Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 10 February 2019.
The road to my sister’s home in London is really confusing. If you try to drive there, especially without a digital navigator, then you will really get lost. There is no direct approach and the only way to get there is by a route which leads you along at least 5 sides of a triangle – and that is if you are really fortunate and skillful, and have the complex – or is it twisted – mind of a code-maker.
But there is something which runs through the Christian faith and that is completely confusing as well. It takes what is normal in society and turns it around so that we find ourselves facing in a wholly different direction.
When common sense might say ‘look after yourself before anyone else’ and this may be fine when you are having to fit an oxygen mask on an aircraft, that is about it. The whole notion of achieving for ourselves – often at any cost, especially if it is borne by someone else – just does not work when you match it with the gospels.
And with this in mind our lessons are in one way or another all about confronting things when life is turned upside down, when the unexpected becomes normal, and when all our plans end up in the bin as events take over.
Joseph, the elderly father’s favourite, was something of a stuck-up-prig who really got on the nerves of his brothers. Their worldly-wise response was to throw him into a pit before selling him into slavery. ‘I’m sorry dad, a wild beast got him. Terrible shame. We’re awfully sorry. We really must do something about those grizzly bears.’ Or some such.
But far from being destroyed by these events, they were the making of him. Joseph could have submitted to and been overcome with anger, bitterness and hatred, lashing out at all who came near. Instead, he continued in whatever faith he had – and being sold into slavery would definitely have tested it – and it grew.
And so Joseph grew and prospered without compromising himself, rising to the second position in the land, second only to Pharaoh.
And all this is the setting for his reconciliation with his brothers about which he must have thought long and hard. They had meant him ill but even here God had overruled them and raised Joseph up from nothing to second in the land.
Then there is Paul’s confrontation with and explanation of death. This is perhaps the greatest of all mysteries. What is the point of life if it only ends up in the sand, and otherwise adds up to nothing but emptiness, or just plain nothing at all?
Death is the great question and philosophers and intellectuals have pondered it forever. And so Jesus came among us and personally experienced first death, and then its aftermath.
Life was not just a random series of electronic impulses of sub-atomic particles. That may have been the demonstrable beginning of it, in the providence of God but it is certainly not the end.
And so Paul probed the mystery of death. What is sown dies but then grows into something else – and this is seen in the normal processes of cultivation. A seed becomes a flower, a tree, an animal or a human being. It enters that secret place where it is nurtured and allowed to grow into its planned form.
Not just that, but what is small and inconsequential becomes mighty and glorious and just as there are varieties of seed so there are varieties of glory.
Above all, the decaying gives way to the eternal, weakness gives way to strength, the inconsequential gives way to glory, weakness to power, and above all what is physical and organic to the spiritual and eternal.
Is this just? Or is it a glorious display of total commitment in love and an immeasurable and unquenchable desire to give and to bless? What would you rather have? What rings true?
But with this kind of economy in mind, and which was always there in the counsels and providence of God, we then have Jesus’ teaching in the gospel.
Life is not just about getting and controlling – it is about finding and receiving and above all giving. It is about not being defined or crippled by the blows and kicks of other sinners. And the way to deal with them is never to let them have the last word.
So: they may come to you with violence and abuse or hatred – meet them and overcome with love and prayer. They may want to take all you have and all you are, so meet them with kindness and generosity.
We all have a sense of wariness with those we do not know, and we may wonder about their aims and their motives. But it should not lead us into judgment – and still less into judgmentalism.
I have said it before and I say it again, coming from the Psalms: “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.”
It is one thing to oppose bigotry – but it is another to meet those who we suspect of being bigots and then become bigoted ourselves. Inverted snobbery or racism or sexism or any other kind of them-and-us creed can never prosper in the sight of God.
But then there is that promise of the providence of God. It comes as we can receive it and is limited only by that.
What God desires is to pour into our hearts and lives that fullness of giving that can never be bought or traded. It is a full measure, unstinted and overflowing. For God is never glorified by meanness – and he wants us to show the world the kind and scale of blessing He desires to release in it.