Thirsty for God (a sermon on John 4:5-42)

Ten years ago, in this church, we raised the money to drill three deep water wells for villages in West Africa. In late September of that year Willard Metzger from World Vision visited us and explained to us the significance of those wells. In villages with no wells of their own, the women sometimes spend most of their day walking back and forth between their homes and the nearest supply of fresh water, sometimes a distance of several miles. It isn’t possible in one trip to carry enough water to cook the evening meal; two or three trips might be necessary, just for that one job.

Obviously in a community with no well of its own, all the fresh water for drinking, cooking and washing has to be carried from somewhere else. The scarcity of water has a direct negative impact on health in the community. But what a difference when a local deep water well is drilled! The plentiful supply of fresh water has an immediate positive effect on the physical health of the community, and also on the quality of family life; when people don’t have to spend so much time walking to get water, there’s time for so many other family activities not even imagined before.

Water is essential for life. For people who live in places where it’s scarce, their entire lives become consumed with searching for it and transporting it. Behind every waking moment there’s this nagging worry: “Will we be able to find water?” Not surprisingly, in the lands of the Bible, where water is often scarce, it became a powerful symbol for true spirituality, for the reality of a living relationship with God.

Today’s Gospel reading is the story of the woman at the well. Jesus met her in Sychar in Samaria. Samaria was in central Palestine, between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north. Historically this was the heart of the old kingdom of Israel. When that kingdom was destroyed in the eighth century B.C., the King of Assyria deported many of the local inhabitants and brought in foreigners to take their place. These foreigners married into the local population, and the result was the Samaritans. Their religion was a blend of Old Testament Judaism with pagan beliefs and practices. The Jews of Jerusalem looked down on them as half-breeds who didn’t follow the pure religion of Moses, and there was a lot of bad blood between them.

It seems such a simple thing, for Jesus to sit down and have a conversation with this Samaritan woman, but in fact he had to cross at least three barriers in order for it to happen.  The first was the one we’ve already mentioned, between Jews and Samaritans. The second was a male/female barrier: in those days a man and a woman who were not married to each other just didn’t speak to each other in public; it was very questionable behaviour. But as Jesus is sitting down by the well in the heat of the day, a woman comes up with a water jar on her head, and Jesus starts a conversation with her.

The audience who first heard this story would have been suspicious about that woman right away. Why was she coming for water at noon? Respectable people were all off having their siestas at that time of day! Water jars were filled in the morning and evening; why wasn’t she coming at the usual time? Was she being ostracized or something? The original audience wouldn’t have been surprised at all to find out that the woman’s sexual life was in disarray – married five times, and now living common-law with someone. So this is a third barrier Jesus is crossing: he, a respectable rabbi, a ‘holy man’ if you like, is chatting with someone who was looked down on as a sinner.

But despite all these barriers, Jesus initiates a conversation with the woman about what he calls ‘living’ water. That was a figure of speech; it meant water bubbling up from a spring, in contrast to stagnant water of the sort you might find in a cistern. That old stuff isn’t much good, Jesus says to the woman: you can drink it if you want, but you’ll soon want another drink! But the living water – ah, now, that’s a different story! “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (13-14). Obviously he’s talking in metaphors here – but metaphors for what?

I think that when Jesus came to live among us as one of us, the last thing he had in mind was to create another religious system. ‘Religion’ often deteriorates into a control mechanism to try to domesticate a relationship with the living God. ‘Religion’ is all about holy places, holy people, and holy rituals. ‘Religion’ said that Jesus and the Samaritan woman should not be speaking, because she was a Samaritan and he was a Jew, and because she was a woman and he was a man, and because she was a sinner and he was a rabbi. ‘Religion’ said it was a really important issue whether you worshipped God on Mount Gerazim, as the Samaritans said, or in Jerusalem on Mount Zion, as the Jews said.

‘Religion’ still does the same kind of thing today. It assumes that some places are holier than others, so churches are houses of God and if you want to meet God you need to go there. In religion, you can’t meet God in the middle of your ordinary life; you have to go off somewhere different to find him.

Religion also assumes that some people are holier than others. Priests and pastors have the inside track, and bishops and archbishops are even better! So instead of praying for ourselves, let’s get the professional religionist to speak to God on our behalf, because God’s more likely to listen to him or her than to me.

‘Religion’ assumes that some people start at a disadvantage – in our gospel for today, the Samaritans, the women, and the particularly sinful. So religion can’t understand someone like Jesus who hangs around with all the wrong people, like tax collectors and prostitutes. Doesn’t he understand how dangerous that is? They’re going to drag him down to their level!

Jesus didn’t come to make us more religious; he came to break down the barriers between religion and ordinary life, so that the living water of true spirituality could flow out into every part of our lives. He came so that every human being could have within them ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (v.14) – so that every human being, wherever they worshipped God, could do so ‘in spirit and truth’ (v.24).

What is this ‘spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ that Jesus wants to give to everyone who comes to him? A few chapters later in John, we read these words:

‘On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’”. Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive’ (7:37-39a).

Connecting these two passages together, we can find an answer to our question: the spring of water is the Holy Spirit, who comes to live in each of us.

In the traditional religious approach to God, if you wanted to meet God you had to go to a temple, because temples were the places where God lived. But Jesus turns the whole thing around. Jesus doesn’t send you to a temple – Jesus makes you into a temple yourself! God doesn’t live in houses made by human hands; no, God’s Holy Spirit comes to live in human beings, so that each of us becomes a temple, a place where God lives.

We see this in the story of the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2. One hundred and twenty ordinary followers of Jesus were filled with the Holy Spirit in a dramatic explosion of praise and testimony. This was the thing that bystanders found so astonishing about the early church; ‘Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed’ (Acts 4:13). Early Christianity was a lay-people’s movement: it didn’t depend on religious organization or ritual, but on the powerful experience of the Holy Spirit which each ordinary believer had received and continued to receive.

Those early Christians didn’t feel like they had to gather in holy places to meet God either; instead, they were conscious that the Holy Spirit was joining them together into a holy community, so that any place they met became a holy place. That’s why the question of where we worship God is irrelevant. As Jesus says in verses 23-24, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth”. To worship God in truth is to worship him as he truly is, as he has been revealed to us in Jesus. And to worship him in spirit, or in the Spirit, means to have that well of living water bubbling up inside us – God the Holy Spirit living in us, guiding our words and actions in worship, so that the worship we offer is pleasing to the Father.

This sort of thing is contagious. Toward the end of our gospel, we read that the Samaritan woman went into Sychar and told a whole crowd of people about Jesus; “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (v.29) The people were intrigued by this story and came out to see Jesus for themselves, and so he stayed in their city for a couple of days. What was the result? ‘And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world”’ (vv.41-42).

 

In other words, the Samaritans had moved on from having a second-hand faith to having a faith that was based on their own experience. Their ideas about God and Jesus were no longer based on hearsay, but on their own personal experience, and that experience led them to say, “He’s the Saviour of the world”. This is the promise of God to every one of us: we won’t just know him by hearsay, but by our own personal experience.

So let me conclude by urging you not to be satisfied with that old stagnant water. Jesus did not come to make us more religious; he came to fill us with the Holy Spirit. And as he reminded us in last week’s gospel, the Holy Spirit is not under our control; he’s like the wind, blowing where he wants to blow. All we can do is make up our minds to be satisfied with nothing less than his presence in our hearts, and then come to God in prayer and ask for the Spirit to be poured out among us.

Sometimes we have to wait for a while for that prayer to be answered. For some reason, the infilling of the Holy Spirit seems to be a blessing we have to persist in prayer for. Jesus told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem after his ascension until they were clothed with the power from on high. They waited ten days, meeting constantly and praying together, until the Day of Pentecost when the blessing was given at last. Since then, many ordinary Christians have talked about having to keep on praying, waiting patiently, until at last they sensed the touch of the Holy Spirit. I have no idea why this is so. Perhaps God wants to know how serious we really are; perhaps he wants us to experience the desperation of spiritual thirst to the full, before we experience the living water of the Spirit.

I know from my own experience that while we’re waiting, there’s a tendency to settle for less – a tendency to pretend we have received what we asked for, and to go away with lowered expectations. There’s a tendency to take that empty place in us where the Spirit will live, and fill it with the stagnant water of religion. There’s a tendency to give up; ‘God obviously hasn’t noticed my prayer; there’s obviously no blessing of the Holy Spirit waiting for me’.

