Sound-bites… or sacrifice? A sermon for ‘Pip and Jim’ at Winchester Cathedral – Isaiah 40:27-end John 12:20-26

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In the vestments of Winchester Cathedral (photo courtesy Graham Hartland)

The Dean and Chapter of Winchester Cathedral offer the curates of Winchester Diocese the wonderful opportunity of preaching at Cathedral Evensong towards the end of the curacy. It’s a daunting thing, but a huge privilege, and today it was my turn. Normally, this would be undertaken in ‘choir dress’, but since tonight was the first Evensong of the Feast of St. Philip and St. James tomorrow, they got some of their gorgeous robes out and of course, I had to fit in.

There was also a serious message to share as well, and one I felt was timely in this ‘election’ season:

It is all too common in the media frenzied world we live in, that when some key moment in history is being played out, like the announcement of a General Election, those who live by a well-poised microphone, seek an interview with the key players. Sound-bites are demanded to enable us who feed on the all-consuming media-machine, to discern the so-called truth. The media wants to know ‘who?’, and ‘what?’, and ‘why?’, so they can be first with the relevant ‘scoop’, grab reflections from the most note-worthy analysts, and massage our minds with ‘breaking news’.

The little group of Greeks who plagued the most approachable of Jesus’ followers for an interview with the wandering rabbi who’d just been greeted in Jerusalem like a conquering hero, could well have been the early equivalent of today’s political editors. One might imagine that the ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ of a political leader on a donkey would make good copy!

However, despite the tendency of those who saw their world in ruins and yearned for freedom from the tyranny of occupation to wish it otherwise, Jesus was no conquering hero, or political leader. He was however someone who sensed the change in the tide, as the welcoming Jews who were fascinated by the miracle of Lazarus’s resurrection fell away at the sound of Pharisaical sarcasm, and were replaced by these curious Greeks. Jesus, the Son of Man, knew that what lay next for him was as much of consequence for these gentiles as for his fellow Jews; so they might as well get their click-bait sound-bite, then they could go away and analyse it as the events that revealed its truth unfolded in the week to come. It obviously worked, otherwise we wouldn’t still be reading it today!

“The hour has come…” sounds like political rhetoric worthy of Winston Churchill; less so a discourse on the germination of a grain of wheat. Yet it is that image that holds the kernel of the message that Christ’s impending death and resurrection represented. The pun is intended, for the kernel of a seed is packed with energy and the building blocks like starch, protein and fat, which allow it to grow through the soil until it reaches the sunlight to make its own food and reproduce. Christ would die to bear much fruit; the fruit of the Kingdom of God that would form from a single, sacrificed grain of hope.

For the exiled people of Israel, reading in Babylon the words prophesied by Isaiah decades earlier, the seeds of their hope lay in the traditions of their faith. Their complaint is that God is ignoring the right of his people to see in their generation the fulfilment of the promises made to the patriarchs. They dimly remember that they were called to be a great nation, as numerous as the dust of the earth (Gen 12:2-3), and a blessing to all peoples (Gen 28:13-15). Yet defeat and deportation have left them too numb to grasp the truth that the power of their creator God extends from their past, through this present suffering, well into the future, in which lies the fulfilment of those promises.  Like the writer of Psalm 25, they are asked to wait for the Lord, not in the insidious doubt that breeds despair, but in the sort of confident expectation that breeds hope.

The exiles in Babylon would eventually find that hope in the restoration of their lands and temple. But their future leaders would again become so hidebound to an understanding of God which they created in their own flawed image, that they would fail to recognise the means by which they would indeed become a blessing to all peoples, and so they crucified their flawless Saviour. It was to this sacrifice that Jesus refers in his response to the eager plea of the Greeks for an interview. It would in fact be they who, at Pentecost and because of his resurrection, would be among the peoples to whom God’s new covenant with all people would be inaugurated.

How much are we like the Pharisees, forming our image of God on the basis of our own flaws? How much are we like the exiles in Babylon, prey to insidious doubts that God perhaps has forgotten us? If it is not us for whom we are concerned, perhaps it is the defeated souls who wash up on the shores of the wealthy west, almost as devoid of hope as they are of the money that bought them a dangerous passage, powerless to battle the bureaucracy of borders? Or perhaps it is the young for whom we are concerned; especially those faint and weary from the constant expectation that everyone can be above average, who fall exhausted into an epidemic of depression?

Have we not known? Have we not heard? That our faith is in the everlastingly faithful creator who has revealed himself to us in Jesus? That it is we who are called to be the grains of wheat who by sacrificing ourselves, our time, our effort, our money, even our political differences, on behalf of others, will be serving Jesus?

