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The Sunday called Sexagesima
by T.H. Curran
from COMMON PRAYER, Volume Six: Parochial Homilies for the Eucharist 
Based on the Lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer, 1962, Canada. 
St. Peter Publications Inc. Charlottetown, PEI, Canada.  Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
This morning we celebrate Sexagesima, that is the eighth Sunday before Easter and we are between the Church’s season of Epiphany and the season of Lent. The propers and lessons appointed for these Sundays “in-between” — last Sunday was Septuagesima and next Sunday will be Quinquagesima (the fiftieth day before Easter) —make the transition from the one season to the other. The propers and lessons appointed have the effect of focusing our devotion and our reflection both on what has already been accomplished and at the same time on what still remains to be done.

We have just come out of the season of Epiphany, a season which follows both the birth of our Saviour at Christmas and the prophecies which foretold the coming of the Messiah. St. John the Baptist prepared us for his coming by citing the exhortation of the prophet Isaiah to “Make straight the way of the Lord.” (John 1.23; Fourth Sunday in Advent). The season of Epiphany, which followed the Lord’s coming, is the season in which this Saviour was manifested to the Gentiles —in other words, he was manifested to us. He was to be the Messiah not only for the Jews but had come to save all men, Jew and Gentile alike.

And so our Messiah is no longer a stranger to us; he is rather the life, 

which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled...(1 John 1.1)
Our God has come to dwell among us, He is to be called Emmanuel, “God with us.” (Matthew 1.23; The Sunday after Christmas Day)

Now that we have heard him and seen him ‘with our eyes,” now that we have looked upon him, and handled him with our hands, we are suddenly to be driven into the desert with him. We are now being prepared to fast for forty days and forty nights so that we may learn to comprehend the mystery which has been revealed to us. As Jesus says in this morning’s Gospel reading: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” and “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God.” (Luke 8.8 and 10)

In a way all things have been accomplished by the coming of our Saviour, for he

counted it not a prize to be equal to God, but emptied himself, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men (Philippians 2.6-7)
And yet in another way the drama was only beginning because, as St. Paul goes on to say in his Epistle to the Philippians, it yet remained for the earthly Jesus, to continue to humble himself and to become “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2.8; Palm Sunday). And as the drama was only beginning for Jesus, who had still the greatest trial and humiliation before Him, so too the drama is just beginning for us.

This morning’s Gospel reading makes this abundantly clear in the famous parable of the sower sowing his seed. The seed, as Jesus explains, represents “the word of God.” (Luke 8.11) And the various soils in which the seed lands represent the effect the seed has in the hearts and minds of those who receive it. The parable is frighteningly explicit that the seed often has little or no lasting effect. Some of the seed Jesus tells us “fell by the way-side,” “some fell upon a rock,” “some fell among thorns.” The word of God, Jesus states, cannot by the simple hearing be presumed to have completed its work in the heart and mind of any man or woman. The simple hearing of the Word may be rendered ineffective by the work of the devil, by the power of temptation, by the “cares, and riches, and pleasures of this life,” so that “no fruit” is brought “to perfection.” Only some of the seed, it seems, falls on “good ground,” and only some of the seed brings “forth fruit with patience.” (Luke 8.4-15 passim)

That is the message that we are being offered on this Sexagesima Sunday half-way between Epiphany and Lent. The ancient Fathers who chose this Gospel reading for this Sunday knew precisely what they were doing. The Lord has been made manifest to us, we have heard, seen and handled Him, but how are we going to appropriate this saving truth in our own lives? Shall we be like those barren places where the seed fell without effect? Must our lives be compared to the way-side, to the stony ground, to the choking thorns, or will it be possible at some future date to say that our lives should be compared to the good soil in which God’s word will reap its harvest “an hundred-fold?”

These questions are not idle; they go to the very core of our lives and our time here on earth. I am sure that every one of us prays that he could at the last be compared to that “good and faithful servant,” who, when given five talents by his master, returned him five talents more. (Matthew 25.20-21) But this outcome cannot be taken for granted; the judgement can only come at our life’s end, and each of us is engaged in bringing “forth fruit with patience” each and every day of our lives. Some days are obviously better than others; some days we feel that we are making progress, but then at other times we enter long dry spells when nothing proceeds according to our intentions.

It is these grave considerations which impel the Church to set aside forty days every year so that we may assess anew how we have appropriated and are appropriating that truth which has become manifest We must examine how much we have absorbed the truth which we have heard, seen and handled. In these forty days and nights we are about to go through, we bring before ourselves once again the days and nights of the great flood, the wandering of Israel in the desert for forty years, and most of all the fasting and temptation of Jesus in the desert. He had to prepare himself for his ministry, for his obedience to the last, and so must we. The road we have to travel is a narrow one. Jesus said “narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life” (Matthew 7.14) and none of us can be too well prepared for the dangers, the pitfalls, the temptations which lie ahead.

But then it is with extreme gratitude that we can turn to the Epistle reading appointed for this Sexagesima Sunday. In the Epistle St. Paul boasts apparently shamelessly and foolishly in order to teach the Corinthians a lesson. He speaks of the whippings, the shipwrecks, the perils, the hunger which he has endured in the course of his ministry. At the end of this long list of miseries, which is only recited to prove that he has as much earthly right to boast as any other Christian, he says quite simply: 

If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities 
(2 Corinthians 11.30).
St. Paul is making the point that God has used his weaknesses to reveal His strength. God is the one who changed the zealous Saul, the persecutor of Christians, into the untiring St. Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles. (Romans 11.13) St. Paul does not claim the credit for his extraordinary ministry but offers all the credit to God who led him to see the truth and who sustained him in it.

This then is our hope as well; as we said in this morning’s Collect, we are those who “put not our trust in anything that we do.” (BCP, p. 134) Rather we are those who offer our lives to God so that he can make out of our rocks and thorns that good soil which will bring his word to “bear fruit an hundred-fold.” God did this in St. Paul, a most unlikely candidate by his own reckoning, and he can do it in us. All we need do is to ask the Lord and trust in him. He will put aside our weakness, our failings, our shortcomings, if we would only turn to him with “hearty repentance and true faith.” (BCP, p.77) In this we cannot doubt, for it is Jesus himself who tells us:

He who speaks on his own account is looking for his own glory; but he who looks for the glory of him who sent him is the true man, and there is no wrong in him. (John 7.18; tr. by R. Lattimore)
May we always seek the glory of him that sent us!