Don’t give up. Jesus encourages us in several places in the gospels to persist in prayer and not to get discouraged. And in Luke’s gospel he tells us that if we human beings, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13). So let us ask, and keep on asking, and not give up, until we experience the quenching of our thirst, as Jesus gives us ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (John 4:14).

Born Again (a sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Lent)

Last week I mentioned that the church has a communication problem when it comes to the words ‘temptation’ and ‘sin’; modern people don’t hear those words in anything like the way people did in Bible times. So we trivialize them, or laugh at them, or deny any implication that they might describe us. How dare you suggest we’re sinners! We’re just as good as anyone else!

We’ve got a communication problem this week, too. Our Gospel reading for today is from the third chapter of John, and in the traditional translation, it includes that dreaded phrase, ‘born again’. Whatever was in John’s mind when he first wrote that phrase – or whatever was in the mind of Jesus when he first used it – we can be sure that’s not the first thing people think of today. Today, when we hear ‘born again Christian’, we think ‘Oh yes – those are the people who voted for Donald Trump!’ And while I’m sure that there’s a variety of political opinion in St. Margaret’s, I’m also pretty sure that the majority of us are shaking our heads over Mr. Trump! So if born again Christians like him, how can it be good to be a born again Christian?

But in our gospel, Jesus doesn’t appear to think that being a ‘born again Christian’ is a bad thing. I mentioned this once to a woman who told me that she ‘didn’t like born again Christians’. I pointed out to her that, according to Jesus, there is no other kind of Christian. All Christians are, by definition, ‘born again’ – or, as our NRSV translates it, ‘born from above’ (the Greek word, ‘anothen’, can be translated either way). In John 3:3 Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”, and he adds in verse 5, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit”.

So there’s a process we have to go through in order to enter the Kingdom of God. And remember, ‘The kingdom of God’ doesn’t mean Christians dying and going to heaven; it’s about the love and power of God healing and transforming this world so that it becomes the place God meant it to be when he created it in the first place, completely free of evil and sin. “Thy kingdom come” means “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. Do you want to be part of that? I know I do! Well then, says Jesus, you need to be born again, born from above, born of water but also of the Holy Spirit.

How can we make sense of this today?

Let’s try to make sense of it by going back to our Old Testament reading. Let’s think about Abram – or, as he’s better known, Abraham. In later years Abraham was looked on as the father of the nation of Israel, but he didn’t start out living in what we now called Israel. His origins were further east, in a place Genesis calls ‘Ur of the Chaldees’, which most modern scholars think was in what is now southern Iraq, about two hundred miles southeast of Babylon. However, at some point in his adult life Abram and his family – including his father, his brothers, and their wives and children – left Ur. They had meant to move to Canaan – what is now Palestine or Israel – but for some reason they stopped in a city called Haran on what is now the southeastern border of Turkey, and lived there for a few years.

But when Abram was seventy-five, somehow (we don’t know exactly how), the God who created the universe spoke to him.

This is an amazing thing and we shouldn’t rush over it. I don’t know very much about the religion of Ur or Haran, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that it was very similar to the religion of Babylon. Like most people in the ancient near east, the Babylonians worshipped many different gods; Abram would have been surrounded by their temples and idols as he went about his daily life. The civic life of Ur and Haran would have included community sacrifices to the gods, and everyone would have known about the things they should and shouldn’t do if they wanted to avoid offending them.

But in the Hebrew text, Genesis is very specific about who was speaking to Abram; it doesn’t just say ‘God’ in general, or one of the gods of Babylonian religion. It uses the name by which the Israelites later came to know the one God, the creator of heaven and earth: ‘Yahweh’.

‘Now Yahweh said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…So Abram went, as Yahweh had told him…’ (Genesis 12:1, 4a).

Abram had none of the things we use to deepen our spiritual lives today. He didn’t have the Bible. He didn’t have the sacraments. He didn’t have the teaching of Jesus. He didn’t have a community of like-minded believers. He didn’t have multiple generations of spiritual ancestors whose wisdom he could draw on. He was surrounded by people who worshipped the ancient gods of Babylon, and yet somehow he heard the one creator God speaking to him. “Leave all this behind, and go to the land I will show you”. Leave everything you know, leave your safety and security. “Where to, God?” “Never mind that; I’ll show you on the way there!”

We know that Abram kept herds and flocks. I can imagine him scratching his head in confusion: “But God, I need to know where I’m going to find pasture and water for my livestock. I need a plan. I can’t just walk by faith; if I get it wrong, the animals will die and I’ll be ruined”. We don’t know whether or not Abram prayed that sort of questioning prayer, but we know from later stories about him that he was exactly the kind of guy who would have asked those questions!

In our gospel reading, Nicodemus misunderstands what Jesus means when he talks about being born again, or born from above; he asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4). But here in Genesis we have an example of of an old man being born again. In the ancient world, seventy-five would have been a very great age indeed. Abram probably had his retirement plan figured out. I’m sure he thought he was long past the time of life when he would be going on adventures. But now he’s supposed to leave all his security behind, and follow by faith the God who had spoken to him. Leaving the security of the womb, out into the dark and dangerous and unknown world. It was like being born. Or born again.

So what does the story of Abram teach us about what a new birth is all about?

New birth is obviously a metaphor for a decisive change in a person’s life – a break with the past and a new beginning, walking by faith in the God who calls us. It reminds me of what Paul says in Philippians 3:13:

‘But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus’.

‘Forgetting what lies behind’. Abram was called to make a real break with the past, and with the beliefs and practices of the vast majority of the people around him. He would have stood out like a sore thumb in the world he was living in. “What do you mean, you don’t worship the gods? What are you going to do when your crops fail? What are you going to do when someone in your family gets sick? And if you stop worshipping them, they’ll get mad at the whole community and bad things will happen to us”. I can just imagine the sort of pressure Abram would have been under, in his old home of Haran and in the new land he moved to in Canaan. In those days it would be taken for granted that if you moved to a new country you learned to worship the gods of that country. But everywhere Abram went in Canaan he built an altar to his God, the Creator, the one who had called him.

In the Book of Acts, we read about how Paul planted a new congregation in the Greek city of Thessalonica, and three weeks later he had to leave in a hurry because of persecution. A while later he wrote a letter to the tiny congregation in Thessalonica. He reminded them of their conversion – their ‘new birth’, if you like. He says,

‘For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

So that’s part of what it means to be ‘born again’ – we turn away from the idols everyone worships around us and turn to the true God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus. Nowadays, of course, those idols aren’t pagan gods like Ishtar and Marduk, or Zeus or Apollo. They’re more likely to be the idols of money and the things that it can buy, or popularity, or youth and beauty, or national security. Jesus himself refers to money as an idol when he says ‘You can’t serve both God and Mammon’. In the context, ‘mammon’ obviously means worldly wealth, but when you personalize a thing like that, giving it a name, you treat it like a false god, an idol. And money is obviously treated as an idol today. When they have a lot of money in the bank, people feel secure; they have confidence that bad things can’t do so much harm to them. They also have a sense that their life has a meaning or purpose; the grand narrative of our lives today is that increasing wealth means success, so if I’m getting wealthier, I’m obviously successful.

If we choose not to participate in the worship of mammon, we’ll look just as weird in the world today as Abraham did when he stopped worshipping the gods of his ancestors, or as the early Christians did when they refused to participate in civic sacrifices to the Greek and Roman gods, or to the emperor as a god. But that’s part of what it means to be born again. What’s the true god of our life, the thing we value more than anything else, the thing we rely on when the going gets tough, the thing that gives us a sense of security and purpose and meaning? Being ‘born again’ means to take the terrifying risk of dethroning that idol, and learning to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.

And that leads to the next thing: being ‘born again’ also means making a decision to adopt the priorities of God’s Kingdom. That’s why Jesus associates the two: ‘No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above’ (John 3:3). Jesus has told us what the values of the Kingdom are: we love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and we love our neighbour as ourselves. And we dedicate ourselves to living and sharing God’s love with the people around us. I love the way God describes that call to Abram in our first reading:

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2, 3b).

The kingdom of the world says it’s everyone for himself; it’s all about you as an individual, your rights, your success, your happiness. You are the king and god of all you see! But God’s kingdom says, “No! It’s about living each day with the intent of being a blessing to the people around you, a channel into their lives for God’s love and joy and stubborn hope.

So being born again means dethroning our favourite false gods, and committing ourselves to the Kingdom of God as our priority. A third thing we can say about it is that it’s two steps forward and one step back. A new birth is a beginning, but it’s not all plain sailing from that day forward. It wasn’t in Bible times and it isn’t today.

