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Sunday, 11 August 2013

You have to go there to be there!

I didn't actually preach this sermon!  It was all ready to go, hymns and readings submitted to the Steward, and then I went down with a very nasty virus and couldn't get out of bed!  My husband, with the authority of the Circuit Superintendent and the stewards, very kindly read it for me.

Have you had your holidays yet? We went in June, inter-railing. And, of course, when you go on an inter-rail holiday, getting there is half the fun. All those trains taking you to new places in different countries! But sometimes the journey is horrible, isn't it? Endless hours in a car or in a plane, or worse, hanging around at the airport waiting for your flight. You long to be able to skip the journey and be at your destination without having to go there!

And it's the same, too, when you're learning any new skill, or a new subject. I don't know if anybody here is waiting for exam results over the next couple of weeks, but if you are, I bet there were times when you wished you could skip to the results without having to take the exams, or even wished you could skip to the exams without having to study for them! But you have to go through it to get there, alas.

We all have times we wish we didn't. But we know we have to. Our Bible readings this morning are all about faith, about getting to a place where we have such a great relationship with God that we can do as we are asked without worrying about it. And, of course, we can't get to that place at once – wouldn't it be great if we could? But again, we have to go through it to get there.

---oo0oo---

I have often said that these Sundays in Ordinary Time are when we discover whether what we think we believe actually matches up to what we really do believe. And our readings this morning are the absolute epitome of that. I chose to have all three readings because they all emphasise faith, but slightly different aspects of faith.

Isaiah, for instance, is talking about repentance:

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?”
   says the Lord;
“I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams
   and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
   or of lambs, or of goats.”

And then:
“When you stretch out your hands,
   I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
   I will not listen;
   your hands are full of blood.”

In Isaiah's day his day, people worshipped other gods, gods who didn't actually require you to do more than perform the sacrifices and rituals. But for God, our God, this was not enough. God demanded – and still does demand – a lot more than that:

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
   remove the evil of your doings
   from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
   rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
   plead for the widow.”

You can't just go on as you were and then come to the temple to do your sacrifices. This will not work. Remember Psalm 51: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” We need a complete change of heart, to turn right round and go God's way, not ours. This is called repentance, of course – not so much about being sorry, although that can be part of it, but about a complete change of outlook. And then, according to Isaiah:

“Come now, let us argue it out,”
   says the Lord:
“though your sins are like scarlet,
   they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
   they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
   you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,
   you shall be devoured by the sword;
   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

It is about an attitude of the heart.

The letter to the Hebrews shows us how this faith works out in practice: we are reminded that “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Abraham, we are told, was promised a wonderful inheritance. God promised to make his descendants, quite literally, more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore. He was going to be given a wonderful land for them to live in.

Now, at this stage, Abraham was living very comfortably thank you, in a very civilised city called Ur, and although he didn't have any children, he was happy and settled. But God told Abraham that if he wanted to see this promise fulfilled he had to get up, to leave his comfortable life, and to move on out into the unknown, just trusting God. And Abraham did just exactly that. And, eventually, Isaac was born to carry on the family. And then Jacob. And we are told that, although none of them actually saw the Promised Land, the promise was not fulfilled in their lifetimes, they never stopped believing that one day, one day, it would be. Their whole lives were informed by their belief that God was in control.

This sort of faith is the kind we'd all like to have, wouldn't we? Wouldn't we? Hmmm, I wonder. In our Gospel reading, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” That's great, isn't it? “It is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Well, it would be great, but then he says, “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

That's the bit we don't like so well, do we? Like Abraham, we are very-nicely-thank-you in Ur, comfortably settled in this world, and we don't want to give it all up to go chasing after something which might or might not be real. This is the difficult bit, the bit where what we say we believe comes up against what we really do believe.

It's like I was saying [to the children] earlier, we would like to be there – wherever “there” is – without the hassle of actually going there! We want to have all the privileges and joys of being Christians without actually having to do anything.

Of course, in one of the many great paradoxes of Christianity, we don't have to do anything! We can do nothing to save ourselves! It is God who does all that is necessary for our salvation.

But if we are to be people of faith, if we are to be of any use to God. And faith does, or should, prompt us to action.

First of all, then, our faith should prompt us to repent. To turn away from sin and turn to God with all our hearts. It's not just a once-and-for-all thing; it's a matter of daily repentance, daily choosing to be God's person.

And as we do that, our faith grows and develops and strengthens to the point where, if we are called to do so, we can leave our comfort zone and try great things for God. As Abraham did, and as Jesus calls us to do.

We aren't all called to sell our possessions and give what we have to the poor – although a little more equity in the way this world's goods are handed out wouldn't be a bad thing; look how 25% of the world consumes 75% of its production, or whatever the figures actually are – I may be being generous on that one. We are all called to work for justice in our communities, whether that is a matter of writing to our MPs if something is clearly wrong, or getting involved in a more hands-on way.

Some people – maybe some of you, even – are or have been called to leave your home countries and work in a foreign land to be God's person there, whether as a professional missionary, as it were, or just where you are working. Others are asked to stay put, but to be God's person exactly where they are – at school, college, work, home, at the shops, on the bus, in a traffic jam, on social media... everywhere! Being God's person isn't something that happens in church on Sundays and is put aside the rest of the week.

It isn't easy. It's the every day, every moment hard slog. The times when we wish we could skip over all this, and be the wonderful faith-filled Christian we hope to be one day without the hard work of getting there!

Sadly, it doesn't work like that. We don't have to do all the hard work in our own strength, of course; God the Holy Spirit is there to help us, and remind us, and change us, and grow us as we gradually become more and more the people God designed us to be. But God doesn't push in where He's not wanted. If we are truly serious about being God's person, then we need to be being that every day. Each day we need to commit to God, whether explicitly or implicitly.

Jesus reminds us that this world isn't designed to be permanent. One day it will come to an end, either for each of us individually, or perhaps in some great second coming. But whichever way, it will end for us one day, and not all of us get notice to quit. We need to be ready and alert, busy with what we have been given to do, but ready to let go and turn to Jesus whenever he calls us.

None of this is easy. Being a Christian isn't easy. Becoming a Christian is easy, because God longs and longs for us to turn to Him. But being one isn't. Allowing God to change us, to pull us out of our comfort zone, to travel with Him along that narrow way – it's not easy. But it is oh, so very worthwhile! Amen.