Giving something up for Lent (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)

“‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Giving something up for Lent is one previously Christian practice that seems to have entered the secular conscious.  I heard recently (on Songs of Praise of all things) that in a survey 75% of the population questioned said they would be giving something up for Lent, the majority of those giving up…you guessed it: chocolate.  I know what you’re thinking – lies, damned lies and statistics, right – but 75% seems much higher than the number of church attendees in the UK, or even those who express some sort of (not specifically Christian) spiritual belief.

In truth it seems that giving something up for Lent has become another period for New Year’s Resolutions in the general mindset, and you know how I feel about that…  Give up chocolate, or sugar in tea, or even alcohol: guilty pleasures somehow equated with “sin”.  And of course tell all your friends about it.  And hey, drop a few pounds in the process.  Beneficiary: yourself, of course.  You have your reward!

In response many Christians take something up for Lent instead of giving something up – reading a book (or more) of the Bible, reading a “Lent book”, adopting a regular devotion or prayer practice.  Others keep to a traditional strict fast: no meat and no dairy products for the whole of Lent.  I have huge respect for that – I couldn’t do it.

There’s nothing wrong with giving something up for Lent.  Why not give up something really difficult, or really harmful to you.  Why not try giving up something up where you don’t know that you’ll succeed.  Give something up where there’s every possibility that you will fail.  Then see what happens.  Do something different for a change.  And don’t tell anyone about it.  Except your Father in heaven.

The Baptism of the Lord (Matthew 3:13-17)

* For an explanation of my weekly Bible blogging see the page on the right hand side.  This is the first of what I hope will be many “responses” to passages of the gospel.*

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

At the allotted point in the service I lead my small congregation and the baptismal family and their friends down to the Thames.  The great river swirls caramel brown around the bottom of my cassock as I step gingerly into the cold water.

“Would you pass me the child?”

“You what?  You’re gonna do her in that?”

“If it was good enough for Our Lord, then I think…”

“Come off it mate.  No wonder they say you lot are out of touch.  Honestly.”

I stand there, the feeble winter sun vainly warming my already frozen knees.  A pigeon takes off from the parapet above and adds to the filth in the already stinking river.

The Rolling English Road

Serena and I have just returned from a two week break in Northumberland.  I came to see it as very much a “non retreat” retreat.  “Non retreat” in that it wasn’t intended to be a retreat and wasn’t at a retreat centre.  But, a retreat in the sense that it provided some very much needed R&R after a very difficult 12 months at our church, and an extremely busy couple of months at work.  We were both running on empty, and the time away doing very little has helped to put us back on more of an even keel.

But that’s not the aspect of Northumberland I wanted to post about.  Northumberland is full of what G K Chesterton would have called the “Rolling English Road”.  This is the title of one of Chesterton’s best-known and best-loved poems, which begins:

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire…

It continues in similar vein.  Chesterton’s thought process is that the drunkard on his way home from the hostelry at dead of night does not necessarily take a direct route, but weaves about a bit, perhaps doubling back here or taking a detour there.  And the English road which results is one of my favourite things: full of tight, twisty corners; following the contours of the landscape; taking in views of the surrounding countryside; crossing streams over little bridges; and great fun to drive in a nippy car like a Ford Focus!  Despite their frequent twists and turns, rolling English roads do get you there in the end, and the journey is as enjoyable as the destination.  Our ordinance survey maps for that part of the world are scribbled on to show the “good driving routes”.  Good meaning picturesque rather than direct or quick.

The A1 (and at times the A1(M)) formed the large part of our route home from Northumberland to London.  This isn’t a rolling English road any more.  Thanks to bypasses, this road no longer passes through the centres of the towns along the route.  Thanks to cuttings and embankments, the road now cuts through the landscape, rather than rolling with it.  The result, of course, is that the journey is pretty quick, but the views of the countryside around are almost non-existent and the journey is just that: a purely functional journey from A to B.

So what?  I like driving on little roads and not motorways (Although not the 350 miles from SE London to N’land)!  Well, thinking about this got me thinking about the often-quoted saying of Jesus about the broad and narrow ways:

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.  For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”  Matthew 7:13-14
This is often interpreted as meaning that it is very easy to disobey God and to sin, but very difficult to turn from sin and follow Christ.  I wonder, though.  Would the person who said “my yoke is easy, and my burthen light” really have meant that?  I’m not too sure.

A lot of Christ’s teachings spoke directly to the local people in words they would understand as a people suffering Roman occupation.  Who built wide gateways and easy roads?  The Romans…  So, one possible interpretation of this passage I would draw out is that Christ is saying that the Roman’s ways (of violent oppression in order to enforce the pax Romana) lead to destruction, whereas His ways (of peace leading to the pax Christi) lead to life.