Abraham didn’t get it right all the time. When you read his story in Genesis chapters 12 to 25, it’s very honest about his doubts and weaknesses and failures. He has a hard time believing God’s impossible promise that he and his wife will have a son in their old age. He’s afraid of the people around him, and he tells lies to save his own skin. He lets himself be manipulated, especially by his wife. He’s not a superhero; he’s a real human being, just like us.

Last week we talked about our ‘human propensity to mess things up’. We break things, and people, and relationships. We’re given the freedom to make real decisions, but we seem to have an extraordinary talent for making bad decisions. I do it. You do it. We all do it. And this doesn’t instantly change when we become followers of Jesus. The day after we choose to follow Jesus, we’ve had exactly twenty-four hours’ training in the kingdom of God, and many years’ of training in the kingdom of the worship of money and success and selfishness! It’s going to be a long, gradual process, growing and learning and being trained as disciples of Jesus. A new birth is just that: a birth. After the birth comes the growing and learning. So we have to be patient with ourselves, and patient with others.

And we have to trust the Holy Spirit. That’s the last thing I want to say about being born again. It’s not something we can do to ourselves. We can’t make it happen. There’s no formula, no ceremony, nothing we can do to command the Holy Spirit to act. He’s like the wind: he’s not under anyone’s control.

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

We humans tend to go through what we refer to as ‘phases’ in our lives. I went through my Star Trek phase, and my Bruce Cockburn phase, and my social activist phase, and when I look back on them now I shake my head a bit and think “Well, those were good things, but I probably went a bit overboard”.

But being a Christian, if it’s real, isn’t just a phase. When I was thirteen my Dad gave me a gentle challenge: “You’ve never given your life to Jesus, have you?” I went away that night, sat down on my bed in the privacy of my room, and prayed a simple prayer in exactly those terms: “Jesus, I give my life to you”. It wasn’t a dramatic experience; I didn’t see visions or really feel overwhelmed by the love of God. But when I look back on it now, I see it was one of the most important moments of my life. The Holy Spirit must have been at work; that’s the only thing I can say. That day I began a journey of learning to pray and listen to God’s Word in the Bible, learning to be a member of the Body of Christ, learning to do God’s will in the world. That journey has continued to this day. And I’m convinced that the Holy Spirit brought me to that moment. I have no other explanation for it.

And we can trust the Holy Spirit; he is God, and God is love. So don’t be afraid of this ‘born again’ talk. And don’t be afraid of what it means: dethroning your favourite idols, seeking first God’s Kingdom, moving slowly ahead in a ‘two steps forward, one step back sort of way’, all under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit won’t lead you astray. He will lead you into the centre of God’s loving will for you, and that may be hard, but it will always be good.

Temptation and Joy (a sermon for the first Sunday of Lent)

Our theme for today, the first Sunday of Lent, is ‘Temptation’. And we have to face up to the fact, right from the start, that this is not the sexiest theme on the planet!

Well, maybe for some people it actually is the sexiest theme on the planet. Because to some people, that’s what the word ‘temptation’ is all about – seductive music, low-cut silk dresses, that air of danger, that fiction of attempting to resist, while all the time you know you’re not going to resist for long. ‘Temptation’ and ‘sex’ are two words that go together in a lot of people’s minds.

And the other word that often goes with ‘temptation’, of course, is ‘chocolate’! It’s dark, it’s mysterious, it’s sweet, it can be bad for us in excess, but it tastes so good! Who can resist it? Not many of us – at least, not for long!

So we have a communication issue here. Something which the biblical writers – and our Christian ancestors – considered to be a very serious, and very dangerous, part of our spiritual experience, has become something funny, or even something enjoyable – a ‘sinful pleasure’, we might say. How are we going to rehabilitate this word, to the point that we take it seriously?

I think we have to start with another word that’s lost its power to communicate: the word ‘sin’. Once again, it’s not a word that’s used very often these days. It tends to be associated with moralistic preachers going on about hellfire and brimstone and trying to control people and taking all the pleasure out of their lives. Or, alternatively, it has that same comic feel to it as the word ‘temptation’. When people of our day talk about something being ‘a sinful pleasure’, they don’t usually mean that it’s a bad thing, do they? They might even use the term ‘sinfully delicious’ – not just delicious, but delicious with that extra ‘zing’ of indulging yourself in something that someone else thinks you should stay away from – which just adds to the overall deliciousness, doesn’t it? ‘Take that, you killjoys!’

It’s this total loss of horror over the evil of sin – the evil of our own sin – that makes some preachers and Christian writers avoid the word altogether. But others have taken a different approach. I mentioned a few weeks ago Francis Spufford’s brilliant little book Unapologetic, which is subtitled Why, Despite Everything, Christianity can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. As I said last time, Spufford uses a snappy little phrase as an alternative to the word ‘sin’. His phrase uses a rather offensive swear word that I’m not going to repeat in this pulpit, but when I tell you that my slightly edited version of his phrase is ‘Our human propensity to mess things up’, I’m sure you can guess the word he used instead of ‘mess’!

But this is brilliant, isn’t it? Here’s part of what Spufford has to say about it:

‘What we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch’.

I think we all recognize this in ourselves, or at least, I hope we do. But we tend to be brought face to face with it in those horrible moments when we become aware of failure: a marriage ends, or a job disappears, or a relationship with an adult child becomes more and more distant until we wake up one day and realize we hardly ever see them again, or they never call. Or perhaps we realize that the extra glass of wine after supper has become two, or three, or four, and has started to have an impact on the rest of our life – a negative impact. Or the doctor tells us it’s time to start taking blood pressure pills or cholesterol medication, and we say, “I’m too young for that, aren’t I?” and she replies, “Well, some of your lifestyle choices might not have been very wise”.

Or maybe it’s none of that. Maybe we just catch ourselves one night in a reflective mood, thinking about what our life has become, and we suddenly remember all the bright dreams we had when we were in high school, and we think “What happened to all that?” and we’re consumed with regret, because none of the choices we made seemed that bad in themselves, but as we look back we can see how they’ve led inexorably to the person we’ve become.

Okay, so this is what we mean by ‘sin’. We have a life, one precious life, entrusted to us by a God who loves us and wants nothing but good for us. But he’s given us free will, which means that we can make real choices that have real consequences. And all of us, without exception, have this mysterious propensity to make bad choices. When we’re faced with that bright shiny thing that looks so good, or that choice between short term pleasure and long term good, over and over again we make the wrong choice. I do it. You do it. Everybody does it. And because we all live in a network of relationships, it doesn’t just effect us. The person I’m becoming effects the people I love, and the people I work with, and the barista I snap at when I buy my morning coffee, and so on, and so on, reaching out to the people in South Sudan who are currently heading inexorably toward a deadly famine caused entirely, so the experts say, by civil war. We are communal beings, and we sin as communal beings.

What do we have to say about this as Christians?

First, we’re in this together. None of us has the right to look down on someone else and judge them, because we’ve all been infected with the same disease. In A.A. everyone says “Hi, I’m Jack, and I’m an alcoholic”. Well, I’m Tim, and I’m a sinner. I mess things up. I break things and people that are precious to me. I have a lot of regrets. Every sane person does. We’re all in this together.

That’s why our Old Testament reading from Genesis is so important. It’s not about something that happened a long long time ago in a mythical time when snakes could talk. It’s about a fundamental characteristic of human beings, something that was as obvious to the original authors as it is to us today.

God creates us out of love and puts us in a beautiful garden where we have everything we could possibly want and more besides. We know God instinctively, as many children do even today, and we walk consciously with God. And we’re glad to follow God’s wise guidance, because we know from experience that things do tend to work out better for us when we do.

But then something catches our attention, something so beautiful that it takes our breath away. Immediately everything else fades from view and we find ourselves consumed with longing for this thing, this forbidden fruit. We know it’s forbidden, but we find ourselves doubting the wisdom of that command. ‘What would be wrong with it?’ we ask ourselves.

And then we hear the voice. “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 3:1). Of course not, but the voice is a cunning one; it wants us to think that God’s out to spoil our fun. It wants us to resent God. And so it makes out God’s commands to be a lot more burdensome than they actually are. “You could have so much fun; there are so many wonderful things you could enjoy if it wasn’t for these silly, puritanical commandments. Why do you put up with them? You’re not really going to enjoy life to the full unless you ignore God on this point, and do what your instincts tell you to do”.

And so we give in, and we know right away that things have gone dreadfully wrong. The thought of God isn’t a delight any more; in fact, we’re scared of him, and we hide from him. We try to avoid thinking about him, because the thought of him and the thought of what we’ve done just can’t fit together in our minds.

