Relationships between couples can be problematic. However hard we try sometimes things don’t always work out. Every couple wants happiness, but sometimes it’s rather evasive.
So it was with, I’m sure, the best will in the world that around a hundred years ago Woman’s Weekly gave regular advice to wives on how to keep their husbands happy. In those days, of course, it was rather one way! And so Woman’s Weekly gave lots of tips to housewives that would enable them to make sure they had a happy husband and therefore a happy marriage.
Advice such as:
- Make your own clothes
- How to use up leftovers – including a recipe for rhubarb dumplings
- How to pack a holiday trunk
- Talk less
They also had reams of helpful advice for housewives on how to keep the home, and yourself, ship-shape because a ship-shape home and a ship-shape wife meant a happy husband and a happy marriage. Things like:
- Stir mushrooms with a silver spoon to identify the poisonous ones – actually completely untrue, it doesn’t work!
- Store your lemons in sawdust.
- Brush your hair for ten minutes each day to cure insomnia
Thankfully things have changed, and today, of course, we recognise that what creates a good relationship is not a matter of following those kinds of rules that people once thought important. And we know it’s not about one person keeping the other happy by doing all the right things.
It’s about mutual respect and care and love – of valuing the other and feeling valued in return. It’s about loving and cherishing, as the marriage service puts it, in every relationship we have – not just those between, as Woman’s Weekly saw it, a man and his wife, but between any two people committed to each other. For every committed relationship is blessed when we approach it lovingly and cherishingly and realise it’s not about simply doing all the right things.
There’s a tendency by many people to think that religion is in much the same vein as the advice from Woman’s Weekly. They think that If we keep the rules, do all the correct things – if we go to church regularly, put money in the plate, read our Bible, pray regularly, we will be being a ‘good’ Christian and then God will be happy.
But just as we have learned that the message of Woman’s Weekly a century ago that ‘doing’ all the right things isn’t ultimately what a committed relationship is about at its heart, so the message that we get today from our Bible readings is precisely the same. When we start to think about what it means to be a ‘good’ Christian we are in danger of losing the whole point. For being a Christian is not a matter of knowing and doing the right things, keeping sets or lists of rules, but about relationship. It is about being in relationship with our Creator and then living out the true meaning of that relationship in the way we relate to one another and the world around us.
Let’s begin with the reading from the prophet Isaiah. It begins with the prophet repeating God’s instruction to point out in no uncertain terms to the people that they are not living how God wants:
Thus says the Lord: Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.
But read on and it becomes rather puzzling. Because these are people who are actually seeking God. They want to know God’s ways. They are wanting God’s righteous judgements, they delight to draw near to God, they fast! And yet something is wrong, says God. The problem is that they are going through the motions, keeping the rules – but there’s something profound that is missing. And what is missing is the deep down heart-longing to know God and to reach out in love to each other. They keep the rules, they want God, but there’s no real love in their hearts for God and his ways.
Fast as much as you like but the way you fast won’t get you heard by me, says God. For the kind of fasting I want is this:
Get rid of injustice! Free those who are oppressed, break the yokes that hold them! Share your bread with the hungry! Shelter the homeless in your own homes! Clothe the naked! Then your light will shine and you will know healing! And when you cry for help the Lord will answer, Here I am.
Doing God’s will is not about keeping a list of rules or commandments – it’s about living out those commandments because you love God and you love people. A message as much for today as for the people for whom it was given two thousand seven hundred years ago!
Saint Paul’s message in our second reading also makes plain that what is key is being in relationship with God. The church at Corinth was a church that really believed it had it all in terms of being the kind of church that Jesus would want. The people there imagined that they had all of God’s gifts, they thought that spiritually they were really rather mature. There’s very much a sense here that in the Corinthian church everyone knows what makes a ‘good’ church and that they are all doing what is necessary. But right at the centre of Paul’s teaching is this – stop thinking in human terms about your spiritual life but let God’s Spirit in.
And he explains how when he came he didn’t come spouting great words of wisdom – he simply came showing the Spirit and the Spirit’s power, that the people might place their faith in the power of God, and not on any human ideas about how to live out the Christian life. For when we receive the Spirit of God, says Paul, then we understand the gifts that God has given us. And we can be what God wants, not what we think God wants.
Which brings us to Jesus and our reading from Matthew’s gospel. This is part of what we call The Sermon on the Mount which takes up three chapters of the gospel.
And I want to look at the end of today’s extract first. In the section we hear today Jesus finishes with these words:
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Now, one of the problems we have when we hear those words is that in the New Testament the scribes and the Pharisees tend to get a bad press. And perhaps we think that although somehow they were on the right track they weren’t really doing very well at all, and feel it’s probably quite easy to exceed their righteousness. And so we miss the import of Jesus’ statement. Because actually the scribes and the Pharisees were people who took the keeping of the Law extremely seriously. They believed in keeping it to the letter. They wanted to be good for God! And yet, says Jesus: it’s not enough because God is looking for more and I am looking for more than simply keeping all the rules.
Isaiah, speaking the words of God to the people, had said that when they stopped simply going through the motions of obedience but truly lived out the kind of life that God wanted then: your light shall break forth like the dawn. And here Jesus is saying the same thing. What I am looking for, he says, are people who don’t simply live according to the rules and think that’s all they need to do. I am looking for people who will allow the light of God to live within them and shine out. For you are the light of the world and you must let your light shine out so all can see.
Last week at Candlemas we heard how Jesus, as a baby, was welcomed by Simeon in the Temple as a light for all people. Now, says Jesus, you too must be a light. Not a light that is hidden, not a light that is kept to yourself, not a light that is somehow shielded and protected – but a light that gives light to those who struggle in the dark places of this world. For they need to see the light, they need to see you carrying God’s love to the world in the way you live, and the way you relate to each other and to them, and then they too will come to give God glory.
So – the message that is coming to us clearly through our readings today is this. Stop focussing on keeping lists of rules and get to the heart of what it’s all about. And it’s very Trinitarian this. Isaiah talks of the importance of living out the Father’s love. Paul speaks of the importance of allowing the Spirit of God to work through you. Jesus, the light of the world, the Son of God, reminds us that we need to shine out ourselves.
For our Christianity is not about going through a list of rules and commandments and ticking them off and thinking we’re doing better than someone else. As Isaiah pointed out to the people, we’re all sinners. Our Christianity is about knowing the deep, deep love of the Father in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, because we know that he reached out in love to us by sending his Son Jesus. It’s about loving God so much that we then want to keep the commandments because we just can’t do anything else.
And once we have begun to grasp and understand and live in that wonderful, loving relationship, then our lights will truly shine out because we just can’t help ourselves.
Let us pray
Too often we are afraid to light our lamp.
It can seem so dull, so uninteresting.
We have been afraid to share our faith with others;
our words seem so full of us and not of you.
Give us the courage to put our gifts
on the lamp-stand of your love
and use us to be your voice, your hands,
today and every day.
We pray in your holy name.