Sermond for the Third Sunday of Epiphany

Driving north up the M6, there is a place, just south of Lancaster, where hedges begin to give way to dry-stone walls. Most are tumble-down and badly kept, the grey stones often lying in heaps, the walls supplemented by fences to keep the livestock in the correct field. But these tumble-down walls make my heart leap: they fill me with a sense of contentment and comfort. For dry-stone walls were an important feature of the landscape of my childhood. Even the colour of the stones – the grey of limestone – evoke memories of growing up in The Old Grey Town of Kendal. Those walls tell me I’m coming home.

Our Old Testament reading for today is also set in the middle of a story about ruined walls. These were the walls of Jerusalem, lying in ruins. Some of the people of Israel had returned from exile in Babylon, around 450 years before Christ: this was a blessed homecoming, but also a time of mourning and sadness because Jerusalem was a scene of devastation, its huge walls tumbled down and ruinous. And so the people were sad – as devastated as the walls of their beloved city. And so they set to work and began the job of restoration and rebuilding. 

And in the midst of this work, Ezra opens the book of the law and reads – for hours and hours he reads from the Jewish scriptures (the first five books of our Old Testament) – familiar stories, familiar words, then, as now. The scriptures had been forgotten – things weren’t good before the exile in Babylon, and I guess, had got worse there. Now, God’s word is heard again, and for hours and hours the people listen to those distantly familiar words: the  stories of creation, of Noah and the ark, of Abraham and Sarah, of Joseph and his brothers, of the Egyptian captivity, of Miriam and Moses, of the Ten Commandments, and of the other laws, setting out God’s intentions for the ordering of society. And they weep, for all that has been lost and forgotten. It was as if the heart of their city had begun to beat again: faith had been reborn: it was God’s word, telling of God’s faithfulness and abiding love which brought life to the city, and which was the heart of the community of people who lived there. 

The effect is profound. The people start to weep. They weep for all that has been lost, all that they had forgotten or laid aside during their time in exile. The reading of the scriptures is the moment when the people truly come home.

But the commandment comes to cease from weeping and sorrow – there is to be a feast: wine and rich food. The poor will be fed by the wealthy – everyone is to rejoice! This reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son – he comes home sorrow, to apologise and work as a slave. Instead there is a party – there is rejoicing.

This is something we need to remember. It isn’t healthy to ignore sorrow – both for our misdeeds or for the tragedies which beset us in life – but God doesn’t want us to be permanently sorrowful. God’s forgiveness comes quickly when we bring our sins, and there is comfort and hope when we come with heavy hearts because of life’s struggles. Whatever kind of sorrow we bring to God, the hope is always for healing, peace and, eventually, joy.

Centuries later, Jesus stood in the synagogue in Nazareth and read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah: 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

These words have become rather flat to us because we are over-familiar with them. Our minds gloss over them – we stop listening. But imagine what these words would mean if you hadn’t heard them before, or hadn’t heard them for generations – if you’d been away in a foreign land, far from home, having been unable to practise your faith, unable to worship. What would it mean then to be told that God wants to bring good things to people whose lives are hard – those who knew poverty, imprisonment, those who were disabled or sick, those who were downtrodden and oppressed? In these circumstances, Jesus tells us, God loves and blesses us.

People are divided, in their habits of faith, between those whose faith is strongest when all is well, and those whose faith has most meaning in times of suffering and hardship. Some lose their faith in the face of disaster – understandably so: there are no easy ways to talk about the chasm which stands between the God of love and the suffering of human beings, particularly those who are good or innocent. We still have a tendency to regard suffering as a sign of God’s displeasure: we are inclined to ask ‘what have I done to deserve this?’

Jesus’ words, his first sermon if you will, nudge us into shifting our habits of faith. For, as in the story of Ezra’s reading of the scriptures, as in the story of the Prodigal Son, Jesus is telling us that, with God, sorrow isn’t the default mode for Christians. Into situations of poverty of all kinds, Jesus brings good news: in prisons of all kinds – physical or metaphorical, Jesus brings the hope of freedom; in illness and disability, Jesus offers hope; and to all who are downtrodden, Jesus offers freedom. 

For Christians, life is about seeking these promises for ourselves and for others. In the end this comes down to the preciousness of life – to God we are all ‘worth it’, we are all loved. So it’s worth seeking healing, finding help, going after happiness, for ourselves and for others. These words of Jesus are the reason for the centuries- long involvement of churches in healthcare, charitable work with homeless people, feeding the hungry, ministry in prisons and hospitals, and charities working across the world in places of war and refugee camps, in places of famine or drought, in women’s refuges, children’s charities. A Blackburn Vicar, Chad Varah, started The Samaritans – help for those who find themselves completely without hope. This is our inheritance – and something we need to begin thinking about again in the coming year – how we can extend our support to people in the parish who are struggling: how can we let people know that God loves them and is concerned for their everyday struggles, their sadnesses?

There are also times when we need to make time to put ourselves into the framework of Jesus’ first recorded sermon – sometimes we’re not good at this – reaching out to others but not really considering our own need for help: we too sometimes need to seek healing, respite, find help for depression and anxiety, apply ourselves to the things which imprison us and plot our escape. When we make ourselves the subject of Jesus’ teaching, we are admitting to ourselves that it is to us that the good news comes, and the essence of that good news is that God loves us – – God desires our happiness and wholeness – God thinks we’re worth it.

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