But when he breaks through all that fog – when the stab of conscience succeeds in hitting us – we look around for someone to blame. “The woman – whom you gave to be with me – she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate”. It’s her fault – I wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t provoked me – and where did she come from, anyway? Wasn’t she your idea in the first place?” Or, “the serpent tricked me, and I ate” (in other words, “the devil made me do it!”).

We hide from God, and we blame others instead of accepting our own responsibility. And the result is that paradise is lost to us – we have to leave our beautiful home. We feel ashamed of ourselves, so we make clothes – in other words, we hide from each other, we wear masks with each other, because we’re afraid that if other people knew us as we really are, as we really know ourselves to be, they wouldn’t love us, or even like us. So we perform for each other, playing a role instead of being ourselves, out of fear of rejection. And the sad story goes on. In the next chapter of the book of Genesis, brother murders brother and then tries to hide the deed.

This is us; this is what we do. And we have to take it seriously. Christianity is against that facile view of human nature that says we’re all basically good people. That doesn’t make sense of all the despicable things we do to each other. Yes, we’re made as good people by a good God, but we’ve somehow gotten infected with this disease of selfishness and self-centredness – this human propensity to mess things up. And when we admit that, we can be patient with one another, because we know that we’re in the same struggle together.

And there is forgiveness. That’s the next thing Christianity has to say. Our fear of God turns out to be not the whole story. Yes, he’s angry, because he loves us and hates to see us putting ourselves through so much pain. But he’s not our enemy. And so in our psalm today we come across this incredible surprise; we can almost hear the astonishment in the author’s voice:

‘Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin’ (Psalm 32:5).

‘You forgave the guilt of my sin’. What an amazing thing! We sin against love, we turn away from the love that made us, and when he comes among us and tries to win us back, we nail him to a cross and string him up to die. And what does he do? He says, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”. We may be his enemies, but he appears to be in the habit of loving his enemies! And so we’re encouraged to come clean, not to ‘hide our iniquity’, but to turn to God and confess it. He knows about it anyway, so why should we pretend? “This is me, God; this is what I’ve done. No denials, no excuses. Will you forgive me, please?” And the reply? “My son, my daughter, your sins are forgiven. And by the way, I’m so glad you’re back, so we’re going to kill the fatted calf and have a feast!”

That’s the wonder of the Gospel. Do you believe it? If you do, you’ll go out of this church today with a new light in your eyes and a new joy in your heart. You looked into the face of your judge, and to your amazement you discovered a Saviour. And now you just can’t get over it!

But there’s more. We’re not condemned to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Yes, we won’t get entirely free of the infection, not while we live in this frail mortal flesh. Sin still weaves a tangled web, and even the holiest and most mature Christian gets caught in it sometimes. But salvation is possible. Progress in holiness is possible. And someone has walked that path before us.

That’s why the story of Jesus’ temptations is our gospel reading for today. This was not just play acting. Some people say, “Ah, but he was God, so he was never really going to fall to temptation, was he?” But that’s not taking the Incarnation seriously. “He was God” is not a completely exhaustive statement about Jesus. He was also a human being, subject to the same fears and doubts and tests and desires as us. Specifically, the desire to avoid the Cross. That’s what the devil was tempting him to do, wasn’t it? ‘You don’t have to walk this path of the cross. You can give them all free bread, or you can do some amazing miracle that makes it plain to them who you really are – that’ll impress them, won’t it? Or you can worship me, and then I’ll give them all to you as a gift’. No need for the nails, the spear, the crown of thorns. You can have it all for free.

Why did Jesus say ‘no’? This is really important; we need to know this. My own experience is that fighting against temptation is never a very effective way of fighting against temptation! Do you know what I mean? I’m tempted to buy something I don’t really need and I know I can’t really afford, but the temptation won’t go away, so each time it comes around I struggle against it. But when I’m struggling against it I’m still thinking about it, aren’t I? So this deliciously sinful thing gets bigger and bigger in my mind even as I’m fighting against it, and eventually, inevitably, I give in.

There’s a very significant verse in the letter to the Hebrews that offers us a different strategy. Let me read it to you:

‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Hebrews 12:1-2).

‘The joy that was set before him’. That’s what Jesus was focussing on when he was tempted. He wasn’t focussing on avoiding the sin. He was focussing on gaining the joy. He refused to let the temptation grow in his mind, so he turned his attention away from it, to something completely different.

We can do that too. What is ‘the joy that is set before us’? It’s the joy of knowing God better and better every day. Isn’t that an amazing thought – that we can know the creator of the universe, because he wants to know us? It’s the joy of having a clear conscience, or waking up in the morning without that heavy weight of guilt pressing on our hearts. It’s the joy of knowing that God has a dream for us and we’re making steady progress toward it. It’s the joy of working toward reconciliation and building better, more lasting relationships: good marriages, strong families, positive friendships, and even, as much as it lies within us, being at peace with those who don’t especially like us. It’s the joy of living in harmony with the person God created us to be.

That’s what we need to focus on this Lent: the joy that is set before us.

So yes – we have this human tendency to mess things up. We’re all infected by it, and it can lead us to do some awful, despicable things – things that hurt us, and that hurt the people around us. We all struggle with this, so none of us can sit in judgement on each other. We’re in this together.

And God’s in it together with us. He’s not itching to damn us to hell for it. He wants to forgive us, because that’s his nature: he’s a God of grace, a God who loves his enemies and blesses those who hate him.

He’s in it so much, in fact, that he came among us and walked the earth as one of us, to show us what he’s like, and to show us the way. And now he comes and lives among us again, living in us, in fact, by his Holy Spirit. We’ve all been infected by sin, but he’s spreading a good infection – the love of God. As we walk with him each day, that good infection grows stronger, helping us to defeat our human propensity to mess things up.

And we do this by focussing on the joy set before us. To know God is to know joy. That joy is the whole purpose of Lent. So don’t just focus on giving stuff up. Focus on knowing God and walking with God. In the end, that’s what Lent is all about.

Into the Desert with God (a sermon for Ash Wednesday on Matthew 6:1-21)

A couple of weeks ago I read these words in a book called Making New Disciples, by Mark Ireland and Mike Booker; I’m not sure whether the ‘I’ in this story is Mark or Mike, but this is what he says:

A few years ago I spent a week trekking and camping in the Sinai Desert. Reading the Bible in that austere landscape I realized afresh that, as David Runcorn says, “the Scriptures teach us that there is no path to God that does not pass through the wilderness. The God of the Bible is the God of the desert”. I was leading daily Bible studies on the life of Moses, but I could have chosen any one of the many figures whose faith was shaped in the desert – Abraham, Jacob, Elijah, John the Baptist, St. Paul, and, of course, Jesus. The time of greatest spiritual growth is not when all is going well and flourishing, but when everything is stripped away and we are left with God alone. There is something about the unforgiving landscape of the desert, where danger is never far away, that forces us to do serious business with God. In Scripture and in life, the school for discipleship is the desert rather than the oasis.

I was really struck by that phrase, ‘The time of greatest spiritual growth is not when all is going well and flourishing, but when everything is stripped away and we are left with God alone’. That’s what Lent is all about! At the end of the day, giving stuff up isn’t an end in itself. What we’re beginning tonight is a journey into the desert where all our distractions are stripped away, so that we’ve got nothing to rely on but God. We strip our life down to the bare minimum, to the essentials, to the things that are really important, and then we use a few, basic spiritual disciplines to draw us closer to God in love, and closer to our fellow human beings in love as well. That’s the point of Lent.

What are those basic spiritual disciplines? Jesus names them in our gospel reading for tonight. There are three of them, and they’re very familiar to all of us: generosity, prayer, and fasting. Everyone understood in the time of Jesus that if you wanted to live a godly life, these three disciplines were essential; no one would even think about trying to live in God’s way without including them. So as we begin Lent, it’s a good idea for us to revisit these disciplines.

So let’s start with generosity, or ‘almsgiving’, to use the older word that the NRSV uses. In verse 2 Jesus introduces the subject: “So whenever you give alms…”. Growing as a disciple of Jesus includes growing from a selfish, self-centred person into a loving and caring person. Generosity – especially generosity to the poor – is a vital part of this. The Gospels are full of examples of Jesus encouraging us to do this; in one place he even says that when we care for the needy it is really him that we’re caring for.

In Isaiah chapter 58 the prophet warns the people of his time that God isn’t impressed with fasting and liturgical worship if it doesn’t lead to a change in the way we treat the poor. He encourages the people to loose the bonds of injustice, to share their bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into their homes, and to stop pointing fingers and speaking evil of other people.

