Fourth Sunday before Lent


Old Testament

Shout out, do not hold back!

   Lift up your voice like a trumpet!

Announce to my people their rebellion,

   to the house of Jacob their sins.

Yet day after day they seek me

   and delight to know my ways,

as if they were a nation that practised righteousness

   and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;

they ask of me righteous judgements,

   they delight to draw near to God.

‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?

   Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,

   and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight

   and to strike with a wicked fist.

Such fasting as you do today

   will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose,

   a day to humble oneself?

Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,

   and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Will you call this a fast,

   a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:

   to loose the bonds of injustice,

   to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

   and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

   and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

   and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

   and your healing shall spring up quickly;

your vindicator shall go before you,

   the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;

   you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,

   the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

if you offer your food to the hungry

   and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness

   and your gloom be like the noonday.

The Lord will guide you continually,

   and satisfy your needs in parched places,

   and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,

   like a spring of water,

   whose waters never fail.

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;

   you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

you shall be called the repairer of the breach,

   the restorer of streets to live in.

Isaiah 58:1–12



      Blessed are those who fear the Lord •

   and have great delight in his commandments.

  Their descendants will be mighty in the land, •

   a generation of the faithful that will be blest.

  Wealth and riches will be in their house, •

   and their righteousness endures for ever.

  Light shines in the darkness for the upright; •

   gracious and full of compassion are the righteous.

  It goes well with those who are generous in lending •

   and order their affairs with justice,

  For they will never be shaken; •

   the righteous will be held in everlasting remembrance.

  They will not be afraid of any evil tidings; •

   their heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord.

  Their heart is sustained and will not fear, •

   until they see the downfall of their foes.

  They have given freely to the poor;

      their righteousness stands fast for ever; •

   their head will be exalted with honour.

[   The wicked shall see it and be angry;

      they shall gnash their teeth in despair; •

   the desire of the wicked shall perish.

Psalm 112


When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,

   nor the human heart conceived,

what God has prepared for those who love him’—

these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.

Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are discerned spiritually. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.

‘For who has known the mind of the Lord

   so as to instruct him?’

But we have the mind of Christ.

1 Corinthians 2:1–16


‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:13–20 

Sermon on Fourth Sunday before Lent 

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.’

Don’t you think this saying of Jesus should cause a great deal of consternation? I certainly do. How can we possibly make sense of this pronouncement in the twenty-first century? How can the Law stand when Jesus has come to save the world? Paul did not think much of the Law amongst the Gentiles, after all he and Peter both said that all things have been declared clean by God, didn’t they? – Peter when he spoke of his vision of the sailcloth with all sorts of foodstuffs (clean and unclean) presented to him, Paul when he talks of love as the culmination of the Law and the greatest spiritual gift.

The Church has never been legalistic by nature, though there are instances where rules have been so very important. Never, however, has the Church defined itself with regulations. Since Martin Luther especially, the Church has declared faith over against works as the foundation of salvation.

So what do we make of these statements from the Gospel today? Does Jesus really want us to carry on with the Law? – that Law which was made for humanity, that Law which keeps us on the narrow way. This is a most difficult question, I think.

The philosophers have got into the act time and again. From Plato to Karl Marx, they have described what would be ideal systems of government, and just how the Law would keep order amongst the hoi poloi and the proletariat. Even theologians have done their best for the sake of a peaceable kingdom, just think of Cromwell and Calvin during the Reformation period.

Cromwell tried to create the republic of God here in England while Calvin had sewn up Geneva in his image of the heavenly city. Why even St Augustine had written about The City of God, a tome which still is explored in seminaries today. Away from the academic world, how do we formulate our relation to the Law?

When you are confronted by the Ten Commandments or the Summary of the Law on a Sunday morning, what do you think? Do we just reel these formulae off by rote, our brains never engaging with the content of these statements of don’t’s and do’s?

Just how do we embody the Law – however we define it – in the course of our everyday lives? Let’s begin where the philosophers usually start – with what the Law does for us. Basically the Law allows us all to live cheek by jowl with our contemporaries. The Law bounds our lives in such a way that we do not impose ourselves on our neighbour. The Law keeps us “private” – as though we don’t impinge on our acquaintances at all.

But this is a false start. We do make a mark on the lives of those around us – even if we do it negatively, as the hermit does, by having nothing to do with anyone else. Even this negative activity of keeping oneself to oneself, remaining “private”, is a reaction to a neighbour. It is, as the Greeks would say, “privative” – a withholding of self from the other, understanding oneself through absences rather than presence with neighbours. – We could take a great many examples of this way of understanding how the Law moderates the interaction of the population – the latest disappointing use of the Law is the set of executive orders signed by the US President.

I would like to understand this “wall” mentality by exploring a Robert Frost poem ever so briefly. The line that keeps repeating, “Good fences make good neighbours” is rather odd, isn’t it? I think this may be how too many understand the barriers between themselves, personally or nationally. Frost, however, turns this comprehension of these walls and fences around. Rather than being an impediment between the relations between neighbours, when they meet to build up the wall between their pastures, they join with one another in a common endeavour. They mend the wall, one on one side, the other on the other side. The wall is the reality of some sort of relationship built up between one another – even if it is the negative one of keeping the other away from me. That wall symbolises our relation. It is the skin surrounding my spatial reality. I keep myself behind my walls and so am inviolate.

This is the Law as it relates to trespass, isn’t it? – something Jesus himself gave another saying which could speak volumes here, in the same way his fulfilment of the Law confronts us in our gospel reading today – “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The prophets and the Law speak to the reality of the shared life of humanity, the life which abuts another’s, my life which ends at the touch of the other’s skin, my life which actually is confined to my own skin, my own wall around myself.

I suppose the only Law we need to observe is that of trespass, don’t you think? Trespass is where we violate the other, but rather Jesus teaches that we are to be solicitous of the other, because only if we are aware of boundaries do we actually care for the other. The boundaries are applicable to the whole human being in the world – physical, mental, spiritual.

So it really does make sense that Jesus should say that he is the fulfilment of all the Law and the Prophets. That we should love one another is the corollary of this law of trespass, isn’t it? The setting of boundaries is paramount in human sociality. Jesus shows how we ought to live within our boundaries. After all the most grievous trespass is the cross and everything that surrounds it and then what did Jesus say, “Forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing.”

This came home to me during the week when I went to the SafeGuarding seminar for all licensed ministers in the diocese. Whatever we talked about, it was always boundaries that came into focus. The physical boundary – when does a touch become a caress? – the mental boundary – when does forceful encouragement become bullying? – or the spiritual boundary – when does catachetics overwhelm your soul? I suppose this law of trespass can be seen as the most important in our lives now. After all, it is the one rule Jesus spoke of in that prayer he instructed us to use whenever we pray.


This sermon is from Stilman Davis. It is copyrighted. You are welcome to use it, but put some extra money in the plate if you do.

Sermons are spoken. They whistle in the wind and enter your ears to echo for some time between them. However, sermons are destined to go on into the distance after they have resonated with you.