The Sunday called Septuagesima (sermon)

Sept - Van Gogh - The Red Vineyard

1 Corinthians 9:24-27       St Matthew 20:1-16

You go into the vineyard too…

We are on a journey with God in this new place for our worship and gatherings…

We’ve forsaken the beauty of St Vitus kerk, and have made this sacrifice primarily with the hope of attracting others who want a morning service.  We want to build up the congregation, and we are hoping to have a larger core from which we can invite others into this community of faith – for the worship of God, for our upbuilding in the life of Christ, and for sharing the Gospel with others.

We also have a sense that it is not our final resting place.  I was speaking to one person this week about how I was reminded of Psalm 132 – of David who desired to build a resting place for the ark of God, who laboured “until [he] could find out a place for the temple of the Lord: an habitation for the might God of Jacob…Arise, O Lord, into thy resting-place: thou and the ark of thy strength.”

We are on a pilgrimage as a church to find a more permanent resting-place…but also as the people of God, to enter more fully into God’s rest.

Today we are making a shift in our church year.  We are turning our minds from Christmas and Epiphany: from the revealing of God in the flesh – Jesus as the Wisdom of God and Power of God – to the even more radical aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry: during Lent we follow Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem.  On that way he will confront demons, he will confront the religious authorities, he will encounter the power of Rome and his body will be broken and his spirit crushed on the Cross before he is raised from the dead.

And we are invited to join this journey, this pilgrimage, that we too might undergo a radical transformation of our lives – a like kind of death and resurrection.  Not just getting a little nicer, but becoming a new Creation in Christ.

And we have three Sundays where we will prepare ourselves to join this pilgrimage to Jerusalem and to figure out how much we will engage ourselves and in what ways. The Sundays are called Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima – which means, approximately, 70, 60 and 50 days before Easter.

In the early Church, it was a time that catechumens, people learning the catechism (as some of us here are), would be allowed for the first time to attend church services, in preparation for baptism on Easter Eve.

The tradition has changed a bit, from 70 days of Lent to have a forty day Lent, following the period Jesus fasted in the wilderness, and to have these three Sundays to prepare us to enter it.

If we are serious about the Christian life, we want real change in our lives, the breaking in of the Holy Spirit to radically transform us.

How real change happens in us is spoken about in our readings today.  In the Epistle [1 Corinthians 9:24-27], Paul reminds us that self-discipline is necessary in the Christian life.

Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.  They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.  So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 
But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

e.g. Andrew and Yvonne are swordfighting experts – you can ask them about it, perfection in their art and skill only comes about with a lot of self-discipline and practice!

As athletes attend to the body, so are we, with that same intensity, to attend to our body, because it is linked inextricably with the human soul.

As one preacher puts it [Fr Gary Thorne]:

“In that training – the subjection of our bodies – our desires will be chastened, transformed, renewed, and [not destroyed but] finally intensified in God.  After all, isn’t that the witness of the Saints?  The Saints who did not so much desire to “make a difference in this world” but rather, “to make a different world”. A world in which the body is subdued to the Spirit so it becomes spiritual flesh – obedient to Love. That is their witness to us – the sanctification of their bodies.”

What is needed is both the knowledge of what to do and the motivation to do it.

First, our motivation.

What motivates an athlete to change is the hope of some reward.  But that glory is perishable, it will fade away over time – the wreath made of laurel leaves that athletes received in Paul’s day, will shrivel up, their success will be forgotten as others come to beat their record.

For the Christian, our motivation, Paul says, is the goal of an imperishable wreath – the perfection of our love for God, for others and for ourselves, the being infilled with wisdom and virtues.  Think of all the things of our desires and our character that we would like to change – whatever is good in that, will be retained in the next life – this is the imperishable wreath.

St John tells us in Revelation of what he saw in heaven – twenty four elders who have golden crowns, and whenever the cherubim sing praise, they join in praises to God as they cast off their crowns before the throne of God.  They cast them off acknowledging that the crowns, the virtues, are given them by God.  [Rev 4]  And God says, no, you keep them!

God would adorn us with virtues, that will remain with us, forever.  But God calls us to discipline our bodies that we may be ready to be so gifted from above.

For those who are not already suffering or struggling enough, the Church has suggested, following Jesus’ words [e.g. Mt 6:16-17; 9:14-15], fasting as one of the ways of disciplining our bodies, that we might re-ignite our love for God and bring some aspects of our life under better control.  I’ll speak more of the place and purpose of fasting in relation to food and drink on our Ash Wednesday service on 22 February (three Wednesdays from now) – [Yes, we can have midweek services more easily now!]

But there are other kinds of fasts.  St Paul reminded us a few weeks ago about being transformed through the renewing of our minds.  How we relate to the gifts of technology in our day is something seriously to consider in our Lenten fast – TV time, screen time on our phones, our laptops…  What discipline might make us more human? more attentive to the world around us, more attentive to the people we love who are right in front of us?

What is important today is that we have three weeks before Lent to reflect on what is out of control in our lives and what we might want to do about it so as to continue to grow in the Christian life.


In our Gospel today [St Matthew 20:1-16], Jesus is calling us to engage with our abilities in the work in the vineyard.

That could, and should, include whatever our work is in the world if it is done out of love for God and neighbour, and with a sense of it being our calling.

But Jesus refers specifically to work in a vineyard.  Remember Jesus says elsewhere, I am the vine, you are the branches. [John 15:1-8] We could see this call to work in the vineyard as attending to that branch that we are, in the Vine that is Christ.

Maybe you know something about how vines grow best?  Vines need to be set out on trellises to grow, not along the ground where the fruit will spoil but up in the air.  They also need to be trimmed back in some ways, so they will be more fruitful.  So the implication in going to work in the vineyard is to cut back on unhelpful habits and to guide that vine that is our life to places where it will catch better the sun.  Here is not an added burden on us when thinking about Lent, but actually a kind of rethinking of how our lives could be more fruitful in the Spirit if we were less busy and had more time for reflection and to rest in the light of God.  Can you imagine it? (Next week, Jean-Luc will be attending to the soil of that garden...)

The Gospel gives us assurance, that it is never too late to start this task of working in the vineyard – whether we are in the first hour, the early part of our life, or whether it is the eleventh hour – near the end of our life – we can all enter into that work.  And we will all receive the same reward – the gift of eternal life.  Our salvation is not dependent on the amount of work, but our responding to the call to be engaged.  The gift is free and the same to all – enter in and enjoy the fruit and enjoy resting in the Son of God.

How do we change?  Disrupt our normal pattern of living, if we have become complacent, through entering a Lenten fast.  Discern in the coming weeks what fast would be helpful for you, if at all.  And heed the call of Jesus to enter into the work of the vineyard.

This morning, as every Sunday morning, we are here to rest in the Son, that we may be recreated and become more fruitful.  Let us prepare ourselves now to receive Christ, to strengthen our union with that Vine that is Christ, and to watch and see new fruit in our souls and the souls around us.

You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right, Jesus says, I will give you.

Amen +

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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2