An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Building Fortresses

A sermon on Isaiah 43:16-21, Philippians 3:4b-14 and John 12:1-8 by Nathan Nettleton

Remembering is an important part of Christian discipleship. Week by week we read the scriptures together to remind ourselves of what God has done, to keep alive the stories of God’s wonderful deeds. We celebrate communion at the Lord’s table and we hear the words, “Do this to remember me.” Remembering protects us against being lured off into dangerous pathways. It helps us to recognise truth and stick with it.

But as important as remembering and sticking with the truth are, they are not the be all and end all, and they can become idolatries in themselves. And so every now and again in the scriptures, amidst all the calls to remember well, and stand solidly for the truth, we find a call to forget the past and to prepare for something that defies all previous understandings of the truth.

The reading we have just heard from Isaiah is just such an example. The Hebrew people are exhorted throughout the scriptures to retell again and again the stories of God liberating them from slavery through the Red Sea. But here, Isaiah mentions that event and then adds, “The Lord says, ‘Do not cling to events of the past or dwell on what happened long ago.’”

Why? “Watch for the new thing I am going to do.”

Remembering is of great value when it helps us to recognise God’s ways as they unfold, but it can easily degenerate into nostalgia and leave us with our eyes so fixed on the past that we can’t see the pathways opening up before us. Many Christians can tell impressive testimonies of how God has acted in their lives and saved them from the perils of their pasts, and we rightly honour them, but all too often if you ask them what God is doing in their lives now, or what new ways God seems to be opening up before them, you will get an uncomfortable shuffling of feet and a few cliches about continuing blessing and guidance, but nothing of substance.

“Do not cling to events of the past or dwell on what happened long ago.”

There is a very widespread tendency to set ourselves easily reachable goals of Christian acceptability, a sort of simple Christian ideal, and then just stay there without ever considering that Christ may be calling us to more than that, that we may be being called further down the pathways of holiness or commitment or discipleship.

Paul made it quite clear to the Philippians, that he had done this. “As far as a person can be righteous by obeying the commends of the law, I was without fault.” Quite a claim, isn’t it. “I knew what the standard was and I measured up to it impeccably. I knew the truth and I stood firmly on it and nothing could budge me.” But now he says, “I consider it all as mere garbage.” Actually his word so politely translated as garbage is the word for excrement, so his statement probably had more the flavour of, “Now I count it all crap.”

Why? Because one day he realised that though he was still standing firmly in the same place, God had moved on. And once God has moved on, standing firmly in what was the right place becomes standing firmly in the wrong place.

Faithful Christian living is not about staking out the lines of truth and righteousness and building a fortress around them. It is about following Jesus Christ on a journey that goes further and further down a road less travelled. Remember what happened for the disciples who witnessed the transfiguration of Christ. A more divine moment you could not imagine, a moment when the thin veil that separates earth from heaven was pulled back completely. And their immediate reaction was, “Can we build some shelters here? Can we hang onto this? Can we stay here and just lose ourselves in the fullness of worshipping the revealed Christ for the rest of eternity?” The answer of course was “No”. Christian faith is not a mountain to climb with a top that you reach and just put up a shelter. It is a long and winding road – a road with many wonderful clearings where the beauty and sanctity of the moment is breathtakingly clear and invigorating. But you are invigorated from the next stage of the journey, not for building shelters.

As Paul said, the idea is “to forget what is behind me and do my best to reach what is ahead.”

This can be very confusing for those of us who think in terms of rules and procedures and protocols. Often we like to know that there are set ways of doing things that stay the same and can be relied on to get us by in any circumstance. But following Jesus is much more relational than that, and relationships are always much more fluid and unpredictable. Just think about how people react to one another, how the same thing said on two different occasions can come across entirely differently. One day you say “I love you,” and they go all warm and floaty. The next day you say in exactly the same way, “I love you”, and their eyes narrow and they snap, “What do you want?” It can be very disorienting.

Judas must have felt a bit like that in the story in our gospel reading. Normally you’d feel fairly confident that if you advocated selling your possessions and giving the money to the poor you’d get a pat on the back and a compliment from Jesus. But not this time. Jesus replies “Leave her alone. You’ll always have the poor but you won’t always have me.”

Jesus is by no means disparaging concern for the poor, but he is saying that if you build a fortress around it, even something as overwhelmingly good as care for the poor can become a lifeless idolatry. Your fortress can become your prison.

There will be times when it is right to express your love for Jesus in acts of compassion and solidarity with the poor and needy. There will be times when it is right to express your love for Jesus in fiercely defending a truth against those who would undermine it. And there will be times when it is right to express your love for Jesus by stepping away from such causes and spending time in lavish acts of devotion like Mary did with her perfume.

None of those things are wrong. In fact at any given moment they can be the absolute pinnacle of Christian faithfulness and commitment. But to build a fence round one moment’s pinnacle is to make the fatal mistake of forgetting that the next moment’s pinnacle is further down the road in whatever direction Jesus is leading. The greatest danger to Christian discipleship, and perhaps the most subtle temptation of all, is the fence that safeguards our righteous accomplishments. No sooner do we erect them than they become obstacles to our following.

This is absolutely crucial for us as a church too, not just for us as individuals, especially in these rapidly changing times. You don’t have to read too widely or look too far to know that the church as we have known it is in trouble. Churches are closing down all over the place and churches that are growing like ours are very much the exception. And many of the churches that have died died because when they had a good period like we’re having, they tried to preserve it, they tried to perfect what they were doing right and hold it there. And if we do nothing else but perfect what we are doing well now, we will be dead within the next ten to twenty years too.

“Do not cling to events of the past or dwell on what happened long ago. Watch for the new thing I am going to do. It is happening already – you can see it now! I will make a road through the wilderness and give you streams of water there.”

Many people will never taste those streams because they are still back at the last stream which is now running dry. The God who takes each new day as the beginning of a new journey has moved on, joyously dancing an unpredictable path into a mysterious future. And though that can often feel frightening and insecure, it is ultimately a lot safer than sitting resolutely beside a drying up water hole, because in Jesus Christ we have seen that no matter how uncrossable the wilderness and how devastating the cross, God will always lead us to resurrection and the streams of life giving water beyond.


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