Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 24 March 2019.
For anyone who drives a car, road signs are extremely useful. They come in many forms – directional signs (rectangles), speed limits (round), hazards (triangular) and of course the traffic lights.
They regulate traffic at a junction and give warning of hazards ahead. They indicate the route to more distant places – but while they may demand compliance, that compliance rests with the driver, even if the police can prosecute failure to observe them in the event of an incident or where a mandatory sign is ignored.
In some ways, navigational marks at sea are even more passive for they also give warning of shallow water, but it is for the navigator to observe them.
So what about the bible: it is there for all, but compelled to none. It has a combination of stories, ancient traditions, laws and regulations, poems, plays, and the high rhetoric of the prophets. There are letters, meditations, and the strange visions of the Book of Revelation.
The bible however is forever under attack. Totalitarians destroy it whenever they find it and imprison those who own one. Comedians and commentators ridicule it and skeptic intellectuals do all they can to undermine it.
Yet is survives and gives warnings and encouragement. It invites us to find personal consolation in time of need within its pages and draws us into fellowship with the spiritual reality behind its texts, who is God.
Yet we also are free to open it and read it, to let it lead us in our lives and even to direct them. Some parts are difficult to follow and demand persistence, while other parts come alive the moment we read them, as if they take form on the page and then make their ways into our deepest drives and impulses, our most intimate secrets and anxieties.
When we look at Isaiah, we have an invitation to find riches beyond imagining, to meet the living God of Israel and to abide in His fellowship forever.
But it also points us to spiritual realities far beyond ourselves: ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, now are your ways My ways, says the Lord.’
Whatever our imaginations can conceive, the truth of God is greater and more powerful. It sees within when we see only the surface.
And yet the invitation is made, it is not withdrawn and it stands for ever: ‘Come to the waters … come and buy wine and milk, (even) … when you have no money’
For Paul, also writing for people now under the covenant of God in Jesus, there are warnings.
Do not presume on your own holiness or righteousness. Do not assume you can never fall, or that your resources will be enough to meet your needs in times of trial.
If the people of the covenant of the law could fall headlong, then so can you. Even those who saw the mighty hand of God in Egypt still died in the desert and never made it to the promised land – and that included Moses.
So, yes you live your lives carefully and circumspectly, never presuming on your own holiness or strength and always needing the strength, the comfort and the guidance of God.
In the gospel however the warnings of Jesus are terse and immediate.
In days when people thought that misfortune was a sign of sin, and wealth a sign of rectitude, Jesus said otherwise. Do not imagine that you are any more holy than those who died when Pilate killed the people of Galilee or those who died when the tower of Siloam collapsed.
Our times are taken with fabulous wealth and technology, a worldwide trading system and media that span the globe in seconds at the touch of a button.
We take for granted our democracy and our welfare state, and we assume that they can never fall. As we witness the chaos of the disputes about Brexit we wonder how this could ever come about, that we are faced with such disruption to our very way of government.
It is easy to have a false sense of security amid the familiarity of our homes and families and shopping centres.
Yet this is the very time when Jesus is saying to us: the foundation of your lives is the Word of God and the things of the life and ministry of Jesus. It is not in the structures of society.
The fact that certain vices have become so fashionable that they are all but compulsory – and no criticism of them is ever acceptable – does not exempt them from judgment.
Sexual immorality is just that, whatever form it may take and theft and fraud are the same, no matter how subtle are our justifications for them.
The principles of His mercy still abide in our loving our neighbours, holding to the law provided it does not clash with the Word of God, and relying on the atoning righteousness of Jesus above and before any expectations of our own sanctity. Here we may indeed find the best bread and the finest wine.