Debts – Matthew 18:21-35

This man owes a king’s ransom, and yet his debt has been cancelled. Incredible! What tremendous mercy his master showed! And what awful hypocrisy, what terrible anger the servant then displayed to his fellow, a man who owed him a mere hundred pounds.

 

Almost a decade ago the world economy went through a very difficult time. Banks failed, stock markets collapsed, growth went into reverse. All because huge amounts had been foolishly lent, and suddenly investors realised the money would never be repaid. Nine years on, we still deal with the consequences and there are fears it may happen again.

 

Jesus reminds us that people throughout the ages have faced similar hazards. Both borrowers and investors are at risk of losing out, and the potential human suffering is immense.

 

For many years the church had a prohibition against usury – or lending money at interest. When the doctrine changed, and the church decided that interest rates were not in themselves sinful, it laid the foundations of modern capitalism. That adaptation enabled society as we currently know it to develop. Perhaps though now we can see the wisdom that there was in the past. We might well feel that society has gone too far in the other direction, that an economy built on debt is a bubble. Would we go back to society without interest? Is that even possible? Or is it wiser to follow Justin Welby and call not for revolution but reform?

 

Either way, the parable Jesus tells involves men who have borrowed and lent. Despite the Biblical prohibitions it went on even then. Which suggests to me that a realistic ethic has to take account of it.

 

Imagine a bank which was bailed out by the government. Lucky them. But what if that bank uses its new found freedom to send out repossession notices to householders who’ve fallen behind on the mortgage. What an outcry there would be!

 

So what does this parable teach us today about money, debt and remission?

If any of us have benefitted from debt relief – if our bank was bailed out all those years ago, then what are we doing about anyone who owes us money? How do we drive our bargains and negotiate deals? Do we understand the concept of a living wage?

 

The gospel also invites us to reflect on the cost of forgiveness. In bailing out banks and savers, the government, and hence the tax payer took on risk and potential losses. It did so at a cost – depending on who you listen to, the government might never break even. In the parable the king cancels the man’s debt – at great cost to himself, for it represents a massive financial loss.

 

When we forgive, it is a cost to us. In effect we’re saying that what someone did to us hurt us, but we will not hold it against them. We will seek reconciliation, not revenge. It costs to do that, and in some way when you forgive you bear the pain of whatever that person has done to you. Forgiveness has a cost.

 

God knows that. When he asks us to forgive, he does so in full knowledge of what is involved. For he too has borne the pain of forgiving. God did so in the cross. When we look at the death of Jesus, we see what it cost God to forgive. We see the price he paid for coming to save us. We too should forgive.

 

But there are also some questions. When Peter says: ‘Lord how many times should I forgive? Up to seven times?’, he thinks he’s being incredibly generous. Three would have been the custom, so Peter doubles it and adds one. Jesus has a surprise: ‘Seventy times seven’. So many times you can’t keep track.

 

Are there really no limits to forgiveness? What about those who were in concentration camps? What about people whose children have been murdered? How can Jesus expect them to forgive? Those are situations where forgiveness seems humanly impossible.

 

But unless we’re in that situation, it’s not our business to worry about that. If God wishes those who have been horribly offended against to forgive, then it is up to him to supply the grace, love and strength for them to do it.

 

Our challenge is to forgive those who have offended against us. We’re not called to worry about how other people might forgive, or imagine what it feels like for them – we’re called to forgive our own enemies.

 

What about repentance? Do people need to say sorry before they can be forgiven? Jesus tells the parable because Peter wants to know if there is a limit on the number of times he can forgive a penitent brother. Repentance is there. On the other hand, though, Jesus forgives his enemies from the cross while they are still crucifying him. No sense of repentance there.

 

I think it’s helpful here to think of sin building walls around us. When someone sins against me, it builds up a wall of resentment and anger, hostility and hurt. That’s natural. But left alone, that wall cuts me off from the other person. And, because it’s a wall that surrounds me, it cuts me off from God too. If we’re not forgiving, if we nurse a grudge, we become isolated, turned in our ourselves, bitter and hurting, longing to break out but not wanting to demolish those high walls, because they have become part of who we are.

 

Forgiveness breaks down the wall, and restores fellowship with the one who has offended, and also with God. That’s why forgiveness is so essential in family relationships and in friendships, it breaks down those walls before they become a problem.

 

If someone doesn’t apologise to us then we cannot restore fellowship with them in the same way. They are surrounded by their own wall, their own inability to repent. But Jesus teaches that we should still forgive – turn the other cheek – because it will break down the walls that threaten to enclose us. In short, forgiveness is good for us.

