Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 3 December 2017.
The Germans have a word for it: Schadenfreude.
It describes the pleasure felt at the discomfort of another person especially an opponent or rival. It applies in politics and sport, and probably in business, as we find pleasure in the humiliation and the exclusion of that other person. ‘It serves them right – they had it coming.’
And this emotion contains just the right twist of viciousness, the right degree of contempt and even hatred. The sporting rival may have lost a match, the political party may have lost the election or that particularly grasping firm may finally have gone bankrupt.
And this emotion can lie within our own desire for vindication in the face of denial and rejection and humiliation. It may have been there in the plea that God would rend the heavens and come down.
The plea was heartfelt enough – that the society with its morals and culture and oh-so-correct politics may finally find its match in the judgment of God.
The trouble is that it invites judgment on us as well and even Isaiah accepted that his generation had its fair share of spiritual drift and moral compromise. The Day of the Lord would be fine but that did not change the fact that the devotions and the worship and the social and moral dealings of even the most devout fell far short of the glory of God.
Our righteous deeds are as filthy rags. Far from being able to claim to be right in the sight of God, even the best of the people still needed to turn away from lives of self-interest and of compromise with the spirit of the age. Far from expecting to be clothed in the glorious apparel of the just, the people could only present themselves in rotten rags, filthy and smelling and falling apart, scarcely able to conceal their – or our embarrassment.
So Isaiah was never going to approach God confident in his own lifestyle or morals or transactions. His own prayers would be pathetic things indeed, and his offerings would only screen his own sense of shortcoming.
For Isaiah the Day of the Lord was going to be terrible indeed.
But Paul went further than this for he always accepted that eternal life was in Jesus Christ and never apart from Him. It would be received only as a gift and never as a wage, and yet to those who do receive it as God gives it in Jesus Christ also find that there are other things as well bestowed as gifts by the Holy Spirit.
For the gospel message was there to be proclaimed in word and lived out in life and in deed. It was there to give life to all relationships and loyalties and to set our priorities and hopes.
Life outside the gospel message and its community would be dreich indeed. It might consist of affecting the right attitudes but never living in that deeper wisdom of God. It might hope that occasional acts of charity would buy God’s mercy as if the blood of Jesus was not enough or could be substituted by self-selected and self-evaluated ‘good works’.
We might hope that God would underwrite the priorities of our lifestyles and choices when He really wants us to life His life in the world and to know His life within our own. Far from rubber-stamping our choices, He should be setting our priorities.
But this is the state of the world and of the church that Jesus warns us about. It would be a time when the testimony to the life of God in Jesus Christ would be rejected and abused by the world as a whole and by those parts of the church for which the world’s approval counted for more than that of God.
It would be a time when the simple gospel message would be regarded as being narrow, intolerant, self-satisfied and plain out-of-date. Certainly not culturally appropriate or multi-cultural.
It would have no place in a multi-cultural world, already rocked by political and cultural insanity together with climatic and economic instability.
And it would be an easy target, not particularly good at defending itself, and whose protests would only incite further amusement and ridicule – even satisfaction and pleasure.
It would be a time when people had abandoned not only the world-changing message of salvation, but despised those who held to it.
But this is the time when as in times past, the world seemed to give itself over to insanity and industrialized mass murder. When the ideologies of resentment and of grievance were going to be far more appealing than a message of repentance and faith.
And this is the time when the faithful of the church must be particularly alert and attentive. Just as a waiter in a good restaurant is watching the diners in order to anticipate their needs, so too we are to be attentive in the things of God.
It affects our personal lives of prayer and reading; but it also means an alertness to one another. That includes each other’s needs and feelings, especially in times of family stress or personal circumstances.
I know that when unwell or recovering you have surrounded me with your love. But there may also be some among us who also are lonely, unsure, or insecure; people who grieve and sorrow and are stressed-out. And apart from loving God we are also to