14 March 2010
Lent 4, Mothering Sunday
6.30 Evensong Woodchurch
Rev’d Paul White
Readings Ps 30; Isa 40:27-41:13; 2 Tim 4:1-18
May I speak this evening in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well, we are now in the Fourth week in Lent and this morning we had a wonderful celebration of Mothering Sunday. Having reached the 4th week in Lent we are now more than half way through our pilgrimage to Easter. Two weeks today is Palm Sunday and then Holy Week starts in earnest. But although today was a celebration and a time of refreshment we should not lose sight of the fact that we are not quite at the events of the Paschal season just yet and there is still both the time and the need to continue to prepare our hearts and minds for Easter – so that we can enter afresh into the drama of the horrific events of Good Friday, the emptiness and the quietness of Easter Saturday and the joy of the resurrection on Sunday.
St. Paul tells us this evening in the epistle to Timothy that people have itchy ears. He said:
“3For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. …”
I love this imagery and you can really imagine people with ears itching to be scratched by novelty or by hearing things that they want to hear rather than hearing what they may find hard or boring or just not to their taste. It was true in Paul’s day, and he certainly faced plenty of opposition to his ministry from many quarters including tonight’s reference to Alexander the metalworker who strongly opposed Paul’s message and whom Paul expects will get his comeuppance from God. And of course it is equally true in our day – if people don’t like what you have to say then they will up and find teachers that suit them – whether that is in a different type of church, a different religion, in new age beliefs, in self-help books, in the easy platitudes of agony aunts or in the false comforts of materialism.
And living as we do in a competitive environment in which we are raised to judge success not in absolute terms but always in relation to the other person, and living in an environment as we do within the church where we need to raise money to keep roofs in order and to justify our existence there is always the temptation to try and fill seats by saying what people want to hear. To scratch those itchy ears not by challenging them with the real demand of the gospel message, the message that we find life first and foremost by dying to ourselves so that we might live to God but in confirming the “anything goes” message. That is the message that society gives us from every angle – there are no absolute truths, no absolute rules, do what you will and it shall be the whole of the law.
So do I as a priest and a preacher try to fill seats by saying what I think people want to hear? St. Paul warns his protégé Timothy that he should not give into that temptation:
“I give you this charge: 2Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.”
and a few verses further on;
“5But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.
So the duty of an evangelist, one who carrys the word of God, is not to scratch the ears of those who seek to please themselves but to preach the Word in season and out of season and be prepared to correct, rebuke and encourage with great patience and careful instruction. Now it may well be that not many people want that sort of diet and Jesus himself lost many disciples when he gave hard teaching and both Jesus and Paul suffered greatly by not simply seeking to be crowd pleasers. Truth and popularity don’t always go together and that seems to be one of the crosses we have to bear when we seek to follow Christ.
But our preaching and our doctrine neither starts nor should finish with rules and regulations. Indeed that is the type of faith that leads to spiritual death and that is part of the reason that Christ come in order to give us a living and vital faith, based on a story and a relationship. And the story on which our faith is based is reaching its apogee in the course of the next few weeks.
And I think it is important that we do try to enter afresh into this story as it unfolds over the coming weeks. Like the events of Christmas the Easter story is something that we hear each year and there is the danger that we grow stale with the retelling. So perhaps an appropriate challenge for the remainder of this Lenten season is to prepare ourselves to engage with the story as if we had never heard it before. To greet Jesus joyfully with palms as he rides into Jerusalem, confident that this is the saviour who will free us from tyranny and oppression. To experience disappointment and fear when Jesus is arrested, to flee for our own lives and perhaps, like Peter, to deny even knowing Jesus. To experience from afar for the first time the pain of seeing someone we know and love be nailed to a cross as a common criminal amongst common criminals, to see his mother weeping at the foot of the cross, to see his side pierced by a spear and all hope flow away with his blood, to see his body cut down and his garments divided amongst his executioners. And then to hear that he has been buried in a borrowed tomb and, for all we know, that is the end of his story and the end of everything we had dreamed of and there is silence and emptiness. And then, on the third day, we hear strange rumours that the tomb is empty and that people have spoken to Jesus but that he has both changed and remained the same. And then we meet with Christ who was dead and now is risen, who invites us to feel his side, to see that his wound is real but who also eats and drinks and invites us to eat and drink with him – and to tell others that the kingdom of God has come near. All that awaits us and if we allow ourselves to really hear it afresh, and not only to hear it but also to enter into the story, then it has the power to transform us all personally and corporately.
Heard afresh, entered into and lived anew I believe that this story can scratch the itch in our ears and keep us close to Christ now and forever.