Sermon preached in advance of Bible Sunday at Churches Together in Pontefract, Sunday 17 October 2010

Bible Sunday

"The spirit of the Lord is upon me...to bring good news to the poor...to proclaim release to the captives...to let the oppressed go free."

What really is this good news which the Gospel promises? To whom does it bring it? How does it touch us? Before I try to answer those questions I would like to show you a few pictures taken in Zimbabwe:  

The first is of some village children. This is at Manyene. It was 2008. The rains had not been good; the crops were poor. The country was in the grip of massive inflation. Money was worthless and there was nothing in the shops. These children came to school without food. The Church, who owned the school, gave them all a meal to keep them going during the day. These children and a million others like them suffered because of the greed and selfishness of a handful of politicians at the top. Some of those politicians are practising Christians. That is injustice.  

The second is a little girl called Martha. She was 12. She lived in a rural area called Mrewa. Her father was thought  to support the party opposed to Robert Mugabe. Martha was abducted, stripped naked, kept imprisoned in a hut and raped repeatedly for a week until she was found. That is political violence, which keeps an evil government in power.  

The third is a grave of a priest called Arthur Shearly Cripps. He came from a comfortable family in England to live among the people of Manyene in 1902 and stayed until he died 50 years later. He lived like they did. He fought for them, he stood up against the government, against the church, against anyone who did not treat these poor country people with justice. 60 years after his death he is venerated as a saint.  

The fourth picture was taken just last month. The people in it are refugees from the Congo and Rwanda living in a refugee camp in Zimbabwe, thousands of miles from their homes. What horrors they have seen I do not like to know. They have small hope of return and not much future in Zimbabwe. Yet they came together in church with us and sang and drummed and danced in joy at knowing of Jesus. Jesus had walked with them in their exile and kept hope alive in them even in this hot and distant place. One day they would go home.

Those stories are common stories. They happen all over Africa, South America, Asia. They have happened throughout the history of the world. They happened in the Old Testament. The people of Israel were imprisoned in Egypt and set free by Moses. They were imprisoned in Babylon and set free by Cyrus. They suffered from famine and, though some were helped by Elijah or  Elisha, thousands died. They suffered from cruel kings and queens Ahab and Jezebel, Antiochus Epiphanes and Herod. Sometimes prophets like Amos and Hosea, Micah and Isaiah prophesied against that oppression. It didn't make much difference. The rich and powerful did not listen to the prophets and they don't today, until the banks collapse or some major catastrophe compels their attention for a moment.

Holy scripture contains within it some of the most powerful teaching the world has ever seen, leading people to treat their fellow men and women with justice, compassion and love. The Old Testament Law of Moses, the first five books of the Bible, contain such teaching and anyone who has read the books of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks will know how rich that law is in establishing justice, especially for the poor. Yet the Jews didn't follow their own law and they don't today. Otherwise they would not treat the Palestinians the way they do. We don't follow that law either, though we venerate Moses. The same is true of Christ. We love the Gospel. We love the person of Christ. We love the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. We love the Beatitudes. Yet when we meet someone who has been rejected by society, someone who is poor and dirty, do we love them and care for them. Well, I can't speak for you but I find it very hard myself. I have followed Jesus for 60 years but sometimes it seems conversion is only skin deep. There are many parts of me into which the Word has not reached, because I haven't let it. Is that true of you?

Can I tell you a little story? A young friend of mine from a broken dysfunctional home came into a Christian church. He found love, joy and God amongst those Christians and was baptised. Then he told them he was gay. At once he was rejected. They said he was possessed by a demon. They wanted to pray for his healing. His priest said God could not love him. So he tried to commit suicide. Fortunately he failed.

