St Andrewís Croydon
9th March 2003
Signs of the Times I
No doubt you are used to preachers taking their text from the Bible. Well today, and the next two Sundays my texts will come, not from Holy Scripture, but from the Highway Code. Not from the book, but from three different signs which you pass every day on your travels. My intention is to show how these signs can be a useful directive or reminder of what we are trying to achieve during this season of Lent.
This weekís sign is the Height/Width-Restriction notice; next week it will be No Through Road; and finally No Entry. You can have a copy of each of these after the service to help you remember what was said.
First, though, two general things need to be said about Signs and Code (as in Road-Sign and Highway-Code).
. The signs are not themselves the restriction. Any driver can, if he chooses, ignore them. But the signs are there to inform him that, should he fail to attend to what they have to say he will find, inevitably, that his progress will come to an abrupt halt. So if he tries to drive an overwidth vehicle through a pinch-point he will get stuck; if he goes under a low bridge in a double-decker bus he will lose the roof of it; if he drives up a cul-de-sac he wonít be able to get beyond the end of it. So signs do not, as it were, work by themselves. They need the attention and co-operation of those for whose benefit they have been put there.
Codes (such as the Highway Code) are not "laws" like the Law of Gravity. People have to conform to that whether they like it or not. Itís simply the way thing are. Codes are more like a recipe, a prescription or a formula. Something you must follow to achieve a successful result in the laboratory, or kitchen or driving a car on the road. Thereís no law against sprinkling soap-powder onto your omelette, for example, but the Code advises us that the result isnít likely to be very nice and will probably make you sick.
Itís worth saying this because many people believe (wrongly) that Christianity consists of nothing more or less than a rule-book. "Do this; donít do that; steer clear of so-and-so". Though there are God-given Laws (as we shall see next week), we should look upon Lent as an opportunity to improve our road-skills on the Road to Christ rather than as an opportunity to "give up something" as it is often portrayed.
So letís take a look at what the Width/Height sign Ė two little triangles pointing downwards or inwards at each other with a measurement between them indicating the maximum height or width for a vehicle to be able to progress down the road ahead. What does this suggest about the Christian Pilgrimís Progress along the Kingís Highway Ė the route God has prepared for us through this world to Life Everlasting.
Well, Jesus talked about the Way of Life being steep and narrow, and the Way of Death being broad and easy: and the entrance to the two ways as two doors, narrow and wide respectively. He warned us not to expect to be allowed to go on being "just like weíve always been. Sooner or later we shall find ourselves confronted by a width- or height-restriction which makes further progress impossible until we have let ourselves be "cut down to size" as it were. He does indeed takes us "just as we are"; but his purpose in doing so is to transform us into something else Ė something which, by ourselves we never could have been.
Now being "cut down to size" isnít a pleasant experience. It means, doesnít it, having to discover and face certain awkward facts about ourselves. Till that happens we may not even know that they exist, because they have little by little become, so much part of us.
For example, if we lose our temper rather easily nowadays, the fact is not that weíve suddenly became a bad-tempered person, but that little by little weíve fallen into the habit of throwing our weight around, tearing others off a strip, shouting or stamping our feet. So what began as a smallish blight on our character has gradually grown into a soul-threatening cancer. If not treated at once it will become progressively more difficult and painful to remove.
Thatís the reason why self-examination is so important. Itís like making a regular width/height check upon ourselves: not because we are specially bad at this moment, but for fear lest we shall become so in the future. If you want to know what Hellís like youíve only got to imagine a group of people who have neglected to examine themselves and, as a result, become so boring, so self-centred, so bad tempered over the years that theyíve now lost the ability to become anything else. It will be like living in an everlasting Lunatic Asylum but with one difference: nobody there ever gets any better.
Lent is like a warning-sign that we are getting ever nearer some pinchpoint or low bridge on Godís Narrow Highway. Thatís how the idea of "giving things up for Lent" came in. Fasting and abstinence (the technical words for "giving things up") may be a good starting point to getting ourselves "cut down to size". But itís far more important to have an accurate idea of which dimension of us needs cutting down. Itís not much use an over-high bus narrowing its wheelbase if itís trying to get under a low bridge, or an over-high lorry lowering its load if the lorry itself is too wide to get through a pinchpoint.
That;s why self-examination is so important. Unless we know what our particular problem really is we shall end up achieving nothing of value during the Season of Lent. Worse still, we may decide that itís all been a waste of time anyway since weíre no different at the end of it. The truth will be that weíve been tackling the wrong sort of problem Ė like treating heart disease with antibiotics, or cancer with an Elastoplast.
So here, very briefly, are some examples of habits, bad and good. Letís ask ourselves the question this Lent: are my bad habits getting worse? Are my good ones becoming even better?
Bad Habits: Blaming other people when things go wrong; making excuses for ourselves; becoming careless about our behaviour in church; putting off unpleasant duties; spreading gossip or scandal, especially when we canít be sure of its truth; bearing grudges against other people; and taking things and people for granted.
Good Habits: Making the best of a bad job; politeness and consideration; regular attendance at Mass on Sundays and a real attempt to "give it all weíve got"; accepting criticism graciously; being generous in our praise of others; giving encouragement wherever possible; and always giving thanks, not only to our fellow-men for their kindnesses to us, but particularly to God for the means of grace and the hope of glory he has given us.
If we do nothing about Bad Habits they will, little by little, turn us into overwidth or overheight people who simply cannot get through the narrow gate, and lack the spiritual physique to climb the steep path to God.
If, by contrast, we consciously practise Good Habits like the ones just mentioned we shall find that God has begun the process of cutting us down to size. That will mean that we can more easily enter the gate leading to the straight and narrow way; it also means that our progress as pilgrims on that way is no longer a painful duty but something we shall begin to enjoy, perhaps for the first time, because we shall have shed, by Godís grace, the excess width, height and weight that were making our progress so slow and painful.
We shall enjoy it the more, because, in other words, weíve decided to get into training!
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