Hedging Your Bets
Everyone loves a flutter – so I am told. When going for my newspaper to Scotmid just about 9 00am some mornings, I see people waiting outside Ladbrokes for it to open. Sometimes I happen to be crossing in front of the betting shop when a member of this Church comes out and feeling embarrassed, pretends not to see me. I recently took a funeral service for an elderly lady whose daily routine for years included a visit to bet on horses. We know that our beloved Sandy took a keen interest in horse racing over many years. Some or much of this he managed to keep hidden from ‘The Wife’. No doubt for the most part these are small bets of a few pounds and the habit could almost be described as a hobby rather than addiction. If you want to meet serious gamblers – then come along to the Church halls on a Monday evening and see the wreckage of human life in the process of redemption at Gamblers Anonymous. Gambling is not the preserve of working people or poor people. Middle and upper classes share in its attractions. Horse racing as an industry is very big business. Horse racing is also posh. The Queen loves horse racing. Since Tony Blair’s government relaxed the rules on gambling and on gambling advertising our TV screens are awash with gambling adverts. The National Lottery also downgraded the nation’s attachment to Christianity but making industrial scale gambling part and parcel of everyday family life. It is reasonable to argue that buying and selling shares on the stock market is just a form of gambling. Fortunes can me made and lost just the same. Fred Goodwin gambled for very high stakes in the business world and lost and we are still paying for his arrogance and folly. Our recent national history shows that even political leaders love a gamble and do it with relish, Alex Salmond in 2014 and David Cameron in 2016. Both lost their gambles and their jobs. Other national leaders have gambled everything and all, Saddam Hussein, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and to no-one’s surprise Vladimir Putin. Environmentalists suggest that humanity is gambling with its future in not dealing with global warming sufficiently seriously.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he tries to wean new Christians off their old habits. It does seem as if these new converts thought that they could have Jesus Christ and their old lifestyles together. In the Church congregation at Corinth there was a case of incest. There were quarrels between Christians taken to the secular courts. There was overeating and drinking at Holy Communion. Paul – a strict Pharisee - was appalled by this conduct and by the obvious fact that people who had made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ could not see that they should live in a different way. What we know of domestic Christianity is Paul’s creation. Jesus was not domesticated. He was out there far beyond the safe and predictable routines of daily life. It was Paul who made Jesus possible for continuing life and living within a settled environment. Paul did not advocate social uprising or rebellion. He was no Spartacus. But it was his Christianity that won the day and transformed the ancient world. It was Paul who distinguished Christian conduct from pagan culture.
'Flee from idolatry' he advises the new Christians in the Church at Corinth. People were still travelling to and from the temples as well as attending Church. Paul wanted this to stop. In particular he wanted people who took Holy Communion to fully respect the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. If they were still participating in temple sacrifices and returning home with their portion of the sacrificial meat to have meals at home, Paul thought that was harmful and dangerous to their souls. It also brought the whole witness of the local Christian Church into disrepute. There had to be a clear and serious distinction between Jesus Christ and the local temple worship. If not, the Church would not survive. 'Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? We share in one loaf of bread' says Paul. If one is tainted that person taints all the others. Our sin and wrong-doing affects the others worshipping and taking Holy Communion. Are you hedging your bets? Spiritually speaking? Are you going in and out from other places and other things which are not of Jesus Christ? Parish Churches are an accommodation to the culture and values of local communities. We here seek to present the Gospel truly but also to leave the door of the Church open to everyone. We do not put up barriers. We do not ring-fence the Sacrament. We do not exclude. But the problem is that our witness is not clear or pure or perfect. We err on the side of compassion to be sure but we also give out a weaker message. We hedge our bets.
The problem with idolatry in Paul’s time was that it supported a world view which was spiritualistic, polytheistic and pantheistic. This was very different from the One God of Israel made incarnate in Jesus Christ. This fragmented allegiance was quite distinct from the simplicity and unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The cacophony of idols in our own society is similarly mentally damaging compared with the healing graces of Jesus Christ. No wonder there is an increase in mental health problems especially among young people. Says Paul, 'You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons'. Says Paul to us ‘You cannot go on hedging your bets – you are putting God to the test’. Are you clear in your mind about your faith? Have you worked it out? As far as alternative values are concerned do you want your cake and eat it too? In your opinions and conduct as a member of this Church are you consistent and straightforward? Are you securely rooted in Jesus Christ?
Take the Old Testament and the New Testament together. Hear the ringing clarity of the prophet Isaiah. 'Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope'. This is taken to be a prophecy about Jesus. It has largely been fulfilled. Christianity has brought justice to the nations. It is against New Testament standards that most issues in this world are evaluated even today. That is not to say that everything works out or is perfected. But we have an ideal to guide us, an aspiration to move towards, a clear vision of how things should be. We know that Jesus was faithful to his remit and calling and that is why we are here today sharing in these heavenly things far beyond our normal daily activities. We don’t like the term ‘fundamentalist’ but, in truth, the fact that the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus were actually fulfilled is great evidence of the truth of Christ and of Christianity. No-one disputes that 2 + 2 = 4. The recorded writings of the prophets + Jesus Christ + world Christianity today cannot be disputed either. It may be rejected unreasonably and out of human arrogance but it stands the test of time and of human witness and verification.
'I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness'. 'I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols. See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you'. These words of Isaiah are clear and understandable. God’s presence and will is not in doubt. We may hedge our bets but the Lord does not. It is our calling to put into effect the word and will of God made known to us in Jesus and especially in this sacrament of forgiveness grace and redemption. Let us not hedge our bets nor move in and out of God’s good purposes for our lives. He is worth more than this. He gave everything for us, his own beloved Son Jesus our Lord.
I am weak but Thou art strong; Jesus, keep me from all wrong; I'll be satisfied as long As I walk, let me walk close to Thee. Just a closer walk with Thee, Grant it, Jesus, is my plea, Daily walking close to Thee, Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.