What is Education Sunday? In the UK it is a national day of prayer and celebration for everyone involved in the world of education. For more than 100 years there has been an annual recognition of Education Sunday in England and Wales (traditionally on the ninth Sunday before Easter).
Isaiah 30:8-21; Matthew 4:23 – 5:12
I want to begin by reading for you a sentence from the Old Testament reading that we heard earlier on. It goes:
“For they are a rebellious people, faithless children, children who will not hear the instruction of the LORD.” Or as the Good News Bible puts it, “They are always rebelling against God, always lying, always refusing to listen to the Lord’s teachings.”
Today as you probably well know, is education Sunday and if you were here this morning you probably heard about adult education at some point during the service. And as I sat and thought about this passage in preparation for tonight, I was asking myself what was God saying to us about education in this scripture, or more particularly, what is he trying to teach us. And that’s when this particular verse, verse 9, suddenly seemed to stand out to my mind. Listen to it again. “They are always rebelling…….always refusing to listen to the Lord’s teachings.” Now it’s the use of the present tense here in this verse that caught my eye. And it indicates that this rebelliousness and refusal to listen is an ongoing thing, it happens all the time. And it suddenly occurred to me that as Christians, whether we realise it or not, we are all involved in further education, because we’re all enrolled in God’s “school of life”, if you like, with God himself as our teacher. If you’ve heard me talk before you’ll probably have heard me say that the writers of the Old Testament often used the history of the nation of Israel as an allegory for our own lives, both on an individual basis and corporately as a church. And this passage, I think, is a wonderful example of just that. Here we have another of the great prophets, Isaiah, setting down in black and white, for all the people of the nation, the perils of rejecting the “Holy One of Israel” as he calls God. And you’ve got to admire these prophets in the Old Testament. When they had something to say, they didn’t mess about with long dissertations of complex theology, like some in the New Testament, they just got right down it and laid it on the line, pretty much in words of one syllable, because they didn’t have time to use flowery language or high brow philosophy of religion. Isaiah comes straight out with it. He tells them you never do what God has told you to do, you always do your own thing, not only that, but you always lie about it, and absolutely refuse to listen to what God is trying to teach you. And as if that isn’t enough, you tell the prophets, who are the people who bring you God’s teachings, to shut up because you don’t want to be told that you’re in the wrong. You want to keep to your illusions, your falsehoods. Now I said that the writers of the Old Testament often used the story of Israel as an allegory for our own lives, so let’s take a brief look at where we’re up to in the history of Israel so that we can understand that.
If you were here last time I spoke at this service, you’ll remember that we had just reached the point when Israel had become a monarchy for the first time. We had just come across the first king Saul, and then David, who was then followed by Solomon. Then things start to change for the nation. The kingdom split into two with the northern kingdom and Judah in the south. And it’s in this period that we find that the Hebrew kingdoms are constantly being annoyed by both the Syrians and the Assyrians. It’s a time of political alliances and manoeuvring to gain territory and save lives, as well as a time of outright barbarism and mass murder. Eventually the northern kingdom falls and the Babylonians reenter the picture. The southern kingdom of Judah where Jerusalem is, is finally attacked by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar after the current Hebrew king foolishly forms an alliance with the Egyptians. All the notables were deported, including the new king. A Babylonian puppet king is set on the throne, but he too tried to rebel and Jerusalem was finally obliterated. And so began the period of the Exile. Now keep in mind that in Isaiah’s time when those political alliances were being made, he felt that the Israelites had betrayed their God. Where was their faith in Yahweh, the God who had delivered them from slavery and bondage to the Egyptians? Who had looked after them and nurtured them for forty years in the wilderness. Who had led them to the promised land and saved them from countless enemies. Surely they should know by now to have faith in their God when trouble is around them. But what did they do? They ran away despite advice to the contrary. Of course not everyone had lost faith. Some hung on in Jerusalem and trusted in the Lord. To them Isaiah says, “Yes, it will be tough, there will be hard times, but the Lord will be there to teach you how to deal with those times. When you wander off the road you will hear God’s voice saying, “This is the way, walk in it.”
So if we treat this passage as a mirror and hold it up to ourselves, what do we see? Perhaps the reflection of own lives both on an individual basis and as a church, is starting to make us feel a bit uncomfortable. I know that in my own life I have and often do simply refuse to listen to what God is saying or trying to teach me. And I have any number of excuses or platitudes that I can convince myself with. I’m too tired, or that’s not for me, or I’ve already done that and fulfilled my duty. And what about that one that goes, “I want to break that bad habit but it requires too much effort on my part and anyway it’s not such a bad habit, surely, and isn’t God all forgiving anyway?” If, like me, your wondering why our church has got financial problems, or why the congregation is dwindling, or even why there are administrative difficulties, then perhaps we need look no further than in the mirror for the answer. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Can we truthfully say that we have done or that we are doing all that God has asked or is asking of us? Have we really learnt the lessons that he is teaching us? I venture to say that we have not. We need only to look around us to see that that is true. Now I apologise if you think that I’m being harsh. It’s not my intention to be rude or insulting. But I would not be doing my job properly if I didn’t convey what I believe God is trying to say to us in this passage. We’re in a tough spot right now with the interregnum. Isn’t it true that we, like the Israelites, when confronted by a situation that requires our faith, all too often take the easy path and run away, instead of listening to what God has to say? Hear again his words, “Come back and quietly trust in me. Then you will be strong and secure.” Perhaps we’re too caught up in our own humanity to learn to change, or to be taught any new lessons. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, isn’t that how it goes. But I don’t believe that. Thomas À Kempis puts it thus. “How happy a man is when the Truth teaches him directly, not through symbols and words that are soon forgotten, but by contact with itself. Our own way of thinking and our own impressions give us only a false or limited view.” Having being coming to church for ten or twenty years, or however long it may be, perhaps we think we know all the facts. Thomas À Kempis again, has something to say about that. “Learning or the simple knowledge of facts can be good and instituted by God, and then there is no fault to be found with it, but a good conscience and a holy life must always be preferred. Many people go wrong because they are more eager to acquire knowledge than to lead good lives, and so they bear little or no fruit.” He goes on to say, “When the day of judgment comes, we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done, not if we made fine speeches, but if we lived religious lives.”
So what is the answer? How do we proceed? Well I think that firstly we need to realise that we can’t rely on our own judgment, because we often lack both grace and discernment. The light within us is small, and we soon lose even that through carelessness. And besides, we often don’t realise how blind we are in our hearts – we behave badly, and worse still, excuse what we have done. We feel anger, and call it righteous indignation; we censure small faults in others, and pass over worse ones in ourselves. We’re quick enough to sense and brood over what we have to bear from others, but we don’t notice how much they have to bear from us. Anyone who considers his or her own life with thoroughness and honesty has no reason to judge another harshly. But let’s not be pious about it, which reminds of the story of the young married vicar who one day asked his children, “What’s grey, has a bushy tail, and gathers nuts in the autumn?” To which one child hesitantly answered, “I know the answer should be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”
Secondly, I think, we need to learn the lessons that God is teaching us. And they’re there right in front of our eyes in the gospel passage.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
I don’t think they’re easy lessons to learn, by any means, but I do believe that we should at least try to learn them. I leave the last word to Thomas À Kempis again, who says, “A person who has really learnt something is one who does the will of God and abandons their own will.”