Good News? Or a great challenge? (Sermon given at the 9.15am service, Christ Church Downend, Sunday January 20th, 2013. The Bible reading is Luke 4: 14-‐21). I wonder if you have been in a situation where the mood turned ugly? When emotions turn from euphoria to anger and do so at rapid speed. It’s not a nice situation to be in, is it? It is scary and unsettling to be in the midst of a pack mentality. So imagine the scene. You are tourist, visiting Bristol cathedral. As you stand there, admiring the architecture and feeling mildly guilty that you have not contributed the suggested donation, a man steps up to read. He is handed a Bible, open at the book of Isaiah. Flicking through it the man settles on Chapter 61 – a passage that talks to Israel about the coming Messiah. Imagine the man has an audience. And he has their attention. Slowly at first but with confidence and gravitas, he reads: The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has appointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-‐hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour. There is silence. You could hear a pin drop. The power of the words is left reverberating around this magnificent old building, bouncing off the walls into the hearts and minds of those who hear them.
Quietly the man returns to his seat and then, with perfect timing, breaks the silence by adding, “Today, this scripture as been fulfilled in your hearing.” The crowd is delighted. They go wild. “Yes, God is good!” “God is great!” “He is here!” “He is with us!” All eyes are upon the man now. What will he say next? This man has the audience eating of his hand and they are hungry for more. But does he feed them? No, he snatches it away. A few more words, not well received. And soon their meaning begins to sink in. “Hang-‐on, what did he say?” “Did he just insult us?” “He did, didn’t he?” “That ain’t on, I am not standing for that.” “I didn’t come here to be insulted, and certainly not by him.” “He needs sorting out he does.” “Needs to learn his place.” “Grab him!” They hatch a plan. Simple but effective. They will throw him in the harbour. Of course, he’ll drown but they don’t care. A mob mentality has taken over. A primeval urge to kill. It’s not looking good for the man. Yet, miraculously, under high-‐arches ceilings of chaos and confusion, the man safely passes through rivers of seething rage and emerges unscathed onto Cathedral Green. And from there he crosses Broadmead making his journey ever onwards towards the wilder, untamed lands of South Gloucestershire. You stop and ponder. What had the man done to gain the wrath of the crowd? What did he say that could turn their emotions so quickly?
Puzzled, you walk slowly up the aisle of the now empty building, the sounds of your shoes echoing as you walk. You get to the front, turn and look down. There in front of you is the Bible he had read from still open at the book of Isaiah. Curious you begin to read through it. What you find is that Isaiah, like other Prophetic books in the Bible, is a mixture of lament, national self-‐reflection, a cry of despair yet also a hope for the future. It is written after the siege and fall of Jerusalem, with the Jewish people living in exile in Babylon. The author of Isaiah cannot escape this reality so he faces some tough questions. Why has it happened? Why has Israel been brought so low? What of God’s covenant to his chosen people? And so, as you stand reading this ancient old text, you find it unsettling. (Isaiah 9) The people have not returned to him who struck them, nor have they sought the Lord Almighty. So the Lord will cut off from Israel both head and tail, both palm branch and reed in a single day. (Isaiah 10) Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches? Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives or fall among the slain.
The text is hard-‐hitting and austere. But here is a curiosity! Interweaved in the text there is hope, a promise of a better future: (Isaiah 60) Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Yet with that hope comes responsibility: (Isaiah 58) Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter -‐ when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: here am I. Now you get it. The reason the man – shall we him Jesus…? The reason Jesus got into so much trouble is that he insinuated that his audience were rebellious to God. Hypocrites, perhaps. Listening but never really hearing. The good news they thought they were receiving became something of a charge sheet against them.
I wonder if I take God too much for granted. I wonder if sometimes – no, often – I cheapen his love and grace. I don’t believe he loves me any the less for it but I wonder if I end up loving him less? I wonder if I deny myself the opportunity to experience the fullness of a life anointed by God. I wonder if I sell both Him and myself short. Writing in the Diocesan Newsletter, Bishop Mike reflects on a book called Holiness by JC Ryle. I would like to read to you what he says. He writes, Ryle says that the faith that justifies us is not the same as the faith that sanctifies us. That it to say, the faith by which we accept Christ and his salvation is not the same faith by which our lives should be directed. His [Ryle’s] point is this: the faith that makes us Christians requires no effort on our part, other than to accept Christ and what his life, death, resurrection and ascension have achieved for us. Salvation is not on the basis of what we have done, but on the basis of what God in Christ has done for us. The faith that makes us more like Christ, on the other hand, requires effort. That’s why spiritual disciplines are so important. Prayer and fasting, generosity and worship, solitude and periodic abstinence will help you become more like Jesus, but they will require effort. Faith crucially involves living as though we believe that life with God is eminently more fulfilling and hopeful than life without God. […] We need to put ourselves in a position whereby we have to trust God. Sometimes life puts us in those situations – when we are ill or bereaved or in a breaking relationship or unemployed. That’s
why it is that some people (not all) make huge strides in their relationship with God in seasons of adversity. What being in a position of trusting God might look like in your life is going to be different for everyone. It may be to do with honest relationships, sacrificial generosity of your time, energy or finances, speaking about God and what you believe. [Nevertheless,] If we can lift the ‘faith threshold’ in our lives, churches and diocese I truly believe that we will together grow in every sense of the word.” Let’s turn our attention back to Jesus and to his words from Isaiah. The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has appointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-‐hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour. You know, these words are some of my favourite in the Bible. They say immediately what God, what Jesus, is about. He turns the ways of the world upside down. He embraces those that society marginalises. He reaches out to those who are left uncared for. He is a God of justice and of love. I still love the words but I am beginning to think that I am reading them with too much of a cosy sentimentality that stupefies their intended impact. They encourage me because they tell me what God is about. But do I let them challenge
me, because they also say what God wants me – us – to be about also? Am I really willing to make Jesus’ mission statement my own? Imagine, again, you are in the temple. Jesus stands. He reads. Then he challenges. Do you respond with anger? Or with humility? Do you bray for blood or fall at his feet and worship? Will you turn away or will you arise and shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you? Jesus stands before us. The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Him. The decision we need to make is whether to reject, resist or follow. Amen.