What's Holding You Back?
Sermon preached by
There was a man who died and went to the Gates of Heaven, and when he got there, St Peter was flicking through a book of his good and bad deeds. As the man stood there, St Peter looked up and said, "Well you haven’t lived a bad life, you haven’t actually done much harm but there’s one major problem. You never seem to have said or done anything in your life unless your wife told you to. Come on out with it, were you hen-pecked?" There was a long pause as the man shuffled and looked at his feet. And then a voice came up from the Earth "No he wasn’t!"
The serious point of the joke is that the man’s spiritual and moral progress was being held up by his dependence on his wife and his inability to stand on his own. We all have some area of our spiritual lives which is a stumbling block, some aspect of our selves which holds us back from God.
The parable of the three men who were given amounts of money by their boss, recounted in the Gospel according to St Matthew, seems to me to be about personality types rather than just ability. The three men all knew what was expected of them and two of them were able to do what was required and reaped the reward. Sermons on this parable usually focus on the two successful people, those who took what was given to them and made the most of their chance. But today I want to look at the one who was not successful. What was his problem? Why didn’t he do what he knew would make the master happy?
If we turn back to the scripture reading we can see that the man who failed wasn’t guilty of lack of thought. On the contrary he weighed up the task and because of fear he held back. Overwhelmed by the fear of failure, in dread of losing the master’s money and getting into trouble, he funked the job. He slunk away and hid the money. And of course when the master returned, he was reprimanded and punished for not doing more than the minimum.
At this time of year as we begin to think about the coming of the Christ at Christmas, the bible readings are full of warnings to be ready. Today’s epistle from Thessalonians is about being prepared for judgement, of being asked to account for ourselves before God.
Making spiritual progress requires effort and courage and above all it requires clear-sighted self-knowledge. Because the things that separate us from God are frequently things we cling to for security. "Ah we say to ourselves, perhaps I am too lazy to go to Church, but that’s just me!" or "I know I ought to do more for other people, but I haven’t time" or "I know I ought to phone my sick friend/ read my Bible/ say my prayers/ but I have been busy".
Unless we honestly identify what stands in our path to God, we cannot hope to rise above it and gain that closeness to God, which is the sum of human happiness. And this is a useful time for self-assessment. We must each ask ourselves. Is there something holding me back from God? Is there an area of my life which I know, deep-down, which causes God pain, Is there something that I am ashamed of which I have allowed to fester.
Perhaps it is intolerance? Maybe a secret hatred of someone ? I am convinced that we all have an issue in our spiritual lives which is anchoring us to the earth rather than fitting us for Heaven. If we confess the weakness, work on it, pray about it, then with God’s grace we can move beyond whatever the problem is. Of course we won’t immediately become perfect, there are always other things to grapple with.
But progress is required of us, we must not, like the third servant, be content with burying our soul - our spiritual selves. God is calling us to growth. Consider the words of today’s epistle – they are full of hope - "You are people who belong to the day, you are the people of light". What do these words speak of, if not openness, truthfulness, clarity, energy? People of the night are fearful, creeping, hiding behind sins and too afraid or complacent to seek spiritual growth. The Gospel and the Epistle readings today both call to us of the faith of Christ which can transform old sins into the brightness of hope.
This year, as we are preparing for Christmas, whether shopping, writing cards or cooking, we can be thinking about another kind of preparation. . Like all Christmas preparations, it will require love and effort, but unlike the absent master in the parable, Jesus hasn’t gone off and left us to it! Jesus is with us, urging and encouraging us, helping us towards Him. He will be with us as we seek to become in truth the children of Light.