Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, 24th January 2016
1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Luke 4:14-21

In Common Worship there is a lovely prayer [The Archbishops’ Council, 2000, Common Worship, London, Church House Publishing, p.179 in Eucharistic Prayer E]:

‘Lord of all life, help us to work together for that day
when your kingdom comes
and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth.’

It reminds me of the words of what Jesus read out in the synagogue in today’s Gospel, which is a quotation from the Book of Isaiah:

‘… good news to the poor,
… release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind;
To let the broken victims go free,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’. [Luke 4:18-19]

What a wish list! Justice and mercy: good news for the poor: release for the prisoners: sight for the blind: relief for the oppressed.

On the face of things, after 2,000 years, only one item can be – at least partly – ticked off, and that is, sight for the blind. The medics seem to have made a lot of progress on that one, although there is still a lot to be done.

But what about the others? Justice and mercy? What sort of justice? Are we just talking about criminal law, or about economic justice? If the ‘quality of mercy is not strained’ [Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1], where does it fit in? What about good news for the poor? And relief for the oppressed?

Jesus was reading from Isaiah chapter 61, which is a prophecy of the coming of the kingdom of God, when ‘a Redeemer shall come from Zion’ to save Israel (Is.59:20). The Messiah, the anointed one of God. And Jesus claims this title for himself. He is the man. He is the Saviour.

Funny how this works – or doesn’t work – on several levels. Take ‘good news to the poor’. The Greek word in the original, in the New Testament, means, almost letter-for-letter, ‘evangelise’, and it appears in the Greek version of Isaiah 61 as well, translated as ‘bring glad tidings to’. Then the word began to be understood as involving bringing a special type of good news, the gospel, the good news of Jesus. But here I think it’s just general good news.

After all, what is ‘good news’, if you’re poor? If you haven’t got any money?
Good news for the poor, as opposed to for anyone else? Is it the ‘good news of Christ’, (leaving aside for a minute exactly what that is), or is it that there has been a ‘bank error in your favour’? Collect £10. Bet that’s it.

It begs the question what the good news of Christ really is. St Paul, in his famous passage in his first letter to the Corinthians, which was our Epistle, our first lesson, today [1 Corinthians 12:12-31], is identifying all the different types of people who have received the good news. No one is better than another. We all have our part to play. It was an issue among the early Christians whether there were any entry requirements for the church – specifically, whether you had to be Jewish. St Paul made great play of the fact that there was no difference between Jew and Gentile, between rich and poor, between a slave and a freeman.

But there is a sort of paradox. If you are very poor, possibly the news, that your eternal soul has been saved, just might be a bit less than thrilling. The offer of a free meal might really be more like it. That would be good news.

If you didn’t know that it was a quotation from the Bible, this passage –

‘… good news to the poor,
… release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind;
To let the broken victims go free,’

you might think that this ‘manifesto’, as John Stott called it – he said it was the ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ [Stott, John, 2006, Through the Bible, through the Year, Oxford, Candle Books, p.179] – you might think it was pure politics. Not religion at all.

Politics, it certainly is; or even something worse: sedition, revolutionary talk. Who are the prisoners, who are going to be let out of gaol? Not so long ago a government minister, Michael Howard, said, ‘Prison works’. And we are sending more and more people there. This week, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, there are 85,260 people in prison in the UK. 85,260.

Perhaps instead Jesus – and Isaiah – were referring to people imprisoned by an occupying power – it would have been the Persians, in the time of ‘3rd Isaiah’, the author of chapter 61, which Jesus read out, and the Romans in Jesus’ own time. Not just ‘imprisoned’, but unjustly imprisoned.

But I do wonder whether prison does ‘work’ anyway. Does it do anything really useful just to lock people up? Just as bombing does nothing to change people’s minds in Syria, I suspect that being banged up in Pentonville doesn’t make you any less criminal.

So even there, perhaps Jesus’ (and Isaiah’s) thought is almost along the lines of what he preached later in the Sermon on the Mount. Let them out. Don’t just lock them up and throw away the key. Work for redemption, for reform.

What about proclaiming (or preaching) ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’? This is the Jewish idea of a year when all debts are cancelled, once every fifty years. In Leviticus 25:10-13, ‘And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile [jubilee] unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.’ [v 10]

Debt relief, release, is something which we recognise as a good idea today, in the international sphere. Band Aid and Jubilee 2000 resulted in the Gleneagles Agreement of 2005 which cancelled a lot of developing countries’ debts, in Africa in particular. The idea is similar to the concept of personal bankruptcy. It enables the debtor to move on and carry on functioning economically. It’s basic to our economic life.

But the mere fact that we still think that some of these ideas are good, even today, shows that they’re still work in progress. The Messiah may have come in order to do all those good things, but in a sense, he was cut off in his prime. Perhaps after all, what we’re supposed to concentrate on is what King Jesus was, rather than what he did.

Then again, in those days people believed that, if someone is ill or suffers ill fortune, it was a sign that they had sinned, that they had done something wrong. So perhaps Jesus’ message was spiritual as well. You are suffering (they said), because you’re bad, or because you’ve done bad things. So to say that the poor, the blind, the prisoners and the oppressed won’t suffer any more is a spiritual release; your sins are forgiven; but at the same time it’s a practical, political move.

Jesus didn’t say, like John the Baptist, ‘Repent and be baptised,’ at least here, at the beginning of his ministry. He said, instead, that he was the one chosen, anointed (which is what the Greek word for ‘Christ’ means), anointed by God. The prophecy of his coming was true, and he would do mighty things. In response, we should take comfort from the revelation of God’s presence with us – and we also should do mighty things.

I was tackled by someone the other day. He said, ‘You’re preaching to the wrong people. There’s no point putting forward that socialist stuff about poor people to me. You should stick to preaching about ‘Christ Jesus, and him crucified’, (which was what St Paul claimed to do at the beginning of his first letter to the Corinthians [1 Cor 1:23]). In answer to this man, I tried to explain that I think that in fact, even when you are concentrating on Jesus’ epiphany, as we surely are in this season, concentrating on Jesus’ manifestation of himself as the son of God, you can’t avoid, at the same time as the manifestation, the manifesto – the practical things, even the apparently socialist things which Jesus taught, which were all inextricably bound up in his divinity.

Jesus didn’t introduce himself as a spiritual figure. He was going to be a man of action; social action. A revolutionary, in the eyes of the Jewish establishment. If you read on in St Luke’s gospel, the next thing that happens is that people scorn him. ‘Isn’t this Joseph the carpenter’s son?’ they said. And then when he suggested that the prophets had been sent sometimes to non-Jewish people in need, such as Naaman the Syrian, they marched him out to a cliff-top, and they were going to throw him off – just as ISIS or Daesh does now, with people they don’t like. It was perhaps a religious crime, a blasphemy, in their eyes, for him to claim to be the Messiah.

But what Jesus was proclaiming, how he was revealed, how God was revealed in him, was relief for the poor and oppressed. I think that must be a good lesson for us. Don’t just come and worship. Take care of the Good Samaritan stuff as well.