Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
It is almost 42 years since the Yom Kippur war when Syria and Egypt attacked Israel with the aim of recapturing land lost in 1967, but if they could eliminate Israel as well, then so much the better.
And the world looked on, tut-tutting until it looked as if Israel was winning, when a ceasefire was rapidly imposed: certainly not before.
But the lesson from the Book of Esther also tells of a plot to eliminate the Jews in Persia. The queen Vashti had refused the king’s command and had been replaced by Esther, and the jealousy of Haman was aroused.
He plotted to eliminate the Jews and Esther was the only person who could approach the king on their behalf but to enter his presence unbidden was to invite execution, unless he extended a special mercy to the intruder.
So Esther agreed to approach the king and to risk her life in the process. None of this is covered by our reading but it is an essential background.
For Esther was willing to make this approach, knowing full well the dangers it posed and she and her maids fasted for three days and nights, forgoing both food and water. This was a very serious fast indeed, in earnest of their prayers and intentions.
As we know, Esther was spared, Haman was exposed and executed on his own gallows.
James’ letter is rather less dramatic, in thinking about prayers for healing, and the work of the church in reconciling its members with God – whether through personal confession or the personal encounters of members as they give each other counsel and encouragement.
For James clearly supports members of the church in guiding one another towards a right relationship with God in Jesus Christ, and with one another as fellow disciples in Christ.
None of this is about superiority – it is all about the strong guiding the needy in one area of life for we may well need similar forms of support in other areas of life, with its relationships and transactions.
But equally there is that deep sense that all areas of life have to be brought in submission to the Lord, and we cannot in our hearts fence any areas off as being purely private.
Sadly over the years open confession has become an exercise in gossip and prurience while there have been too many instances where even private confession has become an exercise in control.
But none of this invalidates James’ practical instructions to the church, and they apply in all places and eras.
In the gospel, Jesus appears to be contradicting Himself, for He had also said that “He who is not for Me is against Me”. (Matthew 12: 30).
But there is a critical difference. In today’s reading, Jesus refers to people who were working and ministering in the name of Jesus even if they were not with His particular disciples.
Bu they were still working in Jesus name and He was willing to accept and to endorse them.
And this in in complete contrast with Mathew where the issue is quite different. In that passage, Jesus is dealing with those who either supported Him or who rejected Him. There was no middle ground, and no room for compromise.
To reject Jesus was to commit oneself to opposing Him, and if this was the determined path, then it would be difficult indeed to find a way back.
But then in the gospel Jesus moves on to areas of personal holiness and the importance of not encouraging or entertaining temptation.
And in our days it is indeed easy enough to be drawn into fantasy and away from reality, and that includes the personal realm, the professional realm, the social and political and cultural realms.
It is easy to be taken up with the mood of the time and to be carried away by mass emotionalism, especially when the images projected are heart-rending and the people involved are seen to be wholly needy.
In all these areas we need one another’s prayers, and where we are able to be open with one another, one another’s advice and experience.
But this can only be given in the deepest humility, for otherwise it becomes a temptation to control and manipulation.
Perhaps this brings me to Jesus’ comments about salt. It is only of any use when it has not been debased with sand or any other similarly looking material.
When that happens it is compromised and useless.
It is a warning to all of us to guard our thoughts, our fantasies, as well as our reading, our viewing and our on-line searching.