Facing a difficult choice

Sermon for Bramley St Peter, 1 May 2022
Readings: Acts 9:1-6 / John 21:1-19

Once upon a time there was a man walking in some remote mountains, many miles from any road or town. He got lost and didn’t know which way to go. It was a hot summer and all the streams were dry, so after two days of walking he ran out of water.  He knew he would die if he didn’t find water soon. So he prayed that God would send him water.

The next morning he saw a small hut or bothy and walked towards it.  The door was open, but there was no one there. In fact, nothing but an old water pump set into the floor.  Ah! He thought, there must be a well under this hut. So he started pumping – up, down, up, down, up, down – but no water flowed.  After a couple of minutes he gave up and sat down on the floor crying, thinking he was going to die of thirst.

Just then, he saw a bottle in the corner.  He went over and picked it up.  It seemed to be filled with water, but there was a handwritten note tied to it.  “Use this water to prime the pump”, it said. “Don’t forget to fill the bottle when you’re finished.”

Well, that gave him a whole new problem.  “What do I do?” he thought. If I follow the instructions, how do I know the pump will work?  The well may be dry, and I will have missed my last chance of a drink.  But If I drink this one bottle, that will be the last drink I ever have.”  He closed his eyes and prayed.  After a few minutes he thought he heard a voice say “Read and act.  Read and act”.  So, with trembling hands, he opened the bottle, opened the top of the pump and poured the water into the priming chamber.

Up, down, up, down, … drip, splash. Up, down, and the water started pouring out.  With a huge laugh of relief he looked up and thanked God, and drank his fill of water. He had a good night’s sleep, and drank more in the morning.  Before leaving the hut, he refilled the bottle, put it back on the floor and added a note at the bottom for the next visitor: “believe me, it works”.

Source for story: https://moralstories26.com/man-lost-in-desert-leap-of-faith-story/ (altered)

We all have choices in life.  Some are trivial: what colour shirt to wear, what to eat for dinner, where to go for a day out.  Some are more important and will affect our future life: what subjects to study at school, which job to apply for, where we live. 

One particular type of choice that we have as grown-ups is our vote – which politician we want to represent our local area.  I hope that all who have the vote this week will use it to elect one of the Bramley councillors.

In all these cases, we have a genuine choice. We might listen to different people’s advice and opinion, but we have to make our own mind up.  Just occasionally, though, we find that although we may seem to have a choice, there is really only one thing we can do.  It might be that the person you love most asks you to marry them, and the only answer is – (yes, yes, yes)

The two Bible stories we heard today are both about people who faced an extremely important choice. As important as the one the thirsty man faced.

Saul had been very doubtful about Jesus.  He didn’t believe that Jesus really was the Messiah, the saviour the Jews had been waiting for. So after Jesus was crucified, and his followers started going all round their country and beyond telling people that Jesus was alive, Saul was angry.  Not content with arguing with them, he started threatening them and having some of them sent to prison. Then came his encounter on the way to Damascus in Syria.  Hearing a voice that said it was Jesus, condemning him for this persecution, because every time he hurt a Christian he was hurting Christ himself. 

In the blindness that followed, he was faced with the most difficult choice of his life.  Either he tried to ignore what had just happened and carry on as someone who opposed and hated Christians, but maybe that would mean remaining blind for the rest of his life.  Or accepting that he had been wrong, that Jesus really was alive, and that he had caused real sorrow to Jesus and real injury to his followers.  What that would lead to, he could not know.  But over the next few days, he came to realise that it was really no choice at all.  When God sent the prophet Ananias to him, Saul was ready to accept Jesus into his life, and his blindness was at an end.  He had started a new life with a new name – Paul.

