Following on from my previous post, I’ve been giving some thought to what it means to be the Church in a messy world and turbulent political landscape. The following is a sermon (so quiet on the Tory-bashing, alas!) for One World Week (the texts are Micah 6:6 – 8 and Luke 4:14 – 30):
I’m a big fan of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ for my sins, and I’m there on a Saturday night, week-in, week-out, glued to the television. One thing I dislike about the programme, though, is that they always seem to invite one or two people to take part who seem to be there basically for people to laugh at. Apparently, after the first show of this series, in which the contestants were paired up with professional dancers, one of the judges told Robin Windsor, dance partner of Emmerdale actress Lisa Riley, that they had no chance, presumably as she’s a larger person. Thus, when she proved that she can really dance, it was fantastic to see; just like when Susan Boyle wiped the smug smile off Simon Cowell’s face when she began to sing, that first dance challenged lazy stereotypes and forced people to look at things in a fresh way. Our two readings today are, in their various ways, about Israel being challenged to look at things in a different way, to re-think what being God’s people in the world was all about.
When Jesus had been baptised in the river Jordan, the same river that Israel crossed to enter the Promised Land, the Holy Spirit told him that he was God’s beloved Son. Immediately after, he was thrust into the wilderness by the same Spirit to face up to what that meant – he was Israel’s Messiah, and his mission was to re-define what it was to be God’s people, breaking down national barriers, among others. That was bound to lead to trouble, because it would mean challenging not just the ideas of ordinary people, but also the powerful religious and secular authorities of the day. After this time of preparation, which brought together all those years of prayer, thought, studying the Scriptures and wrestling with God, he was ready to begin his ministry.
Jesus returned to Galilee and went about preaching in the synagogues, gaining quite a reputation for himself. One day, as he’d done many times before on the Sabbath, he stood up in his home synagogue in Nazareth and began to read, this time from a scroll of Isaiah’s prophecies. He went straight to the place where it said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to tell the poor the good news. He’s sent me to announce realise to the prisoners and sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free”. When he’d finished reading, he gave back the scroll, sat down and declared, “Today, this is being fulfilled right in front of you”, to the amazement of the congregation. These were words of complete and utter grace, pure and simple. However, the good mood wouldn’t last for very long…
A work colleague of mine supports Manchester City – I suppose somebody has to! – and just before the last match of the season, he fully expected his team to lose and so throw away the title. His experiences of many years had taught him that City had a habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. At first glance, it might seem that Jesus managed to do just that in the synagogue that day. He’d had the crowd in the palm of his hand when he said that he knew they were all waiting for him to perform a spectacular act, like they’d heard about from his time in Capernaum. One can imagine the buzz of anticipation among them. However, he talked instead about prophets not being accepted in their home towns, and God choosing to rescue Gentiles through Elijah and Elisha when he could’ve helped Israelites. The people were furious – so furious that they chased him up to the mountain top on which the city was built and tried to throw him off, but he managed to slip through the crowd unnoticed. What was going on?
Well, expectation was rife in Jesus’ day about the coming of the Messiah, whom they imagined would be a sort of military leader who would violently shake off the rule of the hated Romans and plant Israel firmly at the top of the pile. Given the nationalism that underpinned most people’s thinking, it’s not surprising that the crowd reacted very badly to Jesus’ words. In the face of their hopes and dreams, he was telling them that God wasn’t just interested in one nation, but in the whole world. His message was about grace for everybody, rather than violent judgement for everyone outside of Israel. In quoting Isaiah 61:1 – 2, he was pointing to a broader vision of the Messiah’s role, and ultimately he was laying the foundations for the counter-cultural world of the Kingdom of God. Israel was going to need to think again about who it was and what it was for – what did it mean to be God’s people living God’s way?
One World Week is both an exciting opportunity, in that it’s a chance to come together and explore key issues in our world, and a deep challenge, as it asks hard questions about the Church. Are we a people who seek to break down barriers, to welcome all into God’s family, to shine the light of hope into the world’s dark places? By the way we live our lives, do we help to free the prisoners, give sight to the blind and bring liberty to the oppressed? This isn’t an easy business; after all, it ultimately led Jesus to the cross. It involves being willing to take risks and build relationships with people who’re in some way ‘different’ to us, which can be scary, but that’s the challenge that God lays down to us. Just like Israel, the Church cannot hope to be all God made it to be if it turns inward and becomes a kind of exclusive club, but instead it needs to look outwards for signs of God’s Kingdom work, role up its sleeves and join in.
Our Old Testament passage offers a vision of what it means to live God’s way. Micah was one of the minor prophets, and his ministry took place mostly in the latter half of the eighth century BCE, before the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians; his writings thus span six decades of God’s people struggling with their calling to be a blessing to the nations. In our reading, Israel is represented as a worshipper wanting to know how to please God, and assuming that this can be done through sacrifices and offerings. However, sacrifices were meaningless if the life of the people didn’t reflect God’s life; unless their actions and words matched up, it was empty worship. Micah was trying to point Israel back in the right direction; true worship means seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.
Bringing this all together shows that God’s deep longing is for his people to take the risks required to make his Kingdom visible in the world through the quality of our living, individually and as a community, and in doing so to break down the barriers that prevent there really being ‘one world’. There’s no point in gathering together every week for worship if that worship isn’t the catalyst for lives lived seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. Here are three thoughts on what this might look like in practice:
Firstly, Jesus did perform spectacular acts that gained him a reputation as a miracle-man among some, such as the crowds in today’s reading, but actually, most of the stuff he did was pretty small-scale. Much of his ministry was comprised of lots of little acts, the power of which cannot be underestimated. It’s easy when faced with big problems like those we see on the news every day, to give into despair and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed. However, we follow a Messiah who was prepared to be vulnerable and who made his selfless love known primarily in the small things of life. Never underestimate the power of small acts of kindness.
Secondly, Jesus wasn’t afraid to ask the big questions, and challenge those in authority. He unsettled the social and religious ‘status quo’, not just by meeting people’s immediate needs when he could, but by pointing out the underlying structural issues that caused those needs to arise in the first place. In our day, it’s the equivalent of asking why food banks are needed, rather than simply being pleased they’re there. This does mean getting political, though not necessarily party-political, and whether it’s getting involved in campaigns for social justice, going on protest marches, letter-writing, spending your money ethically or simply thoughtfully exploring the issues, it makes a difference.
Thirdly, Jesus made sure that he took time out to rest and to be with God. There’s always the danger of both burnout and of losing sight of God. Jesus’ relationship with God was the catalyst, inspiration, source and end point of everything he said and did, from the powerful and dramatic to the small and subtle. A living faith means putting things into action, but it’s still a faith – we need to depend on God for strength and energy, direction, and hope when the going gets tough, as it will.
Social action matters because God and all he has created matters. There’s no such thing as a waste person in the Kingdom, but there is light, hope, love and the possibility of transformation. One World Week is as good a time as any to begin put this vision into action…