Third Sunday before Lent

9 February 2020

Isaiah 58: 1-12, Matt 5:13-20

Heavenly Father, may the words of my lips reveal something to us of your written word and so lead us ever closer to your living Word, Jesus Christ Our Lord.  Amen.

Today is, amazingly, my penultimate Sunday in church before the start of my sabbatical.  Next Sunday I aim to be in the middle of Birmingham on a narrowboat and the Sunday after that will be my last one before disappearing for three months, leaving you in the more than capable hands of the Rev Nicky Harvey.  I haven’t said too much about the sabbatical from here, because I don’t want to bore you all silly with it before I go but it is all becoming very real now.  If you want to see where I go then do follow me on Facebook but, don’t worry if you can’t, I will bore you all silly with it when I get back.

As it happens my last service here will not be on Sunday 23rd but will be the following Wednesday 26th, which is Ash Wednesday.  This means that my last act here for some time will be to anoint the faithful with ashes and to remind you that from dust you came and to dust you shall return.  Given the injections I have had to have and the security training I will be having, this memento mori is no bad thing for me too.

On Ash Wednesday we are marked outwardly as a sign of penance and humility, and it also marks the start of our Lenten fast as we prepare ourselves for Easter.  Recent years have seen something of a trend towards ‘taking things up’ for Lent rather than ‘giving things up’ but I can’t help feeling that in a world plagued by busyness, overindulgence and even addiction that there is some ancient wisdom in spending just six weeks fasting from anything which stands between us and God rather than giving ourselves an additional burden.  Having said that I do commend to you the Lent course being run by Nicky, based on the film, The King’s Speech – it sounds fascinating and I look forward to hearing all about it.

But there is a hidden danger lurking in our outward markings of ashes, in our giving things up or taking things up for Lent, indeed in the whole of our outward religiousity.  In fact our readings this morning alert us to the fact that there are not one but two complementary dangers against which we need to be on our guard: Isaiah reminds us that our public worship and outward displays of religiousity must never take the place of what God really wants his people to do in the world and our reading from Matthew reminds us that we should never be so shy and private about our faith that it fails to make any difference in the world.

Let’s take those in turn.

In verse 1 of Chapter 58 of Isaiah God instructs the prophet that he is to tell the people that they have sinned, that they have fallen short of what God wants them to do.

Now you might think that the people of Jacob, to whom the prophet is sent, must have been doing all sorts of terrible things – they must have been neglecting to worship God and lots of sinful things.  But it doesn’t immediately look that way:

In verse 2 it says: “Yet day after day they seek me, and delight to know my ways.”

The people are seeking God, not just on the Sabbath it seems but day after day, and they delight to know his ways. 

For emphasis the point is made again:

“they delight to draw near to God.”

These people love to hear about God, they can’t get enough of it, they may be going to the Temple every day, listening to the priests telling the stories about God from the Torah, observing their feast days and their fast days.  If they had had Vicars, Archdeacons and Bishops in those days they would have absolutely loved a congregation like that – they would be all over Twitter and Facebook announcing revival showing pictures of a church full of people on a Tuesday wanting to draw closer to God and know his ways – hallelujah!

But something is amiss.  God is not happy with these people.  And the people can perhaps sense that because verse 3 starts with a question from the people to God:

Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves but you do not notice?”

Despite their dedicated religiousity of fasting and humbling themselves the people sense that God is not responding to them, and they want to know why.  It is Isaiah’s job to pass on the message:

“Look you serve your own interests on your fast day, and oppress all your workers…Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.”

And a particular challenge in the context of Ash Wednesday:

“…Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?  Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”

And then God sets out what his people would be doing if they really understood his ways:

“Is not this the fast I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house, when you see the naked to cover them.”

If those things are done then God says that their light will break forth like the dawn, the glory of the Lord will be around them and the Lord will answer all of their cries – furthermore that their ancient ruins will be rebuilt and they will lay the foundations for many more generations of people to come.

The message from Isaiah could hardly be clearer.  God delights in his people and builds them up and renews them not because they come to Temple or Church everyday and enjoy listening to stories about helping the poor and the destitute but when they actually get out there and put the stories into action, and change the lives of those around them for the better.

That doesn’t mean that our outward signs of worship are worthless and that we shouldn’t do the things we do here, but that they are potentially worthless if they are only outward and do not signify a relationship with God which we seek to put into practice out there.

But if Isaiah condemns outward worship which does not translate into practice then Matthew reminds us that we should not be so shy of our faith that it also fails to make an impact on the world.

After telling his disciples that they are the salt and light of the world he says:

“No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel.”

Living in a society which, let’s face it, is increasingly hostile to faith and to any expression of faith outside the confines of worship it is extremely easy to be so worried that the light we carry into the world will bring us embarrassment or criticism that we hide it from the world.  We shine like a light before God here and then, as we leave the building and go back out into the real world, we put our bushel back on and pretend to be as dark as the world around us.   A lit lamp under a bushel, is a useless lamp and Jesus does not want his disciples to be useless:

Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

This verse causes consternation to some who are concerned that our faith should not consist of doing good works, because of the whole faith versus work debate from the reformation.  They may also be concerned that if we do ‘good works’ of any nature then we should not let our right hand know what our left hand is doing and we should certainly not let others know what we are up to – and there is good scriptural support for that view. 

But, in my view, that is to misunderstand the point of what is being said here.  Jesus is not saying that we must do good deeds in order to win approval from God and therefore ‘be saved’ because our salvation is by God’s grace alone. However, having become called to God’s service, having become the potential salt and light in the world it is then incumbent on us to fulfil that potential.

As James 2:20 says “Faith without works is dead” which is a neat way of summing up Jesus’ teaching here and the message from Isaiah.

Today, sister and brothers, we are called to strike a balance between hypocrisy and anonymity.  We are hypocrites if we make a great display of being Christians but fail to treat others as Christ would treat them.  And we are anonymous if our relationship with God is purely a private matter and does nothing to transform the world around us.

Because we live in a world which is crying out for love and in a church which is crying out for renewal.  Perhaps we shall renew the church by learning how to love the world, in the name of Christ.