SERMON PREACHED AT CHRIST CHURCH, WHANGAREI
NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
13th July 2008
Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23
I foreshadowed last week that the story of the good and feisty Rebecca becomes the story of the chicanery of twins, (fraternal twins, obviously). The story of Esau (who you will recall was an hairy man!) and Jacob (preferred by his mother) is one of dubious morality: many of the great biblical stories are! Every parent and every teacher is likely to know the childhood cry ‘that’s not fair’. As adults we often dress the cry up in more complex language: ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ I can offer no profound theological answer: perhaps all we can say as Christ-followers, for all it can sound terribly facile, is that ours is not the perspective of God.
I should note too that the Christian document we call the Letter to the Hebrews chooses to see Esau in an unfavourable light, a dullard who opportunistically sold his birthright and responsibilities when offered a chance by his smarter younger twin. Possibly so: but even so we have to recognize that God works through remarkable dark twists and turns in human lives, and Jacob was no angel, behaving equally opportunistically and with greater, slimier intelligence than that of his brother. Until we introduce a theology of grace into the story of Jacob we have only a very nasty individual indeed. But God has a habit of introducing theologies of grace into human lives, cutting through cycles of human fallibility and even cycles of human evil.
Ours is not the perspective of God when human lives marked by sin and degradation turn into lives invaded and transformed by grace. Grace of course is not a cheap way out: a life that has duped and cheated must face the carnage it has left behind: the tax collector who encountered Jesus offered to pay back four-fold all that he had dishonestly gained. Where we come to Christ we can repay God nothing: we can however repay our debts to our neighbours and society.
Paul saw this so clearly. A life invaded by the risen Christ is a life transformed, a slate wiped clean in the eyes of God. Once more it needs to be emphasized that the encounter with grace in Christ is not an easy option. Jesus is not a magic trick to get us a shorter sentence in the courts or an easy way out of civil law. People who play games with faith are not witnessing to the God of the Cross. But the life transformed in the encounter with the Risen Lord is a life made new with God – and therefore with itself. Such a life slowly experiences the healing touch of God’s Spirit, chipping away at the dross and the ugly and helping the life’s possessor experience transformation into what Paul calls the likeness of Christ. Sometimes that transformation process runs dry, as we refuse to let God’s Spirit deeper into our darkest recesses. But occasionally we are privileged to glimpse a life whose whole journey has been one of Christward transformation: I was privileged in such a way this past week as I sat at the feet of Robert Jewett, on of the great Pauline scholars and author of what will be for many years the watershed commentary on Romans. But it’s not only – perhaps not even often – the great and the famous who are so transformed into christlikeness: perhaps we’ve each known a life so transformed, in either the public eye or our own private experience.
These then, surely, are the lives transformed by God’s spirit? Jesus himself uses many images of the life invaded by God – fruit features highly as he urges his followers to be or to bear good fruit. Too often the christian community can be small minded and judgmental, expecting lives to be recreated in the image that we demand rather that watching God’s Spirit in lives way ahead of our arrival. Jacob the deceitful eventually wrestled with God, and became Israel our father in faith. Sadly Esau did stay trapped in his own self pity – until at last he and Jacob are reconciled and the potential cycles of evil are broken. The implications for us as individuals, as a faith community, as a race, and as a culture are unmistakeable: will we stay embittered and small, trapped in our own history, or will we allow the Spirit of God to break through?
Perhaps we can only look at our own lives: am I so opening my life and its every recess up to the light of Christ so that I may bear good fruit? I hope so and pray so.