Worship for January 31 (Septuagesima)

Welcome to this celebration of the Holy Eucharist for Sunday, January 31st. We are delighted you are here!

This is the third Sunday before Lent known traditionally as Septuagesima Sunday which is Latin for 70 days (approximately) before Easter. These next three Sundays call us back from our Christmas feasting to prepare ourselves for the work that lies ahead of us in Lent.Download the litrugy and pray along with us here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/10-5fI_A51-TFjaBwukinGAbFVwwFemTf/view

“Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.”

There are two types of runners in this world and I have been both. The first are fair-weather runners. They don’t necessarily have any particular aim they just feel like they should get out there and run. Maybe they’re feeling especially motivated one day, or perhaps the weather is nice, or maybe the calendar has turned to January and they’ve bought themselves a new pair of running shoes in the hope that, yes, this time it will stick. But inevitably the motivation wanes, or the weather changes, or other comforts and pleasures win the day. Oh well, maybe next time.

The second type are the real runners and there are a few things that set them apart. For one, they usually have a goal. They are not out there running about aimlessly. The goal may be general or specific—they may want to be fitter or they may be training for a marathon. In any case they know why they are running.

Because of this they know the importance of putting in work towards that goal. They do not live at the whim of the weather, or the calendar, or even at the whim of their own desires. In fact, they will often restrain or punish their desires – abstaining from certain foods or lacing up their runners even when they’d rather be doing something else. In a word, they are disciplined.

The Christian life, says Saint Paul, is similar. First of all, there is a singular goal. For Paul that goal is simply to make Jesus Christ known, to proclaim the gospel. A few verses earlier he puts it this way: “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” (9:16).

Paul recognises, rightly we must say, that he has an obligation to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s the singular goal of his ministry. And as he goes on to say he’s willing to do just about whatever it takes: “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some,” (9:22). Wow.

Am I that kind of Christian? Are we that kind of church? Committed entirely to one burning issue, making Jesus known. And of course we can and should do that in all sorts of ways, in both word and deed. But we need to constantly be asking ourselves, is this our goal as a church? Is this our goal as a family? Is this my goal as an individual? Is everything else that we do ordered towards this goal, to make Jesus known, to glorify his name?

If that’s the goal of the Christian life then what is the work required to get there? Simply put, the work of the Christian is to submit ourselves to God’s will. The Christian life is about discipling my mind, my heart, and my will—that is, my thoughts, my loves, and my actions—so that more and more my own life comes to resemble Jesus Christ. And often this requires self-denial, saying “no” to myself so that I can say “yes” to the Holy Spirit who is at work in me. “But I punish my body and enslave it,” says Paul. Not because the body is bad (God made it!) but so that God might be glorified in my body and to prepare it for resurrection life.

Again Paul’s athletic metaphor is instructive. Say I’m going to run a marathon, am I free to eat whatever I like, stay up late, and skip training so that I can binge-watch Netflix? Do I have a right to do that? Of course! But at some point I’m going to be confronted with the reality that my life is incoherent with my goal.

In the same way, if the goal of my life is to make Jesus known then I may have to deny some of the things that I want to do, that I may have a right to do and may be free to do. If that’s my goal I can’t just live aimlessly rather my mind, my heart, and my will must be formed and directed towards God. Because I want my life to reflect the gospel. Because I want to make an actual difference for the sake of the gospel.

I’m reminded of a prayer from the journal of the great southern writer Flannery O’Connor: “I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.” We might say that Lent, which begins in a few weeks, is the season of pushing myself aside in order to better know God (and, paradoxically, to better know myself). However, the next three Sundays before Lent are designed to call us out of our Christmas and Epiphany feasting and to put us in the right mind as we approach our Lenten pilgrimage. The time for feasting is over, the time for work has begun.

Of course, none of this is possible on our own. Apart from God we cannot set our face resolutely towards the goal let alone do the work required to get there. But we are not apart from God and he has given us the gift of strength, the Holy Spirit. We are the Temple of the Holy Spirit who lives in us and who has planted in us the virtues of faith, hope, and love, giving us the strength to do God’s will. Blessed are they who do not run aimlessly but rather set themselves vigorously to do God’s will (Saint John Henry Newman).

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