Peter was faced with a similar choice.  Unlike Saul, he realised while Jesus was still alive that he was the Messiah, the Son of God. But then he messed it up by running away when Jesus was arrested, then denying three times that he even knew him. Like Saul coming to realise what hurt he had caused to Jesus and his church, he was a broken man.  Even after Jesus appeared to the disciples at Easter, Peter and some of the others went back to the life they had before, fishing lake Galilee. When faced with a big choice, it seems easier to ignore it and fall back on familiar routine. 

But Jesus didn’t let him get away with that. He appears on the lakeside, as he had in the locked room in Jerusalem. Three time he asks Peter “do you love me”, and three times Peter replies “Yes, Lord, I love you”, as it were cancelling out the three denials. Each time Jesus responds with “feed my lambs” or “feed my sheep”, meaning that he was being invited to become the first leader of the Christian church. 

What was Peter to do?  Poorly educated fisherman, could he really take on the responsibility of leading a church that was soon to face persecution?  Would he not be better just carrying on the life he knew?  But the large catch of fish that morning had just shown him that if he listened to Jesus and believed him, he could do more with Jesus’ help than he could ever do on his own.  Like the man in the hut, what seemed like an either/or choice was really no choice at all.  It needed a leap of faith that would transform his situation entirely.

Many Christians can tell of a time when we faced a choice like this: maybe at a youth group or evangelistic event.  Maybe during an Alpha course. Maybe by reading the Bible for ourselves or talking to Christian friends. Whatever the circumstances, we found ourselves with a choice – carry on with life as we know it, tackling all its difficulties ourselves, or throw our lot in with Jesus and his church, declare ourselves his followers and enter on a journey with an unknown ending.   At that moment, often there is no real choice.  The only answer to Jesus is “Yes yes, yes.”

If you haven’t yet come to that decision point in your journey of faith, or if you think that moment might be now, listen to some familiar words of Jesus: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Listen, and act. And refill the bottle for others.

1279 words

The Bible in a Year – 17 September

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

17 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 11-12

The anointing of David is followed in chapter 11 by an account of the exploits of David and his band of elite warriors (the “Three” and the “Thirty”) – maybe an early version of the SAS, highly trained men who were sent in to situations regarded as too dangerous for ordinary troops.

There is an interesting incident in 11:15-19 where some of these elite soldiers go to fetch water from the well in David’s home town of Bethlehem, currently under enemy occupation.  David is no doubt grateful for the gesture, just as people in exile or expatriates will request some familiar food from their home country. He would also have been proud of their achievement, but feels unable to drink the water that has been required such risk-taking.  Instead he pours it out on the ground as an offering back to God.  What gifts have you ever received that you felt unable to receive, or unworthy to enjoy?

Chapter 12 lists the troops from all the tribes of Israel – over 340,000 of them – who amassed around David in order to support his claim as pretender to Saul’s throne. Saul was the ‘rightful’ leader who had developed dementia – see my comments earlier in the year – and turned against David to persecute him.  Such a large rebel army inspired by religious zeal could only cause problems all round, as we have witnessed with the rise of radical groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh.  From that perspective it is hard to have sympathy with David and his band, even although he is regarded by Jews (and therefore to some extent by Christians) as a spiritual hero.

The Bible in a Year – 4 April

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

4 April. 2 Samuel chapters 1-3

Following the death of Saul, the kingdom is temporarily divided, with David reigning over the tribe of Judah in Hebron (not yet Jerusalem), while Abner, commander of Saul’s army, leads a successful coup, with all the other tribes showing allegiance to him. That is, until first he suffers military setbacks against David’s better army, and finally a squabble over a woman turns him against his own court and he goes to seek peace.  But he is murdered by the brother of a man he had killed. Oh, and David gets his favourite wife back, despite the tears of her second husband at the prospect of losing her. Michal must have been a good woman.


One of the facets of David’s character that comes through many times in these stories is his reluctance to gloat over the death of his enemies, or to be directly responsible for the death of another leader.  He spared his rival Saul’s life at least twice and wept when he died; and now he mourns publicly for Abner who had been his enemy in battle.  Slaughtering soldiers and taking captive civilians was another matter, but he seems to have regarded killing a king or military leader as a sin, on the basis that they were appointed by God to their positions.