I think there’s also a lesson to be learnt in how we view our Christian discipleship and journey of faith.  My own path of faith has been a lot like the rolling English road (at times staggering drunkenly) and not very much like the straight Roman road.  It might be a little slower, but it rolls with the cultural landscape of the past and the scientific reason of the present, and does not ride roughshod through them.

There are those, though, who are happy to drive a straight Roman road through the path of reason and tradition (normally using the Bible as both weapon and justification), and to call that straight path “faith”, or “the only way to God”, or “the only escape from hell”.  Well, as far as I am concerned they are welcome to their wide gate and broad road!  What might they miss cutting through the landscapes of the past, present and future?  What enjoyment of the journey will they miss if the end goal is all that matters?

That Roman road’s certainly not for me.  So, based on my past experience, I shall keep on the windy, twisty, rolling English road that I have trod so far.  As Chesterton puts it at the end of his poem:

“For there is good news yet to hear, and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.”

Sermon from Sunday 22 #

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This is my Sermon from last Sunday…


Salt and Light – Character and Calling

 

Passage in context

SLIDE?  Che Guevara

 

I wonder what you would do if you were starting a revolution?  Perhaps you would attempt to seize control of the centres of power – police stations, military bases, command centres.  Or perhaps you would hijack key pieces of infrastructure – set up roadblocks on key roads, take over newspaper companies and television and radio broadcasting centres. 

 

What about standing up on a hillside and telling people the way it really was?  The way the world really operated, the Truth?  Simply telling people what your agenda for change was, without any show of force, any pomp, or any well thought out propaganda?

 

Well, you don’t hear about too many revolutions starting that way nowadays.  In fact you don’t hear about much happening nowadays without propaganda, spin, or media coverage, but this is exactly how Christ’s ministry begins here in St Matthew’s account of the Gospel.

 

SLIDE?  Christ as Che

 

And it is no exaggeration to call this beginning revolutionary.  The passage from St Matthew’s gospel we heard earlier follows immediately after the Beatitudes, some of the best known and best loved sayings of Jesus.  But they are also some of the most controversial and revolutionary.  And what makes them so revolutionary is that they are so unexpected.  The Jews in Jesus’ time were a people suffering under Roman occupation, eagerly awaiting the long-foretold Messiah who would throw off the shackles of oppression and drive the Romans from the promised land.

 

But instead of a call to arms we are met with “Blessed are the meek”, “Blessed are the merciful”, “Blessed are the peacemakers”.  This turns upside down the views of the Jews expecting a warrior Messiah who would come with a sharp sword in his hand, not a sharp word from his mouth.

 

This account of Christ’s first public ministry in Matthew closely mirrors that in Luke, where Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah in the temple:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. “.

Both of these beginnings have strong themes of justice running through them.  They turn the world upside down from the way the world wants to be.  For surely we still see this today?  We do not live in a world that favours the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed.  Rather, the world loves money, greed, pride, doing as well for yourself as you can without concern for others.  And what about the Beatitudes?  The meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, the poor in Spirit?  No, the world favours strong characters, who never doubt themselves, who are strong enough to defend themselves.  The world thrives on the proceeds of war, we live in what we are told is a competitive market – everyone competing for themselves, often without thought of who they have to tread on to get there!

 

How wary we as Christians need to be of heeding those Beatitudes today.


Christ’s mission for his disciples

SLIDE?  Christ sending out disciples?

 

The verses we have heard about salt and light are direct words of Christ to his first disciples (as well as to the larger gathered crowd).  These verses, together with those that precede and follow them set out Christ’s plans for them, and in much more detail than the often-quoted Great Commission verses.  This sermon on the mount is a very practical, hands on piece of preaching. 

 

Matthew Henry’s commentary says this:  “It is a practical discourse; there is not much of the credenda of Christianity in it – the things to be believed, but it is wholly taken up with the agenda – the things to be done.”

 

Throughout the sermon Christ sets out how operate in God’s Kingdom.  Who is blessed in God’s kingdom, what roles the disciples will play, how the Law and the prophets should be regarded in the kingdom, how we should love in the kingdom, how we should share our wealth in the kingdom, how we should pray in the form of the Lord’s prayer.  There is very little doctrine in the sermon: no expounding the Trinity, for example; no discussion of the place of faith or grace.  Not that these things aren’t important – they are – but they are not discussed here in Christ’s first sermon – his agenda, his manifesto if you like.

 

SLIDE?  Picture of “ordinary” people?

