The readings we had this evening are both very familiar. Old friends, you might say. I think, though, that they were well chosen for this first Sunday evening in Lent, as they remind us that this whole business was God's idea, not ours.
Our Gospel reading was the first two stories about losing things from Luke 15. The lost coin and the lost sheep. I imagine you probably lose things as often as we do. With me, it's usually my reading-glasses, or my ordinary ones if I happen to be wearing my reading ones. Contact lenses are a blessing in that respect, as then my reading-glasses are either round my neck, perched on the end of my nose, or in my handbag!
And I won't be so unkind as to mention how often Robert loses things! But we all do, and probably more often as we get older. And the woman in Jesus' story had lost her coin.
I gather that the thing about the coin was that it formed part of a woman's dowry. It was kept, with its fellows, in a band she wore round her head, so it would be immediately obvious if one fell off. What might not be so immediately obvious, however, is where it would have landed. It might even have dropped off in the street, when the chances of her finding it again would be minute. But she doesn't despair; she searches very thoroughly in all the nooks and crannies of her house, and I do wonder what else she found while she was looking! Eventually her search pays off and, much to her relief, she finds the coin. And she really celebrates, rushing round to all her neighbours and yelling that she has found it, she's found it!
And, of course, the story of the lost sheep, so familiar from a thousand pictures of the Good Shepherd carrying it home round his neck, which my brother, who is a shepherd, tells me is about the only practical way of carrying a sheep. Only the pictures don't show what the sheep is apt to do all down one's front. I assume the Good Shepherd doesn't use the sort of language my brother does when it happens, either!
Anyway, sheep always think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, and if they can escape, they will. And the shepherd has to go out and get them back into safety, especially if they are in danger of going on to the main road. Then, of course, they have to be counted, to make sure everyone's home safely. And if someone isn't, then the shepherd must go out and search for it.
The point is, of course, that it is passive. Neither the coin nor the sheep has to do anything. They are looked for, they don't have to do the looking. I think Jesus was trying to tell us that we can relax and let him do the fussing about our relationship!
I know that when Emily was attracted to the Baha'ai faith after she had made such close friends with those students in Switzerland – she'll kill me if she decides to read this on my website – I had a very reassuring vision of the Good Shepherd pulling on Barbour and wellies and going off after her! And sure enough, He found her again. You end up not worrying just so much when that sort of thing happens.
We so often feel that our relationship with God is down to us. Or worse, that our loved ones’ relationship is down to them, so if they seem to be wandering off what we consider to be the right track we start panicking and trying to tell them what to do.
And likewise, when we get into one of those stages of life where we feel we have grown “cold in the service of God” – and it happens to us all – we start to panic, and think that God will abandon us just as we feel we have abandoned him. But that isn’t true. It may feel as though we’ve abandoned God, but whether or not we have – and the chances are it’s just one of those times of darkness that seem to happen to all of us, not our fault, or anything we can do about it, but even if we have abandoned God, God has not abandoned us, but goes searching for us.
Part of the problem, of course, is the language we use. We speak of being “saved by faith”, and while we need faith to believe in what is happening to us, it is not, of course, our faith which saves us! It is what Jesus did on the cross that saves us; our faith merely enables us to make that true for us. But salvation was God’s idea, and is something God does for us, not something we do. Rather like Jesus reminding us that we cannot, by our own efforts, add one centimeter to our height – such a pity that isn’t true about one’s girth – well, we cannot, of our own efforts, save ourselves.
I rather appreciate being reminded of this on this first Sunday in Lent. We are about to spend the next six weeks preparing ourselves for Easter, and some years this is more difficult than others. I rather suspect that this year, for us-as-a-church, will be more difficult than some, given that we are in an interregnum, and that our future is uncertain. So it is reassuring to remember that all this is God’s idea, not ours!
And, of course, God has given us some tools to help us. In our first reading, we are reminded of one way:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.
Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.
Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead,
and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Religious Jews do exactly that, in what are called phylacteries, which are leather pouches containing scrolls with passages of scripture. Jews refer to them as tefillin. The Greek term "phylacteries" literally means "amulets" and is offensive to some, apparently. They attach the little pouches to their persons when they go to pray.
And many Jewish people who are not otherwise observant attach mezuzah to their doorposts. These are little boxes. The words of the Shema – the “Hear oh Israel” exhortation – are written on a tiny scroll of parchment, along with the words of a companion passage, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, which says almost the same thing. On the back of the scroll, a name of God is written. The scroll is then rolled up placed in the case, so that the first letter of the Name (the letter Shin) is visible (or, more commonly, the letter Shin is written on the outside of the case). And then whenever you go in and out of your house, you touch the mezuzah, to remind yourself of God’s presence with you. I haven’t heard of any Christian homes doing this, but it’s a lovely idea. Maybe we should! It would be a good way of, as it were, “touching base” with God whenever one went in or out.
Of course, that passage also evolved into the services of Scripture that we know today, via the synagogue services that Jesus would have been familiar with, through the “Hourly prayer” of the Benedictines, and the Anglican services of Matins and Evensong, down to the Methodist Preaching services such as this one! And there are plenty of other what Wesley called “Means of Grace”: the Scriptures themselves, Holy Communion, Fellowship with others, prayer and so on. The whole point isn’t to place a burden of obligation on to us, but to provide us with helps as and when we need them. Only, all too often, we are apt to treat them as burdens, as Things We Have To Do if we are to be Saved, whatever we may mean by that.
But, as I said before, salvation was God’s idea, not ours. And that, I think, is where we came in. The point is, then, not to be overburdened down by Lent. To remember that God means it as a help, not as a burden. Like Jesus said about the Sabbath being made for man, not man for the Sabbath – same sort of thing. We are God’s children, we are loved, and God intends for us to enjoy, not endure, being His Children. Amen.