 

That doesn’t make it easy. It is tremendously difficult. We have to let go of what was done to us, we have to let go of our feelings of anger and our longing for revenge. We do not have to pretend that nothing happened. We do not have to deny that wrong was done, or that we would rather it never had occurred. We do not have to abandon the wish for justice and reform for the other person. We should not be naïve in thinking the same can’t happen again.

 

But we do have to forgive. We do have to stop nursing a grudge. We do have to give up on revenge and hatred. We do have to let go and try to move on, living in peace as far as it depends on us.

 

And that’s so difficult. I find it helpful to pray that God will give me the strength to forgive and understand what that means. And then I have to take a cold blooded decision ‘I forgive’. Not I will forgive, or I want to forgive, but ‘I forgive’. I may not feel particularly forgiving, but still that decision has to be made. And then, God’s Spirit gets to work. I begin to forgive in practice. He helps me let go, to forget, to meet that person again.

 

Of course, that’s not the end of it. As time goes on we uncover deeper levels of hurt, a chance remark betrays continues resentment, a repeat offence brings the whole business flaring up again. And so we must keep on forgiving, every time the monster rears its ugly head we bash it down again. It is not easy, but Jesus commanded it, and he never commanded something that he himself would not do.

 

So as we come to communion, let us reflect on the price of forgiveness. Let us receive the pledge of God’s goodness, and let us commit ourselves to forgive. Amen.

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Jeremiah 8 verse 18 to 9 verse 1

‘Escape by the skin of your teeth’, ‘A drop in the bucket’, ‘Scapegoat’, ‘Casting your pearls before swine’, ‘to everything there is a season’ – everyone got the connection by now? These are all phrases that entered the English language through the Bible. The first translations of the Bible into English coined some memorable phrases which have had a lasting legacy. In fact, some university degree courses in English literature offer an introductory lecture on the Bible, so that students reading Shakespeare and Milton can get the references.

Although sometimes the earliest translations lacked a certain resonance. For instance in verse 22 of our reading from Jeremiah, Henry VIII’s Bible had ‘Is there no treacle in Gilead?’ – creating an image of the prophet bemoaning the lack of a crucial ingredient for his gingerbread.

Of course, Jeremiah is mourning something far more significant. ‘My joy is gone, grief is upon me, hark the cry of my poor people.’ It’s about 590 BC. A great army is poised on the borders of Judah. The Babylonians are soon to invade. There is a sense of looming disaster: everyone can see what is about to happen yet no-one can do anything to stop it. And they cry aloud: ‘Is the Lord not in Zion?

As can happen in times of hardship, they feel abandoned by God. God doesn’t seem to be doing anything to retrieve the situation and rescue them. It can be a very difficult thing to bear when we are going through a troubled time. Christians may say that when life is tough we are very aware of God’s presence and strength – that is often true. Occasionally though it feels as if God has abandoned us – and that is very hard – perhaps the hardest part. We have to persevere, carry on doing right seek God in the darkness until that sense of separation passes.

That can happen to the most faithful of Christians. So if anyone feels that God is a long way away it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s our fault. Sometimes though, if God feels distant it may be because we’ve moved, because we’re building walls against him and need to repent.

Just as thirst tells you that you need a drink, so the feeling of separation and distance can be God calling us back to himself. So that we can love him more, he may allow us to experience the results of when we turn away from him. How do we know? Our conscience will usually make it abundantly clear if we have been at fault, if we ask God to show us.

That was the truth for Israel. God spoke through Jeremiah words which were strange, challenging yet ultimately much more hopeful. God’s message through Jeremiah is that he has not abandoned them. Far from it, in fact he is acting in judgement.

As it says in verse 19: ‘Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?’ Judah had stopped serving God and instead were praying to statues to save them. God warned and rescued them time and again, eventually allowing them to experience the consequences – he permitted them to find out that statues could not save. We see God respects our free will, and they got what they chose.

For us idols are more often disordered loves. Something which is good become too important and takes over the centre of our lives. It might be money, as we heard in the Gospel parable. It might be relationships, power, work – even the best things can become idols if we try and build our lives upon them. And when we do we become dissatisfied because only God can meet that deepest need. Placed in the space that belongs to God alone such things collapse under the weight of our expectations.

When that happens the sensible thing to do is return to God in repentance. Sadly Jeremiah’s people were not doing that. Although they lamented that God had abandoned them they failed to take serious steps to change. And so Jeremiah records God’s lament over them.

It’s not an easy passage to read or reflect on, yet there are three really important things to notice here. Firstly, God laments. He does not delight in judgement. God loves us and hates it when we suffer.

