16th Sunday after Trinity 2020

Brian Reader

The word of the LORD came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die. Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live.

Ezekiel 18:1-4. 25-end

When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

Matthew 21:23-32

Some of us thought that we might be back in Church by now, but we will have to wait a little bit longer.

While we were in lockdown I celebrated my twenty five years as a Reader, and I now wonder if I will ever preach again as my licence to preach from the Bishop runs out in October. I wonder if the Bishop gives Covid extensions to Reader Licences like Road Tax and MOTs!?

This Sunday is the Sixteenth after Trinity, and as Veronica reminded me, we are also in the period of Michaelmas, or the Feast of Michael and All Angels, which is celebrated on the 29th of September. As it falls near the equinox, the day is associated with the beginning of autumn and the shortening of days; in England it is one of the “quarter days”. It used to be said that harvest had to be completed by Michaelmas, almost like the marking of the end of the productive season and the beginning of the new cycle of farming. It was the time at which new servants were hired or land was exchanged and debts were paid. This is how it came to be for Michaelmas to be the time for electing magistrates and also the beginning of legal and university terms.

Victory of St. Michael by Raphael

St Michael is one of the principal angelic warriors, protector against the dark of the night and the Archangel who fought against Satan and his evil angels. As Michaelmas is the time that the darker nights and colder days begin – the edge into winter – the celebration of Michaelmas is associated with encouraging protection during these dark months. It was believed that negative forces were stronger in darkness and so families would require stronger defences during the later months of the year. 

Traditionally, in the British Isles, a well fattened goose, fed on the stubble from the fields after the harvest, is eaten to protect against financial need in the family for the next year; and as the saying goes:
“Eat a goose on Michaelmas Day,
Want not for money all the year”.
So the day was also known as “Goose Day” and goose fairs were held.

In today’s OT reading we heard how Ezekiel was accusing the Israelites of saying that ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’’ Some have complained that the Covid virus has been sent by God as a punishment but this is not true. What were the Israelites complaining about? The prophet Ezekiel was speaking to the exiles in Babylon, sometime after 600 BC. As you can imagine, the Israelites were suffering in exile and they felt that it was not their fault. The law of Moses had said that God often punishes children for the sins of their fathers, and their prophets had often told them that the whole nation had to suffer because of the sins of a few. As a result, the Israelites were now complaining that God was not fair.

Last week we heard that Macclesfield Football Club had failed which is sad for the town. Football Clubs act as a focus and help communities to stick together. Now that fans are not allowed in to see the matches footballers are kept together as a bubble, they act almost like a tribe, all for one and one for all. That was how it was with the Israelites before the exile; they had a group or family identity, but no individual identity.

Ezekiel says that personal responsibility is just as real as national and family responsibility. At the end of the day, or your life, each of us is responsible to God for our own lives.

It is true that whole nations suffer because of the follies of their leaders, and often whole families are scarred by the sins of one member, yet God is just and will reward each of us for our own behaviour. “The soul who sins is the one who will die”

Today we hear a lot about freedom and choice, but freedom and choice also brings with it responsibility. Each of us has to be responsible for our own actions. We, like the Israelites, can try to hide behind the group sometimes. We blame our sin or our wrong doing on our upbringing, our environment, or our friends. You hear the excuses – ‘I never had a chance’; ‘It’s what everybody’s doing’; ‘I got into bad company’; or to use modern jargon,‘ I was influenced by peer group pressure’. As if this was any excuse. What rubbish; we all have free choice. The message of this passage is that we cannot side-step our own responsibility for our own behaviour.

The second half of the reading brings hope. What if a person wants to change? Ezekiel makes it very clear that if a man turns his back on his old bad way of life, God is waiting to forgive him, because God actually hates punishing the guilty. God is forgiving; He is not unjust. On the other hand, if a good man turns to a life of sin he can’t get by on his previous good record. God will judge him along with his new sin. The chapter ends with an urge to action. Repent. Turn away from the past. It also brings us to the core of the matter: You need a new heart and a new spirit.

And this brings us very much to our Gospel reading. Here Jesus is asking his questioners “John’s baptism (including the message he was proclaiming) – where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?” Jesus often asked questions, sometimes they were rhetorical, but this wasn’t meant to be rhetorical, it was a simple question.  The scribes and the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus by asking, “By what authority are you doing these things?” “And who gave you this authority?”

The Pharisees Question Jesus – James Tissot

And Jesus quite rightly assumed that if they didn’t know where the message of John came from, then they would not be willing to accept that he too came from God the Father, who gave him the authority to do all things. It is interesting to read how the religious leaders of the day squirmed to find – not the truth – but an answer which would not leave them open to attack! “If we say, ‘From heaven’, he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men’ – we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”   What a fudge.  

Do we answer like that if we are asked about our faith or where we spend our time when we come to Church?  Are we prepared to tell the truth and not care what our friends may think of us? Those of the house of Israel in the time of Ezekiel knew the commandments that God had given them, they knew right from wrong. Regrettably, today, those about us do not seem to know what is right and what is wrong. Christian teaching is no longer the norm.

It is as if we are standing on, or knew where the firm ground was, while others floundered about in a quicksand which was gradually swallowing them up.    Two things come from that, we must not follow them into the quicksand or we too will be swallowed up and die, but we must make every attempt to rescue them. We can point to the firm ground where God’s love can be found, we can try to get them to turn around, because that is what repent means, to turn towards Christ and the safety and forgiveness he offers to all. And we can also throw them a lifeline, we can tell them about our strong faith to help them come to Christ.

“Oh! I couldn’t do that,” I hear some of you cry, “my faith is very personal.”  Or is that another fudge. Do we mean our faith is not very strong? I’m not sure if it would stand up to the hurly-burly of challenge or close questioning. Don’t be ashamed of that, because I was like that before I started studying to be a Reader. Like most people I had not really given my Christian life much thought since the time of my confirmation. My reading of the Bible was, I am ashamed to say, at best spasmodic and then very perfunctory. In plain words – I didn’t read my Bible much at all. I was prepared to say I was a Christian but I was not really prepared to have others question my faith or to tell them convincingly who Jesus was and why it was necessary for Him to come into the world and die for me on the Cross.

But you know there is an easy way to learn more about your faith.  Get to know your Bible. When you can, go to Church where a portion of scripture is read at every service, and read the Bible on your own. Today there are many good translations and commentaries. If asked, I would say start with the ‘….. for Everyone’ series by Bishop Tom Wright, who has written an easy to read and understand commentary for every book of the New Testament. Don’t continue to fudge and hedge.

Give Jesus another chance.

Heavenly Father,
we know that you have made us for yourself,
And that our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you;
help us to learn more about our faith,
so that we may share your love and your joyous Gospel with those who as yet do not know you.
We ask this in the name of your Son,
our Lord Jesus Christ. 
AMEN.

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