For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh— even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
I don’t know about you, but I confess to a certain level of rising anxiety this week. I’m find myself anxious about a lot of things. There’s the number of rising infections, of course. Will I fall victim to this virus? Will my family? Or any more of my parishioners and friends, like dear Bill Saggrot, last week? This week, I’ve been especially anxious about doing the right thing for our Remembrance Sunday commemorations - frantically trying to arrange all the pieces. And I'm a bit anxious about the planning of our Christmas services - because I don't know how many people we will be able to safely accommodate.
But I’m anxious about other things too. Like the state of world politics, especially in the context of COP26. What chance is there, really, that the world's leaders will stop plaing politics, and become 'statesmen' (as the Queen so wisely challenged them, this week).
Tomorrow is, of course, November the 5th. So that adds a new layer of anxiety – especially for those of us who have pets or very small children. We want to protect them from the stupidity of letting off fireworks – usually by people who have no idea who Guy Fawkes was!
Anxiety is, of course, a normal human reaction to the changing circumstances of life. It’s part of our natural protection mechanism. We cast around for threats to our security, or comfort. We are on our guard…and that makes us anxious. We become more alert…less likely to sleep…and therefore more anxious.
In our first reading, St Paul describes the kind of anxiety that he has lived with, all his adult life. There’s an almost Trumpian level of boasting on display as he talks about all the ways that he tried to work himself up into being acceptable to God. He was ‘circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, a Hebrew born of Hebrews a Pharisee, a persecutor of the church; righteous under the law and blameless. (You can just hear Donald Trump at this end of that list can’t you? ‘No-one has ever been more righteous-er than me!’).
There’s a lot of anxiety on display in today’s Gospel reading, too. First, there’s the anxiety of the Pharisees and scribes. They were anxious about this new charismatic preacher in their midst, who appeared to be leading people away from their way of doing religion. They were anxious about losing their authority – losing their power base.
And then, in Jesus’ parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin, his main characters display anxiety too. The shepherd is anxious about his lost sheep – so much so that he leaves all his others, to go in search of the one who was lost. The woman who has lost a silver coin is anxious. How will she feed her family, or have dignity in her old age, when she has lost her coin?
Both the shepherd and the woman are offered to us as pictures of God. Now, we need to be careful about making God in our image – but there is a sense in which Jesus sees God as being anxious about the spiritual fate of his children. The Scriptures in general give us a picture of a God whose whole being is anxiously focussed on the salvation of humanity. He is anxious to communicate his wisdom for living, sending prophet after prophet to teach us his ways. When that stratagem fails, he sends his son – his very self in human form – to teach us from his own mouth, and then to die in order to show us the way to life.
And ultimately, it’s God’s sheer passion – anxiety if you will – for his children which saves us. Paul ultimately discovers that all anxiety about faith, all his chasing after righteousness was ‘rubbish’ compared to the experience of finding out that God loves us, anyway. In fact - and here's a nugget for Bible nerds - the word that Paul used, in Greek, was not 'rubbish' at all. It was a strong, attention-grabbing word related to 'dung' or 'excrement', which would not normally be used in polite society. Paul wants his readers to to understand that all the ways we try to save ourselves, without the wisdom and grace of God, are like so much...well...dung.
We have no need to try and earn God’s favour – because he is already favourable towards us. He loves us…enough to have come to live among us, and die among us. For, what greater love is there than this…that a man should lay down his life for his friends? This is the kind of God who will search out the lost sheep, or the valuable lost coin. This is the kind of Father who stretches out his hands to his children and says ‘Come unto me, all ye who travail and are heavy laden…even in a pandemic, even when the politics of the world are in chaos, even when the climate is catastrophically changing…and I will give you rest.
So, to my own present anxiety, and to yours, I say this: let us use the coming days to rest in the Lord. Let’s stop chasing after the things of creation which we think will make us happy, and look to the source of all creation instead. Let’s take time to rest in the loving gaze of our heavenly father, to contemplate his teachings, and receive the power of his love.
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