You know that dreadful caricature of the Old Testament, where God is the heavenly psychopath who delights in plaguing people? It keeps on popping up – Stephen Fry does it very eloquently. But nothing could be further from the truth. As Ezekiel puts it: ‘Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?’

Some of you may remember our Passover meal that we did one Thursday before Easter a few years back. At the point where the Jewish people remember the plagues of Egypt they spill ten drops of wine on their plates, one for each plague. There is silence as they mourn the Egyptian dead and remember that God takes no pleasure in judgement.

It is a useful reminder for the church. I think it was Billy Graham who used to say ‘We should never speak of hell without tears in our eyes’. We should not delight in being proved right, nor rejoice in evil getting its comeuppance. The Church may be called to be prophetic, to point out to society where it is going wrong, but it must not be self-righteous. The church’s voice should not be like Basil Fawlty speaking to a foreigner – just shout louder and more slowly and they’ll be bound to get it. Instead we must speak from within the society which we challenge, as members of it who share in its responsibilities.

Secondly, grief is often necessary. It’s not helpful to sweep it under the carpet and pretend that all is well. Sometimes grief can wake us up to reality. We know that with personal grief, it’s equally true for groups and society. I heard of a vicar who came to a church where not much had changed for a long time. The faithful congregation had grown old together, not acknowledging the steady slow decline, or the end of Sunday School.

Before anything could happen, they had to learn how to grieve. That Vicar had to help them see what had happened, then she created the space for them to mourn what they had lost. Like Israel, only when that grief was articulated and shared could they begin to look to the future.

Until they did that, they were kind of numb. Half-conscious of what was going on, they were too frightened to acknowledge it. What would happen? Perhaps it would be too painful? Would they find there would be no future? It was only when someone was brave enough to point out the elephant in the room – and travel with them on their journey – that new life and hope could bring God’s grace into that situation.

That vicar had to travel a painful path with the congregation. In a small way she points us to a much deeper truth which Jeremiah only hints at. In this reading we hear of a prophet – or is it God? – who wishes his eyes were a fountain of tears so that he might weep day and night for his people.

True prophets, living churches, don’t stand over and against their society, throwing in criticisms like hand grenades. The Biblical prophet and the truly Christian church identify with people’s situations, walk alongside them, challenge, support and transform. They bear the cost of the repentance and change; they suffer alongside the victim, and accompany the oppressors as they learn to serve.

In doing so, they take their inspiration from God himself. God in Christ entered this world so that he could walk in our shoes. He did not come triumphantly to blast the opposition, but in humility. Christ was rejected, mocked, unjustly condemned. God’s Son suffered cruelty, indignity and a painful death. He took onto himself the worst that this world could throw at him – and forgave his persecutors.

By bearing the cost of forgiveness himself, God through Christ opens the door to a new creation. The power of evil cannot triumph over the love of Christ. Death cannot hold him and he is resurrected to a glorious new life. A fresh start, the Kingdom of God beginning among us and inviting us to join in. The path of grief faced and trod, and turned into Easter joy.

 

Resurrection Breakfast

One day a rather inebriated ice fisherman drilled a hole in the ice. As he prepared his line a loud voice called out ‘There are no fish down there’. Startled, he walked a few yards away and drilled another hole. But just as he was stringing a worm onto the hook, the voice boomed out again ‘There are no fish there.’

He then walked on about fifty yards, drilled another hole and looked cautiously in. Again the voice said ‘There are no fish there.’ He looked up into the sky and called out: ‘God, is that you?’ ‘No, you idiot,’ the voice said ‘it’s the ice rink manager.’

Today’s gospel begins with seven blokes going fishing. Nothing remarkable about that, it happens all the time and it was a daily occurrence on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus’ disciples had grown up as fishermen, that’s how they earned their living, so at one level there’s nothing unusual here.

But actually it’s the strangest thing in the world! These are the disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus who had proclaimed himself the Messiah, entered Jerusalem in triumph, been captured and put to death. And then risen again! Barely a week or so before, their Lord and Master had risen from the dead – and now the disciples are going fishing? Shouldn’t the Resurrection change everything? Jesus is alive – take the message to the four corners of the world! Be inspired! Or go fishing?

I suppose fishing is what they’re good it. They’ve been doing it for years, it’s what they understand. In a sense they’re comfortable with it. Not that this is relaxing angling – you know the joke about angling? Give a man a fish and he’ll eat tonight. Teach a man to fish and he’ll spend all day in a boat drinking beer. What Peter and the rest were doing is serious work: pulling in heavy nets, soaked to the skin and an April night in Palestine is none too warm either. But despite the hard labour, the routine is what they know and it’s familiar.

