Vicar's Sermon - 27th January 2019
Luke 4.14-21 Epiphany 4
Luke 4. Verses commonly known as the Nazareth Manifesto but first let me take you to Teesdale School: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week. Assemblies. Vicar’s main thought: God honours us with the gift of responsibility and each f us has a personal responsibility for ourselves and our actions but also a moral responsibility for and towards others– not that that is how I put it!
Not an original idea. I stole it (let’s say ‘borrowed’) from Jonathan Sack’s book ‘Lessons in leadership’ but his illustrations served me well stood in front of the extremely well behaved youngsters who give nothing away as to whether they are taking anything in.
His first illustration is from the story of Adam and Eve. We know it. They are told what to do. They are told what not to do. They do what they are not meant to do and God comes looking. And what happens: they pass the buck. ‘It wasn’t me’ says Adam, ‘it was her, she made me’. To which Eve responds ‘It wasn’t me either, it was the snake, he made me’. They won’t accept personal responsibility for their actions and yet that is what God is looking for in them. Sports coaches look for team mates to ‘put their hands up’ if they make a mistake, they look for leaders to step forward, to step up to the plate but Adam and Eve cower behind their excuses: ‘It wasn’t me’. And so how true this story is to life. It is hard to become a responsible human being, to take responsibility. The temptation is to say that ‘things are the way they are’ because of other people, because of economics or family background or genetic makeup or childhood or adult trauma…and all these things shape us but the scripture says they should not define us: in the end we must take responsibility for our lives and choices.
And yes, I know this is sermon about Luke 4 but back to the Old Testament we go and to the second story about responsibility: Cain and Abel. Cain commits murder. He leaves his brother dead in a field and God comes looking. Cain does not deny that he has killed his brother (though he is not eager to confess it) rather he famously says ‘Am I my brothers’ keeper?’ To which the answer is meant to be ‘Yes’. Cain represents a ‘dog eat dog world’ where the strong trample over the weak because they have no responsibility to anyone else other than themselves and their needs and desires. The story shows us that we have a responsibility that reaches beyond our own needs and wishes and embraces our brother and sister (and Jesus would say ‘our neighbour’). Tempting as it is to retreat behind our locked doors to the comfort of our homes there is a whole world of need out there that cries out for our help.
Believe me…I am coming to Luke 4 but one last story courtesy of Jonathan Sacks. In March 1964 Kitty Genovese was walking home late at night when she was brutally assaulted and murdered. The New York Times picked up the story and reported that 38 people had witnessed her murder but none had come to her aid. Later investigations whittled this number down but not before the story had worked its way through social psychology textbooks that asked the question ‘why is it that when something happens the more people that see it the fewer people respond?’ There are modern examples of the same phenomena – a child, run over in the street in China and left in the road by hundreds of bystanders: a man (presumably mentally ill) who strode into the sea from a crowded American beach and stood for an age (up to his neck in water) in distress whilst the fire department said it was the coast guards responsibility to help him and the coast guard said it was the fire department’s…and he was eventually pulled from the water but died of hypothermia.
Responsibility again you see. Stepping up to the plate and saying, ‘I will do this, I can do no other’. And so finally we reach Luke chapter 4 and Jesus ‘filled with the power of the Spirit’ begins to preach around Galilee and is praised by everyone. We’ve had the birth stories, we’ve heard of his journey as a boy up to the temple, in the timeline of this gospel John the Baptist has done his bit and the Spirit of God has descended up Jesus in the form of a dove: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased’ says the Almighty. This sense of calling is then challenged (we’ll hear about it later in the church year but we know the story of the Temptations in the desert)…but the challenge refines Jesus’ sense of who He is and what he is about and he emerges from the desert with this manifesto, verses that he reads from the prophet Isaiah chapter 61.
As far as Luke, our Gospel writer is concerned, this sermon is the heart of Jesus’ purpose and message: He is the Anointed One (the Jews say Messiah, we say Christ) who, in God’s power brings ‘good news to the poor, release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom from oppression and the justice (economic justice at that!) that is entailed in the Jubilee Year of the Lord’s Favour. Jesus takes responsibility for the fulfilment of God’s purposes as outlined by the prophet. He ‘steps up to the plate’ and expects us to do so too – those of us who similarly have been anointed with the Spirit of God through baptism, who have heard the Lord call our name and seek to follow Him. Humanity is gifted the privilege of working as co-creators with God in remaking the world and Jesus leads the way.
And the breadth of this mission encompasses all people in all places through all time. Thank God that there are folk seeking to bring food and water and shelter in Christ’s name to the destitute of the wold. Thank God that there are folk from this congregation that fill up the trugs at the back of church for the FoodBank enabling us to protect the dignity of those who have been allowed to fall through society’s safety net.
Thanks God that there are those who work, in Christ’s name, with prisoners to break the cycle of reoffending. And those who break the glass ceiling that limits the chances of girls in some cultures or minority groups in others. Thank God for those who connect with the lonely and isolated – those imprisoned behind the walls of their own home or locked in the darkness of depression.
Let us bless God for those who support those with physical blindness or work to combat disease that robs children of eyesight and life itself. But let us alos bless God for those whose work is in helping people to see new things, to understand afresh, to be creative and overwhelmed by the richness and diversity of the world and its cultures.
And bless God for the Christian folk who stand alongside those who have no-one on their side: the churches that offer shelter and food to those fleeing oppression, the lawyers and human rights activists who guide asylum seekers through the courts and in their dealings with officialdom seeking to honour God’s image in each and every individual.
And how appropriate (as the billionaires leave Davos) that we have this annual reminder about economic justice - the ancient reminder of the Jubilee year that saw debts expunged and property values reassessed and which refused to allow Israel to become a plutocracy where the rich got richer at the expense of the poor
I wonder, when he journeyed around Galilee, whether he read these selfsame verses from Isaiah and preached the same sermon? I don’t know enough about synagogue practice: was this the set reading for the day, would Jesus’ preaching have been guided by ‘set passages’ as ours is? Did other communities hear this message and welcome it? We don’t know. What we do know is that 8 verses on from our passage the people of Nazareth swarm around Jesus with the intention of throwing him off a cliff – not exactly the ‘praised by everyone’ that we read of in verse 15.
Jesus ‘steps forward’ as the one to take on this task in God’s name. He was extremely reluctant to take to himself the title ‘Messiah’ but He is content to step into this role because, putting it bluntly, what’s the point of religion if it doesn’t do these things!
He takes responsibility because in doing so we all mirror the image of God. He leads the way and you in your small corner, and I in mind can find ways to follow….or better still, we might work together to re-Create the world in the power of Christ’s Spirit.