The chances are we do know, and we have heard, but making a life of sacrifice and service a reality is much harder than perhaps we would wish. We yearn to change a world that at times seems in ruins, and free it from the tyranny of injustice, yet the work can seem fruitless. Subsuming our own needs and desires into the sometimes unpopular, awkward, perhaps even isolating work of serving others, is tough. Which is why we too need to catch hold of more than the sound-bites of Jesus’ ministry, and pick up again the seed of hope he holds for each of us.

Christ’s death and resurrection, in obedience to his Father’s will, gives everyone the opportunity for a relationship with God that guarantees his presence with us through the power of the Holy Spirit. However much of a struggle it is, if we have faith in Jesus and follow his example, we will find that he is with us. If we wait in confident expectation of his presence among the tasks we do at his command, then we will find our strength renewed for the work we do to serve others, and our lives bearing much fruit in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

 

Let us pray:

We give thanks to you our risen Lord, that in your death and resurrection you offer all people the seed of hope. Help us to be this seed, and growing through acts of love, sacrifice and service, bear the fruit of your Kingdom.

Faithful creator, incarnate through the power of the Holy Spirit, inspire in us the courage to act responsibly towards your creation, that we might not remove the seeds of hope for future generations through our careless abuse of the world’s resources.

Remembering that in your flawless humility you suffered for us, Jesus, work in the words, actions and policies of our leaders and media to offer a fresh vision of truth, justice and the renewal of hope for all people.

We remember from our Diocesan cycle of prayer those who are refugees and asylum seekers, and all who find themselves struggling for hope in the face of bureaucracy, injustice and exploitation. Loving Jesus, give us the courage to work for the right of all people to safety, security and freedom, as we serve others in your name.

Lord Jesus, we know ourselves to be fragile, and many for whom we care to be faint and weary from the cares the world places on them. We remember in a moment of silence those known to us who need to know your comfort, healing, presence and peace…………… and strengthen those who share their own journey to wholeness in support of others.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, evermore. Amen.

Luke 4:14-21 Fasten your eyes on Jesus

“The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on Jesus.”

It was 1981. We were on holiday & my Dad was buying ice-cream at a rather nice village shop at the back gates to Balmoral. As we waited, a Land Rover sped out the gates from t’big house driven by a striking blond. It accelerated, rather alarmingly, spraying gravel behind it as it turned away from the public roads up an estate track. Later that day, as the press got overly excited by Prince Charles’s first official post-wedding photoshoot with his wife Diana, we guessed that the blond in question had feared that the silver car parked by the gate to the house contained less welcome photographers. At twelve, as I avidly watched the TV coverage, it felt like I’d come within touching distance of possibly the most famous woman in the world. My adult mind sees it rather differently, and with not a little sadness.

In our gospel today, the local boy from down-town Nazareth has returned. He’d been hitting the headlines of local gossip since he’d encountered his cousin John busy baptising the repentant in the River Jordan; the little altercation between the two and the ensuing direct message from God, had caused quite a stir, which at least had filled the ‘gossip columns’ when he vanished completely for more than a month. But, he had returned, the same, but different. No longer helping his father in the carpentry workshop, he was now occupied helping the local Jewish leaders fill their preaching rotas. You can imagine therefore that there was quite a crowd at the synagogue that day – curiosity has ever been the filler of pews, just as it has become a pay-packet to the paparazzi!

A passage from Isaiah was a perfectly appropriate second reading for the day, and the congregation sat watching, in rapt expectation of his wisdom. What they got was… possibly the shortest sermon in history! At least, that’s how some of the more tabloid orientated theological interpreters have styled it.

Hearing Jesus say “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” probably didn’t seem like a history-making moment to those in the synagogue that day, but Luke by basing the rest of his Gospel on Jesus’ fulfilment of this prophesy, tells us that this is deeply significant, and therefore we need to sit down and fasten our eyes on trying to discover exactly what Jesus was doing and saying here.

Firstly, after his baptism and desert temptations, Jesus seems quite comfortable in his own skin; he knows who he is, and he knows what he’s here for. In the tension of the moment, he exudes a quiet confidence. Otherwise he wouldn’t be saying that he was the fulfilment of this famous, much longed-after prophesy. He’s going to fulfil it in a way the Jews aren’t expecting, but he’s certainly no Jonah in the sense that he’s not tried to get as far away as possible from doing what God has tasked him with. As he’s been touring the familiar countryside of his youth and now to his home town, it is worth noting that he’s chosen to bring his message first to the people who have un-knowingly nurtured it over the his silent years of preparation.