 

And of course Christ’s plans for his first disciples are his plans for us too.  The baton of discipleship has been passed down for almost two millenia, and these words of Christ in Matthew 5: 16-18 (and the whole of the Sermon on the Mount) hold as much meaning for us now as they did for the first disciples. 

 

It must have been humbling for those first disciples, simple fishermen being called by the Son of God to change the world with him!  However insignificant we may feel we are, how humbling that Christ wants us to join him in changing the world now.

 

Mission in the world

SLIDE?  Picture of the earth from space?

 

Before turning to look in more detail at the themes of salt and light, it is worth thinking about the scope of Christ’s mission.  The earth, the world.  The WHOLE WORLD – this is not some local movement confined only to Judea, or to any particular “religious” class of people.  No, Christ’s call on us as salt and light is to be the salt of the earth, and the light of the world.  Not just the light of Elm Road, or Beckenham, or Christianity, but the world.

 

The Sermon on the Mount makes it clear throughout that God and Christ have a plan for this world.  Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer we say the words “may thy kingdom come, may thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven”.  Christ’s message to his disciples is not that they should mourn this world and eagerly await their deaths when they will be whisked away to paradise.  No, the Sermon on the Mount is a very earthy message concerned with this life, and this world.  And I think this is what Jim and Julia mean when they talk about their vision of this church as a church that looks outward, rather than a church that looks inward.

 

We must also remember that what we have from Christ is not for our benefit alone – we are meant to be in the world, and to fundamentally change the world by being there.  One of my favourite passages of the Bible is Genesis 12 where God blesses Abraham to be a blessing.  That is, to be a blessing to others.  Christ, the servant King’s primary call on our lives is to serve.

 

So in what manner are we supposed to serve?  This brings us back to salt and light.


Salt of the earth

 SLIDE?  Salt?

 

“You are the salt of the earth…”

 

When we describe someone now as being the “salt of the earth” the English phrase has come to mean someone having good character.   It is no different when Christ uses the phrase to describe his disciples (and us).  But what character is being described?

 

It is certainly a passage which requires some interpretation.  If anyone tells you that no interpretation of the Bible is required, perhaps you can challenge them to tell you what this passage means without interpretation! 

 

There are many different possible interpretations for the salt of the earth.  Let’s look at three of them, all drawn from the Hebrew Bible, what we would now call the Old Testament.  These texts, or texts like them, would have been known to Jesus and his listeners and the understanding of salt for his disciples could have originated from these sacred texts.

 

Endurance

CLICK – bulletpoint

 

Leviticus 2:13 requires salt to be offered with all grain-offerings to the Lord.  This passage also refers to the salt as the salt of the covenant, as does Numbers 18:19.  Again in 2 Chronicles 13:5 the covenant between the Lord and David was described as a covenant of salt.  So a first possible meaning of salt is one of endurance.  The covenants between God and his people were everlasting, enduring covenants.

 

So, the first disciples were called to have an enduring character, as are we.  It’s not too hard to see why an enduring spirit might be needed to join Christ’s mission to liberate the captives, feed the hungry, and see the merciful, the meek, and the peacemakers blessed.  Nearly 2000 years after Christ made that proclamation from the scroll of Isaiah we still live in a world that is crippled with injustice.  Millions are suffering from the Pakistani floods, in Africa, every 45 seconds a child dies of malaria, wars still rage around the world filling the coffers of arms manufacturers, banks speculate wildly with  money they don’t have to lose, and people are still discriminated against because of their race, creed, sex, or sexuality.

 

The world can look bleak, but there is good news!  Again from the Beatitudes, blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.  Christ’s promise is that yes, some day justice will be done in the world.  And 2000 years on we as Christians still yearn and work for that righteousness and justice.

 

Purification

CLICK – bulletpoint

 

In 2 Kings 2:20-22 salt is used by Elisha to purify a spring of water.  So being the salt of the earth can refer to Christ’s disciples as those sent to purify the world.

 

Now this particular interpretation has been a great favourite of Protestant preachers in the past.  The salt of Christian disciples salting, cleansing and purifying the filth, corruption and putrefaction of the material world.  There is of course a serious point here behind some of the puritanical rhetoric – there is corruption in the world, filthy things do happen, we are allowing the planet to putrefy before our very eyes.  And we as Christ’s agents must act as that purifying salt if we are to ever to see the Beatitudes fulfilled.

 

Taste

CLICK – bulletpoint

 

In Job 6:6, Job says “Can that which is tasteless be eaten without salt?”.  Salt gives taste.  And verse 13 of the passage from Matthew talks about the taste of salt.

 

Do we as Christians bring something unique to the world, that makes that the world a better place?  Do we bring hope where there is no hope?  Do we give meaning where there is no meaning?  I hope we do!

