Living for the Kingdom
Isaiah 58: 1-11. Matthew 5: 13-20.
We have been looking at the Kingdom of God.
How it is a choice about living in hope or living in fear.
Not about being an add-on burden that we have to try to cram into our lives, but about being the central part of our lives that helps us live life to the fullest.
This week I want to talk about the duties that we have.
And once again I want to talk about our attitude.
Because faith is so much more a thing of the heart than just what we do.
If we get the attitude right, then the things that we do flow from that so easily.
If we have a generous, forgiving heart, then it is easy to be a generous forgiving person.
If we have a really unforgiving and ungenerous heart, a mean spirited and grudging heart, then we find it really hard to be a forgiving person.
In simple things.
When my children are needing a loan, or just want money.
Who do you think they go to?
Do they go to the father who has a small saving ISA, or mum who never has any money?
They go to mum.
The reason they go to mum is that mum is a very generous caring person who would never question why they want money. If mum has money it is useless, just bits of paper and metal, no good unless you use it. So if her children need it and she has it, then that’s what it is there for. That’s WHY she has no money.
Whereas the reason dad has money in the first place is that he doesn’t waste it on his children.
The interesting question that then flows from that is, which of us is the better parent?
That’s why God is getting so annoyed in the first passage today.
The object of faith is to create a relationship with God, a relationship that brings assurance and hope and joy and increased love and patience and tolerance within us.
Our life should be a thing of beauty.
And with a true relationship with God it will grow towards that.
So the duties of faith,
the things we do to grow our faith and develop our relationship with God,
should be things that increase our love and patience and hope and joy.
But these duties in the Israelites were doing the exact opposite.
Fasting for the Israelites was supposed to concentrate the mind. Instead of just thinking about themselves and their own problems, it was supposed to make them think above themselves.
Fasting would remind them that once they had nothing, and they have so much more than nothing now.
Fasting would remind them that others do have nothing.
Maybe for the first time in a while they would remember that there are those in the world that had so much less than they did,
that the lives of others were so much more of a struggle than their life was,
and now being aware of those other lives, they would be more open to helping them.
Fasting would then be a reason for rejoicing in those that fasted, it reminded them of how God had been good to them.
And also a reason for rejoicing in the lives of those others that were helped by those who were fasting.
Fasting was then good for the individuals and the community.
But somehow that had all been reversed.
Those that were fasting didn’t really want to fast, they begrudged the fast. They resented God for making them fast. They felt tired and cranky. And all their workers knew it because they took it out on them.
Instead of the fast giving a sense of rejoicing, the fast became a sense of duty, even a sense of resentment. People went about believing that God owed them, because they had done their fast.
I remember reading this children’s prayer that summed it all up…
‘Dear God, O.K. I kept my half of the deal, where’s the bike? Bert.’
And we all know people like that.
In marriages they are the spouse that does what they have to do, but they do it reminding you always that now you owe them. They come out with phrases like,
‘After all I have done for you…’
‘Why is it always me that…’
In relationships they are the friend that will help you, but you always feel there is a cost to it.
But it shouldn’t be that way.
And if there is love in the heart and compassion in the heart then it rarely is.
I have a spouse and she always does the decorating.
The thing is, Roseanna never resents decorating, never sees it as a duty.
How can that be you ask yourself?
One…she loves decorating.
Two…the last time I decorated we lost four walls, two ceilings and a floor. It cost the church over £5000 to repair the damage.
I’ll tell you what Roseanna never does, she never does the baking.
There is not one grain of home-made bread that has ever been made in the manse that started from Roseanna’s fingers.
If Roseanna baked it wouldn’t be a pretty sight.
If I forced Roseanna to do the baking it wouldn’t look like bread, taste like, bread, and everyone would comment on how bad it was, and Roseanna would not only hate it, she would resent that she had to do it.
However I love baking, and I happen to be pretty decent at it.
I don’t look at it as a duty or a chore.
So how do we get our religious duties to stop being burdens? How do we get them to be things that we love doing?
I would want to suggest a few things.
The first thing is seeing that we are making a difference.
I suspect that sometimes what gets us down and deflates the heart is the feeling that what we do is a waste of time.
That the efforts we make don’t make a difference in the world.
And in our second passage today is a message of hope when we feel that.
Jesus compares what we do as small, but so important.
Like salt, you don’t add a lot of salt to a meal, but if you add a little salt it changes the flavour of the whole meal.
Or light, the source of light can be so small, a candle flame, a light bulb, and yet the light of that small source can give light to the whole room, making it a safe place.
To me, this is a special message of hope, especially to volunteers…guild leaders, those that work with youth organisations. Often we can feel that our work is like hitting our head off a brick wall. Why are we putting in so much effort and the results are so small? But often we don’t see the help we give others. The encouragement of those that come to our organisations and get purpose out of the routine of meeting up with friends, finding hope.
One of the greatest scourges of modern society is loneliness.
Suicide is one of the greatest killers in our society, and the feelings of meaninglessness, of feeling that our lives have no purpose, that we are just numbers to be ignored, a burden on society…
are riff in our world. And it all stems from isolation and loneliness.
And in our organisations, in the lives that we live, we do the one thing that attacks loneliness, we create community. Never underestimate how important the work that we do is.
The other thing I think helps is seeing that we are on a journey. And that each thing we do in our faith is getting us closer to being the person we want to be.
Each mistake is a not a disaster, it is a new learning.
Each step we take forward, is a step with purpose.
I do cross stitch. I have so many of these things now.
Here is an example of one of the ones I finished last year.
There is one stitch that I found really hard, can you guess which one it was?
Or can you guess where that stitch was?
The truth is I couldn’t tell you where that stitch was, couldn’t tell you which colour it was.
But I know which one was the hardest one, the first one.
Just before I did the first stitch I was wondering if I could be bothered with it.
Didn’t really like the pattern because it was in Chinese.
The threads weren’t that great of a quality.
I knew that with my timetable it would take at least six months to complete this, and while I was doing that then I couldn’t do another one.
And did I really want that commitment?
Then my daughter said that she liked it and could I make it.
So then I had a purpose.
Then I knew that every stitch that was done was one closer to completion.
I think every moment that we spend with God,
no matter if it is helping others, or if it is in quiet solitude in prayer,
whether it is reading scripture and being inspired to be better,
whether it is fasting so we can concentrate on something different,
if it is mediating on a rock and wondering how our faith needs a strong foundation, or meditating on a candle flame and wondering how we could shine out more, whether it is talking to our neighbour and asking them how they are getting or, or giving a silent prayer before we eat a meal…every moment that we spend with God, is a moment that gets us closer to being the people that we would want to be.
That makes every moment worth it, every moment a source of hope.
During this week I will be letting a team of people play about with the arteries of my heart.
I am letting them do that because I know I can be better than I am now, and want to be better than I am now.
The truth is I don’t find it all that scary or frightening.
Because for a long time now I have been letting God play about far more seriously with my heart.
Sometimes I have resisted, sometimes I have fought, sometimes I have sulked.
But in the end I have always given in, because the truth is I know I want to be better than I am, and the start of the journey, the hardest part of that journey, is always the first step.
And it starts with the decision that I know I can be better,
and I know I can be better if I take the first step with God.