Begin with the end in mind
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.Matthew 27:51
This verse is taken from the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, a story which, in my Church’s lectionary, we will encounter in several weeks on Palm Sunday, the beginning of the final week of Lent. But Lent, a season of repentance and fasting, begins in just about two weeks, so why are we reflecting on the readings for Palm Sunday? Why are we contemplating Lent? Why? Because we begin with the end in mind.
Journey with me, will you? Since Christmas, we’ve recounted the story of Jesus’ birth, His epiphany when the Magi visited him, His baptism at which point He was manifestly acclaimed the Son of God and, for this, loved and approved by the Father. After that, He entered the wilderness where He fasted and was tempted. Emerging from the wilderness, filled with the power of the Spirit, He returned to Galilee, relocated from Nazareth to Capernaum on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, which would be a significant and pivotal place in Jesus’ ministry.
As He began His ministry, He called the disciples and, within time, others began to follow Him. Now, in Scripture, we are told that Jesus called 12 and these were named. There were, however, others who came to follow as well. So, last week, when, in Matthew 5, we began the Sermon on the Mount, we read, ‘When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain;’ (Matthew 5:1).
Standard operating procedures
The Sermon on the Mount proves to be Jesus’ declaration of the terms of engagement, the job description, the standard operating procedures for those who would choose to follow Him. Later in the Gospels, He tells us to take up our cross. In the Sermon on the Mount, He breaks down what it means to take up one’s cross. So, last week, as we encountered the Beatitudes, we reflected on what it means to be blessed, to be approved by God (just as Jesus was manifestly approved by God at His baptism). This week, we continue on the path to blessedness by exploring more deeply how we get to blessedness.
How so? Let’s begin with the reading from Isaiah. Just as was done in Isaiah 57:3-13, where the people were reprimanded by God through the prophet, but then given the escape clause at the end of the reading (verse 13) where it says, ‘But whoever takes refuge in me shall possess the land and inherit my holy mountain’, so too, in the Lesson this Sunday, Isaiah 58:1-9a, the people are rebuked by God for their empty, pretentious and self-serving fasts, but then are given the escape clause in verses 6-9. In these verses, the prophet shares with the people what is a fast that pleases God. And, furthermore, when they engage in that fast, as promised in verse 9, ‘[they] shall call, and the Lord will answer; [they] shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am”‘.
The Psalm, 112:1-9, responds to the message of the prophet and, echoing Psalm 15 which was part of last week’s readings, begins, ‘Hallelujah! Happy are they who fear the Lord and have great delight in his commandments!’ The Psalm then continues to describe this state of happiness of those who fear the Lord. Later, in the Gospel, you hear the echo of this celebration as Jesus says in Matthew 5:17, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.’ Shortly afterwards, in verse 19, he cautions, ‘Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.’
Freedom from Sin
Still, how is this any parallel to Matthew 27:51? Well, let me explain. Today’s readings (the Lesson: Isaiah 58:1-9, the Response: Psalm 112:1-9, the Epistle: 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 and the Gospel: Matthew 5:13-20) respond to the prayer in the collect: that God would set us free from the bondage of our sins and give us the liberty of the abundant life which he has promised us through Christ Jesus. Now, in order for us to step into that abundant life, there is a preparation that must take place. That preparation is the life we live now: the life of fasts that please God, the life of those who fear the Lord, the life of those who follow the commandments. This life is one that earns us God’s approval as was confirmed for Jesus upon his baptism.
This life is one that purifies us; it cleanses us; it shapes us into the version of ourselves that God intended. It is a life in which we seek continual connection with God, all day, every day, as tirelessly and as ceaselessly as God seeks that connection with us. This is the life in which we pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances – in prayer, and through our work, through our daily interactions with others, through the words we speak and through the thoughts that we harbour. This is the life in which we ‘read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest’ Scripture, every day, for as we do that, it fills our heart so that when, out of the abundance of the heart our mouths speak, what comes out will be words that reflect the nature of God and, in so doing, we glorify God. In this life, our first ‘person’ to vent to is God – not someone at church, not our partner, not our neighbour, not our friend – for, when we vent to God, we are taking it to the Lord in prayer who will, after we have vented, answer us and direct us in the way we are to go, so that, in whatever way we respond, we respond in a way that gives honour and glory to God. Friends, this is the life to which we are being called. It is one in which we seek to do good, as set out in the Lesson, we seek justice, we tend the outcast, we feed the hungry, we provide shelter for the homeless.
May I share something with you, though? As I reflect upon this life, I shudder because it’s a lot. But no sooner do I shudder, than I give thanks to God for, if this is the kind of life that God is calling me to, then it means that God has already determined the way for me to get there. God reminded us of the way when God sent Jesus, the Way, who called us to pick up our cross and follow him. Then, when Jesus left, He sent us the Holy Spirit who equips us for all the good works to which we are being called. So, I thank God that I do this work, not by might, nor by power, but by the Spirit of the Lord of Hosts. Can we say the same for our earthly leaders? How many times have we been assigned tasks at work but weren’t given the tools or resources to perform those tasks? How many of us, students in school, encountered questions on the exam paper that the teacher or lecturer had never covered in class? Let us thank God that He gives us the means to respond to the task that He has set before us.
But friends, the life that we are being called to live is one that we can only step into when the veil of the temple to our hearts has been removed. This life can only be lived when we allow God into our hearts who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, which we all received at our baptism, will wipe away the hardness of heart – the anger, the pride, the hate…or to use of the language of Galatians 5, the works of the flesh: ‘fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these’. Friends, this veil of hardness must be torn, this veil of the flesh that separates us from God, must be rent. This veil of spiritual destruction must itself be destroyed, from top to bottom.
Lights of the world
At this point, you might ask why? Let me remind you of who we are as Jesus reminds us in verse 17 of today’s Gospel: ‘[We] are the light of the world [and] no one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket [under that veil of the flesh], but on the lampstand so that it can give light to all in the house.’ Jesus goes on further in verse 19 to tell us that we are to ‘let [our] light shine before others, so that they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven’. But that light can only be seen when that veil, when that curtain has been torn in two from top to bottom.
So, let’s return to my call to begin with the end in mind. In just over two weeks, we begin Lent – a period of fasting, penitence, and abstinence. My question for us is this: how are we being called to a fast that pleases God? What are the veils, the curtains of the temple of our hearts that God needs to tear in two from top to bottom, so that we, shaped in the image and likeness of God, can be lights whose works will be seen by others who will, in turn, give glory to our Father in heaven? Today’s readings are timely for they sound a warning, a warning that, just as we received in Advent, calls us to prepare, to examine ourselves, to search ourselves and, moreover to invite God to search us, as the songwriter wrote: to know our hearts today, to see if there be some wicked way in us, to cleanse us from every sin and set us free [from the bondage of our sins].
My friends, as I close, I hope I have come following in the footsteps of Paul as he wrote in today’s extract from his first letter to the Corinthians, not proclaiming the mystery of God in lofty words, ‘but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God’. I pray that the Spirit of God, who searches the depths of God, will continue to reveal to us who love him, ‘what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor human heart conceived’, what God has prepared for us, and in so doing, help us to understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.
Friends, until next time, I pray you the love of the Father, the peace of the Son, and the joy of the Spirit.
This week’s readings:
- The Lesson: Isaiah 58:1-9a
- The Response: Psalm 112:1-9
- The Epistle: 1 Corinthians 2:1-12
- The Gospel: Matthew 5:13-20
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