 

So there are several ways of interpreting what Jesus means by the salt of the earth – these are only three and there are more.  I hope you can see that they all point back to the Beatitudes and what Christ wants us to be doing in the world RIGHT NOW.

 

Light of the world

SLIDE?-Jesus light of the world?

 

And on into light…

 

I think we are probably on easier territory with light since light is one of the recurring themes in the New Testament.

 

Firstly, and most obviously, Christ calls himself the Light of the World (John 8:12).  The fact that Christ refers to himself as the light of the world, and also refers to his disciples as such gives us an important piece of information.  Whatever character we might possess, the character of salt and light, ultimately comes from God.  Light that we possess is that light which has been kindled in us by Christ.  We have work to do for God, but everything we need to do that work comes directly from God Himself.

 

But why light?  Darkness is used in the Bible as more than simply an absence of light.  There is normally a sense of evil and chaos associated with darkness.  We think of the dark, chaotic void before God created light.

 

John’s gospel, which is full of references to light and darkness, says this in 3:19-20: “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”  So light is linked with God, and darkness with evil.

 

In the transfiguration of Jesus, He becomes intensely bright as do his garments, blindingly resplendent with divine brightness.  Again linking light with the presence of the Almighty.

 

In our lives today we are called to be God’s lights shining into the darkest places, exposing evil for what it is, and leading those who have been dwelling in the darkness into God’s marvellous light.  The reading from Isaiah we heard this morning also directly links the theme of light with God’s way of justice: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness”.

 

And we know the light wins, don’t we?!  From John 1: “The light (that is Christ) shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it!”

 

In verse 14, Jesus develops the image of light even further.  “A city built on a hill cannot be hidden”.  Here we are given an image of each disciple of Christ elevated and shining out into the world.  I think there is a cautionary tale in this verse.  When you profess to be a Christian, you will be put on show, you become exposed and vulnerable, and people will look at you!  Let us hope they look at us for the right reasons!

 

SLIDE? Hill of calvary

 

Of course, this reference to a city built on a hill also points us to the hill of calvary.  Could this be an early foretelling of the crucifixion?

 

The city on the hill, Jerusalem, had at its highest point the temple, the location of the Holy of Holies, the place where Yahweh dwelt.  Christ’s body, broken on the cross on the hill of Golgotha, is the new temple.  Christ is revealed as the Holy of Holies, Yahweh, the great unchangeable I AM open to the world.  The light shines from the cross into the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome this light!  And this light is the light of all people, the light of the world.

 

Two warnings

SLIDE?  Single candle?

 

Hiding the light

 

As a final point, I think there are two warnings in this passage that we should not ignore.  Firstly, there are the words from verse 13 “but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”  Also from verse 15 “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”

 

Both of these verses, I think, are telling us not to extinguish the flame that has been kindled in us by Christ.  We must not run away from our calling as disciples of Christ, we must not be ashamed of that calling.  Nor must we lose that unique flavour, enduring spirit and purifying action that we bring to the world.

 

[This idea is similar to the parable of the talents, where the wicked slave who hid his talent of money in a hole in the ground was reprimanded by his master, and even that one talent was taken from him.  We have been given gifts and callings by God, and we should not keep them to ourselves for fear of what awaits us in the big, wide world.  I think the message of that parable is clear – use it or lose it!

 

And for the two other slaves who wisely invested the talents – they were praised by their master, and the talent of the wicked slave was given to them as further reward.  Those slaves invested the blessings they had been given by their master to be blessings to others, and further blessings flowed.]

 

And my final point is from verse 16: “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.”  There is a warning inherent in this verse that all we do for the furtherment of God’s kingdom must be His glory alone, and not for our own glory.  What a contrary view to the way the world works!  If we do good works in the world, the world wants to congratulate us and reward us for our own sake.  As Christians, we must not look for that congratulation, but should point people to God, the source of all blessings.

 

SLIDE?  Cross made out of candles?

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this: “Our good works that are to be seen by others, and that will bring glory to God, are those done under the shadow of the cross.  Our desire is that in our good works they will see only the cross of Christ and be drawn to him and not drawn to us or be impressed by us.”

 

Conclusion

 

So as we think on this passage, let us remember that we are called to be salt and light, God’s agents in the world, God’s world changers.  We are called to act, to welcome in the Kingdom of God on earth with its upside down Beatitude values.  We are called to be in the world, yet not worldy.  We are called to be salt to purify the evil in the world, to endure for God, and to bring taste and hope where there is none.  We are called to shine light into the dark places of this world, exposing injustice wherever it occurs, reflecting the light of that true light of the world Jesus Christ, whose light is the life of all people.  And finally as salt and light we pray that God’s kingdom will come, and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.