3rd Sunday before Lent – 5th February 2023 – Rev Alison Way
Isaiah 58:1-9a, Matthew 5:13-20
I need to confess that I do find the long dark months of winter a bit of a struggle. To be honest at times it feels like I would be best at hibernating (though this is clearly not an option). The anticipation and hope built into Advent and then Christmas carry us through the early days of the winter season, and we do during this time turn the corner on the hours of natural daylight just before Christmas, when we pass the winter solstice. There is something about cold and gray days which can characterise January and February, where it can be hard to get going and get on with the activities of the day. Even if it is cold, on a sunny bright day the world feels a better place. As the days lengthen and time moves on we begin to see hints of spring in snowdrops or the other spring bulbs beginning to show signs of new life. Just near me where I live in Wincanton is a road that is awash with daffodils around the turn of the new year (the first year I saw this I was amazed! But it is definitely an annual event), There are signs in Pen Selwood churchyard of the coming of the dazzling daffodil display popping up through the ground (though not the flowers just yet).
As Penny was talking about last week, light is a precious commodity, and can bring us so much joy and wonder as we look around us bathed in sunlight. We are more conscious of this when we are scrabbling around without enough light (like when we did evensong without all the lights working a few months ago) or are thrown unexpectedly into a power cut in the evening hours. We can have too little light, we can also have too much – the burning power of the sun (now we have thinned the ozone layer a little) on our skins or having too much ‘blue’ light from our devices, televisions, phones and tablets.
Jesus lived in simpler times than we do and he asked his followers like us to be like him as the light of the world. Light is part of the world outside of us, and this is asking us to live lives making our Christian discipleship obvious and part of what people really see. The passage from Isaiah today draws into what this looks like when it has gone a bit wrong. The people’s perception of their relationship with God was based on all the wrong things. They were keen on drawing near to God, but framed this in terms of their religious practices, such as fasting and praying.
The prophet pointed out that their day-to-day behaviour was a big lie in relation to their faith – they wanted ‘righteous judgements’ from God but were unwilling to act righteously or lovingly themselves. They oppressed their workers and ignored the poor and the hungry. They pointed the finger and spoke evil of others. Their extravagant, outward, one-off gestures did nothing to repair the injustice of their everyday lives. Towards the end it says The light that shall break forth like the dawn would only arise when they got rid of their acts of oppression and fed the hungry.
Jesus is addressing this same point towards the end of our gospel this morning. The Scribes and Pharisees were the ones that were supposed to be the most religious, holy and righteous in his day. But they were high on piety and religious behaviours but low on compassion, kindness to others and love. He urges his followers then and us to let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
So that is Jesus addressing our outer world – what people see in how we live.
Let’s now turn our thoughts to the first analogy Jesus used about us being the salt of the earth. This has a much greater focus on our inner world. Salt describes something that happens internally or within a certain substance – it is immediately identifiable by taste. Light is something that happens externally – outside in the landscape or filling a space.
Perhaps Jesus chose these metaphors to make sure that both the inside and outside of life – our interior world of thought, our exterior world of objects and actions – are both covered in our understanding of discipleship. That discipleship is a whole life thing. Not just about what we do or what we think, but both what we think and what we do! We do need to be careful too about what we think, as this can so govern our behaviours. Spending time with God each day in reading the Bible and praying, can really help us reflect on what is on our minds. My experience of this is it is frequent that my morning Bible study is often very pertinent to what is happening that day, and gives me food for thought that will help me be more like Jesus, and less driven by my own devices and desires.
Obviously whole life discipleship (thinking and acting) makes it all the more challenging. Perhaps we have a chance with the weeks of Lent to work on one or other of these things. Perhaps, if we are strong on action and activity, we should try to spend more time in quiet contemplation, bible study and prayer. Perhaps, if we are strong in our prayer lives, we should try to do something more upfront and activity based to help us grow. Whatever we decide about this Lent, I urge you to make sure it is something that brings you closer to God.
In our preaching/teaching and learning opportunities over Lent we are going to be thinking about 2 different strands of Christian Discipleship. In Church we will be thinking about the fruit of the spirit, how God can and does work in us and develop fruit in us. St Paul says in the letter to the Galatians this – By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We will be thinking about what these things are and how we can grow in all these different things over the weeks of Lent and Holy Week in our worship – starting with thinking about self-control on Ash Wednesday and finishing with joy on Easter Day.
With Churches Together in Wincanton we will be using this material written by Bishop Emma Ineson (Bishop to the Archbishops and soon to be Bishop of Kensington) called Dust and Glory. There are lots of ways into this online, via an app, via the daily hope line or by purchasing this booklet from Penny Ashton. It provides daily reflections for Lent on the theme of a Lent journey of faith, failure and forgiveness. It acknowledges how much of a mess we can make of our every day lives (in relation to today’s reading when we aren’t salty and don’t bring light to things). The Archbishops of Canterbury and York say about it – Dust and Glory encourages us to take a fresh look at frustrations and failings that every day brings and, rather than pretending to always avoid them, seek to learn from them and grow closer to God through them.
So much to think about today about our discipleship – I am going to end with a prayer of thanksgiving and challenge on being the light in the world, with a salty inner life!
Father God, thank you that you have prepared for us far more than we can ever hope, believe or imagine; no eye, no ear, no heart can conceive what you have prepared for those who love you. Thank you that you restore us and transform us to become the people you have called us to be. Thank you that you are the light of the world. Thank you that you are the salt of the earth. Thank you that in you we can be salt and light too, that we can go out and revitalise our communities, bringing hope and renewal to our families, our friends, our neighbours and our churches. Amen.
References Prayer © from rootsontheweb.com – reproduced with permission, The Revised Standard Version of the Bible © 1989 (1995), Dust and Glory – A lent journey of faith, failure and forgiveness – Bishop Emma Ineson.