Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 29 January 2023.
• First Reading: Micah 6: 1–8 (He has shown you what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?)
• Epistle: 1 Corinthians 1: 18–31 (We preach Christ crucified – the power of God and the wisdom of God to those whom God has called)
• Gospel: Matthew 5: 1–12 (The Beatitudes)
I suppose that one of the greatest temptations to a child or teenager is that of conforming to the attitudes and actions of the crowd. To take on their values and attitudes, especially when one is not particularly strong or clever.
It is a way of getting by without having problems – even if that means joining in the bullying of the misfit, the weakling, the one who is slow and above all does not know how to defend him or herself.
It is part of a worldly wisdom in which the strongest thrive and the rest survive, while the victims are crushed. It is all part of the wisdom that places strength above godliness and justice, show above substance, presentation above truth, fashion above depth.
And yet Micah shows something else. The Lord of heaven and earth, creator of all that is, had chosen first a wandering shepherd to be patriarch of His chosen people, and then when they had been reduced to slavery by the superpower of the time, to lead them out from their prison.
God had chosen to show what faith in Him could do and how by looking to Him for their salvation, a tribe of slaves and nobodies in the eyes of the ancient world could be rescued and built up into a mighty army.
And to be clear, that has happened not only in the Exodus but in the aftermath of the 1933-1948 holocaust, as presented by Yad Vashem, the memorial to the holocaust in Jerusalem.
But even Micah had a complaint against Israel. The nation had been rescued by God, given an identity and a law, had been fed and watered and clothed. They had been mighty in battle, but had still fallen into temptation.
They had still abandoned the worship of God alone, and the faithful honouring of the law under which they might live peacefully together.
And in this, God asks ‘Why, what have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you?’
Perhaps the blandishments of the surrounding nations were just too alluring? Maybe their religious festivals were just too enticing and of course their trading opportunities were too attractive to be ignored.
But God says that He only looks for simple things: that they act justly and love mercy, and walk humbly with their God. Is that really so difficult or onerous?
In His way, Jesus asserts the same values and priorities in the Sermon on the Mount.
This was Matthew’s response to the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. And it also asserts God’s priorities over those of the world. These were not things that would set the Tiber on fire in Rome or shake the temple in Jerusalem. They were not the manifesto of joy, strength and youth that modern dictators might relish.
No military formations or parades. No ostentatious awards ceremonies for the beautiful people and the athletes, the entertainers and the charity leaders.
Jesus’ priorities were all in the realm of personal relations, first with God and then with neighbour.
Yes, God would indeed favour the poor – but not as a political power base, to be kept on side by endless entertainments and social benefits. Even Rome knew all about bread and circuses.
But God’s favour to the poor was to be something more and something different. The people who would get by in life but without oppressing their neighbours, denouncing them to those in power when they disagreed in some way. People who were content to live honestly, act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
Instead of glorying in a sports team, they would find their salvation and self-respect in Jesus and Him crucified.
Those in power would never understand, in any generation. They still don’t.
But then God is glorified in those who wait on Him and who trust in Him, without strategies and action plans. This does not mean that we fail to budget properly or consider all our resources but to prosper in the things of God is to wait on Him, even and especially when the going is hard and the way is uncertain.
The cross of Jesus was always going to scandalize the religious who thought that their god could never submit to such suffering – for if God did this then how about themselves?
And equally, the wisdom of God was always going to start with God Himself, and work outwards from there. It could never be centered on human wisdom and endeavour, human discovery and technology.
It was always going to be about His initiative and His vision for His people. And if going to the cross was the only way of reconciling the sinners of the world with the total holiness of God then this would be the way to do it.
In our time, the use of force can only be a token of the failure of human relations. It would be proof that strength though might was only going to be short lived. The holocaust of the innocent and the weak would never escape the final judgment of God.