Monday, 7 February 2011

Sermon from 6th February 2011, preached at Eyke and Tunstall

Readings: Isaiah 58.1-12; Matthew 5.13-20

I was reading through a book of The Times Best Sermons, which might sound like dry reading, except they are the BEST sermons, and the first of them in the book is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

The reading today is from almost the beginning of the famous Sermon on the Mount. Jesus went up the mountain and from there spoke to his disciples, and crowds of people gathered to hear him.

The Gospel readings for the next four Sundays continue the teaching Jesus gave the disciples and the people that day on the mountain, so that before Lent we will have heard most of the Sermon on the Mount.

By the time Jesus gave this teaching, he was beginning to gain a reputation throughout Galilee, preaching the good news of the Kingdom and healing those with all kinds of diseases.

And so when he had the crowd there, he taught them just what was meant by ‘the Kingdom of God’. And over the next few weeks we will be reminded of the images Jesus used to help his listeners understand just what he meant. …to help US understand.

These are the workaday people Jesus is talking to, including the disciples.
Not the priests from the temple or the Roman occupying forces, or anybody with any kind of power or influence. And Jesus’ words can be understood as either encouraging or frustrating, or both.

He praises them - “you are the salt of the earth”, but warns them to stay “salty”, or they won’t do any good.
He praises them again - “You are the light of the world”, but warns them, “let your light shine!” Not to gain praise for themselves, but to point others towards God.

We had a holiday in Wales some years ago, and went inside a mountain, into what used to be a slate mine but now there are tourist trips inside it. There is nowhere darker than the inside of a mountain. Imagine being in such darkness, and imagine Jesus as one single bright light in that dark place… Then imagine a million tiny mirrors attached to the walls of the dark place… and how much lighter it would be with mirrors reflecting back the light.
WE are each to be one of those mirrors, reflecting His light.

Jesus reassures the disciples and the crowds that he has not come to abolish the Law, the Law of Moses, that is, or go against the prophets. Quite the opposite - Jesus is the fulfilment of the Law and the prophets.
He has not come to take any of that away, but to add to it. That which went before was incomplete, and Jesus is the missing piece which completes the picture.

In the King James Version of the Bible the verse about the Scripture, verse 18, is translated: “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”

This is a much more expressive term than the ‘strokes of a letter’ in the translation we’re given on the pew sheets. The jots and tittles were the tiniest marks in the Hebrew alphabet, like accents, showing how words were to be pronounced, and not one of the tiny marks is to be overlooked - Jesus has not come to take away the demands of the Law, but to reinterpret them.

He has a harsh comment about the religious teachers of his day, the scribes and Pharisees, who had a tendency to consider themselves more ‘righteous’ than others. They represent the lowest level of righteousness. Jesus wants his followers to aim higher.
What is righteousness? It is mentioned many times in the Bible. But it is difficult to pin down.
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians (6.14) tells his congregation there to “put on the breastplate of righteousness”.

It isn’t a new concept: Habakkuk 2.4 states “the righteous will live by his faith”. As opposed to living by trickery and arrogance. The righteous will live by faith.

I trawled the internet to find a definition of righteousness, and one preacher had written, “It is very simple. It just means doing what is right.”

But that is not satisfactory at all. The scribes and the Pharisees did what was right by the Law. They followed it in all its jots and tittles.

The real definition of righteousness is in our OT reading today. The book of Isaiah is one of the longest in the Bible, I think only Psalms is longer.

And the thread running through all of the 66 chapters of Isaiah is a call for justice for those who have nobody to speak for them. Righteous indignation on their behalf, if you like.
Jesus quoted verses from Isaiah chapter 61, the first couple of verses, just a few chapter after the reading today, when he first preached in the synagogue in Nazareth:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.” (Luke 4.18-19)

This was the manifesto for the Messiah foretold by the prophet Isaiah. One full of righteousness - but not the self-righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees - instead a holy righteousness reflecting God’s care for those who have nobody to care for them. The righteousness of attitude towards injustice, that moves someone to look beyond self-serving actions and to act in ways that might not be good for them at all, but do serve the greater good.

And if we do something that might seem odd to our friends and families, because we believe it is the right thing in God’s eyes, how do we deal with the consequences?
Depending on the circles we move in there could be questions, nagging, even ridicule…?? That may be more difficult to deal with than doing the right thing in the first place.
When Paul was telling the Ephesians about the breastplate of righteousness, he wrote: “put on the full armour of God, so that you may be able to stand your ground.”

The breastplate of righteousness may be invisible, but it can still be there. Christians should be used to invisible signs. When we are baptised the sign of the cross is made on our foreheads. It is invisible, but it was made, and its significance is real even without a visible mark.

So is the armour of God. Put it on so we can stand our ground.

What Jesus said was not new.

Isaiah had been writing the same message, centuries before Jesus lived on earth.

What was the reaction of people to what Jesus said?
What is the reaction of people today to what Jesus said?

Much the same, I would guess. Those who were there, those fortunate people who hear the words from Jesus’ own mouth, were spellbound at the time. But how many held to what he said after they had all dispersed?

What Jesus said was not new, but he taught it in a new way. He taught about JOYFUL self-sacrifice for the good of others, and being sure that our daily lives reflect the religion we practise on Sundays.

When we have the nerve to follow in the way Jesus appeals to us, then amazing things can happen.

I have a friend back in Northamptonshire who is a retired schools inspector. While she was still working she had to go to Nepal to inspect a British school there, and made connections with some Nepali Christians there. Later, after returning to the UK she found herself with a burden for the church she had met in Nepal, and this verse from Isaiah was the inspiration for what came next.
Isaiah 58.10: If you spend yourself on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness.

What had impressed her was the way these Christians served each other. There were several orphaned children, and no state support of any kind out there, and the church kept the children, and the congregation, who live on the bread-line anyway, would fast on Sundays and bring the food they would have eaten to the children’s home. That kept the children fed for the week, until the following Sunday. These people were giving the food from their own mouths, not out of cupboards where they had plenty to spare. They gave, literally, of themselves.

Now, about 15 years later, there is a thriving church and a real children’s home, and also provision for widows, who, if they have no children to care for them, have to beg. They beg on the streets of Kathmandu.

These ideals of justice and care are God’s ideals.

If God matters to us, if our faith means anything to us, then we have to take these things seriously.

We are to be salt, not bland. Salt is distinctive. We are to be distinctive.

We are to be light - trustworthy, honest.
Light is stronger than darkness. When the house is in darkness and someone turns on the landing light, the light comes through the crack in the door, not the darkness going out into the light.

Let's not hear these words and then turn from them. Too often the church turns from the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount, for it is challenging, and we sink too easily into conformist respectability. If we’re not careful we become difficult to tell apart from the world. We lose our saltiness. Our light becomes dim even without a bushel to hide it under.

In my trawl through the internet I came upon a story I like very much, which I would like to tell you. It is a very imaginary story about a cave all in darkness. The cave heard the sun calling to it, “Cave, come up here and see the light! Come and see the sunshine!”
The cave said, “What is that - I’ve never heard of light and sunshine.” And he wasn’t sure he wanted to go away from the darkness he knew. But the sun called again, and eventually the cave ventured up and was surprised to see light all around. He said to the sun, “Come down and I’ll show you the darkness.” And the sun went down with him, but when the sun went into the cave, there was no darkness.

If we all put on our lights and venture into the darkness, in faith, there would be no darkness. We are all called to be salt and light. You are salt and light. Let’s have the courage to be salty all week, every day. Let’s have the courage to shine a light for Jesus.
He is the reason we’re here, now.

Thanks be to God.

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