Now of course there are obvious ways in which we obey this commandment, and I don’t need to give people in this congregation any lessons in it.  But let me just take this a little further and remind you that one of the purposes of giving is to knock selfishness on the head. We don’t just give for the sake of the people to whom we give; we give for our own sake, too. Paul tells us in his first letter to Timothy that godliness with contentment brings great gain. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a very content sort of person. I live in a culture where I’m constantly bombarded with ads for all sorts of gadgets I don’t really need. Giving, in this context, is a counter-cultural act; it helps me to focus not on my own imagined needs, but the needs of others. As I grow in holiness, the idea is that I will grow not just in generosity, but in my enjoyment of generosity. And that’s a real work of God!

If we ask, “How much should I give?” I always remember C.S. Lewis’ rule: if my giving isn’t making a difference to my standard of living, I’m probably not giving enough. There should be things I’d like to do that I can’t do because of my commitment to Christian generosity.

And of course, generosity isn’t just a matter of money. It’s also about my time and talents. How do I love my family, my friends and neighbours, and the people I don’t even like? This is all included as we think about our relationships with our neighbours.

The next thing Jesus deals with in this gospel is prayer. Prayer is one of the ways we love God with all our heart. If we love someone, we want to spend time with them; after all, the greatest compliment you can ever pay a person is to spend time with them! When you do that, you’ve given them a priceless gift; you’re never going to get that time back. That’s why we call it ‘spending’ time.

When it comes to prayer, Jesus gives us some very simple guidelines in this passage. He assumes that his followers will pray regularly. Everyone has to find the best way of doing that – that is to say, the time of day and the place of prayer that works best for you. Some are night people and find that praying last thing at night is good for them. Others like to get up early. Some pray at work, and some pray at home. Some pray out of doors, and some indoors. Some pray mainly by themselves, and some pray mainly with their spouse or their family. It doesn’t really matter; what matters is that we pray regularly.

Jesus also tells us to pray sincerely. In the bit we didn’t read, he talks about how some people like to ‘heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words’ (6:7). It isn’t especially important what words we use, or even how long we pray; the important thing is that we mean what we say!

In Philip Yancey’s book ‘Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference?’ he tells a story about a man who worked in a downtown rescue mission. At the mission they had prayer meetings, and some of the street people prayed rather direct prayers. One day one old guy prayed, “Thank you, God, for Metamucil”, and someone else chimed in, “That’s a 10/4, God!” Perhaps we could learn something from the simple directness of this man of the street, who prayed out of the honesty of his heart.

A third thing I learn from the Lord’s Prayer is to pray simply. This is not an elaborate prayer; it approaches God simply as Father, and prays first of all about his concerns – his name, his kingdom, his will being done – and then about the necessities of life – forgiveness, daily food, deliverance from evil. And it’s short, too – there’s nothing particularly virtuous about long prayers.

These are some of the guidelines Jesus gives us about prayer – pray regularly, sincerely, and simply. And in all our praying let’s remember the fundamental goal – to grow in our relationship with God.

The third discipline Jesus mentions is fasting. What’s fasting all about? Well, as I said at the beginning, we need to have our distractions stripped away, so we can focus on God and growing closer to God. Fasting is the discipline of turning away from things that distract us so that we can give our best attention to God and God’s call on our lives. It might be a fast from TV or the internet. It might be a fast from buying books. I know of one person who fasted from electronic screens one Lent; that would be a very difficult fast for many of us, but she claimed it was a huge benefit to her life.

The classic fast, of course, is a fast from food. This is something we aren’t very good at in our culture, and I must confess that I really only do it during Lent. Last year I made it a habit of doing a twenty-three hour fast once a week. In other words, I missed two meals, breakfast and lunch, so I didn’t eat from after supper Tuesday night until just before supper Wednesday night. I spent those mealtimes in extra prayer and spiritual reading, and when I felt hungry during the day, I tried to remind myself of my hunger for God, and turned to God in my heart in prayer, wherever I happened to be at the time. I have to say, I found it a very beneficial discipline. Not everyone can fast in this way – some have health issues that preclude it – but I suspect that there are many of us who could benefit from it.

So we have these three basic disciplines of godly living, disciplines that Jesus assumed his disciples would take on: prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor. Let’s finish by reminding ourselves that Jesus is very concerned about the spirit in which we practice these disciplines.

When you give, he says, don’t insist on having your name on the plaque on the wall. Don’t even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Keep it secret, so only God will know, and God will reward you. Don’t do it to impress others; do it because you love God.

And when you pray, don’t do it ostentatiously. Find a secret place where no one will catch you doing it. Jesus isn’t telling us we should never pray with others (he prayed in public himself several times). He’s getting at our motivation: don’t pray to impress others, pray because you love God.

And when you fast, don’t make a big noise about it. Don’t fast to impress other people; fast out of love for God.

What Jesus is talking about here is the question of who we’re living our life for. We’ve all got an audience, if we want it: family, friends, co-workers, fellow church members. But we’re not to live our lives to impress this audience. Rather, we’re to live our lives for an audience of one – God – and ‘Your Father who sees in secret will reward you’. What will the reward be? A deeper sense of closeness to God, a greater joy in loving others, and in turning away from the things that distract us so that we can give our best attention to the God who loves us. That’s what Lent is all about, so let’s pray that God will help all of us to embrace the call to a holy Lent. Amen.

Be Like Your Father – Love Your Enemies (a sermon on Matthew 5:38-48)

In 1569 a young man named Dirk Willems was burnt at the stake for heresy in the town of Asperen in the Netherlands. Some of you have heard me tell his story before; for others, it will be new. Today many Christians around the world look on him as a hero. Let me tell you why.

When Dirk was a teenager he met some Anabaptists. In 16th century Europe, these were the Christians who opposed the idea of having a state church. They didn’t believe that people could be Christians just because they were citizens of a so-called ‘Christian country’; they believed that you had to choose for yourself to become a follower of Jesus. They thought you should be baptized as an adult as a sign of this commitment, and you then would become part of a fellowship of people who were learning to put Jesus’ teaching into practice. In particular, most Anabaptists believed followers of Jesus should not participate in war, and should literally love their enemies as Jesus taught. The state churches considered the Anabaptists a threat to their power, and so hundreds of them were horribly tortured and executed.

Dirk was attracted to Anabaptist ideas, and he was baptized as an adult in Rotterdam. Then he returned to his home town of Asperen and quietly began to host illegal Anabaptist meetings in his house. At those meetings, he and others taught a way of being Christian that was very different from the way the established church taught it. Eventually he was arrested and imprisoned, but he managed to escape from the prison by climbing out of the window and clambering down a rope made of knotted cloths, and he ran for safety. However, he was seen from the prison, and a guard ran after him. It was early spring; Dirk approached a pond that was still frozen, but he had been eating prison food and didn’t weigh very much, so he made it across the thin ice. But the guard had been eating rather better, and he broke through the ice and sank into the frigid water. In terror of drowning, he cried out for help.

If you had been Dirk, what would you have done?

Dirk turned back. At great risk, he reached across the ice to rescue his pursuer. When the guard was safely on dry ground, he promptly re-arrested Dirk and incarcerated him in a more secure prison – the tower of the Asperen parish church. This time there was no escape. Dirk was tried for heresy and condemned to be burned to death at the stake. The execution was exceptionally painful; the wind blew the fire away from his upper body and he died very slowly. Witnesses are recorded as having heard him cry out many times, “Oh Lord, my God!” as he was being burned.

Was he right to do what he did?

For centuries, Christians have disagreed over the issue of war. Is it right for Christians to participate in wars and kill the enemies of their country? Those who say it is right have argued that Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemies was intended to guide personal behaviour, not state policy. Personally I think there’s a lot more too it than that, but be that as it may, what we have here is precisely a story about personal behaviour. So at least in theory, all Christians should be agreed that we can’t wiggle out of this one! Dirk did as Jesus commanded in our Gospel for today, and he was not miraculously delivered; he suffered horribly for his decision. Why did he do it? And why did Jesus command us to do it?

The reason Jesus commanded us to love our enemies is because this is the way God treats us. At the heart of the Christian Gospel is the story of a God who loves his enemies. And that’s what Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel reading.