Moving on to something unknown can be hard. Even wonderful opportunities can suddenly look challenging when you get up close. Sometimes you hear of lottery winners saying ‘Nothing will change me. I’m going to stay in the same job and won’t let it get to my head.’ That may be a genuine humility or it might be worry over what’s coming, an inability to handle the implications. Statistically you or I are unlikely to win the lottery. On a fishing theme, you’re more likely to be attacked by a shark than win the jackpot.

But we can find ourselves in a similar situation to the disciples or the lottery winner. Where opportunities present themselves but the familiar seems safer. A new job. A move. God may call us to do something for him – I don’t mean going to Papua New Guinea as a full time missionary – a woman I know felt God nudging her to become part of the Open the Book Team telling Bible stories in school assembly. It was a real step into the unknown as she’d never done anything like it before, but she loved it and God used her abilities wonderfully.

Stepping out into something new can be hard, but God promises to be with us when we serve him. Denial or running away is never satisfying because it’s not based in reality. As John Maynard Keynes said: ‘If the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?’

Maybe the disciples went fishing for practical reasons. Presumably they still needed to eat and pay the rent! Yet Jesus appears with a full BBQ – bread, fish and fire, with no explanation of where it came from – suggesting he can provide. In his teaching about food, clothes and money, Jesus said ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you as well.’ He didn’t say they were unnecessary. He never said we wouldn’t have to work for them. But he did tell us not to chase after money, that God provides us with the essentials and to put his Kingdom first. So don’t let busyness get in the way of being a Christian disciple or finding God’s will for you.

I wonder if the disciples were suffering from a spiritual comedown? It can happen in any area of life: after a big success comes a feeling of flatness. You win the contract and then have to knuckle down to the paperwork. You take home the trophy but on Monday morning you’re back at the training ground.

The same can happen spiritually, after a high point there is often a down. I guess that’s why they call it Low Sunday after Easter! Although funnily enough, I always enjoy that day! Spiritual rhythm is built into life, but can catch us out. We may find ourselves thinking: Those worship experiences were wonderful, why does prayer feel tough again today? God felt so close, was I really imagining it? Lots of people came to our new event, but was it just out of curiosity? Will they come next week?

When we feel like that it’s good to recognise what’s happening. See that this is part of the natural spiritual cycle; recognise the battle that’s going on. Rebuke the evil one and keep on through the challenging time, because one day it will pass. Remember the good times and be sustained by the glimpses of grace God gives in the midst of difficulty.

Perhaps it was all these things together. The disciples just felt flat and unprepared. They hadn’t seen Jesus for a bit, the task ahead looked vast, money was running out and the answer seemed obvious. ‘Let’s go fishing’. They met with a lack of success, perhaps a sign this wasn’t what they’re supposed to be doing? There’s a symbolic significance too, because whenever we wander from God’s will for us, we feel dissatisfied. Even if what we’re doing is a perfectly innocent thing, if it’s not God’s plan it doesn’t fill us up.

Only when Jesus appears and they obey him do they get results. What a lovely moment it is in verse 7 when John says to Peter ‘It is the Lord’.

Of course they recognised Jesus. Doesn’t it all sound familiar? A bit déjà vu? Yes it does! It should. Almost the exact same thing has happened before. Not at the end of the gospel but at the beginning. One of the very first miracles Jesus did was a catch of fish. He met some disciples – these disciples, in the morning. They had caught nothing. Put your net on the other side, he said – they were inundated with fish.

Yes, they would have got the point. He’s back. And they would have got the meaning too – because immediately after that first miracle Jesus came out with his famous pun: ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.’ Become my disciples and share the good news. Now, post Easter, Jesus does it again, after the disciples have lost their way a little.

And if the point is still not clear, it’s there in the number of the fish. 153. A curious detail – but apparently 153 was regarded at the time as the number of nations on earth. It’s Fishers of men again. Join me, says Jesus, in bringing all nations into my Kingdom. He’s calling them back to their original purpose. Especially Peter.

Peter can’t wait to meet Jesus, even though they’re only a hundred yards from the shoreline he jumps into the lake and swims to the shore – not forgetting to put his clothes on first! Sounds daft. But is there symbolism here? Does it recall guilty Adam in the garden of Eden, putting on clothes before he can meet God? Even in the joy does Peter remember there is something he needs to sort out? Does the charcoal fire that Jesus has lit remind him of that other charcoal fire, the one at which he denied Christ?

Soon, Jesus restores Peter. Peter, who had three times denied Jesus, is given the chance to assure Jesus of his love three times. Broken and now restored, he will be a wise and sympathetic pastor for Christ’s church.

