Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
We are now a matter of months from the Commonwealth Games which this year will be held in Glasgow, and it will be a sport-fest to rank with them all.
One way in which our sports competitions are wholly different from other aspects of national life is that they are quite uncompromising in the pursuit of winners. The fastest athlete wins the race, regardless of appearance or opinions or affiliations. The off-track politics may be as vicious as anywhere else, but in the arena or on the track it is quite simple.
The prize goes to the fastest and fittest competitor, the best trained and coordinated and motivated team, the side that scores the most points or goals or marks of achievement. Here there is no compromise or negotiation.
There is something remarkably similar in the Old Testament reading, where the nation of Israel is given a choice. It is life or death, prosperity or adversity. The people are called upon to choose where their lives will go – and this is before they enter the promised land where they will be exposed to the allurements of other cults and religious customs.
They are called upon to choose whom they will serve, and where their loyalties will lie, for there can be no compromises. They will meet opponents in battle and they will trade with them afterwards, but they are still banned from adopting their religious practices, no matter how cosmopolitan or multi-cultural this may appear.
And so the Israelites are urged to follow the Lord their God and not any other deities; to abide in His commandments, to love Him above all others, and to walk in His ways. In other words all of life is to be a way of serving God, and He is to be found in all aspects of life. To live is to love God and to love God is to follow Him in all things, as a living truth and reality, and not just as a set of legal principles. Even the Law of God is a source of life.
Jesus also sets high and exacting standards for discipleship. He admits to no compromise in the ways of holiness before God, and He sets them out without allowances for weakness.
He starts with anger: which is only a few steps away from murder. If His disciples can contain anger in normal circumstances then they will grow used to controlling it when provoked for real. If they can recognise hatred when it is small then it will not grow up and master them. If they can contain the impulse to abuse others, then their words will not lead them into more fraught encounters. So discipleship is in mastering even petty irritations and dislikes, and preventing them from growing into anything more destructive.
Similarly the sins of lust and desire. They start in the mind – in the imaginations and the fantasies of solitude, when we are most vulnerable. They grow in the realms of frustrated yearnings, when all others seem to be fulfilled and they become angry resentments. You can see why Jesus put the management of anger first. They grow into habits and uncontrolled actions until they are so filled with guilt than all else seems to fall away in their presence and we are blinded to all other faults.
And Jesus pays particular attention to the sins of the eyes which desire and demand, and of the hands that act. He does not go into the details of sexual sin, for all sexual activity outwith heterosexual marriage is treated as sin. He does not distinguish between different kinds of activity, but in all of this He points out the heights and depths and widths of the holiness of the Kingdom of God.
What undermines one person may not touch another: so all sexual sin is under judgment. All who are prone in this area need mercy, and none can take pride in not being under the same temptation as his or her brother or sister. But all confirm that where sin did abound, there did grace more abound. All need the mercy of the Lord.
Paul is confronted with a different set of sins and pressures, for the church in Corinth had already become divided over personalities. Petty divisions had arisen over matters of detail, and Paul saw in this a profound immaturity.
The church should have been able to receive solid food: the fullness of the gospel of grace, and this should have been visible within their fellowship and life-styles.
What Paul saw was a body still taken up with forms and not with substance. Its members were still living for themselves, and were still motivated by the demands of self.
It was the self that generated the demand to be first, to be right, to be acclaimed, to be prominent. It was the self that demanded to be fed and satisfied ahead of others, and which could not master its own appetites and impulses.
Paul does not say that they were not saved or that they were not part of the church. Rather he says that they are still immature, and acting as children. They were still easily distracted and even led astray, needing to be corrected and brought back into the fold.
For us the point in all these things is to show us that we can never take pride in the sins that we have overcome but another has not, for the other may already be victorious in areas that are still sore trials to us.
Equally we are always striving to meet the exacting demands of perfection and holiness that Jesus uncompromisingly set out.
But walking with the Lord means staying with Him in all things and in prayer at all times, especially when we are being tried and more especially when we have let down both Him and at the same time, ourselves.
It means that He calls us to stay with Him even, or perhaps especially, when we are tried. He reminds us that in His most searching trial in the Garden of Gethsemane, He also looked for the company and support of His closest disciples.
Temptation should never be an excuse for isolation: rather it is the time when we most need to call out for aid and mercy.
The Holiness of God is never an excuse to abandon Him or to doubt Him when we have failed Him. It is rather the measure of how much we need Him in all aspects of our lives, and especially in those where we find that we are at our weakest.
And so we give thanks to the Lord: for His mercy endures for ever.