Sermon for Lent 3 – 2013 – Year C
1 Cor 10:1-13
‘Time is running out’
Whilst I was on retreat I celebrated my 51st birthday – and to celebrate, did something I love and actually haven’t done since I arrived here – I climbed Ben Lomond above Queenstown. Like it’s namesake in Scotland it’s a friendly hill, a gentle climb, and has the same amount of ascent as Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain and an old friend. So the day triggered many memories for me. In particular, as I skipped up and down in five hours, it triggered a memory of my father.
When I was growing up, we always went as a family to North Wales for a week’s holiday in a rented caravan – and sometimes, we’d climb Mount Snowdon – the highest point in Wales – and a serious hill – Sir Edmund Hillary and the rest trained there for their ascent of Everest. the particular memory it triggered was of the last time I remember hill walking with my father. Together with my mother and one of my brothers, we set off up what is called the Watkin path – a less popular way up than many, it is a long and very easy climb until you come to a large rock, at which point the path turns what we might call vertiginous – Steep it most definitely is. As teenage lads we raced on ahead to the bottom of this climb, and when my parents finally caught up – they announced they weren’t going any further – Dad couldn’t manage it. He was 50. As young lads we just thought, ‘he’s getting old’, as I guess did he.
So on my 51st birthday, as i wandered back down Ben Lomond – congratulating myself on conquering the hill two hours faster than the times shown on the DOC notices, I remembered my dad and thought once more of how things have changed and how now – we are so fortunate to have trained ourselves to stay alive longer. . . to our infinite cost
We live in perhaps a unique age, an age where we fear death far more than we fear God. My father’s generation was the last where Church was in any sense normative.
The vertiginous decline in the church both in England and here in New Zealand began around the time I was born – and the last 50 years have seen unparalleled growth both in the arena of medical technology and interest in bodily health – keeping fit – putting death off as long as we can. When God is wiped from the horizon of life, as he is for many, or reduced to the role of Chaplain to Our lives as many understand Christian faith, then this is the obvious thing to do. Life is short, we need to make the most of it and to do our best to extend it as long as we can. We have trained ourselves to imagine that the goal is to stay alive longer – we are perhaps thus more averse than ever to hearing the costly word of Grace which tells us that to know Life in its fulness we must first die to the life we have.
As we have journeyed thus far through Lent, I have been at pains to re-emphasise the message of Ash Wednesday, with its focus on our mortality and need for repentance towards God, that we might know the Life he has for us. But it would be all too easy to turn that into a message about preparing for our physical death, which is only part of what we are called to. Rather the confrontation with our mortality is intended to Wake us up to the seriousness of our condition – to bring us to repentance Now.
So, Jesus points to the deaths of the Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with his sacrifices, and to the death of those upon whom the tower of Siloam fell, not to raise abstract questions about the goodness of God or the evil of men – but to confront his hearers with the FACT of their deaths and the Urgent need for repentance – and the heart of Repentance of that appeal, is that this life is not about Us, but about God – a theme which I picked up on last week and our gospel today takes us deeper into.
The seriousness of this we pick up when we realise that Jesus really is Not interested in our questions – he recognises that at their heart, they are but carefully concealed means of avoiding the Cost of discipleship. We avoid it by insisting that he makes sense of it all for us, we unlike the fishermen want to stick with the boats, not leave our lives behind, and so we start interrogating Jesus, ourselves.
I remember Nicky Gumbel, the driving force behind the Alpha course describing an encounter with a young man who had LOADS of questions. He, rather wisely I think, asked him – ‘If I answer all your questions, will you become a Christian – the young man thought for a while and said, ‘probably not’, and Nicky was thereby saved what many of us have discovered to be a futile path. The list of questions is unmasked as unbelief.
I further remember that on our website we pride ourselves on being a church where we don’t check in our brains at the door when we come in, nor our faith at the door when we leave. But, in this, there is an insidious trap. For if our minds have not been consecrated to Christ, if we have not died to our sinful desire for Knowledge of God, to get him worked out, then as is the case with all too many churches today, that apparently Christian trait, thinking, takes us further and further away from Christ. St Paul calls us to be transformed, by the renewing of our minds. Minds that are not given over to the love and worship of Christ, to a sincere desire to follow him wherever he goes, to acknowledge that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and that often the ways Christ leads us will make no sense to us, as it did not to the first disciples – such minds will always rebel at the Truth of the Gospel call. We start by willingly laying down our lives – our ways and our thoughts, and asking Christ to renew them – for we are helpless in and of ourselves so to do, dead in sin as we are.
