s149o00 Somerton Park 10/12/2000 Advent 2
"It is vain to serve God ..." Malachi 3.14
The first thing that struck me today about the words of the gospel is that the whole of the rest of history probably tells us nothing more about "Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene". There is probably no other record of their names or even the districts over which they ruled. It is an accident of history that their names and constituencies should be remembered for all time.
The second thing that I found, rather to my chagrin, after I had virtually finished the sermon for today, was to find that a reference in "A Prayer Book for Australia" for the readings for today was wrong! The gospel reading is Luke 3:1-6, not 3:1-16. In the normal course of events this wouldn't matter much, except that the sermon I had just finished preparing for today were some thoughts on the second part of the gospel reading along with the old testament lesson from Malachi. The trouble is that if I left my words for next week, the old testament lesson for then is from Zephaniah! So I had to extract the words I have to say about Malachi for today and leave the words about John the Baptist till next week. The best laid plans of mice and men :-) And of course if my words were just to the congregation here at St Philip's I could probably 'fudged' my way around the mistake. However I can hardly do that to my internet congregation! So the week I prepared this was an interesting week. I must admit it took some days to revisit today's sermon and bring it to completion.
Malachi says: "I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts." (Malachi 3:5) I rather think the real sorcerers and the adulterers are not those who wear funny hats and make little explosions using "magic" powder going "poof", caricatured best I suppose by Parker's delightful cartoon character "the Wizard of Id", or those whose marriages have failed ... The real sorcerers and adulterers are those we really have to fear - they are precisely those who practice the art of salvation only for the initiated and the rich, the racially and ethnically pure, the orthodox and the "normal" - and turn away from God's eternal and especial care for the widow, the orphan and the alien ... the other. I do not claim to know anything about the Aramaic or the Hebrew language, but I am sure that the punctuation is indeed quite a matter of conjecture.
I was struck by those words in Malachi: "You have said, "It is vain to serve God. What do we profit by keeping his command or by going about as mourners before the LORD of hosts?"" (Malachi 3:14) Of course if it means how do we as individuals profit, then our religion is indeed in vain. If our faith is only self serving then God has nothing to do with it. But there is no doubt in my mind that humanity in general (and of course, then eventually by implication each and every member of humanity) does benefit as individuals do consider the other. Humanity in general will benefit as we do not fight across racial, ethnic, religious or moral divides. One has only to turn on the television news to see the incredible suffering that humanity inflicts on others, in the name of race, ethnicity, religion, or morality. God does care for humanity far too much to spend his (or her) existence counting up the number of Christians in the world like some giant proverbial scrooge, saying to whoever might possibly be listening: "O what a good God am I, I've got 200 million, 365 thousand and 21 followers today - I wonder how we can get a few more tomorrow! Or looking down the divine nose and threatening punishment to the members of the Church if they are not evangelical enough if their congregations aren't getting bigger!
So our faith is not something one can get initiated into, because that by very definition, implies there is someone outside the love of God, someone for whom Jesus didn't die. That of course is a nonsense. There is no one beyond the love of God, there is no one for whom Jesus hasn't already died and risen. The words of the Lord through Malachi echo to this day: "I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished." (Malachi 3:6). How can we ever be initiated into something which is ever drawing us outwards? I shall be speaking more about Christian initiation next Sunday.
So the reference in the book, the Revelation to St John the Divine to the 144,000 cannot be a definition of the exact number of inhabitants in heaven, but a symbol of the perfection of those in heaven, that everyone there is expected - that no one has got there "by devious means and foul" - all have come through the death and resurrection of God's only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, because he died and rose again for all - including the orphan, the widow and the alien. Each of these represents those who have lost contact with their heavenly father, their heavenly spouse, and even those who have never been a part of the ancient or the new people of God.
It is again the question whether the one sheep lost from the other 99 is the world that needs to be brought back into the fold of the church, or is the lost sheep really the Church needing to be brought back into the mass of humanity for whom Jesus died. We are so used to the former interpretation - that the world is the one lost sheep, when the sheer volume of numbers should alert us that in all likelihood it is the opposite way around. And of course, if Jesus really was killed by the religious authorities because he sat down and ate with sinners, my conclusion is reinforced.
The confusion over the lesson gives me an opportunity to speak about the place of giving and tithing in the Christian life, which forms a considerable "chunk" of the reading from Malachi. I don't much like talking about money. I want to say that it is a characteristic of those whose religion is based around self satisfaction, that giving to anyone else is always going to be fairly minimal. I have found it a reality of life that those who can afford to give most, give the least and those who can afford to give least give most. It is precisely the same as the laws of the land. The people who take notice of them don't need to and those who should take notice of them don't :-) I have sometimes thought that the push to have a professional stewardship campaign sometimes revolves around the hope of getting someone else to give ... so that the existing members need not give more. Everyone gives in perception of the love of God. However if my premise earlier is true, we must have eyes to see that others too need God's love. We cannot say to God - bless me and I will respond. We need to see that God blesses others too; that humanity in general benefits from the love of God and not just ourselves. Indeed again it is only as the whole of humanity is blessed that individuals receive a blessing, as peoples and nations live in tranquility and justice.
We are indeed blessed here at St Philip's because so many have given faithfully and consistently over many years.
I have always looked at tithing not as the goal to aim for, but the limit which we should not cross. God expects us to spend at least 90% of our earnings on ourselves and on those for whom we have a special care.
The other day,I was thinking about the parable of the person who has a friend come during the night but "whose cupboard is bare" and goes to another friend for help to be able to entertain his guest. It is a wonderful parable, for we are dealing with real people, real friends. This has no message about supporting those whose ministry it is to seek out people in straightened and unfortunate circumstances, or those towards whom such people naturally gravitate. The parable does not call us to be at the beck and call of every charitable worker. We are not called to personally change the world at the expense of our own welfare and the welfare of those in our care.
We have all a primary responsibility to care for ourselves and those who depend on us, and we must spend at least 90% of our income on this. There may be those among us who are in more difficult circumstances and will need to spend more. I know nothing of your incomes or your expenses. Nor, of course, do I know anything about anyone's giving.
And of course why should I, because none of us give that spiritual blessings should be returned to us personally. We give because humanity as a whole benefits from God's blessings.
This is as much true as individuals as it is for denominations, churches, indeed our whole faith. There is no special merit accrued to individuals as individuals are faithful, there is no special merit for denominations or churches as we are faithful. Indeed there is not benefit to Christianity as we are faithful, except as we are faithful in existing ever for the other, that humanity in general will reap the benefit.
The other classic reference to vanity is, of course, from the book Ecclesiastes, where the preachers says: "Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity." (Ecclesiastes 1:2) There are two ways we use the word vain. Firstly we use the word to describe someone over fond of examining their handsomeness in the mirror. "Your so vain, I bet you think this song is about you" sang Carley Simon, how many years ago? And secondly when something is done in vain, it is a waste of time. It will not achieve the desired outcome. So when our focus is on ourselves to the exclusion of others it is simply a waste of time. There is ample evidence that this is what much of the world does, and it remains the cause of so much suffering still. On the other hand that which is done for others is eternal; and the action which is the epitome of examples is the Cross of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Because it was done for others, and for us, it truly is eternal, for which the resurrection is our guarantee.
Malachi reminds us that serving God can be just another form of self serving, and if it is such, it will not achieve the ends for which we hope, and the world will remain a sad and sorry place. We are called to follow Jesus, to live for others, and seek their own good as well as our own. As we do this we will make a difference in society.
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