As late as the Middle Ages, it was part of European Christian theology that kings had a “divine right” to rule, and the letters “DG” (by the grace of God) on our coins are the last echo of that idea, in an age when politics is seen as a purely secular matter.  We may no longer believe that presidents, titular monarchs and prime ministers have a divine right to their posts, but it is still right that we should pray for good and upright leaders, and for God’s will to be done in our parliaments.



The Bible in a Year – 3 April

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

3 April. 1 Samuel chapters 28-31

The end of the first book of Samuel is set after the death of the eponymous prophet, but we haven’t heard the last of him yet!  King Saul, seeking wise advice, misses Samuel, and in the absence of any other form of guidance from God, resorts to consulting the medium at Endor (in older translations she was called a “witch”) to summon up his spirit, a practice which Saul himself, under Samuel’s guidance, had banned!  So not surprisingly the advice he does get from Samuel’s ghost is basically “I told you so!”, or more specifically, that God’s destiny for Saul that Samuel had already prophesied will come true, and David will succeed him as king.  At the end of the book, Saul does indeed die, committing suicide rather than be killed in battle.  The lesson from this is that God really is our only guide. While it is understandable that people who have lost (or never had) faith in God might look to the spirits instead, they will never know the truth as he does.  There are good reasons why God’s followers in all the major religions have been at least suspicious of mediums and other occultists, for although we believe in the afterlife, the consistent message of scripture is that the dead should be left to God’s mercy and not summoned back to this life.



Meanwhile David, a typical mercenary, would be happy to fight for the Philistines against his own people Israel in order to claim the crown, but the Philistine generals will have none of it. However, in returning to his base David finds that another tribe, Amalekites, have carried off all the people and animals, and he has to go and rescue them.  What adventures! Is this turncoat warrior really fit to be king?  We shall see, in 2 Samuel.



The Bible in a Year – 1 April

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

1 April. 1 Samuel chapters 21-24

Throughout these chapters, the paranoid King Saul is pursuing David and his followers from one desert place to another, with a view to killing him.  One person who supports David is the priest Ahimelech, who provides food for David’s troops and lets him take Goliath’s sword for his own protection.  When this angers Saul, Ahimelech pays for this generosity with not his own life but that of all his priests and the people and animals of their town. Standing up for justice is often costly.


But when eventually David and Saul end up (by chance, and unbeknown to Saul) in the same cave, David puts into practice the ‘golden rule’ of doing to others as you would have them do to you; or as Jesus put it, loving your enemies.  So he does not take revenge by killing Saul while there is an easy opportunity to do so, but merely cuts off part of his cloak as a trophy. He is then able to persuade Saul that he is no danger to him.  In this he proves himself to be a good leader.


These stories of David are perhaps in the same genre as folk stories of heroes such as Robin Hood, who was probably not as selfless as his reputation would suggest. It is very difficult to struggle against a corrupt or violent regime without committing violence, or to take a principled stand without compromising your principles somewhere.



The Bible in a Year – 31 March

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

31 March. 1 Samuel chapters 18-20

Today’s reading explores the complicated relationship between David, his patron King Saul, Saul’s daughter Michal who was given to David in marriage, and Saul’s son Jonathan who fell in love with David.  It could be the plot of a soap opera – the father-in-law with a mental illness and murderous intent, the (probably gay) brother-in-law, and the wife torn between loyalties to her biological family and her husband.  If God could be in this messiest of dysfunctional families, he can be with all our families, whatever their problems.


The person at the centre of all these relationships was David, and he seemed to be able to cope with all of them.    When Saul sent him into the heat of battle hoping that he would be killed (as David would later do with Uriah), David returned triumphant.  When Saul demanded as a dowry the foreskins of a hundred Philistine soldiers, David obliged. When he found himself loved by both Michal and her brother Jonathan, he took it in his stride (though his intimacy with Jonathan seems to have been restricted to embracing).

