Whitewash

(The last three sermons have taken a while to upload mostly because All Saints was in the form of rough notes and was written immediately before a holiday. It is now more coherent and the recent sermons have been uploaded in order of delivery.)

Advent 2

Matthew 3:1-12

Marian Free

In the name of God whose presence demands self perception, honesty and integrity. Amen.

When I was a child, my parents used to tell me the story of the Queen’s visit to Nigeria sometime in the 1950’s. Apparently  a great flurry of activity preceded the visit. This included whitewashing the walls of the houses so that they would look at their best. This was a great idea except that it didn’t actually benefit the residents of the houses as only one wall of each house was whitewashed – the wall that would be visible as the Queen drove past. Apparently, it was more important that the Queen was given a false impression of the prosperity and attendant neatness of the town than that she see it as it really was. A similar situation occurred in Glasgow though I don’t know when. On this occasion the buildings remained unpainted, but beautiful flowering plants were delivered to the tenements along the route that the Queen would take. After the Queen’s visit they were promptly removed – the brief bit of colour in the people’s lives taken away again. In both cases the powers that be felt that the Queen not be exposed to the poverty and bleakness of the lives of her subjects in these places.

On a national scale that sort of behaviour demonstrates a lack of integrity. City Councils and national governments put on a front to impress a visiting Head of State or other dignitary. It is not just the Queen who needs to be impressed. Tourists too, get the benefit of this sort of whitewash. Every time there is an EXPO or a World Cup, states and nations are accused of hiding (sometimes to the point of removing) the poor – who are perceived to be a blight on the landscape and should not be seen.

When nations behave in this way we accuse them of hypocrisy and worse, but when we as individuals do it, it is a different matter altogether. I imagine that there are few of us who do not want to make a good impression on those who do not know us well. I do not suppose that I am the only one among us who tries to tidy the house and even the garden when guests are coming. Doors can be shut and furniture rearranged so that those who are visiting can be led to think that the house is always tidy and clean. Likewise, when we meet someone for the first time, we are anxious to prove that we are clever enough, attractive enough or even funny enough to be worth knowing. (We are terrified that if people see us for whom we really are, that they might not like us.)

It doesn’t matter that those closest to us see the untidy house, the “just woken-up” face, experience our changes in mood and, see us at our worst as well as our best. What matters it seems, is that acquaintances and complete strangers think the very best of us. Our lives, by this measure are filled with deception and fraud. The deception is two-fold. We attempt to deceive by pretending to be what we are not, and we deceive ourselves, because we believe that our deception is working when in fact most people can see beyond the façade and those who know us well, know all our faults and failings.

When the Sadducees and Pharisees came to John for baptism he saw through and denounced their self- deception. “You brood of vipers,” he declares. Hardly the welcome that they might have expected! After all, they were not only among the religious elite – the priests and scholars of Israel, but they would have felt that they were exhibiting a certain amount of humility by coming out to John in the first place. John however does not believe that their desire for baptism is anything more than outward show. John can see past their status in society and their appearance of goodness to the hypocrisy and self-righteousness that lies beneath. He sees that they do not really acknowledge that they need to repent. They might be doing what they believe to be right, but their outward appearance disguises a certain self-satisfaction and an inability to recognise their shortcomings.

John urges them to recognition their need for repentance. He challenges them to be open and honest with themselves rather than depending on externals such as their descent from Abraham. They need he believes to stop their self-deception and to understand that their very arrogance prevents them from seeing their weaknesses and their failings. At the same time he makes it clear that God can see what they cannot and that if they won’t examine their lives, Jesus will do it for them and he will rid them of all that is not good.

Jesus also sees through the veneer of righteousness presented by the Pharisees and confronts their hypocrisy: ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. 2So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”(Mt 23)

It is easy for us to be smug when we hear John and Jesus attack the Sadducees and the Pharisees, easy to think that they were bad and deserved Jesus’ censure. Before we pass judgement however we need to remind ourselves that the Pharisees are not being denounced because they were bad, but because they were good or appeared to be good. The problem was that in their attempts to be good they had lost sight of their faults. By naming their hypocrisy, John and Jesus challenged them to engage in some honest self-reflection, to have the courage to peel back their superficial appearance of goodness,  to have a good look at what lay beneath and to make an honest assessment of who and what they were.

In our day we need to remember that no amount of whitewashing and no number of flowering pots can hide our true nature from God. Instead of keeping up the pretence, it is better to open our lives to scrutiny. If we do not like what we see, then it is almost certain that God will not like it either. Instead of pretending that our façade adequately covers our faults, it is better to bring them into the light of day, where we can see them more clearly and make an effort to address them instead of burying them. We may not be able to change, but we can try not to add to our sins the sin of self-deception.

John declares that Jesus will come to separate the wheat from the chaff.  We do not want eternity to be spoiled by arrogance, greed, self pity, intolerance. Those and every other negative character trait are all things that we hope will be left behind. The process of separation may be painful, but if we learn now to trust God with our lives, if we are open and honest with ourselves, there will be no surprises when at the last God removes from our lives those things that do not belong in heaven.  It is not that God expects us to be perfect – for only God is perfect. God expects us to trust in God and not ourselves, and to allow God to make us ready for the kingdom., for an eternity that is not blighted by the worst of human nature but enriched by the best.

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