Scripture Readings: Philippians 3:17-4:4
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
The Pharisees, generally speaking, get a bad name in the New Testament. Again and again, we hear of Jesus in conflict with the Pharisees. Perhaps it was because that in some ways, they were quite alike. Both Jesus and the Pharisees called people to stick to God’s ways in a world dominated by the pagan rulers of Rome.
But Jesus thought that the Pharisees went too far. They took the commandments of God and turned them into nit-picking rules, and he thought they were hypocrites into the bargain.
There is a passage in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus takes them to task. So, for example, the Pharisees said that you should tithe a certain amount of your income. Jesus accused them of being obsessed with the detail, and said to them,
‘[you] have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith’.
Or they obsessed with ritually cleaning the plates and cups they used to eat; no point in that, said Jesus, if your heart is not in the right place: ‘
‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence’.
And Jesus sums up the attitude of the Pharisees in biting language:
You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
Worst of all, from the Pharisees point of view, was that Jesus did not agree with them that you kept yourself pure by keeping away from sinners. Elsewhere Matthew’s Gospel records a time when the Pharisees complained that Jesus had the check to eat with those they deemed unworthy of a religious teacher:
…as [Jesus] sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners’.
The New Testament gives us this notion of the Pharisees as hypocritical enemies of Jesus. So it’s a surprise to find some nice Pharisees today! For as Jesus is on his way towards Jerusalem, he gets a warning:
At that same time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “You must get out of here and go somewhere else, because Herod wants to kill you.”
This is one of the few places in the New Testament where Pharisees come out well. It’s a reminder that we shouldn’t always be fooled by stereotypes. For here is a group of people- often seen as enemies of Jesus- who cared enough for him to pass on this warning.
One of the problems the Church faces today is that many people think we are Pharisees- hypocritical and nit-picking. And too often we do give that impression- quick to judge others, and forgetting the big issues of justice, mercy and faith.
Ness Bank Church this week hosted a visit talk this week by Adrian Shaw, the Church of Scotland’s Climate Change Officer. I think it is great that we have a Climate Change Officer, for, as we have been reminded in recent months, we are facing, not just climate change, but a climate emergency. There is much to do to wean us off fossil fuels, and prevent a catastrophe with our atmosphere. And the Church can use its voice to keep the issue to the forefront.
Yet speaking to someone about this event, they asked me if it was the case that the Church of Scotland is still investing its funds in oil companies- who, after all, make money from digging fossil fuels out of the ground. And, I’m afraid, we still do invest in them. For many people outside the Church, that looks like hypocrisy.
Like the Pharisees, we are urging other people do things, without doing it ourselves. We strain to deal with gnats- arguing furiously over small issues. But we swallow camels- allowing major injustices to go unchallenged. When we neglect the weightier matters of which Jesus spoke- justice, mercy and faith- then we diminish our witness to the Gospel.
For Christians, Jesus is always our example. His life is a guide to how we should live without hypocrisy, for he seems always to have led a life which was in tune with his convictions. Yet that brought him into conflict with others- especially those whose lives were not so pure.
Today’s Gospel reading has Jesus speaking about his mission to the city of Jerusalem. He can see that his journey to Jerusalem is a journey into controversy, conflict and confrontation. In Jerusalem he will meet his enemies head on. Already, on the road to Jerusalem, here are some Pharisees telling him that Rome’s puppet ruler, King Herod, wants to kill him. In Jerusalem Jesus will be arrested, tried and executed. Going to Jerusalem will be the death of him.
But he still goes. He replies to the Pharisees, ‘Tell that old fox Herod I’m carrying on with God’s work. He’s not going to stop me today or tomorrow from bringing healing to the sick and struggling with evil’. Jesus refuses to give up, even though he is aware of what a dangerous place the city is:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets, you stone the messengers God has sent you!
And yet he will go to Jerusalem, for at least two reasons.