So Jesus called them back to following him. When they had been distracted by busyness, he gave them focus again. When they had been paralysed by fear, he gave them purpose and power. When they had been discouraged and flat, he restored their vision.

He can do the same for us. Each one of us here will be in a different place. But it may be that some of you will recognise yourself in that description of the disciples. Having lost the way a little bit, let Jesus call you back. If our relationship with Christ has been squeezed out by activity, he can enable us to reprioritise. If our spirituality feels flat, Jesus can envision us and give us strength to persevere. If we know he is calling us onwards but worry about the consequences, Jesus will enable us to face reality and the future with confidence. If you are feeling like those disciples, I encourage you to bring it to God and ask him to meet you and bless you at this resurrection breakfast.

The moral of the story

Four missing, presumed dead, in power station collapse. Ebola devastates long term health of those who survive it. One in every two of those crossing the Mediterranean this year were Syrians escaping the conflict in their country. Just a handful of recent headlines. How could anyone remain unmoved? Many of us do what we can to help, or give to charity. But we might also wonder ‘why?’ Why do these things happen? Why is there this suffering?

People have always asked this question. Our gospel reading makes that clear – St Luke describes how Jesus responded to two contemporary events. All we know about the two tragedies in the reading is what’s written here. It seems that Pilate, the notoriously cruel Roman governor had ordered the killing of some Galileans despite the fact they were engaged in sacred duties. Siloam, in v. 4 is part of Jerusalem and it appears that a tower suddenly collapsed on a crowd.

Why did these things happen? The people who spoke to Jesus thought they had an answer. But Jesus refutes it: ‘Do you think these Galileans suffered this way because they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No I tell you.’

They thought that bad things happen because you’ve been bad. Plenty of people think that. Faced with suffering it can be tempting to find clarity in easy answers – such as ‘well, they must have done something to deserve it’. Our tabloid press likes that view because it imagines a world where bad things happen to bad or careless people, while those who enjoy good things can carry on doing so, confident in the belief that they must have earned them. The people who came to Jesus thought that the suffering were getting their just deserts. Maybe they wanted Jesus to moralise.

And you can understand why they thought so. After all, it is true to a degree, that if you do bad things you suffer the consequences. If you overeat you feel ill. If you steal from your employer you eventually get caught and dismissed. If you mess up your environment, you find it can no longer support you.

And the people in Jesus’ time saw that pattern in their history too. It had been drilled into them at school. That reading from the second book of Kings describes how Israel went into Exile because they turned away from God. Right at the beginning of the passage: ‘This occurred’ – in other words the King of Assyria invaded and took the people captive – because ‘they had sinned against the Lord their God.’

This passage is important because it’s a kind of conclusion to a lot of the story that has come before. The writer of Kings chooses this important event to teach a crucial moral lesson. The writer draws on the Biblical story thus far to make a point about God’s people. The Lord had brought them up out of the Land of Egypt. He had rescued them and given them a land to live in. God gave them his law to show them the best way to live. They were meant to be a blessing to all the other nations – a kind of example or experiment in living God’s way.

Sadly it went wrong. The books of Kings – and Judges and Samuel – describe a cycle of events. Israel disobeys God’s law, God warns them of the consequences, they ignore God, bad things happen, the people turn back to God, God rescues them. It’s ok for a bit, and then it starts all over again. But a little bit worse, a little bit more territory lost to the enemies, until eventually there’s nothing left and Israel goes into Exile.

If you’ve ever wondered why the Old Testament seems so full of threats and judgement this is why. If you’ve ever read the prophets and felt, this just seems to be warning after warning, that’s why. Every time it goes wrong, God sends a prophet. The cycle goes round several time, so a lot of prophets get sent. It’s God sending his messengers to call his people time and again. He’s giving them another chance to turn back and change. It’s a sign of mercy.

Perhaps you feel it makes for heavy reading? A bit gloomy or threatening? I can understand that. But think about it: the alternative would be that God didn’t care. If he didn’t speak to warn it would be as if a parent saw their toddler wandering onto a train track, yet didn’t rush to pick them up, didn’t even bother to yell ‘get off the line’. Who would do that? The repeated warnings of judgement in the Old Testament are a sign that God does not want to carry them out.

Tragically in this case the child kept going back until the inevitable happened. Israel and then Judah went into Exile. Even then God was merciful – seventy years later the people began to return. So people in Jesus’ time had learnt: actions have consequences. It was deeply ingrained: if you are bad, bad things will happen. Not always – we see that sometimes the worse characters seem to get off scot free.

