The Third Sunday before Lent
Readings: Jeremiah 17.5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15.12-20; Luke 6.17-26 (view all)
I’ve been reflecting this week on the big choices I’ve had to make in my own life. The first really important decision I think I had to make was when I was finishing school, and needed decide which universities to apply to.
There was so much choice, and so many factors to consider — the location, the course content, research specialisms, and of course, where my friends were planning to apply. In the end, my mum and I had to sit down and work through a list of pros and cons for each place to reach a decision.
And ironically, in the end it didn’t matter anyway. I never took up my place to study physics in Sheffield, because God had other plans, and I ended up coming to South Wales and studying youth & community work and theology instead.
Today, perhaps more than any other time in history, we are surrounded by choices — this brand or that brand, this option or that option, remain or leave, deal or no deal (don’t worry this isn’t a sermon about Brexit!)
At times the sheer amount of choices can paralyse us, unable to do anything for fear of making the wrong choice. Scientists call this the choice paradox — that having more choices actually makes us more anxious rather than more happy.
So, in this age of choice where it is so difficult to tell right from wrong and good from bad, how can our faith in Jesus inform our decisions and help us to live well?
The picture our readings paint for us this morning is one of deep rootedness in God, and God’s values. In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Jeremiah invites to be, not like a desert shrub, blown away in the wind and scorched in the heat, but like a tree sustained by the cool water of the river of God.
Perhaps his choice of imagery is influenced by this morning’s Psalm — the first in the Psalter, the Jewish hymn book. The Psalm warns us to be careful who is influencing us, who is defining our priorities:
Blessed are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the assembly of the scornful.
Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on his law day and night.
Like a tree planted by streams of water bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither whatever they do, it shall prosper.
More than ever, in the age of celebrity leaders and fake news, we need to heed these words — to base our decisions not on fleeting arguments or likeable personalities, but through prayerfully discerning God’s will, for our lives and for our world.
So what is God’s will for us? What are God’s values? For these we need to turn to the very challenging words attributed to Jesus himself in our gospel reading.
St Luke’s Beatitudes from the ‘Sermon on the Plain’ are the lesser-known sister to St Matthew’s much more well known version from the beginning of the ’Sermon on the Mount’. Perhaps Luke’s versions are less popular because they include not just ‘blessings’ but ‘woes’ and so therefore are much more challenging.
Luke’s Jesus cautions against the fleeting promises of the world — whether material wealth, the satisfaction of temporary desires or the quest for popularity. We are warned that these things are only temporary and will not last, indeed so often those who attempt to sustain them only bring destruction on themselves all the more quickly.
But they also promise blessing — satisfaction, lightness of heart, peace — for those for whom life just hasn’t treated fairly, and yet who place their trust in God instead of temporary happiness.
But what about when we fail? When our bad choices find us out? When our faith is shaken?
Well, the good news is that the kingdom Jesus proclaims is for exactly those kinds of people — people like us who are in need of him to be a friend, a loving neighbour. Those who are unwell, those who are troubled, those who feel chewed up and spat out by a cruel world — these are exactly the people who come to Jesus in Luke’s gospel.
And when he looks at them and speak to them, the words they hear are these:
Blessed are you!
So I wonder, in our lives today: At work, how can we ensure we do the right thing rather than the easy thing, putting good moral decisions before wealth or popularity? And at home, how can we teach good values to our children and grandchildren, and yet still be there to pick them up and support them when they make mistakes?
How can we, as God’s Church, be like trees planted by streams of water and bear good fruit for the benefit of our world and our neighbours?
Many authors in recent history, from Karl Marx to Richard Dawkins, have criticised Christianity, saying that ‘religion is a crutch for weak people’.
But do you know? Instead of being concerned about it, I think we should wear that criticism as a badge of honour. Yes, Christianity is a crutch for people. People who don’t have it all together, who are troubled, who are in need of help and support, who have doubts. These are exactly the people Jesus spent his life and ministry alongside.
And Church is for exactly those same people. So if you are struggling with life at the moment, know this morning that you are in exactly the right place. If you’ve made a bad decision that you feel worried about, you are in exactly the right place. If you are anxious and in need of peace, this morning you are in exactly the right place.
Because Jesus is here, with those same words of peace and comfort for you as he spoke to that crowd two thousand years ago:
Blessed are YOU!
As we celebrate this Eucharist, may we know God’s blessing among us, God’s love enfolding us, and God’s peace surrounding us, today and always.