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The Sunday called Septuagesima

David Phillips

Holy Communion

LaHave, Crousetown, Broad Cove; February 4 AD 2007

1 Cor 9:24-27      St. Matthew 20:1-16

O LORD, we beseech thee favourably to hear the prayers of thy people; that we, who are justly punished for our offences, may be mercifully delivered by thy goodness.

Today is Septuagesima Sunday, we are about 70 days from Easter.  The Epiphany season, the season of the manifestation of God in Jesus Christ is over – and yet, we are really continuing the theme of manifestation, the clearer and clearer manifestation of God’s love, as we follow Jesus to Jerusalem and to His passion and death upon the Cross.


In these three Sundays before Lent, we are being called to join in with Jesus in His pilgrimage, in His suffering, that we, with Him, may rise to eternal life.


Our Collect, the prayer for today, speaks about our present suffering when we sin, and about our deliverance through the mercy of Christ – we pray that we, who are justly punished for our offences, may be mercifully delivered by thy goodness.


The language of the prayer seems harsh to our modern ears.  The punishment being spoken about is not at final judgement but in this present life – it says we, who are justly punished.  We probably don’t think of ourselves as being daily punished by God for our offences, but it is so.  When we stray outside the bounds of love, we don’t “get away” with anything, there is a divine justice at work to meet us.  Those of you who came to the Dante poetry reading last summer may understand this better:


-              On Mt. Purgatory, the punishment of the proud is illustrated by the poetic image of men carrying large stones on their shoulders which forces them to bend their necks down.  Surely it is the case that, in our lives, when we are proud we find ourselves experiencing opposition at every step, we seem to be fighting all the time against all those who would challenge our authority – we are justly punished for our offences.


-              On that mountain, the envious have their eyes sewn shut.  Surely it is the case that, when we are always envying what others are or have, we become blind to their goodness, we cannot share in their joy, we cannot learn, we can only weep that we don’t have what they have – we are justly punished for our offences.


-              The wrathful experience thick black smoke.  Is it not the case that when we are angry, we loose our ability to reason well, our sense of justice and proportion are lost, and life is brooding and bitterness? surely a punishment for our offence.


When we stand idle in the journey to heaven, we find ourselves bored, then easily carried away, busy doing nothing, and it leads to despair.  When we covet, we suffer because our eyes are focused only on the things of this earth and we can no longer even catch a glimpse of heavenly treasure.  When we fall for gluttony, we starve ourselves of spiritual nourishment.  When we break the bounds in seeking sexual pleasure, we burn and are not satisfied.


Do you know any of these punishments? God’s punishments in our lives?  It is the way that God has justly ordered the world to respond to our injustice, to prod us, so that we might turn from our wickedness and live.  It is the thorns and thistles we know in this fleeting world that we can so easily make into a veil of tears [Gen 3]. 


St. Paul, says to us today, Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things.


St. Paul gives the examples of runners who, even then, ran to win races – they are temperate, disciplined – careful about getting the right amount of food and drink and sleep – not too much, not too little.   (Morgan, at St. James', and her parents, know this well!)

I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a cast-away.


Rather than continuing to battle against love and experience outwardly God’s just punishments, St. Paul tells us to engage in the work of that inward battle between the flesh and the spirit – not to destroy the flesh but to bring it into subjection to the spirit, that our desire will not keep missing the mark, but rather, when rightly directed, receive that incorruptible crown – that God so desires to give.


At Christmas we celebrated with great joy, the birth of our Saviour.  We have been born again by our baptism and faith.  Now we are going up to Jerusalem with Jesus.  Will we leave him now? will we be idle? will we be unshriven, preoccupied? will we be fall by the wayside?


Do you understand St. Paul’s fear?  He had seen Jesus, had been given great visions of things unspeakable, knew something of the breadth, and length, and depth and height of the love of God in Jesus Christ—and yet, or perhaps because of this, he had a right fear lest he should be a cast-away


The Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early Church knew something of this fear.  In the 4th century these men and women, concerned that something of the rigor and discipline, the striving for the imperishable crown, was being lost in the Church, went into the desert to strive for the mastery, to avoid worldliness, easy pleasure, and to intensify the battle with the flesh that they might have, by the mercy of Christ, the mastery.  They knew the allure of their own flesh, and were afraid of being a cast-away


This morning, if we cannot understand anything of their fear and of their impulse to flee from a life of ease, we cannot understand these lessons.  But if we do understand this fear, we needn’t all go into the desert or enter the monastic life, to avoid being a cast away.  As we begin to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, to the Cross, the Church is asking us to reflect on our lives, understand better in what way we are suffering needlessly God’s just punishments for overstepping the bounds, and, trusting in the mercy of God, to become temperate in all things.


Perhaps we think that it is too late for us, that maybe if we were young it would be time to do that spiritual work with vigour.  Maybe we have some regret that we seem to have been standing idle for a while now, maybe even for many years.  Maybe our regret is heightened in the face of the example of St. Paul – maybe we feel discouraged. [Isaac Williams]


In our Gospel today Jesus encourages with a story about what the kingdom of heaven is like:

THE kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.  And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 


The householder keeps going, at the third hour, the sixth hour, the ninth hour and the eleventh hour to work in his vineyard– that is, God is calling us no matter where we are in our lives – infants, teenagers, the middle aged, the late in this life. 


No matter when the labourers enter into that work on the vineyard, they receive the same wage – the penny, the incorruptible crown, the gift of eternal life.  There is no-one here this morning, no matter what our age, who is not being called this morning to the labour of looking at our soul, God’s vineyard, and striving to be temperate in all things. 


Someone who is hesitating here today to enter into this labour, might say, “Maybe I’ll wait—if I get the same reward whether I enter into the labour at the end of my life as if I entered into it at the start, maybe I will just wait until then.”


If that is what you’re thinking, you are forgetting what we considered at the beginning of today’s sermon – the way in which we are punished justly in this life for our intemperance.  Would you like to continue with your pride, experiencing opposition everywhere you go?  Would you like to continue being blind to the goodness of God in others, and live in fear and sorrow?  Would you like to continue suffering smouldering rage?  Or to be preoccupied doing nothing? or to be so fixed on earthly pleasure that you fail to hope for, or to taste, or to be embraced by, the love of heaven?


What is it we are really holding on to when we chose to stand idle in the marketplace until the eleventh hour?  Is it not the just punishment for our offences?


Instead, let us no longer stand about the marketplace idle, but enter into the labour Jesus is calling us to, that is, to go with Jesus to Jerusalem, to the heavenly city, by the way of the Cross.


O LORD, we beseech thee favourably to hear the prayers of thy people; that we, who are justly punished for our offences, may be mercifully delivered by thy goodness, for the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Saviour, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.  Amen.



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