Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 5 2017
Isaiah 58 1-9a; Psalm 112.1-9; 1 Corinthians 2 1-12; Matthew 5.13-20
Rev John Howard, Methodist Church of Great Britain
Follow the old railway line from First Station just outside this church and you will get to Malha Station. Get a train from there and the train lines run across to Tel Aviv, where points on the railway line can direct trains north or south. If a train is destined for the north, then the points are set one way; if it is travelling south, the points have to be set another way.
If the train is going to Haifa it will cross lots of points on its route, and every one of them has to be set in the right direction to get there. Every time it approaches a point, a choice is made. If the point is set the wrong way, it may be possible to get back onto the Haifa line; however it’s often very difficult to do so.
Daily we are all faced with many choices. The direction of our lives is set by a multitude of decisions. Some of them are fundamental and once made are difficult to reverse; others can take us astray, but we can recover the direction with some effort.
It is the making of these decisions that I want us to think about this morning. The readings lead us to look especially at three decisions that we are called to make: about right worship, about right wisdom, and about right spirit.
Our reading from Isaiah sets us thinking about right worship. It focuses on fasting. The prophet paints the picture of a person who seems devout on the outside, but whose life as a whole is not reflecting the nature of the God worshiped in the fast. “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.”
Strange thing to say, we might think. Surely fasting is about the person’s spiritual life, whereas exploiting the workers is quite different, it’s about the “real world”, where difficult decisions have to be made. So often people think of Christianity, in this way. Decisions made in life quite separate from those of the faith, from life in the church, but how wrong we are to do so.
The prophet never condemns the practice of fasting, never belittles the religious practice of the person being addressed. What he does is to make it clear that what we pay homage to in worship must be reflected in what we do in the “real world”. Put into our own setting, Isaiah is saying that it’s not the particular practice of worship that matters, it’s not if you use incense or sing choruses, it’s not whether you sing the Lord’s Prayer or speak in tongues, all of that can be as you like it. What cannot be taken lightly is whether what we pay tribute to in worship – a God of love, and justice and righteousness – is paid equal tribute to in all the decisions we take day to day. Christian worship is a part of Christian life, and one without the other is nothing. It is in the individual decisions daily taken, at work or elsewhere that reflect our true worship of the God of love and justice we worship in church.
In the passage from 1 Corinthians, there is the second area of choice: right wisdom. “We do however speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing”
Right wisdom is about the knowledge of the very nature of God, it is about those things that resonate with the nature of God and when followed bring us closer to God. Much of this wisdom is seen in the life of Jesus, it is taught in the passage we read in our Gospel – part of the Sermon on the Mount – and he expresses this wisdom through the parables he tells. We see it in his attitudes towards others around him, the way that he leads his life.
What Paul refers to as the “wisdom of this age” is quite different. The “wisdom of this age”, or we might say, the “wisdom of this world” is about those things that allow us to get ahead of others without consideration of their needs. It is about those comments we hear about helping others, “Why should I, he never does anything for me?” The wisdom of this age is about selfishly focusing upon what is best for ourselves without consideration of others. It is seen in the attitude that dodging taxes is ok while services for the sick, the young, for the community as a whole are starved of the funds they need. The wisdom of this age is about politicians who make decisions about health and education while sending their own children to private schools and having private health care for themselves. The politics of the last year has been deeply scarred with the “wisdom of this world.” Whether we look after ourselves and our own first is defined by a million little decisions taken daily, and the more we head off in the direction of selfishness, the harder it is to find the way which will take us back to selflessness.
A few verses further on in our reading, we come to the other area of decision-making I want us to consider this morning: right spirit. “We have not received the spirit of the world but the spirit who is from God”. There is a life-force about the world today. It lulls us into a sleepy apathy, it encourages us to see greater value in material possessions than in relationships between people and even between peoples. It holds of no value at all the relationship to God. The spirit of this world often leads us to be self centred, but (says Paul) “We have not received the spirit of the world but the spirit who is from God.”
The spirit who is from God carries us in a quite different direction – that indicated by the wisdom of God. This life-force, this breath of life, this spirit, opens our eyes to the needs of others, carries us along to the deep and unfathomable depths of human personhood. This spirit sees in the relationships between persons infinitely more value than the smartest of cars or the latest computer. There is a choice again, however, the choice of the Holy Spirit is in many ways frightening, for who knows where it will take you. By contrast, the spirit of this world is quite clear where it will take you, along paths that appear attractive at first but soon are found to be of no foundation, little depth, and no destination. In the end they lead us nowhere.
Three choices among many we have to make: a decision for true worship, a decision for true wisdom, a decision for true spirit. The reality is, we get it wrong, try as we might. Many times our choices take us off on tracks that lead away from God.
The good news, the gospel, is that God forgives us time and again, if we really are trying to go in the right direction, to make the right decisions. We are given chance after chance to try again and again, and so long as we really are trying, God will forgive us when we get it wrong, he loves us that much he longs for us to find the right path, to him.
Which decisions are you making by the way you live? The challenge of Christian living is here. Make the choice for God’s way. In each of the million decisions that we take as living beings do your best to choose God’s way, and do so with confidence because if you do get it wrong, despite trying, God does forgive. Choose true worship, choose true wisdom, choose true spirit.