GOD PURIFIES HUMAN MOTIVES

Sermon delivered on the 15th Sunday after Trinity, the 24th September 2017 by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Jonah 3:10 - 4:11     Philippians 1: 21-30     S. Matthew 20: 1-16

Philippians 1: 20 St. Paul said, "It is my eager expectation and hope that I shall not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage, now as always Christ will be honoured in my body, whether by life or by death."

GOD IN PROVIDENTIAL CONTROL?
Last week the first two homicides in Cayman this year took place, deaths that reasonable speculation suggests may be gang-related. This was in addition to what seems so sadly and appallingly to have become a regular crop of break-ins and armed hold-ups of business places.

Sudden deaths are of course occurring all the time throughout the world, and no doubt many have died in various places unexpectedly, though unknown to us, during the course of this very service. What we do not know about, we do not think about. When some such thing happens to someone we know and care for, we are shocked, and we wonder anew what purpose God has in such events. When it involves a twenty-something year old, it may hit still harder, and perhaps even more if we fear that the persons may not have made their peace with God, . ... But, like others, for a variety of different causes, their life on earth was cut short. We do not believe we can influence the course of events for them any more, by prayers, by warnings, or by anything else. Such events too, will leave some with feelings of guilt, because perhaps at some point there had been things some person could have done to influence them or their assailants along a better path, though we suppose that some may have made attempts to do so. We have to acknowledge to God that a better job could probably have been done. We have been forced suddenly to settle accounts with God over the matter, and ultimately, ourselves to hope in the forgiveness that He extends to all the truly penitent. The thought may come to us, could it be that God might allow such things to happen so as to awaken dull and lazy Christians to the great peril of complacency and a sense of the penitence through which we might eventually be healed? Could it be that these things serve as a warning to us to redouble and renew any efforts we have made to communicate with our fellow-men the need they have to settle accounts with God before the time comes that they can be warned no more? While these may not in some ways be satisfying answers, and especially not for the bereaved, we are still right to express in whatever way we can the faith-knowledge that even in the most terrible traumas of life, God is God, God is good and extends blessings, and He is to be loved; for He Himself is love, having loved us Himself unto death.

BLESSINGS ≠ COMFORTS
Today's Scripture readings too illustrate to us that we ought not to consider that God blesses us mostly, necessarily, in terms of outward comforts. I know that it is an easy trap for us to fall into, to measure too readily how pleased or otherwise God is with us by how smoothly or comfortably or abundantly our life is running at any given time. Yes, we do believe that God blesses His people by sustaining them and enabling them to progress by His sustenance. But for what purpose? Surely not merely for selfishly enjoying His blessings! And surely not just to be able to compare our good fortune with the misfortune of others. This is indeed a habit of mind we can easily get into, either as individuals or as a group.

MINDSET OF JONAH
It is instructive, for instance, to read in our Old Testament Lesson today, about the mindset of a very imperfect prophet. In the character of Jonah we are shown with great art and irony the type of person that really wants the bad to suffer, for one overriding reason: that their suffering would vindicate his own prophetic warnings! This prophet would rather celebrate his own accuracy as a prophet of disaster than his role in turning a people from their sin and God’s mercy in relieving them from the disaster he had warned about! He is only concerned about the possibility of looking foolish, and not at all with the welfare of those he is sent to. Like us so often, Jonah identified God’s blessing too closely with his own outward condition and prestige. He has much to learn about the need to prophesy from the standpoint of concern for others, rather than from the standpoint of his own vindication. He could not yet see that he had been given extraordinary blessings, even through his discomforts. It is possible for us too to have been given discomfort, while yet being greatly blessed.

SUFFERING FOR CHRIST'S SAKE
Today's second lesson in the Epistle to the Philippians directly precedes that key passage about even our Lord emptying Himself, discomforting Himself so to speak, in the form of a servant, and how He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death. Without dwelling unduly on his own sufferings, Paul the Apostle makes it clear that the horrible conditions of his imprisonment might well bring about his death, but whether he dies or whether he lives, the really important thing is that Christ shall be lifted up and magnified. So for the time being S. Paul was content to see his sufferings as manifesting God's gracious reward for his faith. St. Paul's Christian life was far from smooth or comfortable. To the Philippians and to us he says it has been granted to us that for the sake of Christ we should not only believe in Him but also suffer for His sake, engaged in the same conflict, Paul says, "which you saw and now hear to be mine."

CONFLICT MAY BE A MEASURE OF GOD'S PRESENCE
In these terms St. Paul shows us that one indication of God's presence and His will in our lives is the extent of the conflict we are engaged in. In St. Paul's day part of the conflict was between religio-political authorities and the proclamation of the apostolic Gospel itself, though scholars are not in agreement about who St. Paul is being imprisoned by when he wrote this epistle. We know the conflicts that the Gospel of Christ generates in the political arena today. St. Paul will say to us in this arena, "Let your manner of life be worthy of the Gospel of Christ. Be engaged in the same conflict that I have been engaged in." We ought not to think of being at ease in or in tune with today's culture, as marking the most blessed life.

GOD'S BLESSINGS SORT US OUT
In our Lord's parable of the labourers in the vineyard, comprising today's Gospel passage, the teaching is again that God's blessing does not make everybody comfortable. The lord's largesse to those who came in later to labour was a source of great discomfort to those who had come in earlier, and this reminds us of the discomfort of the elder brother in the parable of the two sons when the younger and "prodigal" son was forgiven. In truth the earlier labourers should have felt blessed by the presence of the later labourers, because they would have helped them in the common task. So God's blessing is a source of joy to the unselfish, those whose motivation is truly to labour for the advancement of God's causes, while the same blessing will be a source of aggravation to the selfish, those who are in it for themselves.

BE COM-FORTED, NOT COMFORTED
We are challenged therefore by today's Scriptures to purify our motives, to increase by the grace of God in unselfishness and to live worthily of the Gospel of Christ, engaging courageously in its conflict with our age. No, God's blessings are not for our comforts, at least not in the sense of the common use of the word. But they are for the purpose of com-forting us in the old sense, making us into forts, standing together with one another, and strengthening one another in pursuing and prosecuting Christ's quarrel with the world.

BIBLE STUDY QUESTIONS
1. How did God most bless me today, and was it comfortable?
2. What conflicts have I had recently, and have they been part of Christ's "quarrel"?
3. How can I best cooperate with God in purifying my motives?