Some of the Psalms deal with this problem: why do the wicked flourish asks Psalm 73? But then, says the Psalmist, ‘I understood their final destiny’. Evil people will not get away with it forever – they will be accountable to God the judge. Sin will not go unpunished.

But does that mean that if you suffer you must therefore have been bad? NO! It’s a big mistake to make. Just because bad deeds often cause suffering, doesn’t mean that those who suffer must have been bad.

Saying so would be tremendously insensitive and wrong. Look at the children in Syria. They suffer because of human wickedness. But it’s not their fault. The people who spoke to Jesus should have known this – they knew the book of Job, in which Job suffers even though he is a righteous man. Jesus himself taught this – when his disciples pointed out a blind man and asked whether it was the blind man who sinned or his parents so that he was born blind, Jesus said ‘Neither.’ If proof were lacking, surely the ultimate example is Jesus: he suffered greatly but never sinned.

Saying that sin causes suffering is not the same thing as saying suffering is always caused by a particular sin, or bad karma for that matter. It’s a logical error. It’s like saying all elephants are big and grey – therefore all big and grey things are elephants. They’re not – big and grey things can also be tower blocks and battleships!

Yet if we stop there, we would miss what Jesus actually says here. Jesus chooses to make a very different point. Perhaps because his questioners are self-righteous and inviting him to judge, Jesus says something very challenging. Look at verse 3: ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No! But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’ And again: ‘Those eighteen, do you think they were worse offenders? No. But unless you repent you will all perish just as they did.’

All people are in the same boat, says Jesus. We all need God forgiveness, we all need to repent, because we have all done wrong. The questioners wanted to divide humanity into the good guys and the bad guys. But Jesus tells them that unless they repent, they too will perish. Certainly some may appear better people than others, but all have failed to do what God requires.

Imagine a machine which consists of a headset and a video screen. And when you put on the headset, it replays every event in your life for all to see. Would anyone volunteer to do such a thing? I wouldn’t. I have things of which I am ashamed. I expect we all do. During Lent we reflect on ourselves and acknowledge our need of God. We repent – which means turn back to him, receive his forgiveness, and try to do the things he wants.

We turn back while we can. That’s the point of the parable of the fig tree in verses 6-9. God is like the gardener. He looks for good fruit. What happens if he finds none? Perhaps he will give us another chance. But Jesus says don’t try his patience. Don’t take his mercy for granted. Jesus says make sure you do respond to God. Repent, be sorry for your sins, trust in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for you, change your ways and do good. Produce fruits in keeping with repentance. And don’t delay! The message of this parable is: If you don’t act now, it may be too late.

For one never knows when the end may come. I’ve been in a car crash. There’s no time to put your spiritual affairs in order. It’s too quick. In the split second before impact my thoughts were: ‘Car! Brake!’ And, bizarrely, ‘If I survive this, it’s goodbye to the no-claims bonus.’ And then the airbags went off. Not very spiritual thoughts if that had been my last moments. If disaster strikes there’s no time to prepare to meet God. We need to be at peace with him all the time.

Perhaps I’m preaching to the converted here. If so remember: Jesus talks about bearing fruit. It’s not just about making a commitment to follow Christ, but letting that response transform your life, affect your actions. For that is what it means to flourish. A fruitful fig tree is a fig tree that is fulfilled. It is doing what it was designed to do. Similarly, only when we are in relationship with God will we find a deep and lasting satisfaction.

There has been a challenge in today’s reading: we all need to repent. No matter who we are, we need to say sorry and return to God. Jesus speaks the truth, isn’t afraid of the hard word: don’t delay, it may be too late, don’t try God’s patience. But there is also a promise: Come back to God, live his way, bear fruit and you will find new life, forgiveness, purpose and meaning with him. Amen.

On the subject of Hell

Mark 9:38-50

In Heaven: The cooks are French, The policemen are English, The mechanics are German (until the middle of last week!), The lovers are Italian, The bankers are Swiss.

In Hell: The cooks are English, The policemen are German, The mechanics are French, The lovers are Swiss, The bankers are Italian.

I thought I’d start with a little bit of a joke today. As you may have guessed from the reading, it’s a pretty serious topic in the sermon. Hell is a subject that we don’t often discuss, or preach on. Headlines like ‘Church abolishes hell’ give the impression that perhaps we don’t believe it these days. Although apparently 14% of British men believe that if hell exists, they’re going there – but only 6% of British women feel the same. We might wonder, how can there be a hell if God is a God of love?