But before we look again at the words of Jesus for today, let’s remind ourselves of what he’s doing in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. Earlier in the chapter he told us that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will never enter God’s kingdom. The scribes and Pharisees were the most religious people in Jesus’ day, so this would have seemed like a tall order – rather like me telling you today that unless your righteousness exceeded that of Mother Teresa, you’d never measure up.  But Jesus had a different view. To him, Pharisaic religion was often only skin deep; too often, the Pharisees were satisfied with outward conformity to the letter of the law, while ignoring the spirit. So Jesus challenges us, his disciples, to go beyond the letter of the Old Testament law and to focus on the inner transformation that is God’s dream for us.

So as we saw last week, we aren’t to be satisfied with just avoiding murder while all the time nursing anger and resentment against others; rather, we’re to do all we can to be reconciled with one another. And it’s not enough only to tell the truth when we’re under oath in court; we’re to be such honest people that no-one would even think of asking us to take an oath, because they know we always tell the truth.

In all the examples Jesus gives in this chapter, he calls his followers to move beyond the Law of Moses and to learn to live by the more perfect law of love. He’s quite clear about what he’s asking his followers to do with regard to the Old Testament; over and over again he says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… but I say to you…”. Obviously, though he respects the Law of Moses, he doesn’t see it as completely adequate as a basis for living a godly life. So he ‘fulfils’ it, in the sense of exploring its deeper meaning and even, in some cases, apparently overturning it in favour of a more perfect way.

This is particularly relevant to today’s passage. In the Old Testament, as you know, there are many stories of wars and violence apparently being sanctioned by God, but Jesus offers his followers a completely different way of dealing with evil. Let’s listen again to his words, this time from the New Living Translation:

     “You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’. But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.

     “You have heard the law that says, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy”. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect”.

I wonder what your instinctive reaction is when you hear these words of Jesus? Perhaps you think he’s being outrageous: how can he possibly demand such a thing? Doesn’t he understand that if we act in this way we’re just going to encourage people to continue their evil behaviour? Isn’t he being impossibly idealistic? I’m reminded of the story of a pastor who was preaching through the Sermon on the Mount. An old lady objected to his sermon about loving enemies, and when he replied that he was simply quoting the words of Jesus, she replied, “Yes, but he was a very young man when he preached that sermon!”

But here’s the catch: don’t we assume, every one of us, that God will treat us like this? Don’t we almost see it as our right?

The God Jesus describes to us in the Gospels is constantly loving his enemies. As Jesus says, God doesn’t check to see if you believe in him before he lets you benefit from the sunshine. He doesn’t check to see if you’ve obeyed the Ten Commandments before he decides whether or not it will rain on you. No, ‘he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (v.45).

The God we read about in the New Testament is constantly loving people who don’t deserve to be loved. It’s almost forty-five years since I first gave my life to Jesus. I have to say that I’m still confessing some of the same sins, on an almost daily basis, that I was confessing forty-five years ago. I’ve made progress in some areas, but in others I’ve gotten nowhere at all. Sometimes I put in an honest effort; at other times I just like an easy life too much. Sometimes, to be honest, I find a particular sin just too enjoyable to give up! And yet, day by day, I go to God and ask him to forgive me. I never say, “I don’t think you should forgive me for this, Lord – if you do, you’ll just reinforce my bad behaviour”. Do you? Of course not! I ask for forgiveness, and I know I’ve received it because he continues to bless me with a sense of his presence and an awareness of his mercy and grace. That’s what the Christian gospel is all about: a God who loves people whether they deserve it or not, because it’s his nature to love.

The God we read about in the New Testament is constantly turning the other cheek. And in this case, it’s like Father, like Son: Jesus was the ultimate practitioner of his own sermon. He loved his enemies and prayed for those who persecuted him. When the soldiers were nailing him to the Cross he prayed for everyone involved in his execution: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”. His death was the ultimate example of how God treats human sinfulness. God chose not to send the entire human race to hell for our rebellion. Instead, he came among us in Jesus and took the sins of the world on his own shoulders. Rather than making us suffer for our sins, he chose to bear the suffering himself, so that we could be forgiven.

So you see that this passage is rooted in the Gospel, the good news of God’s grace. Grace is a Bible word that means ‘love that you don’t deserve’. You don’t have to earn it, you don’t have to do something to purchase it; it just comes to you for free, because God is that kind of God. God doesn’t love us because we’re loveable; he loves us because he is love, whether we’re loveable or not.

That’s the wonderful good news Jesus has commissioned us to announce to everyone, everywhere: God has declared an amnesty to all who take advantage of it by coming to Jesus and putting their trust in him. You can be the older brother who never left home or the younger brother who squandered his father’s property with prostitutes. You can be a self-righteous Pharisee or a tax collector who’s broken every rule in the book. God’s not choosy – if you turn back to him and put your life in Jesus’ hands, you can be forgiven.

But here’s the catch: if you want to take advantage of God’s grace, you have to commit yourself to living by the same principle of grace in your own life. Jesus spelled it out for us in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. He goes on to say, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). Yes, we were God’s enemies, but fortunately for us God is in the habit of loving his enemies, and so instead of being cast into the outer darkness we were welcomed home to the Father’s house. Very good, Jesus says – now: go and do likewise.

The way Jesus sees it, children who have good parents should want to be like them; if they don’t, there’s something wrong. So often when we’re confronted with our own sinfulness, we say, “I’m only human, you know!” And of course God understands that, which is why he’s such a patient and merciful God. But he longs for us to aim higher than that! He longs for us to look up to him and say, like a little child who is so proud of his father, “When I get older, I want to be like my Dad!” And so Jesus ends today’s reading by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v.48). This sounds like an impossible ideal, and no doubt it is very difficult, but let’s remember that the word ‘perfect’ in this context means ‘complete, with nothing left out’. What Jesus is saying is ‘Our heavenly Father leaves no one outside the circle of his love, and you must do the same’.

No one ever said this would be easy. No one promised it would never get us into trouble; Jesus certainly never promised that. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). People who were carrying crosses were on their way out to be executed; they weren’t on their way to an uplifting discussion about the meaning of life at their local Starbucks!

Dirk Willems was well aware that turning back to help his enemy would probably mean his death. But he did it anyway, because he wanted to be like his heavenly Father, and like his Master Jesus. Followers of Jesus are content to do as Jesus says, and trust that the same God who vindicated him will one day vindicate us as well. And so, like Jesus, we modern Christians are also called to walk the costly path of love. Let us pray that the God who strengthened Jesus will strengthen us also, so that we too, like our Father in heaven, are able to leave no one out of the circle of our love.

The Greater Righteousness (a sermon on Matthew 5:21-37)

If a preacher stood up in a pulpit today and said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of Mother Theresa, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”, I suspect the members of the congregation would be shocked. Mother Theresa, who gave her entire life to serving the poor of Calcutta? Mother Theresa, who thought nothing of cleaning out bedpans and washing the hideous wounds of lepers? Mother Theresa, who spent an hour in prayer every morning before the Blessed Sacrament? How the heck can we have a greater righteousness than hers?

And this is exactly how the crowd would have felt when they heard Jesus speak these words from the end of last week’s gospel reading: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were highly respected for keeping the Law of Moses. They had calculated exactly how many ‘thou shalts’ and how many ‘thou shalt nots’ were in the law, and they had added all sorts of traditions to apply the commands to every conceivable situation in daily life. In the gospels we mainly get a negative view of the Pharisees, but we should remember that most people in the time of Jesus looked up to them and saw them as the most holy and devout people of their generation. So for Jesus to talk about ‘a greater righteousness than that of the scribes and Pharisees’ would have been astounding to the people of his day.

What does he mean by ‘a greater righteousness’? Well, that’s what we’re going to find out today and next week, because Jesus spends the rest of Matthew chapter five giving us six concrete examples of this ‘greater righteousness’. With each example, he’s going to show us the problem with the Pharisees: they were satisfied with a strict obedience to the bare demands of the Law of Moses, but they weren’t going any further than that. They weren’t asking the question, “What sort of person is the Law designed to produce? How does God want to change me on the inside, so that breaking the Law is something I would never even think of doing?” Another way of looking at it would be to say that a Law-oriented person is going to ask, “What’s the least I can get away with?” whereas a follower of Jesus is going to ask, “How can I grow in love and become the sort of person God dreams for me to be?”

How does this work out in daily life? Well, let’s take a look at the first four examples, and see how the basic principle is worked out in them. The other two will be in our gospel reading for next week.

Jesus starts in verses 21-26 with the commandment against murder: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’, and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement’” (v.21). We can imagine a strict Pharisee being proud of himself at this point and saying, “Yep, I can tick that one off on the scorecard; I’ve never murdered anyone”. How comforting it would be for us to know that there are no murderers in this church! We might even congratulate ourselves on what a godly church we are!

