Third Sunday before Lent
Introduction and Call to Worship The Lord calls out “Come who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Let us gather together to worship the Lord and receive from him. Today's Readings First Reading Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12] The prophet Isaiah casts his eye over the worship practices of his people and finds them wanting. The people fast and pray but they continue to seek their own pleasure and oppress others. Instead the people are enjoined to fast by letting the oppressed go free and to share with the poor. Then shall they see God's light and healing break forth like the dawn. Second Reading 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16] The Apostle Paul proclaims his desire to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified, all through the power of the Holy Spirit. This knowledge is set against the world's wisdom, which cannot understand the ways of God and calls them folly. Gospel Matthew 5:13-20 The followers of Jesus are salt and light in the world. Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it and through him it will be accomplished. It is only those whose righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees who can be said to be in the kingdom of heaven. HOMILY “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) Have you ever seen one of those photographs which is all black and white except for one thing, like a bright red satin ribbon in a girl’s hair? The effect is dramatic and memorable, utterly distinctive and undeniably noticeable. Today, Jesus challenges us to make our faith visible, distinctive. It’s not about showing off about how holy we are, making massive public displays of religiosity – in fact, elsewhere, he condemns that – but rather about how our faith should be unavoidably obvious in who we are, and permeate every aspect of our being. Being a Christian is not something we do on Sunday mornings, but an undeniable part of who we are, that flavours, pervades, maintains and preserves us, just like salt does. Salt in ancient times was an expensive commodity and highly valued. Not only did it give flavour and taste to food, but it kept it pure and preserved from spoil and decay. Likewise, Jesus says, let your faith be a wonderful enlivener of who you are, and may it be what keeps you going. He also compares being a faithful believer to being like a light. Light enlightens, shows the way and dispels darkness. That’s the kind of people we’re called to be. Hiding a light, covering it up, is frankly ridiculous and odd! It makes no sense and is pointless and wasteful. How can you really have faith if you keep its joy, meaning-making, freedom-giving a secret? Nobody does that! So, don’t lose your saltiness, remember you are a light, but, hang on a moment, what was the other bit? I have come to fulfil the law. Do not think that I have come to do away with it. Woah! Where did that come from? We’ve just had two enlivening metaphors. Images of the difference and wonderfulness of a life of faith, and then suddenly he seems to have changed the subject and is talking about law and rules. How does this follow? Anyone else confused?! Well we need to rewind a little and think about what’s gone on before and look at the wider context. This reading is an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount. This is the great chunk of verses in Matthew where Jesus lays out his teaching on the kingdom of God – what it looks like, who’s involved, how we live it. It’s three whole chapters (chapters 5-7) and it comes after the nativity narratives, and the calling of the disciples, and is Matthew showing Jesus setting out his store at the beginning of his ministry. He’s laying down the markers of what it’s all about before he goes on to live out his mission and eventually how that all leads up to the Passion. For Matthew, the Jewish theologian of Christ, this is his presentation of Jesus as the new Moses, the new lawgiver, the one anointed by God to lead God’s people into freedom – you see the parallels? Matthew, therefore, cannot have Jesus abrogating the law. The law is the gift to the people of Israel, through which salvation comes. Jesus therefore has to explain how he relates to the law, how he makes sense of it and is the fulfilment of it. It therefore cannot mean he throws it out, rather that he shows how it is truly fulfilled. Jesus does this in the manner of a rabbi – for rabbi, that is teacher, is what he is. And as a rabbi – teacher – he engages in the debates and discussions of the time. Rabbis were forever (re)interpreting the law and discussing what it means. And in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, that is exactly what Jesus does. In some places he seems to extend the law, in others he points out that the rule is an expression of a deeper heart. This is where we get those teachings like adultery being wrong, but actually nurturing adulterous, lustful thoughts in our hearts is wrong too. It’s also where we find out that boastful displays of religiosity are vain in both senses of the word – being about pride and ultimately being pointless. Giving alms, money to charity, and fasting, and similar duties, are to be done from the heart, without show, and will thereby edify the individual and do honour to God’s glory. We should also not lose sight of the fact that Jesus exhorts us to all these things, but the important part is that he interprets, explains and fulfils the law. He is going to show us how it’s done. And in his completion of the law, all righteousness will be fulfilled, and we can rest in that grace, that gift of him having paved the way, so we can humbly turn in our inadequacy to him to bear our part and thank him for opening up the way back to God. (This is something Paul talks a lot about in Romans). How then does this relate back to being salty and like a light? Well, we are still exhorted to live this way. What a model and example we have! Jesus most certainly did not hide away how he lived the kingdom. The distinctiveness and life-giving flavour of all he did was there for all to see, for all to taste. The invitation to us is to reflect on how we let those kingdom values be expressed in our lives. Remember the Sermon on the Mount starts with the Beatitudes: blessings upon those who were not traditionally seen as blessed. Those who suffer – mourning, in poverty, trying against the odds to be peacemakers. Those who understand the heart of the law, not just external expressions of it. Those who trust in Jesus as showing us how to do it and leading the way. So, as we leave church today, we continue to hold onto and live out our faith 24/7. Churchgoing is one important aspect of it – where we can be fed and topped up, express our solidarity and encouragement to each other. But in the rest of our lives, that hope and faith and way of being in and seeing and understanding the world, needs to be flavour and sustain our lives, our habits, our speech, our actions, our prayers. May our faith be a part of us that runs through us like the writing in a piece of Blackpool rock! Like the bright red ribbon in a black and white photograph, we share with the world the joy, meaning-making and freedom that our faith gives us, with an unavoidable distinctiveness. And we can have faith that Christ paves the way that fulfils the law and ushers in the kingdom.