So as we look at Jesus’ teaching, please pray for me. As v.42 tells us, it’s a serious responsibility – I don’t want to put a stumbling block in front of anyone! If I err on one side, I might end up painting a picture of God which is harsh and lacking in mercy. Which would be untrue. If I err on the other side, we might miss out on hearing one of the most serious warnings Jesus ever gave. Let us pray:

‘Lord, grant that I may proclaim your word faithfully, that your Spirit will sort the wheat from the chaff, and that we may all respond to your justice, love and mercy. Amen.’

Have you ever really put your foot in? Said something so embarrassing that you wish the earth would swallow you up? How do you get out of it – make a joke? Change the subject? John the apostle thought the best thing to do would be try and drop someone else in it.

We join our reading at v.38, just after last week’s story about Jesus rebuking his disciples for their selfish ambition. Clearly uncomfortable, John decides to divert attention elsewhere: ‘Teacher we saw someone casting out demons in your name and he we tried to stop him because he was not following us.’ In his ministry Jesus set people free from the powers of darkness. A stranger was copying him. Is that a problem?

Jesus looks beyond who’s in and out. He looks to the principle: ‘Do not stop him for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us’. (How wonderful if churches could put this into practice and not compete with each other, instead co-operating and rejoicing in one another’s success).

Jesus wants to encourage this openness, which follows the openness and love of God. He says: ‘whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward’. He paints a picture of a God who seeks excuses to bless us, who wants everyone to know Christ, who rewards even the tiniest gift offered in Jesus’ name. Our heavenly Father is a God of love who calls us his children. There’s a wideness in his mercy which is wider than the sea.

It’s precisely because of that wideness that God takes so seriously the problem of those who cause others to fall. In v.42 ‘If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.’ Tough words. But Jesus says them precisely because God wants everyone to be able to come to him. He doesn’t want any to stumble. If anyone stops someone else, by their harshness, by their lack of love, by their false teaching, then that is a big problem.

I’m a school governor. If I go into a class and I see a teacher who is clear, who has firm but fair discipline, then that tells me she cares about the children. She creates an environment where all can learn and excel. Because the children matter to her she won’t let one or two spoil it for the others. However if I visit a class which is chaotic, I reckon either the teacher lacks ability or doesn’t care for the children. For love knows right and wrong, love sets out boundaries of acceptable behaviour, love has a sense of justice.

So if we look at the awful scenes on our news and long for justice to be done, if we see suffering and long for evil warmongers to be reined in, then how much more does God! God’s Love demands that he condemn wickedness. Love requires that something be done and the evildoer not get away with it forever. Love leads God to promise that he will renew the world, purging from it evil and therefore those who cling to evil. The Bible shows us that a God of love has to be a God of justice. If God does not do justice, then he does not love or he is not God.

Which brings us to the difficult subject of hell… Let’s be clear. Jesus teaches that there is a hell. Yes, he uses dramatic imagery but his warning is serious. Jesus says hell is a risk for all of us. Who is Jesus addressing in v.43 onwards? Is he in a prison speaking to murderers and rapists? No. Is he saying ‘This doesn’t apply to you decent people, but when you meet a dictator you might like to warn him’? No. He’s talking to his followers, his disciples when he says ‘If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.’

He spoke to his disciples. People like us. If it weren’t a real risk, why tell them? Let’s think about that a bit more… Many religions have the idea that you do your best to be good and try and avoid being bad. Many religions have taught that what happens to you after this life depends on whether your good deeds outweigh your bad. The Egyptian god of the dead was even shown carrying little weighing scales.

This idea seems easy to understand, but there are some problems with it. For instance, if when you were a kid you nicked a lollipop from the corner-shop then that weighs down your bad side. But by how much? And how many times do you have to help old ladies cross the road in order to get your good side back up again?

And where do you draw the line? Imagine a great queue of people waiting to get into heaven. An angel comes along with a sign – bit like being at a theme park where you get those white signs at points in the queue which say ‘1/2 an hour to wait’. But the one the angel’s carrying is a barrier that says heaven one side and hell the other.

And he plonks it right next to me. But on the wrong side! And I’m like ‘why here? Why me? What good’s the next bloke done that I haven’t?’ And the angel explains ‘well, there’s an awful lot of people that have ever lived, so the differences between you are really quite small. This just happens to be the cutoff point. He’s going to heaven because in the course of his lifetime he said one more prayer than you.’ ‘Well that’s not fair. Can’t you move it down a bit further?’ Of course, you can imagine what the next guy would say and so on.

It doesn’t work. The idea that if we do enough good we get to heaven, and too much bad we go to hell doesn’t hold together. It’s trite, simplistic. It’s not what the Bible teaches. The Christian faith believes something much more radical, more profound, more challenging and yet more solid hope than simply doing our best could ever be.

