Sermon delivered by the Rev’d Sydney Maitland
I am told – because I do not try to solve them myself – that in a certain newspaper, the crossword puzzles start relatively simply on Monday but by Friday they are positively fiendish.
The skills that they probe become more demanding and more precise, the kind of lateral thinking is more extended and imaginative, and perhaps some of the clues become downright warped.
I just try to make sense of the economics section. But it points us to something in today’s readings.
In Isaiah, God lays His complaint at ancient Israel, that despite having been brought to and settled in the promised land, despite the blessings of the law, and the day-by-day support of the priests and prophets, in the idiom of a vineyard, she still yielded a fruit that was small, hard and bitter.
And God asks: what more could I have done for My people that I have not done? They have everything they need and yet the quality of their life as a nation is twisted and fruitless.
So Isaiah leads into warnings of chastisement, hardship, violence and insecurity. If the people will not learn from the blessings of the Lord, then perhaps they will learn from His admonitions.
The point is that having been rescued and blessed, the children of Israel were expected to put something into their relationship with God, and to live faithfully to Him by acting justly towards one another, and by holding to the worship and law of the Lord alone.
The writer to the Hebrews approaches the question from a different angle, by pointing to the heroes of faith in the patriarchs, prophets, and judges of Israel who despite the indifference of the nation remained faithful to the Lord, and continued before Him in their service to Israel.
They did not give up and they did not let go, even when they were being abused, arrested, tortured, and killed. Whatever the fashion of their times offered, they remained firm in their personal faith, and so came to their reward.
This is something of a preamble to the gospel which is among the more challenging of Jesus’ words.
We are used to seeing Jesus as the Prince of Peace, who blesses peacemakers and commands forgiveness in the face of abuse, whether it is physical, psychological, emotional, cultural or economic.
He commands that we judge not, that we deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him. We are to be ready to do without and to forgo the comforts of modern life. Almsgiving and acts of mercy take the place of pursuing our own interests and desires.
So how come the sword? Division? Bitterness and strife?
One approach is to see how Jesus brings us peace with God – but does it His way. It is a way that demands our response not only at the point of personal conversion and faith but throughout life. It is demanding and certainly not automatic.
Repentance and faith are not only personally challenging but they also say something to our friends and family, our colleagues and other acquaintances, who begin to note a change in our values and priorities. Things change and with them our relationships with those around us.
We have to yield to the will and word of God and the Holy Spirit will continue to probe our lives to see that we do. What we once took for granted is now a point of tension and will stay that way until we let go and let the Lord lead us. It is not enough to be shown the way: we must indeed follow in it – and that can be demanding. Easy-going live and let live? No: a new agenda is now being followed.
A second aspect is that the peace of God reaches into the deepest parts of our lives, and confronts us with relationships and attitudes of long ago and far away. For many there will be things to forgive – and to be forgiven for.
There will be hurts to be healed and words to be countered. The grievances of long ago still have to be resolved and that may well mean letting the Lord meet them in His way and timing – and certainly not ours. Nice and easy? No. It is far easier to let the past stay buried. The Lord meets us not only in our own day but leads us back into the past, to minister to that as well.
But then thirdly, our world has an incredible ability to solve its problems its own way, and with globalization and technology, a set of global values emerges which are wholly independent of any faith system, let alone that of the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus Christ.
The world will set its own agenda, promising unspeakable power and wealth to those who will follow it and not question it, and wholly rejecting those who do not.
As the world seeks to play God, morally and spiritually, so those who follow Jesus Christ will come under more and more pressure.
Its form will vary in different parts of the world, but live and let live will not be on offer. Nothing less than full compliance will be demanded.
In warning His disciples, Jesus warned them to look at the signs of the times.
This was not about making predictions on the Second Coming, or the Rapture or any other aspect of the Last Things: rather it is to see and be aware of how the price of economic prosperity and social development is slow, subtle and dangerous.
What other people do is not always available to Jesus’ disciples, no matter how attractive may be the gains or indeed how persuasive are the moral arguments in support of these developments.
In this sense the state of tension will be within our own hearts as we observe and ponder and respond, often to different issues and in different ways.
Thus Paul wrote to the Philippian church to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (2: 12)
It’s an admonition that we need to take seriously.