Firstly, because even when the people of Israel reject him, Christ still loves the city. He uses a lovely image: he’d like to be like a mother hen looking after her chicks, taking city under her wing: but the people of the city will not let him. Jesus loves the city of Jerusalem, despite the fact that the city so often rejects God. He laments for the city, precisely because he loves it so.
And Christ loves our city, this city of Inverness, despite the fact that so many in the city reject God. For even if there are those who wish well for the Church, still our city, like all cities, too often only pays lip service to God, or ignores or rejects God. The many churches which exist within our city are not a sign that this is a city which loves God (in fact, some of these churches are a sign of the sinfulness of the city, because they have been set up by Christians who feel they are too good to be in the same Church as other Christians!). If our city loved God, there would no-one homeless, no families wondering where their next meal will come from, no-one who is lonely or despairing. And when we do try to bring God’s kingdom to the city, we too will meet controversy, conflict and confrontation. Yet Christ loves the city, and all who live here- so we have to love it too!
The other reason Jesus carries on into the dangerous city of Jerusalem is because it is God’s plan for him. Recall the message he gave the friendly Pharisees for Herod: Here, Jesus is talking about what he believes his mission to be. Right now, he’s bringing healing and carrying on with work which indicates that God’s kingdom is on its way- the sick are cured and evil is driven out (‘I am driving out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow’). But then he adds, ‘and on the third day I shall finish my work’. In fact, this might be better rendered as Jesus saying, ‘on the third day I will be perfected’. The reference to ‘the third day’ is a reference to his death and resurrection.
Elsewhere, Jesus takes his disciples aside and tells them,
Listen! We are going to Jerusalem where everything the prophets wrote about the Son of Man will come true. He will be handed over to the Gentiles, who will make fun of him, insult him, and spit on him. They will whip him and kill him, but three days later he will rise to life.
Going to the city will lead to Jesus’ death, but that is just part of God’s plan. It does not end at the cross, but it ends, is perfected, ‘on the third day’, with Easter, and his resurrection. And so Jesus will continue on his way.
Sometimes God’s plans for us might seem- to us- to be disastrous. When Jesus warned his disciples what was ahead at Jerusalem, they often did not understand. For the idea that your leader might be intending to go to where he will die must had seemed just crazy to them. And yet, that was God intended- crucifixion and resurrection.
In the same way, we need to follow where God is leading us- even if those ways are uncomfortable for us. And that will mean, as it did for Jesus, death. There will be things we have to put to death, to leave behind, to crucify, if we are faithful to God’s plan. But ultimately, the cross is not the end. St Paul says that we who have been baptised are already ‘citizens of heaven’ (Philippians 3.20). And he hints that we will share in Christ’s resurrection:
He will change our weak mortal bodies and make them like his own glorious body.
Whatever struggles lie ahead, we will continue to have hope. For we are Easter people. We believe in resurrection- in the possibility of life arising where once there was only death, and of hope replacing hopelessness and fear.
Week by week, we say a prayer which Jesus gave his disciples, which includes the words: ‘your will be done, on earth as in heaven’. We pray those words, but do we really mean it- that God’s will should be done in our lives, or in the life of our congregation, or in the life of the nation? For what if God’s will is not really our will? What if God is planning to lead us through controversies, and difficult times? What is God’s will is that we do things which lead to opposition? What if God’s will is that we should make sacrifices, even to let die things we love? Are we willing, then, to put the Lord’s Prayer into action? Do we really mean it when we pray ‘thy will be done’? Will we put justice, mercy and faith at the forefront of all we do?
If we will, then Christ offers to protect us like a mother hen sheltering her chicks under her wing, And God offers to sustain us with his hope, until we are perfected on the third day, the day of resurrection. For God will lead us through conflict, loss, controversy and difficult days. And God’s Kingdom will come, and God’s will shall be done.
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2019 Peter W Nimmo
 Matthew 23.23 NRSV
 Matthew 23.25 NRSV
 Matthew 23.24
 Matthew 9.10-13 NRSV
 Luke 18.33
 (Philippians 3.21).