Where do we go from here?
2 Samuel 12:1-15. Matthew 21: 33-46.
I reckon that at just about this time of year we get the most depressed. I think part of that depression is due to our feelings of failure.
For at about this time of year we start to struggle with our New Year’s resolutions.
At the start of the year we are determined that we are about to change our ways. We are going to be fitter, slimmer better people. And initially we are mega-keen. We are out jogging away or in the gym every day flexing those muscles. Or we are eating only what we should, we are on a great journey to be the weight we always thought we should be.
But as the days go on we struggle more and more. We are feeling tired, fed up, miserable. We can’t be bothered going to the gym and we have a huge workload and we will miss it for just a day...
We are so hungry and just one treat will see us through this patch...
And then we know we have failed and what is the point of carrying on, and it isn't even past January yet? We still have 11 months of the year to go and we are already failing to be the person we wanted to be.
And what is worse we may even be thinking about this with our spiritual lives. This is the year we are going to pray more, or be more compassionate, or more loving, or more generous. And we find ourselves angry at someone, or shouting at someone because they are being an idiot, or we find ourselves dismissing someone just because they are getting under our skin. And we are thinking of ourselves, ‘How can I be a Christian when I am such a failure at being a Christian?’
For those that feel that way I bring you some hope, though you may not have initially got it from the readings today.
Both readings seem to condemn people who have failed.
In the first king David has had an affair and Nathan has come to condemn him.
In the second the Scribes and the Pharisees are being condemned for not bearing the fruit of the Spirit that inspires others to follow the way of God.
But let me give you hope.
You may have noticed a common theme in the readings.
In both readings it isn't the storyteller that comes to the conclusion; it is the people they are talking to.
With Nathan he tells the story of the poor man and his lamb and asks David what should happen to the man who stole the sheep.
With Jesus he asks the Pharisees and the scribes what the owner will do when he returns from his journey.
And when they reply then the storyteller reflects it back to them.
David, you are that man.
The Scribes and the Pharisees, you are those tenants.
And that gives me hope.
Let me tell you why.
I don't know how many times I have read that second passage about the tenants and the vineyard. But I do know that when I read it I had an image in my head of what was happening.
The Scribes and the Pharisees were attacking Jesus’ ministry. And Jesus tells this story as an act of condemnation. He puts them in their place. He tells them that they are destined to lose everything. They are going to get what they deserve.
And that seems fine.
In fact the material we are using kind of implies that is what is happening.
But then there is a twist in the tail.
For the material we are using finishes this way...
‘This ties the story into the strand of prophetic tradition which emphasises God’s concern with actions over words, justice over religious practice (see Amos 5:21-24). It also raises a question as to whether the new tenants of the vineyard—ourselves as Christians—are in danger of being evicted and replaced if we stop bearing spiritual fruits...’
(Spill the Beans p84 Issue 29)
That is a good point. If those Scribes and Pharisees are being attacked by Jesus then maybe that is what Jesus is thinking about us...
Now I know that probably doesn't sound hopeful yet.
But here’s the hopeful bit.
What if I was wrong?
What if I have misunderstood what Jesus is doing to the Scribes and the Pharisees?
Think about this...
What is Nathan’s motivation in the first reading?
Nathan is a prophet of God. He has a message to give to King David that what David has done to Bathsheba and Uriah is wrong.
But David is a king at a time when kings had the power of life and death.
You couldn't question a king, you couldn't be smarter than a king and you couldn't doubt a king; to do so was to bring a death penalty on yourself.
Nathan knows that if he goes in there all guns blazing and accusing David of doing wrong then David will just kill him.
So Nathan tells a story. And lets David come up with the answer. What does the king think should happen to the man who has stolen the poor man’s lamb?
And the king, who cannot be questioned or doubted gives his verdict, not realising it is a verdict on himself.
Now that is all very clever, but here is the really important question, ‘What was Nathan’s motivation, what was God's motivation?’
Because if Nathan and God just wanted David to suffer and to lose everything then all they had to do...was nothing.
