Third Sunday of Lent (Year C)
Today's readings ought to be approached with reverence and holy fear! We ought to do that of course every week, but particularly this week because they speak to us of a very great spiritual problem that we suffer in our own time and in this part of the world. The problem that our readings today address is the problem of complacency. I suggest to you that Christians in western Europe are generally far too complacent – and what God's Word says to us in the readings today, is that complacency will lead to downfall – spiritual ruin.
For example, why is it that people in our society are far more careful about not insulting Muslims than they are Christians? Why is it that when religious freedom is trampled upon in our society the most we can hope Christians will do is write a letter to their MP? Why is it that when our society proposed to introduce the legal destruction of unborn babies that we were not raging with righteous anger and demonstrating on our streets? Why is it that when Christians going about their normal work who refuse to promote something that goes against their faith, are arrested, are fined, are demoted, are sacked - we do very little or nothing about it? Why is it that we have allowed our society on the back of equal rights legislation to close down Catholic adoption agencies? Why is it that when the prime minister proposes to re-define marriage in law most Catholics protested just by sending a post-card to their MP? Why is it that when in the last few days a police chaplain has been sacked for publishing his support for traditional marriage on his personal website, we have done very little?
What will we do when teachers will be prevented from following their conscience in the class-room, refusing to support gay marriage and when they will almost certainly be sacked, what will we do? Anything? What will we do if foster parents are prevented from telling their children their beliefs in traditional Christianity? What will we do as religious freedom after religious freedom is eroded in our society? What will we do? The track record is not good! It is likely we will do very little; at most contact our MP. And eventually our nation will become a truly secular state and truly anti-religious. And sadly brothers and sisters WE will have allowed them to be eroded because of our complacency.
The erosion of religious freedom has been somewhat subtle of course. The forces of this erosion don't portray themselves as being anti-religious, but of being about stopping offensiveness, of stopping us hurting feelings, of stopping us promoting prejudice, of keeping our religion private and not imposing it on others.
One of the reasons that we have allowed all this to happen is because inside we have allowed our faith to be dulled. We don't like it when our faith makes us feel uncomfortable, when it stirs us up, when it challenges us. We don't like it. We like a faith that makes us feel comfortable. We like a faith that settles our disturbing feelings. What we want is just peace, an absence of conflict, within – that's all!
Brothers and sisters let me tell you today: that is NOT what God wants for you, for me! God expects you and I to bear fruit in our lives, good fruit (not moderately nice fruit). God is who He is, but He is also a God who acts! He abhors complacency! He spits out of His mouth the lukewarm! He does not want lukewarm followers!
In the parable of the fig tree in the vineyard, He says, through the words of the gardener, about the fig tree that is not producing fruit, “leave it one year and give me time to dig round it and manure it: it may bear fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.” Yes He has mercy and gives it one more year but there will come a time when He will say, “Cut it down.” St Paul referring to the lesson we ought to learn from the Israelites who perished in the wilderness, and never reached the Promised Land, says, “All this happened as a warning... The man who thinks he is safe must be careful that he does not fall!”
We think God is a good chap, He won't really condemn us, He is a God of love, and love means He will not give us a hard time. That is not true! Love actually means He WILL give us a hard time. Love means He is angry about our sins! He is angry because our sins disfigure us, and distort the image of God within us. His anger is actually good news for us because it means He really cares about us! Does a mother or father show their love for their children if they let their children continue in sinful behaviour? Of course not! They are angry with their children's sinfulness! Love makes them angry! They really care! God loves us more than we can imagine – but that also means that God is angry with us, children of His, when we sin against Him.
And complacency is a great sin of omission. We like to think it is a little sin – but it is not. For evil to triumph it requires only that good men do nothing. Not doing what we could have done. It is being lukewarm about our faith – it is about avoiding anything that disturbs us, anything that offends, anything that brings conflict. Being lukewarm is being happy with a modicum of contentment and avoiding anything that disturbs that. Being lukewarm about our faith means we will avoid letting people know our beliefs, especially the beliefs that offend others! Being lukewarm means we hide our faith under a bushel. We only let it out on certain occasions, otherwise we carry on as if everything is okay, that we are nice and inoffensive people!
His Holiness Benedict XVI stepped down because he knows the successor of Peter needs great energy to do what needs to be done, and although he has done what he could do even at a senior age, now his body is failing he knows he must pass it on to someone who has the needed energy. But unless we become Catholics who are not complacent, but who have energy and ardour for our faith, Catholicism and Christianity will continue to decline in Europe no matter how energetic the new pope is. There is a battle going on, and our complacency means what we want to do is avoid conflict, avoid showing that we object to what is going on, avoid showing others what our faith means. Complacency means we tend to drop our weapons: we tend to not persevere in prayer when it becomes difficult, it means we tend not to grow in knowledge of Scripture lest we hear God's Word, it means we do not have a care to increase our knowledge of our faith because then it will present us with too many challenges and require too much time and energy of us. Complacency therefore means we surrender our weapons! And of course without weapons we are bound to try to avoid conflict!
We must approach the readings today with holy fear! We must listen to St Paul saying that the Exodus is a warning to us all. God heard the cry of His people in oppression in Egypt. He extended His arm against the Egyptians with mighty wonders, and through Moses led His people through the waters of the Red Sea to the Exodus. There He instructed them on how to live their lives. But time and time again they rebelled, they were disobedient, they were wayward, they did their own thing as soon as Moses' back was turned! And St Paul tells us that we should see this as a warning for us all, that many of them perished before they reached the Promised Land! We also need to hear the words of our Lord today, “unless you repent you will all perish as they did.”
If there is only one tendency to sin, that we do something about this Lent, brothers and sisters, let it be complacency that we really deal with!
IH 2nd March 2013