So people ARE asking Jesus, ‘what about those Galileans – Pilate mixed their blood with his sacrifices!!’ Or those on whom the tower of Siloam fell!! They must have been great sinners!! And Jesus is not interested in their questions [note how our questions have swung 180 degrees round – now we look at that and Say – does God exist?? ] Terrible things happen and are not seen as evidence for God but against God. Our questions, distorted by our disobedient hearts seem as reasonable to us, indeed moreso, for “we aren’t so primitive and superstitious as those ridiculous people who came to Jesus” . . . – but Jesus is having none of it, he knows that at the heart of all our questions is the desire to keep him one step removed from our lives.
Face Reality, Jesus says! Away with your sepeculations – LOOK! People Die! Unless you repent, you all will perish likewise!
Jesus does not look for a meaning in those deaths – Death is the ultimate meaningless event, for it is the absence of Good, it is the absence of Life – it has No Meaning. It is the wages of Sin. And Jesus says, your time is coming, the sands are running out, your death is inevitable – the question is will it like these deaths be meaningless?? Repent!
But, we may ask . . . how does repentance change this?? and the simple answer is this – it gets our dying out of the way. The whole point of the Christian life is that it is not about our lives – it is about the Life of God – so we might say with Paul, We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s – we no longer belong to ourselves, we belong to Christ. We are no longer the centre of things – the lives we live are not about us, rather in all we do we are instruments of Christ – the one who has conquered Death. In dying to ourselves we die the only meaningful death there is, the only death that produces the fruit of Life!
We cannot begin to be Christian without this – it is the meaning of our baptism – we are baptised into the death of Christ – Baptism is The Sign that this life is not about us – we begin by dying. Discipleship is impossible without this.
Jesus then goes on to tell a parable, of the fig tree, and I want to think very briefly about this idea of ‘the self centered life’ from another perspective, for the worldview of Scripture is Corporate – it is about a body of people. And bodies of people can be just as self centered. Indeed perhaps The Clash Jesus has with the Pharisees is precisely this – in them we see a people totally turned in on themselves, defending the barricades, defining their own life together.
Well, the Diocese and the life of the churches of the diocese has been much on my mind these past weeks – and I have to say I was utterly stunned by the timeliness of this parable of Jesus, as time runs out for us here. The Word of God is inexhaustible and I noticed something I had never seen before. As Jesus tells the story of the Barren fig tree, he says this ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” I had never seen those last words of the owner of the tree – ‘Why should it be wasting the soil?’ Why should it be draining the ground of resources and not producing fruit?? And this really hit me like a hammer blow – for this reminded forcibly of many if not most parishes I have ever known, that their goal was to survive. As one of my former bishops would constantly complained, both privately and publicly – he was sick and tired of hearing parishes say – ‘as long as it sees me out’ – as long as the resources don’t run dry before I die – or clergy who said – ‘as long as there’s a pension scheme in place for me’ Parishes who demanded to have a vicar – even though there were not the resources for them, who gave next to nothing to the parish financially, but who wanted someone to be there for them. And as I sat through Diocesan council this week and heard the words ‘The key question is how we can continue to provide ministry . . .’ All I could hear were the words of Jesus – ‘Why should it be wasting the soil?’
‘It will see me out’ – ‘it will provide for my needs’ – the church exists to look after me – and actually who can blame people for thinking that way – the Pastoral model of church is the only model we know- we grew up with it, and our forebears, from generation to generation – it is all we have known. And likewise those who came to Jesus with their questions, and likewise us to when we come with ours – it is the way of life we have been trained into, in the same way I had conditioned myself to stay alive longer and so could still get up the hill.
To us all, the Gospel is Christ and his Word – unless you repent, you will likewise perish! The Church does not exist as an instrument of pastoral care for its own, but as the means by which the fruit of the life of God is made present in the world – We do not exist for ourselves – for we no longer live for ourselves but for Christ – it is the meaning of our baptism. Unless we repent we will likewise die meaningless deaths, fruitless, no seed in the ground to bear more life. I cannot but think of that image of the fruitless deaths of the galileans and those on whom the tower fell, I cannot think of the fruitless fig tree, without seeing what seems to lie ahead for parishes in this diocese. But the gospel is always a word of Grace – Time Is running out – indeed those words of the servant are very prescient at this moment – “Sir, let it alone for one more year until I dig around it and feed it – If it bears fruit next year, well and good; If not you can cut it down” It is nearly a year since the bishop told us we had two years – We have a year – a Year of Grace – may it be according to that word of grace made known to us in Christ and his gracious command to Repentance