Silchester, September 29th 2002


Being Better People for God


Matthew 21:23-32
Philippians 2:1-13


Morning has broken
Tell me the Stories of Jesus
Behold the Servant of the Lord
Lord, Thy Church on Earth is Seeking
O Jesus I have Promised


"It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure." Doesn't that make it sound easy? It's not. At least, it's not for me. I've never been able to completely sacrifice myself to God, saying, "Do with me as you will" or, as Wesley put more eloquently put it, "The deed, the time, the manner choose." I can't help putting something on the end, such as, "But not foreign missionary work, Lord. I don't fancy that." Or "But I don't want to go into the ministry, Lord - I'm no good at paperwork." Fortunately I've had no indication from God that he would want me to do either of those things, but that doesn't make it right to put those conditions on my service. How many of us are really ready to change our way of life radically for God?

That word - change - is at the heart of what I'm preaching about this morning. I'm not here to say that we should all be "good" people - I'm here to say that we should all be better people, and that the difference should be due to God and his will for us. That may not be very clear, so let me tell you a little story.

I'm a big fan of a trilogy of books by a man called Philip Pullman. It's called "His Dark Materials" and I couldn't recommend it more highly - so long as you've got a fairly thick skin. Pullman's not a fan of religion, and he doesn't pull any punches in these books. I find the books doubly interesting as a Christian, as they pose real questions about how religion is abused and about the power it can wield. The biggest challenge, however, was made at a book signing and discussion that Pullman gave in London. A man there asked him whether he agreed with the Roman emperor Nero, who said that the Christians had never given more light than when they were being burned. Pullman didn't agree with that, but he did say that he took the view that bad people will naturally do bad things. Good people will naturally do good things. It takes religion to make good people do bad things.

The reason it's so challenging is that in some ways he's perfectly right. Religion often brings with it a form of power over the followers which can be abused horribly, if we're not extremely careful. However, I would add two more thoughts to what Pullman said: "Religion can turn bad people into good people - and it can also turn good people into better people."

There's something about Methodism which either produces or attracts the middle classes, I've always felt. I suspect in purely practical terms, this is largely Wesley's doing: by helping to free working class people in the 18th century from addictions to alcohol and gambling, he helped them to be, as we might call it, "upwardly mobile". My guess is that if we were to profile the Methodist church, we'd find an awful lot of Liberal Democrat, Guardian-reading, socially-conscious Radio 4 listeners. It is just a guess, of course. I could be completely wrong here, and I'm certainly not trying to suggest that those institutions mentioned are better than any others. All I'm saying is that on the whole, Methodists probably count themselves and each other as being on the right side of the fence, pretty liberal, open-minded kind of people who want to do some good in the world.

And I think that's dangerous, even if we are generally being good people. We can always be better people, but not if we get too comfortable with how we are right now.

If someone asked me whether I was closer to being a priest or being a prostitute, I'd probably say "priest" - and I fear that Jesus might agree with me, and remind me of what he said in the passage of Matthew we heard earlier. I've probably become too complacent. I sit back and think of local preaching, and think of the little bit I do for the church in Tilehurst, and relax, thinking I'm doing my work for God. And I'm not saying I shouldn't be doing those things - but I wonder what else God wants me to do. Maybe he's got some work for me which actually requires real sacrifice, instead of just making my diary a bit busier. I can say I'm giving my life for God as often as I like - but am I actually doing it? Which of the sons in the parable am I being most like?

In the explanation of the parable, Jesus talks about prostitutes and tax gatherers entering the kingdom of God ahead of the chief priests and the elders. When I hear the word "tax gatherer" in relation to the Bible, I immediately think of Zaccheus, who was so changed by Jesus that he gave half of his possessions to the poor, and repaid those he'd cheated four times over. When I hear the word "prostitute", I think of Mary Magdalene. These are the kinds of people I believe Jesus was talking about. The thing they have in common is that they turned their lives round 180 degrees because of Jesus. They were willing to sacrifice their lives to God - to offer themselves up like leaves, and let the Spirit blow them where it wanted them to go.

That's an amazing thing to do. I'm not ready to do that, myself. Maybe you are - and those of you who are, or who already have, I admire you.

Even in my admiration though, I'm not sure I want to give up my life to God's will. I'm pretty sure, however, that I want to want to sacrifice myself. Christian life is often talked of as a journey, and maybe some day I'll just plain want to let God use me. Then some other day maybe I'll actually do it. I just pray I'm still able to do his work by the time I'm willing to do it. That day's a long way off, I suspect - but it'll only ever come if I take small steps towards it, making myself change for the better with God's help.

I see this as a bit like dieting, or trying to save money. My wife and I are on a bit of an economy kick ourselves at the moment, and it's amazing how much you can save if you actively try to. It's no use being woolly about it, and only thinking about it when you look at your bank statement: you've got to have it in your mind every time you would buy something, and set yourself targets for the food shopping, etc. By acknowledging that we need to do something, and keeping focused on that, we can achieve much more than we would just by sitting back and watching the world go by.

In that spirit, I've got a challenge for all of us. I was here on July 21st, and there was one feature of that service which sticks in my mind more than anything else. Anyone care to guess what? (Pause) It was long. It overran. This time I've written this sermon out longhand, in the hope that it won't overrun - because instead of taking up your time with extra preaching, I'm going to take it up with a job for each of you. Spend five or ten minutes this week doing something for God that you wouldn't have done if it hadn't been for your faith and this service. Call someone and let them know you care about them. Pray for someone. Make someone a cup of tea in the name of the Lord - whatever bit of God's will you feel you can do. Don't think I'm excluding myself - quite the opposite. As I've had to write less sermon, I reckon I've got to put at least 20 minutes into it!

So, rather than resting on our laurels of already being good people, let's get up and be better people - and do it for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, the only man who ever lived on earth who was worthy of heaven without sacrifice, but who gave his life for us anyway.


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