There’s two things that this can be telling us, two thousand years on. Part of it is that we need to be looking carefully among those we encounter day by day and week by week, and asking ourselves, what might God be trying to tell us through them, either through the way they act, or what they say? The second part is possibly more difficult; we need to be prepared to be recognised as fulfilling what God is calling us to be and do, in our own home, around the village, and in the communities in which we are known and respected. It won’t always be easy, but if we are looking with anticipation at what Jesus is saying to us, we need to be prepared to act on what we think the answer is.

The second important thing to note about Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth, is what words he chooses to highlight from the Jewish scriptures, to succinctly define what it is he came to earth to do. He obviously feels that his Father God has called him most particularly to “proclaim good news to the poor”, to announce pardon to “prisoners and the recovery of sight to the blind, and set the oppressed free”. Those witnessing this rising star of the Jewish faith, steeped as they were in a yearning for freedom from Roman authority and the right to self-rule, largely heard this as the start of an uprising against oppression, and perhaps with a certain pride that it was a local boy that was going to finally make a difference.

Yet, we know from the rest of Luke’s Gospel and on into the Acts of the Apostles, that Jesus’ message was not in fact the one that many Jews wanted to hear – it was not a message of punishment to Gentile oppressors, but part of a larger picture and a wider interpretation of the prophesy in Isaiah, that Israel was called to act with justice, mercy and love as a light to all nations in their own age, and in the years to come.

Jesus, the Messiah, was the announcer of good news to not only the financially poor, but also the inadequate, those who feel their life is a failure, who see no value in themselves. The freedom of prisoners wasn’t an amnesty to those who have committed crimes, but the offer of release for those imprisoned by guilt, anxiety, fear, and the pressure to be someone other than as God made them. Whilst Jesus did indeed come as a healer to the physical ailments of many, he was also speaking to those who have lost their moral and spiritual direction and cannot see clearly the positive use they can put their God-given gifts and talent to. The freedom which he offered was in fact from the oppression of a narrowness of thought that offers only the quickest solution or fix, whether that be to an addiction, or to an economic, political or spiritual problem.

Today, as we sit with the Nazarene community and listen to the words that Jesus carefully chose to reveal his mission, we have to accept the challenge that in seeking to both recognise Jesus in our midst, and be his followers, we too are called to live out this prophesy just as much as he did. We mustn’t be frightened by tabloid headline creators into believing that someone is always after us for the wrong reasons, that speed is of the essence, that people respond to threats, that we can’t change the world.

In Jesus, we see God’s Son baptised and affirmed, spiritually strong enough to withstand all temptation, moving among his own people with a message that challenges preconceptions, and expects positive social and societal consequences. Yet, as we accept the presence of Jesus, the baptism in which he shared, the spiritual strength from which he drew, we have also to accept that through him we are also God’s children, and so with him we are called to seek love, freedom, healing and justice in our own lives, in the lives of the people we love most, and in the life of the community around us. Just as in Jesus time, this may happen in a way we hadn’t anticipated, and it may be a message that people initially struggle to accept, but it is the message and the mission we are called to share if our attention is fixed on Jesus.

Motherhood and media coverage – surely not all negative?

I’ve just posted this advert on the website of Mothers’ Union in the Diocese of Winchester. Obviously my involvement as a Trustee means I’ve known it’s been coming up for some while, and yes, I’m expecting to be there.

But, reading the advert provided by Dr Oluyinka Esan, the conference organiser, I’m wondering if the dialogue could get swamped in negativity?

As I’ve raised before, and as the Bailey Report highlights, there are considerable problems experienced by parents (not just mothers) because of the pressure exerted via the media (and particularly advertising) on children.

But, there must surely be plenty of good or useful things that “media coverage” (which I suspect is different from purely adverts, web access and such like) does for parents. The question is can we identify clearly what they are?

I’m going to throw out a few positive bullet points here, uncertain as to whether they fit the conference criteria or not, but would appreciate your thoughts (and also your company at the conference!)

  • The tools of online websites and ordering for so many daily consumables, children’s clothes etc, has made the more thankless tasks of parenting less time consuming – used wisely it can mean more time with children and as family;
  • I think media coverage of women, via things like news stories (whether they write them, or are the story) shows them increasingly able to multi-task productively for the benefit of work (income), family, and society – I’m thinking of someone like Ruth Gledhill active as journalist, and reflecting on Motherhood;
  • For children there are positive (or at least interesting) ways in which forms of media are being used to aid their education: this week my son’s GCSE English teacher is getting the kids to hand in their poems anonymously via a blog, to encourage peer discussion of their work without ‘personality issues’ coming into play. Once it’s working properly, it sounds like a useful development in the use of blogs.

Surely there must be more than that?