SERMON PREACHED AT St PAUL’S, ARROWTOWN
and St PETER’S, QUEENSTOWN
26th ORDINARY SUNDAY (October 1st) 2023
Exodus 17: 1-7
78: 1-4, 12-16
Matthew 21: 23-32
If we were working systematically through a study of Matthew’s gospel account we would be at this point turning towards the finish line – if we were piloting an Airbus we might term this “on final.” I recall as a cross-country runner at boarding school this would be the moment I would dare to hope I might survive the experience, but as if to remind me that the pointy end of life is death it was also the point at which most of my friends would overtake me. I’m sure there’s a metaphor there somewhere? Certainly as a passenger on an aircraft I am reasonably convinced this is the moment I am going to die.
For the Jesus journey it was the moment death became inevitable. Unflinching in the face of growing opposition, Jesus from this moment on puts his metaphorical knife deeper and deeper into the hypocrisies of his society – a society simultaneously deeply religious and deeply corrupt.
Yet, for once it is another passage that profoundly unpacks the significance of this moment in the Jesus story. Perhaps a couple of decades after the events Matthew describes (and Matthew was writing at a still later stage) the passionate apostle Paul was describing Jesus’ life in terms of what the Greeks call “kenosis,” or self-emptying. Philippians was one of Paul’s last letters, written from prison, as Paul himself faced a likely execution. “Kenosis,” self-emptying to the point of death, is no trivial matter – far worse than a few tired metres on a cross-country course, or a few moments of fear on approach to Wellington’s notorious airport.
And that in part is Paul’s point. Jesus, the inexplicably divine being, has so emptied himself, emptied himself of all but love, that it can only lead to tears and to death. And as he points his finger, especially with his parables in this chapter of Matthew, at religious hypocrisy, he is making any chance of escaping execution less and less likely.
Paul sees this, given a couple of decades hindsight, with blinding clarity. The caveat “of all but love” made so powerfully by Charles Wesley (in a hymn we won’t sing today because we sang it recently), that caveat is an important one. No cosy room in safe places for the self-sacrificing God-man Jesus: only death. But that execution is the result of love. Love that proclaims justice, because love always will. Love and justice made the Jesus path dangerous because it poked the bear of religious hypocrites and their self-interest.
You may recall a passage that is to come up soon in our readings; as Jesus stands over the city of Jerusalem, he wishes that his beloved compatriots the Jewish people would turn back to the love and justice that the Law and Prophets demand. Like a mother – or as Jesus put it, like a mother hen – he longs for his people to return to the human decencies that are the standards and demands of dwelling in his home, paradise. But the recalcitrant child, Israel, or indeed humanity, will not come home, and the mother Jesus has only one choice left.
That choice, of course takes him to Good Friday, and more of that next Eastertide. For now though we must just recognize the extent to which this self-surrender of Jesus is reaching. Jesus, the self-emptying divine being enfleshed in our experience, this Jesus enters into our own waywardness and fallibility, our own tendency to do wrong things. There he breathes forgiveness and life and love and light and hope.
Forget for now, perhaps for ever, the language of pouring out blood for us as if Jesus’ primary task were to appease a grumpy and rather unjust god. Jesus enters into our failure to be the son-that-gets-it-right (eventually) in the parable he tells. Jesus, a bit like the brave souls who paved the way across the hillsides to Skippers or Macetown, like that but so much more, Jesus paves a way for us to pass the finish line (even if a few friends overtake us) or to land safely on the runway.
The Lordship, as Paul describes it, of Jesus reaches into the deepest human grot and gets us over the finish line in his care.