Doing the Right Thing

N.B. this sermon uses a pop quiz as a scene setter - the answers are given during the sermon itself.


Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Luke 12:32-40


Paperback Writer - the Beatles

When I was in Whitegold, I used to get told that I never seemed to write one song, rather I'd write three and stitch them together, sometimes overlaying them and interplaying them. This sermon's a bit like that: it's got a beginning and an end, but it's also got two major themes. It's like the Beatles song - it has two different tunes going on at the same time: Paperback Writer and Frere Jacques.

First though, I want to take a quick look at the readings, some bits of which I'll pick up on later.

The Isaiah reading (ignoring verse 1, which is purely a scene setter) splits nicely into five parts: an introduction in verse 10, in which reference is made to Sodom and Gomorrah. Referring back to what Jason said about literal interpretations of scripture, you'll see that this is a metaphoric poetic reference, a symbolic thing, as both cities have been long gone by this point. It is a metaphor for a sinful people, who Isaiah sees he is addressing.

Verses 11-15 look at ritual, and God's abhorrence of it. He's fed up with sacrifices, festivals and prayers. Why? Because they have become meaningless.

Verses 16 and 17 describe the things that should come first, the things that should take place so that the sacrifices, festivals and prayers have meaning.

Reasons to be cheerful - Ian Dury

Verse 18 throws the curve ball - reason together? After all God's just said? Reason together and your sins shall be wiped away? That doesn't just sound reasonable, that sounds preposterously generous in a "bite your hand off" sort of way. My evangelical backgrounds screams "no - there must be a price" and of course there is, but not one that we can pay - one that Jesus paid on the cross.

Verses 19 and 20 are easier to get your head around - they're the carrot and the stick, if you like. "Do this and you'll be OK; don't and you won't". It's more what we expect. The contrast with verses 11-15 though, is that these describe a principle to be followed, not a set of rules.

The Luke reading exhorts us to be ready for service. To have the right motives for what we do. When the master returns he wants to find the servants ready. And then he serves them, paradoxically. It's not a return and them "right, off we go" but a return and "here, have a well deserved break".

Theme 1 - Doing the right thing

The Right Thing - Simply Red

I was once asked by some friends of mine for some advice on a particular matter that I won't go into here. I told them that they not only had to do the right thing (which I didn't doubt that they would) but to be seen to do the right thing. Obvious, really, but that's what the Isaiah passage is railing against - getting these things in the wrong priority: being seen to do the right thing, but not doing the right thing also. It's like fiddling your tax return and then going along to church and chucking a wad of tenners into the plate. Which brings in the Luke reading really and a bit of an aside - Jesus said far more about financial sin than any other kind. And yet General Synod spends three days debating homosexuality and ten minutes debating parish share-dodging schemes (which also annoyed the ABofC, so I'm in good company). A vicar who fiddles his expenses is on page 23 of the paper (as long as it's a slow news day) and is largely excused yet if he looks lustfully at the choir mistress then it's front page with cries for him to be defrocked (together with a cartoon suggesting that he already has been). It says things about our society and the way the church is influenced by it that I'm not sure I like. But I digress…

Christmas Wrapping - the Waitresses

Have you ever taken a chocolate out of a box, unwrapped it, eaten the chocolate and then rebuilt the wrapper and put it back into the box? Have you ever been the person who took one that someone else had done that to? Ritual with nothing behind it is like that - it looks great, but has no substance. It's tempting, but ultimately disappointing. Isaiah 1:11-15 looks at ritual, and God's abhorrence of it. He's fed up with sacrifices, festivals and prayers because they have become meaningless. They should be the icing on the cake, the outward expression of an inward devotion to God. Instead, they've become a shell, a façade to deflect attention away from what's really going on inside.

Ritual is not, of itself, wrong. Ritual should be, as I've just said, the icing on the cake, the outward expression of the inward being. There is good ritual - that which enables tasks to be accomplished efficiently. For example, it is possible to put your tie on before your shirt, but it's a lot easier the other way round. Many people (me included) make lists of things to be done and cross them off as they get done. Some do it for the satisfaction of seeing things accomplished; I do it as I've discovered that what stresses me most is not 'having a lot to do', but not knowing how much I've got to do. For me, writing a list removes that stress. I've then got to do it, but that's a different story. I also use packing lists. If you've seen the inside of my van you'll have noticed loads of lists of equipment on the inside of the door - each list for a different type of event. It means that, if I've loaded everything on the list, I've got all I need for that occasion and I don't need to worry. The lists are developed through experience - if I do an event and feel something's missing, I'll add it to the list so I've got it next time. It's a responsive ritual, if you like - one that responds to experience. When I unlock the Village Hall, I do it in the same order every time. It's not superstition or anything like it - it makes sure I've not missed anything. A question now for the men: do you shower before you shave or shave before you shower? Why? Ritual or efficiency? It's a responsive ritual, I'd suggest, as we've all developed our own ritual and for a reason.

Ready or not - Fugees

The Luke reading exhorts us to be ready for service. Readiness is required, a readiness that comes from having the right motives. It is a permanent readiness, a not putting off to tomorrow what should be done today - a sense of priorities. It's a call again to do the right thing before being seen to. Be ready, then act ready. If you try to do it the other way round, then you're not ready, are you?

