We capture today, across all the readings, the reality of some people being in and some people being out. Some are caught up into heaven and eternity whilst other are left far behind – having been found wanting and somehow irredeemable. These are hard things to hear – unless, of course, one is in the business of judging and condemning and living with a sense of being ‘holier than thou’. Righteous condemnation masquerading as righteous indignation, perhaps – and all on God’s behalf because, of course, we can do it so much better than him – all things considered.
If we begin at the beginning, with the reading from Isaiah, the earliest of the texts written, we see that there is an invitation. There is an invitation to drink of the water that money cannot buy. There is a call to change from the current way of living to seek that which is on offer for just a while: Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts;
Whether or not the love of God is on offer for just while only is a matter for debate – for God’s time is beyond our own – the call throughout our readings – and through time – is to change the focus from that which is immediately attainable around us every day to that which is also immediately attainable but from which we so often turn our gaze. Let the wicked forsake their way and the unrighteous their thoughts. Who are these wicked? Who are these unrighteous? I guess we might say the members of al-Qaeda who seem so intent on killing those who are not of the Muslim faith. We might also say those who are members of gangs in South London, who carry knives and guns so that they can get ahead of any who stand in their way. We might say the ‘fact cats’ of the financial world who cream of the profits to award themselves fat bonuses.
These may appear to be caricatures, and we may prefer the ways in which Isaiah speaks into the human condition in all the varying ways with which we seek to fill our lives with meaning: work, food, money. However, how ever nicely we dress these things up – the fear that we will never have enough, that others will have more than us, that we will not be good enough in whoever’s sight is held to be the most powerful on that given day – how ever we dress these things up, they are as nothing compared to the hope that we may have in God.
Alas, the apparently meaningful preoccupations and self-preoccupations that are preferred by so many are, ultimately, meaningless. This is something that the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes knew all too well. If we read the opening of his Book: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” The only thing that has meaning is God’s love and God’s supreme power. We may look for other things, we may gain other things, but it is the love of God that is over and above them all.
So what difference does knowing this make then? You are here, I am here, and we get it already – right? Perhaps so, but the reading we heard from Corinthians makes salutary reading if we think we have it all sown up. As we read: I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud… all passed through the sea… all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3and all ate the same spiritual food, 4and all drank the same spiritual drink… they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. 5Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. They did things right, it seemed… and yet, God was not pleased with most of them. It’s like saying to a child after Parent’s Evening: Your teacher said you are doing really well, but you could try harder. Well, almost like it, I imagine!
We catch some glimpse of what has gone wrong: 6Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. 7Do not become idolaters… 8We must not indulge in sexual immorality… 9We must not put Christ to the test… 10And do not complain…” What sad examples for humanity, for so many of us walk so close to these very things as well.
The reason for recording them though: ‘11These things happened to them to serve as an example…’ There are things that will come to try us, there are things that will lure us away for a while, there are things that we may prefer sometimes. If this is so, we are warned fully here: ‘12So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.’
I preached a fortnight ago about observing Lent. For the first time in a long time, I have given up something for Lent – and it is proving to be hard work. I have taken things on too – and these are proving just as hard. Lent is nothing though compared to the whole Christian life – a way of being that is actually about giving up many things. It is about refining ourselves with the grace and power and love of God so that we will not be like those who followed but fell, like those who believed but whose faith was not enough. Lent, as with the whole of life of faith, is a time of testing, though Lent may be more about proving to ourselves that we can do it than to God: we test ourselves in a simpler fashion – or not – to remind ourselves of the greater, longer, test upon which we are all embarked: the test of being found fit for heaven. Do we carry knives or guns? Probably not. Are we members of al-Qaeda, intent on killing those who do not follow the faith we follow? Probably not, but the history of Christianity is pretty bloody, when we face it. Do we take vast Bonuses on top of our Salary or Pension. This one might sit rather closer to home for some who worship here or in other churches near here.
‘Judge not less ye be judged’ is a good maxim to live by – but sometimes we fail to judge just ourselves. These are hard words to hear, and I know colleagues who are preaching today who have also found this message to be unpalatable. Judgement is not just about condemnation though – it is about being honest. It is about discovering where we fall short and letting ourselves be honed and made pure and lovely for God. Paul writes: ‘13No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.’ The question is always, do we believe this? Do we believe that God is not only our judge but also our great reward? If we do, then we are blessed beyond belief – and the challenge and the test is to remain close to God’s ways. If we do not believe – or we fear the judgement more than we hope – then the promise Isaiah heard is the first thing to reach and out grasp to ourselves: ‘I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.’ Let God love you fully, with abandonment and without reserve, so that you might do the same to him.