But Jesus is going to take it further than that. He’s going to ask us, “But what causes murders? Often, it’s anger, and resentment, and the desire for revenge. So I’m not only going to outlaw murder – I’m going to outlaw anger as well. And here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to make reconciliation a number one Christian value. So whenever you realize that there’s something wrong between you and someone else, drop whatever you’re doing and go and do all you can to make it right. This should be priority number one for you”.

You see what he’s doing? He’s going deep into the inner meaning of the Law of Moses and ‘fulfilling’ it – in other words, ‘filling it up’, asking not only ‘what’s the letter?’ but ‘what’s the spirit?’ And he’s going to do the same thing with the other examples too.

In verses 27-30 he turns to the commandment against adultery. There it is in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not commit adultery”, and once again we can imagine a righteous Pharisee saying, “Yep, I can tick that one off too: I’ve always been faithful to my wife and never had sex with anyone else”. But once again, Jesus is asking the hard questions. “What causes adultery? Surely, it’s uncontrolled lust. How are you doing on that score, mister Pharisee? You may never have committed adultery, but do you have a roving eye?”

Jesus is not talking here about just noticing someone; we all do that. He’s talking about indulging that impulse, nursing it and cultivating it. Of course, in his day he never had to deal with the rise of Internet pornography, but we know today that it’s a huge problem in many lives. So Jesus is going to the root of the problem: the best way to head off adultery is to deal with lust, and the way to deal with it is to ruthlessly cut out all opportunity for it in your life. It might not literally involve cutting off your hand or gouging out your eye; it might mean, instead, putting some external controls on your Internet use, so that you become accountable to others for what you look at and what you don’t. A pastor friend of mine told me some years ago about a computer program that had been developed to help this happen; you give it the list of a small group of friends you want to be accountable to, and each day it emails them a list of all the websites you have visited.

This may sound drastic, but Jesus sees the damage that can be caused, and so he encourages us to take drastic measures, far beyond a bare obedience to the letter of the Law. The goal, of course, is a pure heart, one that’s committed to loving in a way that conforms to God’s dream for us. Jesus is telling us that this is a treasure worth making sacrifices for, so we ought to do whatever it takes to become that sort of person.

Of course, these commands of Jesus are demanding, and they touch every one of us. Many of us have been seriously hurt by people in our past, and we find it very difficult to avoid being angry and resentful. Sometimes, it’s all we can do to just avoid murdering them! And the Jesus we read about in the gospels is gentle on us sinners; he knows what we’ve been through and the difficulties we face. But he’s encouraging us to press on, to see the Law of Moses as just a start. God has a dream for us, and we will find our real freedom and joy as we press on toward that dream.

The same applies to lust. We live in a culture that’s soaked in sexual innuendo, and the media milks it for every cent it’s worth. Let’s be honest; to put Jesus’ teaching into practice here is very, very hard. But once again, we know he’s right when he says that it’s worth it. We all know marriages and families that have been wrecked by the pain of adultery, and we know that this all starts with looking, and indulging and cultivating that looking. So Jesus encourages us to go to the root of the problem.

The next topic that Jesus turns to is one that touches even more of us. Many of us here have been touched by the pain of divorce; many of us have been divorced and remarried. And once again Jesus turns to our Pharisee, who looks at the Law of Moses and finds there a command that says, “If you want to divorce your wife, be sure to give her a certificate of divorce”. So once again our Pharisee can congratulate himself and say, “Yes, I’ve done that one too; my divorce was all strictly legal and above board! Well done, me!”

But Jesus won’t have it; to him, every divorce is a tragedy, and we know he’s right. Maybe, in a small number of cases, the tragedy of the marriage was such that there truly was no other option, but there’s no such thing as a divorce that doesn’t cause pain and heartache. And, as Jesus says in another place, “In the beginning it was not so” – in other words, God didn’t design us for serial marriages, he designed us for lifelong faithful monogamy. So if you want to pursue God’s dream for you, that’s what you need to pursue, he says – keeping in mind, of course, that every single one of us has fallen short of God’s ideal for us in one way or another, and that the Gospel assures us that God always starts with us where we are, not where we ought to be.

Can I pause here and point out that the order in which Jesus has examined these first three examples is not an accident? Surely, if we want to save a difficult marriage, anger and lust are two major issues that we need to deal with. Many times, when marriages are full of unresolved conflicts, both partners are keeping score cards and lists of all their grievances, and as the lists get longer and longer, the chances of saving the marriage get smaller and smaller. Unless we can deal with the issue of anger and resentment, and learn the way of reconciliation, then Jesus’ words will become sadly relevant to us: we’ll never get out of court until we’ve paid the last penny! And it’s obvious that the issue of lust – adultery in the heart, as Jesus calls it – is a major factor contributing to the breakdown of many marriages. These examples Jesus gives, you see, are not isolated; they’re all connected to each other, and as we address one area, it has an impact on the others as well.

The final example we’ll look at today is his fourth one: truthfulness. Once again, we can imagine our little Pharisee congratulating himself and saying, “Yes sir! Every time I’ve made a promise, I’ve kept it! If I swear by the gold of the Temple, you can be sure I’ll keep my word, and if I sign a contract with you, you’ll get exactly what you’ve been promised”.

But once again, Jesus is going to the heart of the issue. Why do we have to make promises at all? Why do we have to use oaths or sign contracts? Surely, it’s because people can’t trust our bare word! What are we actually saying if we feel we have to swear an oath? Are we saying, “Well, normally, you can’t trust what I say, but now I’ve made an oath calling on God to punish me if I’m not telling the truth, and I do fear God, so now you can finally trust me”?

Jesus is encouraging us to imagine a different level of honesty. Imagine a situation where I’ve been called on to be a witness in a court of law. So I take the stand, and the clerk approaches me with the Bible so I can swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. But suddenly the judge stops the proceedings. “Wait a minute”, he says, “that’s Tim Chesterton up there. The whole world knows that he’s a man of absolute integrity and honesty. There’s never been a known occasion when he’s told a lie, or when he’s said he’s going to do something and failed to do it. It would be an absolute insult for me to ask him to take an oath and swear to tell the truth, because that’s what he always does”.

Is that me? No, I’m afraid it’s not, but I have to say that I would love to be that person. Jesus is telling me that this is God’s dream for me: a life of absolute honesty and integrity. So aim for this, Jesus is saying. Don’t settle for a life of controlled dishonesty; aim to be known as a person who lives truthfully and speaks truthfully.

If we’re honest, these four examples Jesus has given today both scare us and excite us. They scare us, because we all know we’ve fallen short. But they also excite us, because we know in our hearts that Jesus is describing a life of integrity, love, and holiness, and this is attractive to us. We know instinctively that if we’re going to find the peace of mind and heart we’re looking for, the path Jesus is laying out for us is the right one.

Next week we’ll go on to the last two examples Jesus gives, revenge and love for enemies. But as we come to a close today, let’s remind ourselves of what the Beatitudes tell us. They tell us that the kingdom of God is for the weak, the poor, and those who know their need of God. So if you feel like you’ve fallen short, don’t be discouraged by that; the way of Jesus is for people just like you! The Sermon on the Mount is the curriculum in the School of Jesus; it’s not the entrance exam! The entrance exam is simple – repentance, faith, and baptism. If you’ve turned from sin and evil, put your faith in Jesus and been baptized – whatever order those things happened in – then you’re in.

God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us there. As we continue to explore the Sermon on the Mount, we’ll discover the ways in which God is patiently teaching us a new way of living. As we learn to put that new way of living into practice, we’ll gradually find ourselves being transformed – not just on the outside, but on the inside as well – and we will discover for ourselves what the greater righteousness is all about. In the end, of course, there’s a very simple name for it: the greater righteousness is all about love.

Making a Difference (a sermon on Matthew 5:13-20)

Matthew 5:13-20

Some of you are old enough to remember the 1986 movie The Mission. It tells the story of an eighteenth-century Jesuit mission in South America which had the misfortune to get in the way of government-supported slave traders. At the end of the movie, after the slave-traders have massacred the Indians and some of the Jesuits, the Jesuit Superior – who was forced by the King of Spain to allow their action – is reading their report. He turns to one of them and says, “Do you have the effrontery to tell me that this slaughter was necessary?” The slave trader replies, “Such is the world, Your Eminence”. “No”, says the Jesuit Superior; “Such have we made it”.

