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8th March 2020

Doing Right in dark places

Passage: James 3; 13-18


As you will see from your Order of Service, the second piece of the armour of God is “the breastplate of righteousness.”
“Righteousness” is not a word we use much in conversation nowadays. Turn to your neighbour and talk to each other for a few moments about what “righteousness” means to you…….

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “righteousness” as doing that which is “morally right or justifiable.” In other words, it is all about action: doing what is right.
Several books in the early part of the Bible set out rules for living “righteously” that cover just about every aspect of your life- from the way you use your money to the way your treat your parents; from the way you keep yourself clear of infection to the way you relate to foreigners; from the way you discipline your children to the number of times you say your prayers.

It is all good stuff but, if we are honest, “righteousness” will often come across as doing what we should do rather than doing what we want to do. It is an obligation rather than a privilege and doing what is right does not mean that you necessarily “feel right.”
In the TV series, “The Thin Blue Line,” Inspector Grim is reflecting gloomily that it is his twentieth wedding anniversary. And the only reason he can see to celebrate the occasion is that the Police Promotions Board are holding interviews on the same day. “You can be sure I’ll let them know that I have been married for twenty years,” he says. “That is the kind of thing that impresses them and there has to be some reward for twenty years of boredom!”

Jesus came across a lot of people who were unhappy in their righteousness. They had become fanatical about keeping every tiny detail of their law, but they were not happier, kinder or better people. They were uptight, harsh in their judgements and turned religion into what Jesus called “a heavy yoke across the shoulders.”
Jesus also met a lot of people who were in despair because they could not be righteous enough. No matter how hard they tried, they simply could not meet the high standards of their laws. So, they had dropped out. They gave up on themselves and on God. They led lives of violence and corruption; sexual promiscuity and physical abuse; outlawing themselves or being outlawed from religion.

Yet those two passages we heard puts righteousness in a far more positive light. Isaiah spoke of a nation founded on righteousness, where truth, peace and justice would flourish, making life better for everyone. James wrote of righteous people who were kind, compassionate and wise. So “righteousness” can produce the kind of country we would all like to live in and the kind of people we would all like to know.

St Paul says that righteousness is the “breastplate” in the armour of God. And the breastplate’s purpose is to safeguard the heart. For it is the heart that keeps our blood pumping round our bodies. We cannot survive with it. The modern equivalent of the breastplate would be the bullet-proof vest, which cannot protect the whole body but can at least protect the heart.

Symbolically, the heart is also spoken of as the seat of our deepest desires. We “love with all our hearts; “we “set our heart” on what we want most of all.
The heart is also the source of our motivations. A person who makes a lot of mistakes can still be described as basically “good at heart.” And a person who appears to be behaving perfectly correctly can be described as having an “evil heart” by those who know him well. And someone who is timid and easily scared is described as “faint hearted.”

So, the heart is not just that organ inside our rib cage but the spirit by which we live.
And, just as the physical heart needs protection so does this spirit. For when life takes us through dark places, the heart can easily turn bitter, despairing, angry, self-pitying and resentful. And, just as a physically malfunctioning heart can make our whole body sick; so when our spiritual heart is in a bad way, our whole lives can be thrown into turmoil. Relationships are put under strain; work suffers; physical health is neglected; responsibilities to church or community or nation are thrown off; and we are open targets for getting drawn into violent or abusive behaviour.

Life can be very cruel and our hearts need powerful protection if we are going to walk safely through dark places. St Paul says that our protection is “righteousness.”

Maybe he is right. When Isaiah and other prophets speak of a whole nation founded on “righteousness” they are making the point that a nation based on justice and high moral standards will stand a better chance of survival than one founded on tyranny and corruption. The people will take ownership for their nation and stand up for it. Their society will protect the weak and vulnerable; it will create citizens who are strong, compassionate and creative.

In the same way, James describes the wisdom that leads to righteousness as a powerful source of spiritual protection. And Jesus himself said that “blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.” Those who are passionate about seeing good done and about doing good themselves will be happy people and their lives will be richly fulfilled, even though they live in a bad world.

But the question remains, how do we, who are fallible, achieve or acquire this level of righteousness that will keep us safe in dark places? And the answer is that we do not. It is God’s righteousness that protects us; not our own.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was brought up in a pioneering family in the American West. She had an older sister, Mary, who had been a bright, happy, active child until, at the age of thirteen, she contracted scarlet fever and lost her sight completely. Despite this disaster, Mary remained brave, kind and positive. A few years later, she and Laura were talking together about the challenge of being good when life is bad.
“The Bible says that we are all inclined to evil,” said Mary. “But that does not matter.”
“What!” cried Laura.
“I mean I don’t believe we ought to think so much about ourselves, about whether we are bad or good.” explained Mary.
“But how can we be good without thinking about it?’ Laura demanded.
“I don’t know how to say what I mean very well,“ admitted Mary, “But it is not so much thinking as just knowing. Just being sure of the goodness of God.”
In the years after the First World War, many people in this country rejected the beliefs, the morality and the social structures in which they had been brought up. For, in the face of the horrors of war, they felt let down. They stopped believing in the goodness, the righteousness of God.
The same thing happened in the nineteen sixties. Now looking back on two World Wars, plus a serious economic depression in between, people turned their backs on God, on religion, on moral teaching, on social standards. They too, stopped believing in the righteousness of God.

You cannot blame them. They asked how there could possibly be a higher power who could allow such horrors to take place? If this was what the righteousness of God looked like, then He could keep it!
No, you cannot blame them. But nor can you deny that the long-term results have not been good. Non-belief has not protected men and women from anger and hatred; from greed and corruption; from violence and self-harm; from helplessness and despair. Giving up on the righteousness of God has not produced any great increase in the righteousness or the self-esteem of the human race.

Righteousness, we would all agree, has to start on the inside. It has to begin with personal goodness; a happiness in doing and seeing what is right.
And, at the end of the day, what is the single most positive force for goodness in each one of us? Is it not the power of love? Do we not talk of people who have “brought out the best in us” because they have loved us, believed in us, encouraged and inspired us?

There are many questions about evil and suffering that I cannot answer. But I do still believe that if we give up on the righteousness of God, then we lose our only hope.
For God’s righteousness is rooted in love and whilst that love continues to believe in us, reach out to us, heal us and empower us, we have hope, even in the darkest of places. Take that hope away and what is there left but to “curse God and die.”

The prophet Jeremiah wrote hopefully of a new and restored nation, after the years of exile. He wrote of justice and security and peace; with good rulers and responsible religious leaders. But the name, or the motto, of this nation would be “The Lord Our Righteousness.” May this be our power and protection through the weeks ahead.