Are your affairs in order? Have you made your will? Is your spiritual house in order? These are questions many people in every age have put to the back of their mind saying, “There’s plenty of time”; “I’m only young”; “Life is for living”; “I’ve got all on providing for my family in the here and now”; “One day I’ll get round to those things.”
Jesus has, in the chapter of Luke that precedes our reading today, been telling people that having your spiritual house in order is not a thing to delay. No-one ever knows when their life will end. No-one ever knows when the “End Times” will be. Everyone needs to be ready, alert, prepared. We need to be honouring God in the here and now, not putting things off for some more appropriate time in the future (that might never arise).
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is asked about the killing of some Galileans by the Romans. The questioners are seeming to hope that Jesus will say that these Galileans were particularly sinful and therefore somehow deserving of death. But Jesus refutes this and comes back with an example of people in Jerusalem accidentally killed in the collapse of a tower. Sudden death happens – we need to be prepared!
We know that in our own day sudden death happens – accidents while travelling; catastrophic weather events; acts of violence; sudden illness… Sudden death happens. As events in Christchurch, New Zealand have shown us, even the quietest, friendliest places are not immune to sudden violence. The cyclone that recently hit Mozambique and surrounding area is highly unusual but it happened, and with devastating impact. Even in our own times when we like to feel in control of events, we need to be prepared as unexpected things can befall us at any time. That is not to say we need to be paranoid about danger around every corner – but we should not put off spiritual matters and being prepared for our own death.
Jesus goes on to tell a parable, about a fig tree that does not bear fruit. The owner of the tree wants to cut it down but the gardener pleads for an additional year to give it extra care and attention. If it still bears no fruit, it can be cut down. Jesus tell the parable to give a message of hope as well as one of warning. God continues in forbearance and mercy, waiting for his people to turn to him and bear fruits of righteousness, but his patience will not last forever. We do not know the time when the end time will come. We do not know the time of our death – so we need to be prepared.
Jesus urges us to put our spiritual lives in order as we never know when we might die.
Paul urges people in the church to put their spiritual lives in order – to avoid temptation and complacency.
We have to think that when Paul wrote to the Corinthians he was sure that they would understand his references to the Exodus story from the Old Testament as told in Exodus and Numbers. Paul refers to the cloud that led the Israelites when they first fled from Egypt and continued to determine when they would travel and when they would stay in camp as it lifted or rested on the tabernacle. The whole people experienced crossing the Red Sea on dry land when God parted the waters for them. Later, in the wilderness, manna and quails were provided by God to feed the people and Moses brought forth water from the rock when he hit it with his staff, on God’s orders.
Despite all these amazing manifestations of God’s love and care, the people were often quarrelsome and rebellious. Paul’s quotation “the people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry” comes from Exodus. Moses was up the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments from God but he had been there some time and the people grew restive and impatient, wondering what was happening. They made a golden calf to worship and ate and drank in celebration of their idolatry. Grumbling and complaining is an almost constant background to the Exodus story and God gets angry with the people. There are plagues and an infestation of snakes. When some of the people start worshipping the Baal god of the Moabite people and indulging in sexual immorality God is particularly angry and sends a terrible plague and decrees that this generation will not enter the Promised Land but must wander in the wilderness for 40 years.
Paul is using the Old Testament story as a parallel with the Christian experience. He compares the guidance of the cloud and the crossing of the Red Sea with baptism and the food and water in the desert with Christian spiritual food and drink at the Eucharist. Paul’s point is that all the people benefited from the miraculous acts of God’s grace. All the people were guided, saved, fed and watered but still they were rebellious; still they grumbled and were ungrateful; still they indulged in idolatry and immorality. All the people benefited from God’s blessings and grace, but many still went astray.
Paul emphasises that we cannot be complacent in our faith. We cannot think that because we have been baptised and become part of the body of Christ and share in communion we can cut ourselves some slack and yield to temptation. We know God is gracious and merciful and loving but we must never abuse that grace and love by thinking God will turn a blind eye to us if we wander off the Christian path and give in to temptation and welcome us back when we want. In baptism we say we have died to sin and risen with Christ. Being in the church is about living a life worthy of Christ.
Paul knows the Corinthians, and we, as humans will experience temptations that come to all people, but through our faith we should endeavour to stand firm and ask God to help us to resist temptation. If we can walk with him, we can find a way through, believing we will not be tempted beyond what we can endure.
Neither of our readings today is easy and the messages in them are not the most obvious to understand, but both Jesus and Paul are urging us to be alert and vigilant in our spiritual life. We need to be prepared spiritually for whatever may come whether our life is long or short. They call on us to look to our own behaviour to make sure we are living as well as we can, being thankful to God for what He has done for us. We cannot be complacent as part of God’s family and must never abuse God’s grace and mercy and love by putting it to the test. We need to keep our eyes on living righteous lives and being prepared for death whenever it may come. We live as those who know Christ’s call and cherish his presence and example and give thanks for all he has done for us.
As our post-communion prayer says: Merciful Lord, grant your people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.