So what is the good news which the Gospel tells us about? Well it is the good news of Christ. It is the good news that this Christ is interested in everyone and loves everyone. He doesn't just love the good, the well behaved, the clean and tidy. In his own time he loved the lepers, the prostitutes, the tax collectors and the soldiers who were oppressing his people. He also loved the Pharisees, the lawyers and the Jews but he was exasperated by them because they didn't practice the law they claimed to love. Who would he love today? You and me for a start and that is good news because we are not always lovable. Sometimes we feel very unloved. Jesus really does love each one of us completely. He also loves a whole lot of people we don't love, people like that young gay friend of mine, people like the refugees in this country whom the newspapers hate and try and get us to hate, people like the paedophiles whom everyone persecutes. These are the people Jesus loves and in the gospel he tells us very clearly that we must love them too. Jesus tells me as a Zimbabwean that I must love Robert Mugabe and those other people who have ruined my lovely country; he tells me love is the only thing that will heal the divisions and repair the damage. I find that very hard indeed.

To whom does this message come? Well Luke tells us it is to the poor, the oppressed, the blind, the imprisoned and he quotes Isaiah to that effect. At first sight that seems discriminatory. Do not the rich have souls? Well, yes, of course but if they pride themselves on being rich and powerful they will not be able to hear the Gospel for the poor. If they are set on increasing their riches and expanding their power they will be deaf to the call of Jesus. Even us; we may not be very rich or very poor but we can cling so firmly to our way of life that we will not listen to anything from Jesus that threatens to disturb it. Actually the secret to hearing the word of Jesus is to recognise that we are all poor, imprisoned and oppressed. We are poor in love. We are imprisoned in sin. We are oppressed by a whole lot of false values and false desires which our society feeds us with. That is true of us even now, after years of being Christians and if we can't see it is still true today we shall not hear the Gospel Christ is preaching to us today.

Holy Scripture sets us free. That is the message we are preaching today. That is certainly what St Paul said "You are called to freedom, brothers, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self indulgence but through love become slaves to one another". I think we do tend to use Holy Scripture as an opportunity for self indulgence. We like to read the passages that comfort us, that make us feel good. We search out and mark the passages of scripture that tell us we are fine, that all is well, that we are loved. Should we not rather read the passages that make us uncomfortable; the passages that make us look at the confused and broken society we are part of; the passages that tell us to do something about it? Should we not read the psalms that tell us to repent of our sins, or the story of the tax collector whose only prayer was "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner." Jesus said he was the one who went away forgiven, not the Pharisee who is horribly like ourselves, thanking God because we have been able to be good.

Holy Scripture sets us free. Jesus knew that. He said, "You will know the truth and the truth will make you free." Yet real truth is not usually comfortable. I recently saw a video of myself preaching. I was so shocked I looked so old and tired. I said to a young friend of mine "Do I really look that?" Yes, he said, telling me the truth "but I still like your sermons". That is a trivial example. There are other truths we need the Scriptures to tell us. Those truths will free us from our sin. They will free us from being slaves to the fashions of our society. They will free us to see Jesus in the despised and rejected members of our society. They will set us free from ourselves and set us free to live like Christ.

There is another freedom, the greatest freedom of all. But it is a freedom our society does not like to talk about; the freedom from death, or from the fear of death. We don't talk about death, we don't like to admit we will all die. So we do not talk about the greatest thing that Christianity gives us, hope a sure and certain hope that we will live after death; not only that, we will live with Christ in the presence of God. Jesus tells Mary Magdalene "I am going to my father and your father, to my God and your God." Jesus shares his own father, his own God with us. In my father's house are many rooms; I will come and receive you into my place. Over and over again Jesus tells us he will answer for us before God, we will be part of his family in heaven. St Paul takes this so seriously he says "For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better."

In the end the Bible is not a book; it is not a whole lot of words; it is not wonderful teaching; it is Christ. Letting Christ speak the truth to us; letting Christ call us out of the slavery and blindness which oppress us all, you and me; letting that Christ set us on fire with a new love that loves even our enemies....that is what the Bible must do and it will do it, if we will let it.

Nicolas Stebbing CR