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Readings: 4th Sunday before Lent

31 January 2014


4th Sunday before Lent

Proper 1: Isaiah 58, 1-9a [9b-12]; 1 Corinthians 2.1-12 [13-end]; Matthew 5.13-20

O God, you know us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers, that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright: grant to us such strength and protection as may support us in all dangers and carry us through all temptations; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

THERE are challenging words for us this week. Isaiah, speaking at a time when Israel looking forward to deliverance from exile in Babylon, interrupted his messages of hope with stark warnings that, for the promise of God's blessing (v.6ff) to be fulfilled, they should live in a way that embodied for others the blessing that they themselves wanted: loosing bonds of injustice, and freeing the oppressed, so that all creation could experience light rising in the darkness. God's good purposes are for the whole world. The chosen people are agents, not just recipients, of blessing (Genesis 12.3, 18.18, 22.18).

In this context, we hear Jesus, far from abolishing the law, announce that his disciples should keep it more fully than the Pharisees, who prided themselves on their superior observance of it. Matthew does not say that Gentiles must become Jews to do this - a hot issue for the Early Church - he simply assumed that all Christians embodied the weighty matters of the law in their lives (Matthew 23.23).

Since his baptism, Jesus had proclaimed that the Kingdom of heaven had come near. Now he linked this with righteousness: it is for those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake (Matthew 5.10); to enter it, their righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, and they must do the will of his Father (Matthew 7.21).

The Kingdom of heaven, here among them now, is not something for the future, as the Pharisees taught. So they must go and live accordingly, exploring and embodying what the law looks like when lived not as legal requirement, but as a response to being in a world of God's grace and righteousness.

To express the demands of the law as a manifestation of grace, they must be able to envisage it that way, and Jesus gave two practical illustrations. This way of thinking makes disciples salt and light in the world. Potentially dangerous on its own, salt is always a means to enhancing something else. It brings out flavour, preserves, seals covenants (Numbers 18.19), and is sprinkled on sacrifices (Leviticus 2.13). Jesus's followers are to enhance God's world, bringing the peace and justice that Isaiah envisaged.

Salt came from deposits near the Dear Sea, which also contained gypsum. The two looked similar, and gypsum, used inadvertently, was described as salt that had lost its flavour. "Lost its flavour" could also mean "become foolish". Fools do not know God (Psalm 14.1), or recognise God's Kingdom when it comes, thus bringing judgement on themselves.

Salt that has lost its flavour is trampled underfoot, an image of God's judgement (Isaiah 14.19, 25), and Matthew ends his Gospel with several parables of judgement on people who fail to embody God's Kingdom (Matthew 7.23, 24.45-25.46). Being salt carries responsibilities.

The disciples are also light, not just in, but - more powerfully - of the world; light that in Genesis 1.3-4 allowed the world to be seen, and order to come out of chaos. Again, Isaiah looked forward to this (Isaiah 42.6), envisaging Israel as a light to the nations.

When I lived in a religious community in a run-down American town, each Advent and Christmas we put electric candles in our windows, creating a block of light at a bend in the dark road to the town centre.

A former resident told us that, for years, painful memories of past prosperity prevented her from going back, but one Advent, she had no choice, and, seeing the lights, had wept: "They said to me, 'There is hope: it will be all right.'" Years later, amid the deprivation, tenacious light-bearing by Christians working with others for economic and social recovery is bearing seeds of hope.

Like other prophets, Isaiah condemned people who oppressed their employees, quarrelled, and ignored the needy. In doing so, they made fasting into a personal pious practice, and lost the wider vision of being the world's salt and light, bringing wholeness to all God's world. As Isaiah describes, God's fast is very practical, and can start small.

Michael Ramsey wrote: "Openness to heaven is necessary for a Christian. . . [It] is realised . . . in every act of selflessness, humility or compassion; for such acts are already anticipations of heaven in the here and now" (The Gospel and the Catholic Church, 1936).

How much time, effort, and money have we given to this openness to heaven in the past year? Perhaps there is a Lenten discipline waiting to be discovered here.


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