Sunday before Lent Year A, 2005
God’s Invitation – Your Decision: (1) – Service or Self?
Church links: Alsop Fenny Bentley Parwich Thorpe Tissington
Sermons page - general
Today’s sermon is the first in a series – a series of six sermons which will extend over the next six months. The title of the course, which unites all six sermons, is “God’s Invitation – Your Decision”. My vicar’s letter in the magazine, over this period, will be on the same theme. The sermons and vicar’s letters will all be about growing and deepening in our faith; learning more about the essence, the core truths of the Christian message. But they will be about more than just learning. For at the heart of the Gospel is the belief that God is calling each one of us to respond to his invitation to serve him and our neighbour. Most of us, indeed all of us, I suspect, are acutely aware of the ways in which our faith is inadequate – which is a common condition. But it’s actually a more healthy condition than if we believe that our faith is fine, that there’s nothing more that we need to do in our life as Christians.
These sermons will also serve as an introduction to the Christian faith, and in them I will cover some of the essential aspects of Christianity. So if you know anyone who might be interested, please let them know and encourage them to come – or bring them along.
The title of today’s sermon is “Service or Self”. Every so often we read in the papers of a new survey which shows how many people believe in God, and how many don’t. If we go back to the time of Jesus, we tend to forget that people took belief in God for granted (as a modern comparison, it’s the same in India – just about everyone belongs to one religion or another, and belief in God is taken for granted). Jesus, then, didn’t have to spend any time on trying to persuade people to believe in God. Virtually all his teaching was about how people should live their lives.
What Jesus found, among the people of his time, was not religious apathy, or a failure to worship God. Religion dominated the life of the Jewish people – the power of the Temple in Jerusalem was all-pervasive, not just in the religious field, but also in the legal and political arenas. What Jesus homed in on, however, was the extent to which the ancient teachings of the Scriptures were not being reflected in the way many people lived their lives. He found a lack of real faith in God – people knew how to conform to the outward appearances which religion required, but it was superficial. He also found – and strongly criticised – hypocrisy: people who claimed to be good people in the eyes of God whose behaviour was very different. He rebuked those who were proud and self-satisfied – qualities which were not flagrantly evil, but subtly corrosive of one’s character. Also hardness of heart – in other words, a lack of compassion, as seen in the priest and the Levite who walked by on the other side when a man had been robbed and beaten, leaving it to the man from Samaria to rescue him. Jesus also tried to get people to see the perils of keeping too much for oneself, the dangers of acquisitiveness, which led people to become mean and unable to be generous.
Don’t all these arrows of rebuke still strike home today? For they go to the heart of how we should live our lives, of how we should relate to other people. In other words: do we put ourselves first, and our own desire to feel good, content, secure? or are we able to make the well-being of others as important as our own well-being? Those timeless words, “Love your neighbour as yourself” sum it up – words which are deceptively simple to say, but vexingly difficult to put into practice (especially when your neighbour is someone you do not like).
Jesus, in another one of his memorable phrases, said that the person who would save his life will lose it, while the one who was ready to lose his life for my sake, as he said, would save it. Uncomfortable and disturbing words: what do they really mean? They are to do with not seeking one’s own advantage at all times; not being driven by a desire to advance oneself at the expense of others; making sacrifices for others; being generous - giving abundantly of the things one has to give, whether these be time, money, love, or compassion.
I’ve called this sermon “Service or Self”. As I wrote those words I mistyped them, and saw the words “Service OF Self” come up on the screen instead. Maybe that was God’s way of pointing out that that is what Jesus so often saw in people – lives devoted to the service of self, and not to the service of others. Remember how one of his parting messages, before going to his death on the cross, was that of the servant – indeed the slave – who washed the feet of others. “If I, then, your Lord and Master”, he said, “have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet” (John 13.14).
Of course by dying on the cross Jesus went on to give everything he had to the world, even at the cost of his own life - becoming man for our sake so that we might know how to love and serve God and our neighbour.
Loving our neighbour; leading lives based on service rather than self: this is not a recipe for a grim discarding of all that is joyful or rewarding. On the contrary: there seems to be a mysterious spiritual law according to which when we give of ourselves to others, we receive things back – not necessarily as we would expect them, not even perhaps when we expect them. But the more we live by faith, not protecting ourselves too much in the interests of being secure, taking risks for one another and for God – blessing comes back to us, we feel connected with other people in a way that is impossible if we just cocoon ourselves with self-preoccupation. But of course this shouldn’t be the reason we serve others – Jesus once said words to the effect that we should do it simply because that is what God wants of us, as a servant just doing what he should do.
What I have said today, which simply restates the teachings of Christ, applies at whatever stage in our life we may be. If we are young – they should help us to decide upon the path we would like our life to take. If we are older: they might help us to recognise the value of even the most unseen and unglamorous forms of service – for it’s never too late to turn afresh to God, and to rediscover his call to each one of us. For his invitation to us is clear: will it be “service”or will it be “self”?
What will your decision be?