Finally, Saul’s threats become too much and Jonathan helps David to escape from a dangerous situation.  But this is not the last we will hear of these characters.

The Bible in a Year – 30 March

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

30 March. 1 Samuel 15-17

So far we have seen Saul proclaimed as King by God’s decree and filled with the Holy Spirit; but also learnt of his weaknesses, which were impatience and lack of foresight.  In chapter 15 he achieves his greatest military victory to date, but shows another weakness by failing to slaughter the animals as well as the people, as God commanded.  For this his kingship was rejected by God, and the Spirit of God left him.   Leaving aside for now the question of why God commanded the slaughter of innocent civilians and animals as well as soldiers, in this rejection by God we see perhaps the first statement in the Bible (15:22) that obedience to God is what God desires, more than obedience to religious laws.


The boy David from Bethlehem was anointed King in his place by Samuel, but secretly. David goes on to achieve the archetypal giant-slaying feat of killing the heavily armed Goliath with a simple sling and stone, turning the tide of battle against the Philistines.


Saul, we are told, became troubled by an “evil spirit” after his rejection by God, and the boy David – later known as a famous composer of many of religious songs that we call Psalms -plays the lyre to soothe him.  This “evil spirit” may have been depression; but at the end of Chapter 17 when David is brought before Saul after defeating Goliath, Saul appears not to recognise him.  So either the stories have got out of order, or maybe Saul was suffering from dementia? Playing familiar music is often a good way to calm the distress of people with this illness.

The Bible in a Year – 28 March

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

28 March. 1 Samuel chapters 9-12

Two days ago we encountered Samuel as a young boy, dedicated to God by his mother. Yesterday we saw him as a wise leader – not leading his people in battle as other ‘judges’ did, but keeping the peace with his wise judgements. Today we see him hand over leadership as another young man (Saul) is chosen by God to lead his people, this time not as a priest, judge and prophet like Samuel but as a military king, as they wanted.  In what to Saul must have seemed a chance encounter with Samuel, he is anointed as the future king of his country.  Late, he is officially elected (by God’s will made known through the drawing of lots that is, not by democracy as we know it) and crowned in front of representatives of all the tribes. After that, he goes on to lead a successful military campaign against the Ammonites.


But in between the intimate personal encounter when he is told of God’s choice (confirmed by a prophecy fulfilled in his own life), and the public event, Saul is sent by Samuel to encounter the ecstatic prophets at Gibeah, where he is caught up in their ecstasy himself.  In modern Christian terms we would say he was “filled (or baptised) with the Holy Spirit”.  The coming of the Spirit on a person is usually understood as an equipping for service,  a giving of gifts or talents from God that they were not born with, for the purpose of making God’s ways known, or his will done, on earth.


Saul was from a rich family and so presumably would have been educated, but like so many other great Biblical characters (Abraham,  Moses, David and Amos among them) he was a herdsman as a young man – in his case of donkeys rather than sheep.  For all these people, their time alone away from the busy ways of a town, and in nights under the stars, helped them to be open to God’s call, and to his indwelling Spirit.  But he would not have encountered Samuel if his companion (probably a family servant) had not known of him and pointed Saul to him for guidance. So often it is true that one person can, by a single encouraging or corrective word, witness to God’s truth and point another on the right path for their life.

All these elements came together to make Saul the great king that he would become: an education, time spent meditating in solitude, a religious friend who was not afraid to witness to him, the word of prophecy given by someone else, a sacramental anointing, and finally the encounter with God’s spirit of ecstacy.  To quote from John Bell’s hymn “enemy of apathy”:

She dances in fire, startling her spectators,
Waking tongues of ecstasy where dumbness reigned;
She weans and inspires all whose hearts are open,
Nor can she be captured, silenced or restrained.