The Fourth Sunday before Advent - Reflection

‘those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ Matthew 23:12

Yesterday I found myself watching the cricket… Or at least, I set off watching the cricket, then decided that probably it was best if it was just on in the background…. It was then promptly turned off when Jonny Bairstow, England’s opening batter, managed to get out on the first ball of the innings – again! For those of you who follow cricket, you will understand the trials and tribulations of the current cricket world cup. Put bluntly, England have been absolutely rubbish. They were pre-tournament favourites, but have just not shown up… World class players, a world class team, humbled and languishing in last place. This will be a tale of woe familiar to anyone who has ever followed any sport – there are always huge upsets, no matter how nailed on a result might seem. Somehow, and I don’t really know how… I am the captain of Blackburn Diocese Clergy Cricket Team, a huge twist in the tale! A team which despite its best effort, can also succumb to an occasional defeat – or 7. When I was first drafted into the side, I did my best to express to the then captain Fr Tom Woolford, just how little cricketing experience I had. Fortunately my being alive, and having use of all four of my limbs was all the qualification you needed to get picked for the team! I then needed to get kitted out, so that when I arrived to play I wasn’t a danger to myself or those around me. I managed to hit the first ball for 4, nobody more surprised than I (I had got very lucky indeed). The second ball clattered into the stumps, and my debut was over. I had all the gear, brand new whites, helmet, bat, bag, gloves…. I had all the gear, but absolutely no idea what to do with them. I looked the part, but unfortunately was very soon found out by those who did actually know what they were doing. 

The same can be said of our Gospel reading this morning. The scribes and the Pharisees had all the gear, all the respect, all the titles… But unfortunately they too had no idea when it came to God. They liked to give the impression that they did, with their wide phylacteries and unnecessarily long tassels. They gave an outward impression that they were the perfect example – the most holy person or people you might ever like to meet, the envy of those mere mortals around them. Yet they too are found out, they are called out by Jesus. Jesus tells us that we must not be like those scribes and Pharisees. We must not try to be better than our neighbour, we must not act superior, we must not show off in order to put others down, and raise the status of our own ego’s that bit further. And yet…  And yet… We are often found wanting, we are often found to fall short of that mark. This morning’s gospel can be summed up by a simple phrase – practise what you preach. 

It puts rather a lot of pressure on the one that is stood up preaching this morning. A wise move indeed by the powers that be to let me preach this morning. Very sensible! Father Jordan can be the scape goat this morning, the morning where we bring into question whether or not we should be calling anybody Father at all. This passage does indeed seem to be pointing at those in the proverbial pulpit this morning, Jesus wagging his finger at those preaching up and down the land, and throughout history. Unfortunately, Jesus is not just directing this correction at the scribes, the Pharisees or those of us who will be preaching in churches this morning. Jesus is calling each and every one of us away from hypocrisy, away from furthering our own selfish agenda’s, away from looking inward. There is just one small snag. This sermon, or a version of it, has been preached for over 2000 years, and it still needs preaching. Each of us is still getting it very wrong. We don’t have to look very far to find hypocrisy in the world, not very far at all, we need only look in the mirror.

So how then can we do as Jesus asks? How can I, or anybody else turn our lives to God. Each of the things that Jesus calls out in the Pharisees I will have done at some point. Each of us will have done them, and yet I am still stood here, being hypocritical, asking you not to do them, asking, pleading that we be better. Are we, then, just like the Pharisees and Scribes – hypocrites who are doomed and will have the Kingdom of God taken away from us? Or is there some hope for us after all? Well, there is hope – and that hope rests in the infinite mercy and inexpressible love of God. A God, who humbles himself constantly to be close to us. For once, he came to earth in the form of a human and was given over to death. But here and now, he, the Saviour, continues to humble himself and come to us in these ordinary gifts. He makes his Body and his Blood present for us. He makes himself present in the world, so that us sinners may discover our forgiveness, and his mercy. That we may discover our unworthiness, and his love.

So how can we do this? How can we avoid being the one who has all the best stuff, all the new stuff, shiny and perfect, just as I was in that first cricket match, but still no idea how to live? We can only hope to do this, by placing ourselves in an ever-closer relationship with God. For through God, we are daily being renewed, our hearts are daily being enlarged, we are continually growing through him who has called us out of darkness. And so, never think that your life must be perfect, never think that you must be without sin – for God’s mercy is greater than we can even imagine. The only thing God asks is that our heart and mind may be focused on him, for he is the source of our salvation, unchanging, this day and always. Amen. (from Fr Jordan McDermott).