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Preacher: Peter Collier QC, Vicar General of the Province of York and Cathedral Reader
Title of sermon: A gospel that takes us to unexpected places
Date/time/service: Sunday 23rd January 2022 – 11am Choral Eucharist
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
After about 30 years Jesus was ready to begin his ministry. Those years had been spent in Nazareth, living in the family home with Joseph and Mary and his siblings, almost certainly learning the carpenter’s trade but also spending time in studying the scriptures and in prayer. Now he had been baptised by John and his calling had been confirmed by God’s voice affirming delight in him. He had been tested and tried in the wilderness. And now he had begun his ministry in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee. But on this Saturday he was back in Nazareth, and he went as he regularly did to the synagogue were as often happened he was asked to read the Scripture.
He read from what we know as Isaiah Chapter 61 and he threw in a bit of Isaiah 58 as well. And he then told them that there and then in their presence that very day that scripture had been fulfilled. What a remarkable thing to say.
It was a well-known part of Isaiah’s prophecy. It foretold the coming of the Messiah and what the Messiah would do. That and passages like it were a great comfort to the people whose country was occupied by the Romans and whose religious life was harsh and demanding under the prescriptions of the Scribes and Pharisees. And people longed for deliverance from their enemies, for their vindication, and for God’s vengeance on those who oppressed them – whether those were secular or religious oppressors.
But Jesus had omitted a part of the verse from Isaiah 61 and it was a significant omission. He left out the bit about vengeance and spoke only about the good news side – about release of captives, recovering of sight for the blind and freedom for the oppressed.
Now, Luke’s account of that morning carries on beyond where our gospel reading this morning stopped. Luke goes on to tell us that people questioned how Joseph’s son, who they’d known all these years could speak like this. Jesus told them that he knew what they were really thinking.
And he reminded them that during the famine in Elijah’s time, the only miracle that Elijah performed was of providing food for a widow and bringing back to life her son. And he pointed out to them that that widow was not Jewish. And then he referred to Elisha and said that although there were many lepers in his time he only cleansed Naaman who was also not one of God’s chosen people.
What Jesus is saying to them is that God’s grace, God’s salvation, God’s healing touch are for all people and that when God comes and bring salvation it is always in ways that are unexpected, because that is what God is like.
Whenever the gospel comes to us it brings surprises – surprises about who it is for and what it does.
Who is it for? Well, it is for all. For everyone. Especially it is for the excluded and the marginalised?
What does it do? It produces a new community that is radically countercultural. Our epistle from 1 Corinthians spoke very powerfully about that. Paul explains that the church is a body made up of many members – Jews and Greeks; slaves and free – all together in one body. And the surprising thing he says is that the members of the body that seem weaker are in fact indispensable. Outside the church the prevailing culture and the usual politics was and is that it is the fittest that survive and the successful who are rewarded. But in the church it is the poor and the weak who are given greater honour and greater respect. How come? Why? In New Testament terms we meet Christ most powerfully in the little, the least and the lost.
This should have been no surprise to people – it was what God had been telling his people as long as they had been his people. The widows, the orphans and the aliens living among them were always to be valued when the seemingly natural response would be to use and abuse them. It was well written in the law, It was often spoken of by the prophets and the early church practised it.
So the church today is called to be inclusive, to welcome all – wherever they come from, whatever their history is, and whatever their status in worldly terms may be – all are welcome and not just as guests but as essential parts of the body.
As we begin to emerge from the pandemic and as we look to rebuild the church and community we are doing so in response to a gospel that is for all and that looks to build a countercultural community. So we need to understand that and we need to begin to work out what that might mean for us here in this cathedral.
But I think there is something else here for us. The last two years we can justifiably say that we have all been oppressed as a result of this pandemic. We are longing for deliverance from that enervating low grade anxiety that has just always been there throughout these two years, sapping our energy, creating anxiety and fear. And like the people in Judea we have cried out to God for deliverance. But when deliverance comes – it may not be quite what we expect.
The Jews wanted to go back to the good old days. And there is a lot of that about today. Not just about getting back to restaurants, theatres and other pre-pandemic experiences, but there is something tapping into a deeper longing for days gone by – the days when we won the world cup and ruled an empire.
But when our deliverance comes it may not be quite as we expect. It will be freedom and it will be release – but it will be a fresh release into the life of the God’s kingdom …. That kingdom where we are called to live Christ’s story.
The ABY spoke of looking for the unexpected in his Epiphany letter
“Living Christ’s story has never been easy. In the midst of change and challenge, there is always a temptation to fall back on our own charts and our own wisdom, trying to keep things going as they are for a little bit longer, and to miss where God is leading. Where God leads is always unexpected. For the Magi, not a royal palace, but a stable; not a king in glory, but a child in a manger. Where God leads is also challenging. Transforming our finances and structures, growing churches of missionary disciples and reaching those who don’t come to church needs us to be sustained by each one of us becoming more Christ-like in our lives and calling.”
God never calls us backwards, always forwards – onwards and upwards.
So, as we travel on in this Epiphany season let us keep in mind the truly radical nature of the kingdom we are called into and the nature of the salvation we have received.
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