Theme 2 - Frameworks

The Black Parade - My Chemical Romance

Ferry Cross the Mersey - Gerry and the Pacemakers

These are two of my favourite pieces of music. Does that surprise you? Maybe you expected me to like the MCR track, being very rocky, but not the G&tP one, being more of a ballad. Or maybe you expected me to know the G&tP track, being from the 60s, but not the MCR one, being from last year. Whatever, unless you were already aware of my very eclectic record collection, you've just had to change your opinion of me, albeit it very slightly. You've changed the way that you view me.

Whilst thinking about ritual, and why we do what we do, led me into thinking about worldviews, or mental frameworks, and how we use them and develop them. It's not as complex as it sounds.

Everyone has a worldview, or a mental framework. It's the way that you fit everything you know together and it influences that way you live your life. Every new bit of information, every new experience, gets added to it and how you make use of it depends on your worldview. If, for example, you get a puncture on the way to church then, depending on your worldview, you may see it as Satan attempting to prevent you from worshipping God; or you may see it as your fault for driving over that broken bottle; or as just be one of life's little trials for which you have the skills and ability (and tools and spare tyre) to get through unscathed; or even as a demonstration of God's mercy in that you weren't on a motorway doing 70 at the time. Your worldview (part of which is your theology) determines how you interpret the event that has taken place, and forms the response you make to it. If you're self-reliant, you'll either lock the car & jog to church or get on with swapping the tyre over. If you're not then you'll call the AA. If you're somewhere between the two you may flag down someone for help.

Our worldview or framework should develop, adapting as we experience new things and learn new stuff. But what happens when something comes along that doesn't fit? Well, to borrow an analogy from scientific theory, data that doesn't fit a theory means one of three things: the theory is wrong, the data is wrong, or the theory needs refining. I've got some wonderful maths examples of those things, but decided against them for this morning. But this is what happened with the laws of aerodynamics. They were fine, everything fitted and they even designed aircraft using them that stayed in the air. Then someone applied them to the bumblebee and discovered that, according to the laws, bumblebees couldn't fly. Which was news to the bumblebees who refused to bow down to mighty science and kept on flying, which was very inconsiderate of them and upset some very good scientists. The theory wasn't wrong - aircraft designed using it worked. The data wasn't wrong - the bumblebees kept flying. So the theory needed tweaking, which is what the scientists did, and produced a better (if slightly more complex) theory, resulting in better designed flying machines. So, if something comes along that doesn't fit into your framework, challenge it. Maybe it is wrong and should be discarded. Maybe you are wrong and you need to discard something. Maybe both you and it are right and you just need to adapt your view a little and it will fit.

But you must make sure that your framework is built correctly in the first place. Isaiah 1:16-17 describes the things that should come first, the things that should take place so that the ritual, the framework, the outward expression, have meaning.

This is how you develop your theology and, in fact, how all theology develops. Building on right principles: there is only one God, Jesus is His son, and so on (the stuff we say in the creed, in fact). Then adding to it, bit by bit. Does this fit? Yes - add it in. No - why not? And so on.

Spinning Around - Kylie Minogue

We all have and need a framework. It is important to build it on good principles and then the bits that fit will be good: if God builds the house, then it will be good. (Ps 127:1 - sort of). When you see someone living a life you wish you could, it's natural to want some of it (and testimonies we've heard recently suggest it's a prime form of evangelism). But, if you take someone else's framework without the principles that built it, then it won't work. We're back to this matter of doing and being seen to do the right thing. You hear people say "church should give a moral lead" or "Jesus was a great moral teacher" yet those that say it reject the morals that he taught or the morals that the church tries to lead with. They do this, not because they don't see the morals as good, but because they don't fit with the framework that they've built, because they're trying to add a framework and not the principles that underlie it. Jesus was a great moral teacher, yes. But if you try to take that bit without recognising that He is also the Son of God, you won't get very far. It's like being given Lewis Hamilton's car to drive: yes please! - but if you've not put in the practice (i.e. you don't have the underlying principles), you'll soon be found out and quickly. You'll be spinning around instead of driving in a straight line.

Be prepared for your framework to develop as you get to know God better, as you open yourself up to Him more and more. It will expand, it will require maintenance. It will develop into an outward reflection of your relationship with the Father. When I read Isaiah verse 18 and the bit about "reason together and your sins shall be wiped away", my evangelical background screamed "no - there must be a price". To reason away your sins is not to excuse them, but to offer to clean them at no cost to the sinner is unreasonable - but then, that's grace for you. It's unreasonable. It cannot be described, defined or explained. It just is and it's the best gift there ever could be. It's like the way a gas fridge works - it's a hot flame being used to cool things down. Has that ever struck you as being kind of odd? Now, I understand the principles of how it works, I can describe them to you, but a chunk of me still goes "that shouldn't work!" but it does. Grace is like that. It shouldn't be possible. But it is. I understand the principles, I can explain them, but bits of me still scream "but it must cost me something!" But it doesn't. Grace. Accept it, enjoy it, appreciate it. You don't have to understand it. It's something that I found very difficult to add into my theological framework, but I had to, because my framework needed tweaking.

Bob the Builder

Your framework is what you fall back on in times of trouble - it is your foundations. Unless God builds your house, you labour in vain (Ps 127:1 - the correct quote).

Conclusion and challenge

Come Together - the Beatles

  1. Be prepared for your framework to develop as you get to know God better. It will expand, it will require maintenance. It will develop into the outward expression of your relationship with the Father.
  2. How is your framework constructed? How sound is it? How robust is it? How flexible to God's promptings is it?
  3. Do the right thing - then be seen to do it, not the other way round.

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