If they did nothing then David would have gone into a spiral of being more and more selfish,
doing what he wanted more and more because he could get away with it,
which would have isolated him more and more from people he could trust,
which would have left him more and more defenceless against those plotting against him,
until someone more ruthless came along to take the crown from him.
If God’s, and Nathan’s, objective was for David to be utterly and completely destroyed and left with nothing but his own damnation then they didn't need to do anything at all. All they needed to do was leave David to his own devices.
The object of what Nathan and God did, was for David to see the road he was on and see that he needed to change his ways.
God cared enough not to let David stay on the road he was on.
There would still be pain, their would still be consequences to his actions, but there would still be hope.
And that is our message of hope.
Because if Jesus is using the same technique here with the Scribes and the Pharisees then it is because he has the same motivation.
Jesus sees that the ways of the Scribes and the Pharisees are leading them further and further away from God. And if they carry on down that road it will lead to nowhere good.
But Jesus also knows that they are defensive, not willing to listen, they are scared that what they do isn’t in the name of God but they want to save face so they are justifying everything that they do.
So Jesus tells them a story and lets them come to their own conclusions. And he tells them that story in the hope that they see for themselves that they need to see the road that they are on and change their ways. He does that because he cares.
I think that is still the case today.
I think God still cares enough about us that he hopes we will change our ways.
I also think that the biggest flaw that most of us have is the same flaw of the Pharisees...that we are trying too hard.
We think that being right with God is about DOING things; reading the Bible, praying, doing good deeds, even going to church. If we do those things and do a lot of those things then we will be right with God and everything will be fine.
Only we don't feel fine, we don’t feel secure, we don't feel at peace.
So we try harder; we pray more, read more scripture, do more good things, give away more money. And that doesn't help...until we get to the point when we just give up, because what is the point?
And that’s because we see faith as a DOING thing.
And faith isn't a DOING thing, faith is a BEING thing.
It is about BEING close to God. And if we are close to God then we do the right things.
So how do you do that?
By doing what you like to do, with God.
Let me give you a personal example.
I was told after my heart attacks that I have to do a certain amount of exercise to keep the heart fit. If I don’t then my heart will get weaker and that isn’t good.
So I could go to the gym very day.
I could walk to Menstrie or Tillycoultry every couple of days.
And I do that kind of stuff at times, but it bores me to tears.
And if truth be told if that was all I could do then eventually I would do less and less.
It would be the least amount of exercise I could get away with.
I would be doing it because I have to, not because I want to.
But put me on a squash court...
Put me on a squash court for 40 minutes and I am not thinking about exercise, I am just doing it. You don't need to force me to go on the squash court; you don’t need to persuade me to go on the squash court, I long to go on the squash court.
That is the attitude that Jesus wanted the Pharisees to have when they met up with God, which is the attitude Jesus wants for us when we meet up with God.
He doesn’t want us to be thinking, ‘What is the least amount if religious stuff we can do to get into God’s good books?’
He wants us to long to be with the Father.
And that comes with doing things that we love doing, with God.
Let me show you how it works using one example.
Prayer. Find a way to pray that you enjoy. Then enjoy doing it.
It is as simple as that.
For some that is the type of prayer we use in Church.
Others love using prayers of others and there are plenty of books out there to help; like this one from the Church of Scotland, ‘Together we pray’.
Others use things like this; a labyrinth. I love using this. You just close your eyes and let your mind wander as your finger goes round the labyrinth.
Some enjoy praying by writing them down like in a journal or a diary.
Some enjoy praying with others, some enjoy praying on the hills or near a beach or with a lit candle.
The problem is that we don't think about the aim of what we do.
It is like exercise. We know it is good for us but we think it is just something that we have to do, so we reluctantly do it. But the truth is if we just do it because we think we have to then we don’t really get any benefit from it.
We think we should pray because we have to pray and then just do it, but doing it that way gives us little benefit.
Do we think God cares about how we pray, or cares about whether we enjoy being in his company?
With our prayer, with all our faith, maybe even with exercise, we need to find a way we enjoy doing it, and then just do it.