The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:
s192e04 Sunday 25 19/9/2004
"the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron" 1 Tim 4.2
This is a very graphic allusion in a quite dramatic picture of apostasy. When we think of those opposed to God we think of those who play sport on Sunday mornings rather than come to Church. We think of those who have given up their faith or simply don't care. We lament the passing of the "good old days" when men were men and women were women and everyone knew the difference; and everyone who went to Church went to heaven and everyone who didn't went to hell.
But the author of this letter talks about a prediction that in later times some will renounce their faith, by increased devotion to things spiritual and religious. Rather than the sort of modern liberal tendencies bemoaned by some, precisely the opposite is here described. "Forbidding marriage" and "demanding abstinence" are not things "liberals" would advocate. Even "conservatives" would not go this far.
I am intrigued that I heard some teaching about tithing just before I was to upload this sermon.
People renounce faith by increasing personal devotion and regulation. And this strikes a rather anarchic chord rather like the gospel story for today, where the dishonest steward is commended rather than condemned.
The author of this letter says "the mystery of our religion is great", and do we think that we have got a complete handle on it?
I often think of our consciences as the primary way God informs us. The cartoon characters egged on to do the wrong thing by the little devil hovering overhead, and restrained by the arguments of the little angel pricking our consciences. And inevitably the little devil wins.
But I know only too well in my own life how destructive a rampant conscience can be. How frequently children think that all punishment is just, therefore they must have done something to deserve being treated badly. The more mature adult can see that some ill treatment is entirely undeserved and a product of a sick adult mind.
In an effort to appease our own consciences we try to help others from falling into the same mistake we have. How often do we see on the news on television people warning others not to do what they have done? Perhaps it helps ease the pain.
"I once was blind but now I see". My task in life is now to make others see; whether they like it or not :-)! As a parent I know only too well the desire to try to save my children from making the same mistakes as I did. Just ask our sons about brushing teeth when they were young :-)!
Over the years I have had cause to "kick myself" often enough for stupid things that I have done. There have been times when I have inadvertently hurt someone else, something for which it was not possible to apologise personally, and it has come back to haunt me again and again; causing me many a sleepless night. And we think that this pricking of our conscience is all the work of God. I am beginning to realise that I hate this sort of god.
I am much happier with the God who commends this dishonest steward. I am much happier with the God who is not a debt collector, and in whose debt are each and every person who has ever lived. Debt collectors are not the most welcome of callers at our front door. The god who would want each and every person who has ever lived to live in such fear is a tormenter and the worst devil imaginable.
I am very much happier with a God who has no interest whatsoever in what is my income (before or after tax), or 10% of that figure.
One of the things that I have often had cause to note is the paranoia of those who describe themselves as evangelical with anything that could be described as liberal. And one wonders if those who describe themselves as evangelicals actually think that the message is good news, or not something tainted by a distinct threat, lurking hidden, just waiting to emerge as soon as we do something wrong.
I was delighted when one of my colleagues described the actions of God in some parts of the Old Testament as a bit like that of a petulant child. How true are the words of the psalm: "With the pure you are pure: but with the crooked you show yourself perverse." (Ps 18.28)
And it is here that we find the force of the word "liars". Such people pretend to know the love of God, they speak in God's name all the time; yet they know nothing of the wideness of God's mercy beyond themselves and those who think like them.
I often call the parable of the "Prodigal Son" (though of course that name does not appear anywhere in the Bible) the parable of the prodigal Father. The Father's love overflows with quite reckless unbounding and indiscriminate generosity. He knows the younger son will go off and spend money unwisely. The younger son hasn't got the Father "wrapped around his little finger" as the saying goes. It is the younger son who more accurately reflects the Father's reckless, unbounding and indiscriminate generosity, than the elder son's "penny-pinching" nature.
And finally I reflect on the word "hypocrisy". When we think of hypocrisy we think of people who go to Church but during the week do not live by the principles of their so-called faith. But the hypocrisy described here is somewhat different. It is not that they relax their moral code during the week, but that they live by these strict moral precepts all the week and teach others to do the same.
God is a God of mercy towards all and it is easy to live a life of mercy towards others, each and every day of the week.
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