christian-speak by stealth over the past years.

As we remember recently the 50th anniversary of the wonderful achievements of Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa tribesman from Nepal, the first recorded persons to have climbed to the summit of Mount Everest, it reminds me how the word challenge has become morally neutral. Mountains have no morals. But the word did not start out morally neutral. A person challenging someone else, was challenging them to fight, to a duel. There was no love lost between such combatants. Indeed such duels were most often to win the love of someone else.

The only instance of the word in the (NRSV) Bible is instructive: it is in Jeremiah 50:23-25: "How Babylon has become a horror among the nations! You set a snare for yourself and you were caught, O Babylon, but you did not know it; you were discovered and seized, because you challenged the LORD. The LORD has opened his armoury, and brought out the weapons of his wrath, for the Lord GOD of hosts has a task to do in the land of the Chaldeans." So God did not initiate this challenge at all. It was Babylon who challenged God and God responded. It is in the sense of opposition that such language is appropriate. And indeed it is not that Babylon denied the sovereignty of God - they challenged God by being a "horror among the nations".

Every time a Christian wants to challenge someone else - even with a seemingly Christian task - I want to ask - does the challenger actually love the other person, or does the challenger actually want to see the other destroyed? A while back I visited the Newsradio web site and found where I could ask Kel Richards the origin of this word "challenge". I haven't heard back, but will be interested when I do.

However even asking this question, led me further on, for I remembered the text of St Paul: "If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing." 1 Corinthians 13.2

Perhaps we can paraphrase St Paul by saying that faith removes mountains and love love removes mountains for someone else.

But mountains are not in God's plans. The Advent proclamation is typified by the words in Luke: "He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'" (Luke 5:3-6) It is clear that the removal of mountains is linked to "all flesh" seeing "the salvation of God".

And time and again in the book of Revelation, at the end of time the mountains will be done away with. So, for instance: "When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place." (Rev 6:12-14 also Rev 8:7-8, 16:19-20)

Jesus too bids us be confident in our prayers, though the context is instructive. So Mark remembers these words of Jesus: "Peter remembered and said to Jesus, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered." Jesus answered them, "Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, 'Be taken up and thrown into the sea,' and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. "Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses." (Mark 11:21-25 and also Matthew 18:20, 22:21-22) We are to remove mountains of guilt.

It is clear that mountains are not of God's doing - they are more in the imagination of people and particularly religious people, who want to direct who and how and when other people may possibly approach God.

St Paul describes his method of ministry in these terms: "What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel. For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings." (1 Corinthians 9:18-23)

For St Paul there is no obstacle and he does everything in his power to operate in this manner. I have no doubt that the only time St Paul would use the word "challenge" would be directed towards himself, the challenge to be "all things to all people".

We are commanded to "love our neighbour as ourselves" and for me this means that "challenging others with the gospel" fundamentally avoids doing as we have been commanded. It is to set ourselves up as authorities when we are called to be servants.

St Paul urges us to work together with him, so clearly he wants us to emulate rather than "complement" his message. We are meant to do something with the grace of God other than keeping it to ourselves - for we haven't earned it and therefore no one else has to earn it either.

We are bidden to open our hearts - not to God - or St Paul - or to me - but to open our hearts to others - to all others. We do not want to be the mountains the Lord has to remove.



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