Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 4 February 2024.
• First Reading: Hosea 2: 14-20 (I will give back her vineyards and make the valley of Achor a door of hope)
• Epistle: 2 Corinthians 3: 1-6 (You show that you are a letter from Christ, written by the Spirit of the living God … on tablets of human hearts)
• Gospel: Mark 2: 13-22 (New wine needs new wineskins)
I wonder if you have woken up in the night and been totally disorientated, not knowing where you are, or who that is lying beside you?
Or if you have been travelling somewhere and ended up in a completely unknown locality, with no landmarks or sense of direction?
Maybe it was facing a money problem, the bills coming in but nothing else? How to cope?
This sense of confusion and isolation, with no sense of direction or of place, a personal and emotional wasteland, comes to us rarely but it is highly unnerving. Somehow we come out of it, but we are not quite sure how.
Now think of the Valley of Achor in Hosea’s message. It is a place of utter isolation and is wholly barren of life.
This is the place where God says He will lead His people so that He can come to them again and where they can meet Him directly and personally.
Their ancestors had done this before in the Wilderness of Sinai and this generation was being faced with the same prospect. They had become too comfortable in the good things of life and they were becoming indifferent to their relations, neighbours and to the things of God.
God was never going to abandon them but He was going to lead them into places of hardship and of want so that they could come to themselves and renew their faith and devotion. There was nothing wrong with the good times in themselves – provided that they were founded on honest dealing and in the fear of the Lord. And provided that they did not supplant the providence of God.
But when these good times were based on sharp dealing, exploitation, the neglect of their poor – or even worse, contriving to keep them poor so that they might depend more fully on whatever their rulers gave them; when they drew so heavily on not just neglecting their faith but on despising those who still lived it, then the whole society was going to feel the chastisement of the Lord.
But this is still the chastisement of the Lord. It is administered in love so that the people may find themselves in Him again.
It strips away some of the luxuries and focuses on the basics.
Now the Valley of Achor is beginning to make sense. It is a place where the love of the people for their Lord may be rekindled and renewed.
It is a place where priorities may be re-set and where life may be refocused.
In the gospel, Jesus is making a new call to discipleship, this time to Matthew, or Levi as Mark calls him. The son of a priestly tribe, now reduced and compromised into collecting taxes for the Roman occupiers and taking his cut in the process.
He also is being called from a comfortable living but a corrupt lifestyle and into the business of following Jesus rather than giving orders to others.
Now the certainties of life are removed and the adventures begin. Yet he will see and hear things he had never imagined. These things do not happen to practical people, men of the world.
Perhaps the most interesting thing is that Matthew threw a party at his evidently rather comfortable home. And here there were Jesus and the other disciples, together with tax collectors, prostitutes and all sorts of ‘undesirables.’
Jesus was not going to be put out by them – even if the self-righteous of the town were. But there was a point to be made here. New beginnings demand new foundations and new vessels to hold them.
When wine was new there was still a process of fermentation going on, and it would give off gases. A flexible wine skin would stretch to meet this pressure while an old one would not, and it would split.
So also with people, especially disciples. To make a new start in Jesus Christ means that almost all prior assumptions of life will be challenged. Some aspects of life might meet that challenge but many will not and will have to change.
For us, the challenges of our time are still vague and ill-formed. We know that they are there in our national life and in our life as a congregation.
There are some thoughts to keep in mind. First, that nobody is too old for the Lord. We meet Him anew as we worship and yet there are and will be times when He comes with greater challenges and more penetrating questions. Yet His love for us in never diminished or undermined.
Second, when our focus is on Him then we also can change. It is the wine that matters not the wineskins – so also it is our faith and worship that matter, rather than the form or the setting or the surroundings.
Third, it is the Lord who desires to lead us: His love and His direction are there to bless us and to enable us to share them with others. This is the focus of our lives as Christians – and if we let Him lead us in it then He surely will.