The truth taught by the apostles, taught by Jesus himself, is that if God in Christ hadn’t intervened to save us, hell would be the destiny of us all. The Bible teaches that by going our own way we cut ourselves off from God – the source of all life. Bluntly: we all deserve hell. When people in the Old Testament encountered God, they hid their faces, they took off their shoes because they stood on holy ground. They knew they were unworthy to enter the presence of the holy God. It’s not a difference of degree between us and God – as if he is more pure. It’s a difference of kind. God is God, and we are sinners.

I won’t be surprised if someone reacts against this: ‘Yes, I know I’ve done wrong, I don’t dispute that. But this emphasis on sinners is a bit strong – I’m sure I’m not that bad.’ If you’re feeling like that, imagine yourself saying it before God himself. I can’t. God’s spirit convicts me.

It is important not to misunderstand this idea. It’s not saying we’re incapable of doing good – many people, religious and not, do a great deal of good things. It’s not saying we’re utterly depraved. But it is saying we have gone our own way, not God’s. It’s more profound than saying we’ve done the odd wrong thing – it’s saying there’s a spiritual problem at the root of those deeds, a fundamental pride, self-centredness, which means we need God’s forgiveness.

Jesus talks about entering life. In v.45: ‘If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. Entering life happens through Christ – that’s why v.38-41 are all about the name of Christ. He is our Saviour.

He alone is not standing in that queue of the partly good and partly bad. He alone is perfect like God – Christ alone is God as a human being. Yet though he is innocent of any wrongdoing he willingly takes the punishment for our sinfulness. It is as if we were condemned to die, but Jesus offers himself to die on the cross in our place.

This is a great mystery – no-one can fully plumb the depths of it. But what is clear within the New Testament is that God is both the Judge and the one who addresses the need for justice. God’s love demands that there is justice because otherwise love is not love. Yet his love also longs for us to be reconciled with him and enter life. The tension is resolved when God the son becomes man and offers himself on the cross.

So the point of what Jesus is saying about hell is that we shouldn’t need to worry about it! The way to life is open! We just need to accept and travel that path. It’s like a party invitation – only any use if you accept it and go along. Or my expenses cheque, which is useless until I’ve presented it. God invites us to enter life, so let’s take up the invitation!

We do need to do that. Make that choice. God gives us free will, he respects our choices. If someone says no, if they want nothing to do with God and can’t abide the thought of eternity in his company, then God isn’t going to force them – in effect they choose to go to the other place. If you struggle to understand how anyone can choose that, then may I recommend a book called ‘The Great Divorce’ by C.S.Lewis – it’s psychologically believable and a very good read.

In that book, some of the characters choose to walk away from heaven because they won’t let go of things that they know are wrong but still enjoy. Jesus says we need to be ruthless, in v.47 ‘If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out, it is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.’

The early church father Origen supposedly took this rather literally. He had a problem with lust. He took some drastic action to ensure it would never lead to physical sin. But were the temptations still in his mind?

Jesus of course is speaking in an exaggerated fashion about cutting bits off our bodies. The rest of the New Testament seems pretty clear that life with God involves being healed at the resurrection, having a new perfect body, not one with bits still missing. Jesus’ words are strong images, meaning be totally intolerant of anything that hinders your Christian discipleship.

Don’t let those little habits grow into addictions! Act on the promptings of conscience. Let Jesus be Lord of every part of your life, don’t leave corners of your heart unswept. You can’t keep a foot in both camps.

So to sum up, this reading asks three things from us: Firstly, take the doctrine of hell seriously. We don’t have to buy in to Bosch’s mediaeval imagery of devils with toasting forks and wheelbarrows to hear what Jesus says. He shows us that God’s love and God’s justice go together, that there are consequences and God respects the choices we make. He gives us such awesome freedom.

Secondly, let us be inspired to go out in mission. Jesus gives us a message of good news for the world. Not the uncertainty of trying to be good, but the assurance of forgiveness. The invitation to new life. The promise of security in the life to come. Our world needs to hear this message – let us be courageous in sharing it.

Finally let us understand that the way to life is open. If any of us have not responded to Christ’s invitation and committed our lives to him, I urge you to do so. Let’s not let anything get in the way.

I’ll pray now, and if you want to make that response, please say Amen at the end. ‘Father we thank you that your love and justice meet in Jesus. Thank you that he is our Saviour and frees us from hell. Lord I turn to you, I ask for your forgiveness and pray that you will keep me on the path of life. Amen.