Sermon for Evensong on Bible Sunday at St Mary’s, on 27th October 2013

Luke 4:14-21 – And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.
And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.
And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.
And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. And they said, Is not this Joseph’s son?
And he said unto them, Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country.
And he said, Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his own country.

My younger daughter Alice is a medical student at Cardiff University. She is in her fourth year, and she is now doing clinical training. She’s just finished a stint in a psychiatric hospital. Apparently on her first day, when she met the consultant psychiatrist who would be training her, he introduced himself and then he said what Alice thought was a very strange thing.

He said, ‘You know, as a consultant psychiatrist, I sometimes think that I’m living very dangerously indeed: because nearly every week, I meet the son of God – but I never take any notice! What if I get it wrong some time?’

I feel a bit sympathetic to that consultant. We read stories about Jesus, where he did remarkable things or said remarkable things, which could only really have made sense if he were actually the Son of God. We read about the Pharisees and the scribes getting very angry, disbelieving him, and indeed threatening to do him in: just as they had done here. When he had read the lesson, read the scroll, and then said, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,’ they didn’t get it. ‘Isn’t this Joseph the carpenter’s son? He’s just an ordinary bloke, from an ordinary background – and here he is, claiming to be divine, to be God, to be the Messiah.’

It’s interesting how the people in the synagogue reacted. If you read on beyond the bit of Luke chapter 4 which I just read, you’ll find that everyone in the synagogue was ‘were filled with wrath,
And rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong.’

They threatened to kill him. Quite a difference from the people claiming to be divine in the psychiatric hospital. The worst thing that the people there would say was that they were harmless, mad, not bad. There was certainly no question of getting angry with them.

But for the people in the synagogue hearing Jesus’ words, it was a capital offence. They wanted to rub him out, to annihilate him, by throwing him off the cliff.

That does seem to be a very strange and unwarranted reaction. In today’s language, what’s not to like about the message that Jesus was proclaiming? Good news to the poor: release to the captives: recovery of sight to the blind: freedom for the oppressed: the year of the Lord’s favour, the year of jubilee, when debts are forgiven: why on earth should all that be so hated? Why was the man who said it thought to have done something so awful that he deserved to die for it?

It was a good message, a happy message, a message of benefit and goodwill. How could you possibly be against it? Perhaps an explanation why the Pharisees and scribes were so cross was not that it was to do with what Jesus was saying, but it was all about who he was to say it. You know, ‘Who are you? You’re just Joseph’s son. How can you say things like that?’

When I was about seven, my aunt Pegs came to stay. She was rather a formidable history don from the Institute of Education in Malet Street, so I was a bit wary of her. One morning I was just coming out of my bedroom to go downstairs to breakfast when I bumped into Aunt Pegs, who was also about to go downstairs to breakfast.

She looked over my head into my bedroom and said, ‘I think you ought to make your bed.’ I was outraged. It wasn’t that my bed didn’t need making – it was indeed a piggy mess – but: the problem was that Aunt Pegs was not the right person to tell me. Only Mum or Dad could give me those sort of instructions!

The same sort of thing was in the minds of the people in the synagogue, only to a much higher level. What Jesus was saying could only mean that he was God. He was the Messiah. Only the Messiah, only God, could say the sort of things that he was saying. Only God would have the power to bring about those happy outcomes, of poverty relief, freedom and healing.

It wasn’t that these were bad things. What made the people angry was that Jesus was saying the same things that the psychiatric patients do, but he was in deadly earnest. He was really setting himself up to be the Son of God. And the Jewish leaders were affronted. It was a deathly serious business for them. It couldn’t just be shrugged off as the ramblings of a harmless nutcase.

There was something revolutionary about what Jesus was saying. When the Messiah came, this would indeed be a moment of revolution. But it was outrageous that an ordinary carpenter’s son could claim to have that kind of life-changing power, and what got them angry was that they felt that he was a cheat: that he was in effect making light of something which was absolutely central to their belief. God was so awesome that you couldn’t even speak his name. To impersonate God was something truly dreadful, a terrible blasphemy, and it deserved the death penalty.

I don’t know how I would react if Jesus reappeared today. I don’t know whether I’d get it right: whether I would turn my back on my life and follow Jesus. I’d like to think that I would – but it’s at least possible that I’d be like many of the people around Jesus, who didn’t get it.

But the fact is that around the world today, hundreds of millions of people have got it. They do acknowledge that Jesus is Lord, that we are the beneficiaries of God’s grace.

How come? If some people didn’t get it when Jesus was there in person, how come now so many people do believe now? Worldwide, Christianity is far and away the most successful religion. In China alone, there are a million new Christians each year. There’s great growth in Africa, in South America and in former Soviet Union. So what is it that has brought the good news of Christ so effectively to so many people in the last 2,000 years?

The answer of course is this, is the Bible. Through reading the Bible, through listening to the teachings of the church – indeed, even through listening to sermons – about the Bible’s message, people have come to faith. In the second letter to Timothy chapter 3, we read that all scripture is ‘given by inspiration of God’. There is something in holy scripture which is genuinely revelatory. The Bible is a window on God. It is a hugely varied book, a book of books. As well as straightforward instruction, how to be a good and effective disciple, like St Paul’s letters to Timothy, there is ancient ‘wisdom literature’ like the Book of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher, or the Teacher. In the two chapters which Isabelle read for us, describing the venture of faith, ‘Cast thy bread upon the waters’; the life of joy: ‘the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun:’ and how important it is to decide to follow a virtuous path: ‘Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come’. Common sense. Folk wisdom. History. And the Gospel, the story of Jesus. All in one book.

So reading our Bibles, and supporting the work of the Bible Society, which we remember on this, Bible Sunday, is important. Translating the Bible, distributing it where it has not been before, printing it in sufficient quantities – all the work that the Bible Society does, is really important.

But today there is a twist. Just as in Jesus’ time, his preaching, his message, did not evoke universal enthusiasm, but also sparked opposition, so today, although the Christian gospel is just as much a message of love as it has ever been, nevertheless there are many places where to be a Christian is to be in a minority, to be oppressed and persecuted for your beliefs.

The reason, just as much as it was in Jesus’ day, is not so much about the message, but about who the messenger is. If you look at the Qur’an, much of its message is very similar to the Bible: but for Moslems, to get that message from anyone except the prophet Mohammed is unacceptable. And if you, as a Christian, stand up and affirm your faith – by having a Bible, or wearing a cross, say – this is an offence, a blasphemy, in some countries.

So today, as well as celebrating the Bible and the work of the Bible Society – and, I hope, sending them something if we can spare it – I commend also to you the Barnabas Fund, the charity which exists specifically to give support to Christians who are oppressed for their beliefs – for example, in Syria, or Northern Nigeria, parts of Pakistan, or Iraq. Think of Canon Andrew White, suffering from MS, but still leading his big congregation in Baghdad, in his flak jacket. These are the sort of people whom the Barnabas Fund supports.

So let us give thanks for the Bible today, for its unique power in spreading the good news of Christ: so let us support the Bible Society. But also especially today let us remember those places where it is actually dangerous to read a Bible, and where to belong to a church might mean you risk being bombed in the middle of the service. That is where Barnabas comes in. They carry on getting the Bibles through, supporting Christians where it is dangerous to be a Christian. Bible Society and Barnabas Fund. Let us support them.

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