Complaints about the state of the world are made every day. You hear them in newspaper editorials and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and we Christians are as involved in them as anyone else. But in the midst of all this complaining, we often forget that we’ve been called by our Master to do more than gripe about things. As the Jesuit Superior in the movie reminded us, the world is as it is because we human beings have made it that way. Now Jesus is calling us, as his people, to demonstrate by our way of life that there’s a better way.

I said last week that the Sermon on the Mount could be called ‘Lessons in the School of Jesus’. Most people who enroll in the School of Jesus do so because of a sense of need in their own lives; we’re coming to Jesus for help for ourselves. That’s fine as a place to start, but we’ll soon discover that the School of Jesus doesn’t just exist for my benefit as an individual; it exists to change the world. This is very clear in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus starts in the Beatitudes by telling us that we’re welcome in the Kingdom of God whether we’re saints or sinners, beginners or long-time Christians. But he then goes on immediately to remind us that the purpose of the School of Jesus is to produce disciples – people who can make a difference in the world by being like salt and light. That’s what today’s gospel is all about.

“You are the salt of the earth”, says Jesus in verse 13. The word ‘You’ is a plural; he’s addressing his followers as a community, not just as individuals. We, as a community, are to act on the world as salt acts on food. Salt was used in the ancient world not just to add flavour to meat, but also to prevent it from going bad. The purpose of the salt was to influence the meat, not the other way around! So Jesus calls us, his disciples, to have a positive influence on the world around us, and we can’t do that if we’re no different from the world. In God’s plan, our usefulness to the world depends on our being different, living by different values, following a different Master.

In this passage Jesus explicitly warns us about losing our distinctive flavour. Modern table salt actually can’t lose its flavour, but in the ancient world the salt was not pure. It was picked up from the shores of the Dead Sea and many other impurities were picked up with it, impurities that looked just like salt but actually weren’t. The pure salt, of course, was water soluble, so it would not be uncommon for all the saltiness to be washed away and only the impurities be left. So Jesus warns his disciples: there will be a lot of pressure for you to ‘wash away’ your distinctiveness and blend in with the world around you, going along with its priorities and its standards of behaviour. He’s warning us not to give in to that temptation, because if we do, we kiss goodbye to any opportunity to make a real difference for God in the world.

And we are to be visibly different; that’s the point of the second illustration. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (vv.14-16).

It’s interesting that in John’s gospel Jesus says, “I am the light of the world”, but here in Matthew he says to us, his followers, “You are the light of the world”. Darkness in the Bible stands for evil, sin, and ignorance, and Jesus is bringing light into the world – truth, goodness, and holiness. He calls his disciples to be like him, so that they also may spread his light wherever they may go. And the question for us as a church community is surely this: does our life together as followers of Jesus remind people of our Master? Do they see his light in us?

When I think of a Christian community shining with the light of Jesus, I think back to the Amish of Nickel Mines in 2006, and their response after a gunman broke into their schoolhouse and shot a number of their children before turning the gun on himself. Instead of anger and calls for revenge, the Amish reached out in love and forgiveness to the family of the gunman. When asked why they were doing this, they pointed out that it was very plain in the teaching of Jesus that people should love their enemies and forgive them rather than taking revenge. “We pray it seven times a day in the Lord’s Prayer”, they said. Many people in the media commented on this, and it seemed to really puzzle some of them. But my own thought was, “At last, instead of people talking about ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ someone is actually living it”. That community was acting like the ‘city built on a hill’ that Jesus talks about here, the city whose light can’t be hidden.

This example also reminds us that often it won’t be in our planned activities and outreach programs that people see the face of Jesus in us. Rather, it will be when stress hits our lives or when tragedy happens. No one in their right minds prays for tragedy, of course, but Christian history contains example after example of God working in times like that to shine his light into the world as his people respond in a Christ-like manner.

But in order for this to happen – in order for us to truly be salt and light and to have a positive influence on the world around us – there needs to be genuine transformation in our own lives, and it can’t just be superficial; it has to go deep. This is what Jesus goes on to address in verses 17-20, where he says,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.

As it stands, there is an obvious difficulty with this teaching: it doesn’t line up with the practice of Jesus. Jesus did, in fact, sit rather lightly to some of the commandments. For instance, he allowed his disciples to harvest grain on the Sabbath. He healed the sick on the Sabbath. He declared that it was no longer necessary to keep kosher, because it was not unclean food entering the body that made a person impure, but rather evil actions coming from within. He was not always scrupulous in observing every little detail of the law himself. So how are we to understand this passage?

We need to remember that Jesus was raised in a rhetorical tradition in which exaggeration was an accepted form of teaching. He talks about a camel going through the eye of a needle, and about not trying to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye when there’s a great plank of wood in your own, and being able to use faith to move mountains. Teachers in Jesus’ day often exaggerated in order to make a point, and we need to take this into account when we are interpreting what Jesus had to say.

So what’s he trying to say in this passage? Surely the point is that faith in him involves obedience to God’s commandments. Jesus hung out with sinners, but that didn’t mean he was okay with sin; he wasn’t. He wanted to welcome everyone into the kingdom to begin a journey of transformation, so that together they could become people whose lives were visibly different, in such a way as to have a positive influence for God in the world. In this way, he said, he came to fulfil the law and the prophets; his movement would produce people who were more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees, not less.

In the rest of Matthew chapter five Jesus gives us some concrete examples of what he’s talking about, and in every case it’s clear that he’s taking the law and internalizing it. He’s not interested in righteousness that’s only skin-deep; he wants the word of God to penetrate into our hearts, so that we are transformed on the inside as well as the outside.

So it’s not enough, he says, to congratulate yourself because you haven’t murdered anyone; murder is caused by anger and resentment, and you must root those things out of your lives as well, and do your best to be reconciled to your adversaries instead of nursing a grudge against them for decades. It’s not enough to congratulate yourself that you’ve never committed adultery while all the time you’re nursing secret sexual fantasies about other people. It’s not enough to congratulate yourself on the fact that in your divorce you followed the law to the letter; God didn’t establish the institution of marriage with divorce in mind, so we’re called to work for reconciliation. It’s not enough to proudly say that when you take an oath in court you never break it. Why do you need to take an oath in the first place? Are you saying to people that you can’t be trusted unless you take an oath? It’s not enough to follow the Old Testament law that limits vengeance to exact equivalence – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Rather, don’t take vengeance at all; turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and love your enemies, just as your heavenly Father sends sunshine and rain on both good and bad alike.

You see what’s going on here? Jesus is focusing not so much on the letter of the Law, but on the positive inner qualities which God is looking for – reconciliation, marital faithfulness, honesty and truth, forgiveness and love for all. This is what Jesus means by ‘fulfilling the Law and the Prophets’, and it helps us make sense of his saying about our righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees.

The scribes and Pharisees were seen as the most religious people of their day, but the problem, according to Jesus, was that often their religion was only skin deep. They would keep the commandment about murder but continue to seethe with anger against others and see nothing wrong in that. They would keep the commandment about adultery but continue to nurse lust for others in their hearts. They would keep their oaths but not be so scrupulous about telling the truth at other times. They would congratulate themselves on having achieved an amicable divorce rather than working for reconciliation in their marriages. They conformed to God’s standards outwardly, but inwardly they were unchanged.

This may look good on the outside, but it’s not what Jesus is after. Not that he’s against outward actions. Sometimes that’s the way it works; we learn to do some outward action, and gradually it transforms us on the inside as well. We learn a new habit, which at first is only an outward thing, but gradually it starts to go deeper. Young couples who are madly in love with each other often hold hands, but it works the other way around as well; older couples who continue to hold hands often find that it enhances the love they feel for each other. The outward action is meant to lead to an inward transformation, and it’s the inner transformation that Jesus is most interested in, because that’s what makes it possible for us to make a difference to the world around us.

Let’s go around this one last time.

Everyone is welcome in the Kingdom of God, because God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are. However, he loves us too much to leave us there. He knows that living lives of disobedience and sin is ultimately bad for us, and so his purpose is to lead us out of that darkness into the light of a new way of life. And he’s not just doing this for our own sake; he wants the whole world to be transformed by his light. We, the disciples of Jesus, are called to be a community that learns a new way of life from our Master, and then practices living it together. We, as a community, are the salt of the earth, the city set on a hill, the light shining for all to see. The world is meant to be able to see our way of life and take note: this is what God’s Kingdom looks like.

But in order for this to happen, our obedience can’t just be skin deep. Rather, the Holy Spirit has to work below the surface to transform us into people who love to do the will of God. As we continue our studies in the Sermon on the Mount next week, we’ll look a little more closely at the examples Jesus gives of the deep work of transformation that God wants to do in us.