Sermon for Fourth Sunday before Lent High Mass Sunday 9 February 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Readings: Isaiah 58.1-12; 1 Corinthians 2-end; Matthew 5.13-20.
Matthew 5.20 Jesus says: Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
If there’s a divine suggestion box, I’m going to suggest that God makes things easier – or at least a little clearer. From what I can see, Jesus doesn’t say that Pharisees, those who obey the rules and the Law and try to do the right thing, won’t get into heaven. But he’s warning his followers that more has been given so more is always expected. So let’s go for it. We have seen the will of God in the life of Christ, it is perfection, and for Matthew, nothing else will do. This is the salt which always stays as salt; this is the light which lights the house. Let your light so shine before others that they see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. What could be clearer than that?
But it hasn’t always been like that for us, has it? I think that, for many Christians today, religion isn’t at all clear, and it is sometimes a disappointment as we grow older. We are used to progress in everything, steps to maturity, but we see no progress in ourselves. Nothing dramatic, but prayer evaporates, and God is as far away as ever. When we see in ourselves this repeated failure, we try to fix it. And the more we try to put things right, going back to old ways of prayer and devotion, being more disciplined, trying new things, the worse it can get, the emptier we find ourselves. This state, which can last for decades, can feel like a betrayal of God, a betrayal of one’s friends and of one’s soul. This is not depression, but it can feel a bit like it sometimes, because we can’t see the end of it. I’m just warning you of what might happen, so if it does, if darkness settles around you, you’ll know it’s not just you. St John of the Cross says this: The soul turns to God with painful concern, thinking it is not serving God but turning away. Christians felt much like we did in sixteenth century Spain, because it’s the same story for each generation, so it’s worth having a passing acquaintance with St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila, and what St John called The Dark Night of the Soul, through which you will go because we all do. But those two came up with an answer. The darkness, the emptiness, the lack of clarity in our religion, is not threatening, but is friendly, and is necessary and this obscurity is God’s way of protecting us. This is how it has to be. God has not abandoned us, but we do not liberate ourselves, we wait on Him. What we see as a dark night, is actually our relationship with God, a healing process, a unique relationship for each human being, which gets deeper, not darker. O Love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee. Mystery is not to be solved, there is no solution on our terms. We must not know where we are going, because we would sabotage it, we would hurt ourselves. Our awareness is darkened, not because we’ve gone wrong, but to keep us safe, safe for “another, better love” to grow, exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees, a desire for God alone. In the darkness, in the obscurity in which we live, we discover, deep within us, the freedom to desire.
So how do we, so unenlightened, so unclear about things, enter the kingdom of heaven? I’ll tell you how. We were shown how in our lesson from Isaiah this morning. It was a wonderful description of pure religion. Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health – or healing – shall spring forth speedily. Like the best bits of advice, it comes in the form of a promise not a threat. The writer is talking about fasting, and we think of fasting as doing without food, a Lenten discipline we’ve planned, perhaps, a diet plan, or a bargaining position with God. But, no. For our perceptive forbears, it is through fasting that we learn properly what it means to desire what we need. Fasting takes us where we don’t want to go, beyond our own strength, to a place of weakness, like Paul in today’s epistle, where we are no longer in control of everything that happens to us. This has a social dimension, because we learn what it’s like to be the vulnerable one, the hungry, the afflicted, the oppressed – which can also be translated as those who are bruised, knocked about. Religion becomes true religion when it is no longer about ourselves, but about sharing our bread with the hungry. Our hearts go out to others, and we might do something practical about it. This response to the unfairness of life is the surest proof we shall get of God’s existence, for God works through us. And that is not the only glory to be seen. Thine health – or healing – shall spring forth speedily. We are healed, because the wound of our separation from others and from God has been healed by fasting – or practising our religion – in the proper way, as God has willed it, the fast which God has chosen, as it says in Isaiah. The fast is the same as the Dark Night, it is a time of healing. It is through our inner healing that we are able to change the world. It is the confidence of this passage that gets to me, and we can be confident too. The Lord shall guide you continually and satisfy your soul – your desire – in drought… You shall be like a watered garden.. your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt. Then shall your light break forth like the dawn. I wonder, in an unscholarly way, whether this is what Jesus meant when he says “Let your light so shine before others that they see your good works and give glory to God.” It sounds like an invitation to show off. But it is the light of which we are not conscious that shines, God’s light within us, and however dark your night may be, there will be others who see in you new life and hope, because they see that God is with you and is liberating you.
Anyway I’m going to withdraw my suggestion that God makes things easier and clearer. Easy religion, over which I have control, is of no use to me and none to God. Actually Christian faith is neither difficult nor complicated, but it is an intricate mystery, joining up all the strands of my life with the lives of all others, past, present and future, into the divine life of Christ in the present, which is love. To get to that point I have to give up an obsessive control of my life, and embrace an openness to what God brings me each day. We are to be content with our desire for that love, because it is all we need. You are the Light of the World. The light that shines in our darkness, the light that we let shine before others, the light that breaks forth in the morning in Isaiah, is Love itself, drawing us to the gate of heaven.
Some of the ideas in this sermon are explored in depth by Gerald G. May (author of Addiction and Grace) in his book The Dark Night of the Soul (2003).