Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday after the Ascension, 13th May 2018
Isaiah 61, Luke 4:14-21

‘ … the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord…’

I love this lesson; it’s a bit of the Bible that I find really inspiring. ‘.. to preach good tidings unto the meek; … to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound’. Taking these words from the book the prophet Isaiah and seeing them again in our second lesson, where Jesus is teaching in the Temple, reading from the scroll which contained the Jewish Bible, in our terms, the Old Testament.

Jesus turned the tables completely on everybody present by saying first, ‘Well, you know all about what the great prophet Isaiah has prophesied; clearly God has spoken to him directly in some way, and he spells out what the kingdom of Heaven will involve: binding up the broken-hearted and proclaiming liberty to the captives.

Jesus then turned round to everybody that he was teaching, saying, ‘And now, I have to tell you that it is fulfilled.’ All the things that Isaiah put into the prophecies are now coming to pass.

But what was it that Isaiah prophesied and that Jesus said had now come to pass? Good tidings to the meek, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, opening the prison. You heard the lessons being read, and then perhaps somebody saying prayers after, which referred back to these lessons. You could feel the power of the Holy Spirit at work. But how did it really work in practice?

The thing about the good tidings to the meek and the binding up the brokenhearted, and especially proclaiming liberty to the captives, is that , with the possible exception of the meek, the Lord hasn’t really told us how it all works. What are the good tidings that I should give to the meek? I can understand binding up the brokenhearted, comforting them; but what about proclaiming liberty to the captives? Which captives? Obviously there’s an echo of the story of St Paul and Silas being broken out of jail by an angel [Acts 16:16-40].

In one way, this story is completely uncontroversial. Why wouldn’t you want to bind up the brokenhearted? Why wouldn’t you want to proclaim liberty to the captives? I’m not quite sure how you manage to ‘preach good tidings unto the meek’. I have this vision of a rather gloriously over-the-top actor, like Brian Blessed, jumping into the pulpit in a country church, bellowing out an invitation to Evensong.

I think that we, the faithful, may need to have a more nuanced look at this prophecy, before anyone goes blundering into the Day Centre ‘preaching good tidings to the meek’. Why is the person brokenhearted? Is it something that we can fix?

What about the captives in prison? We have any number of passages in the Bible where Jesus makes it plain that part of our duty as Christians is to go visiting people in prison. We might think that the ‘captives’, really, are not bad people; they’re not real criminals, but they’re people who have been wrongly imprisoned. Perhaps they are Christians in a country where it’s against the law to be a Christian and they have been locked up. They haven’t done anything wrong.

Or they could be like Paul and Silas in the passage in Acts 16, wrongly imprisoned for another reason. But no. If you look at the passages, I don’t think you can make that distinction. Isaiah’s prophecy is that, when the kingdom comes, all the prisoners will be released. And that includes the real criminals as well.

That seems to me to be in line with the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, with turning the other cheek or going the extra mile. The thing about Jesus’ teaching is that it is based on grace. You don’t earn your place in heaven. You are a sinner. Nevertheless you can be forgiven. You can be released. ‘Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’

Or you could say it was another instance where Jesus, and our faith, has things upside-down. ‘The first shall be last’, or, as in the Magnificat, ‘He has put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek’.

The kingdom of heaven is not just for good people, or successful people. it’s for all of us, however humble – however bad.

Think of Jesus’ comparison between the Pharisee praying, thanking the Lord that he was ‘not as other men are’, that he was better, and contrasting his prayers with the publican, the tax collector, humbly saying, ‘Have mercy on me, because I am a sinner’.[Luke 18:11f] I know that I am not up to the mark. Jesus says that the kingdom is there, at home with that poor man who feels he is no good at all.

It’s a strong lesson for us. We shouldn’t be complacent and self-satisfied: we shouldn’t say, ‘Thank the Lord that I am not as other men are’. Instead we should pray, ‘May the Lord have mercy on us, because we are not perfect, and we don’t always do the right thing.’

I was going through my list of things to do yesterday, and it seemed to me never-ending. Then I just put a quick call through to find out when I was supposed to be running a particular errand that afternoon, only to be told that I’d got it wrong, and I’m not due to do it till Tuesday. What a nice feeling! All of a sudden, I had a free afternoon. I didn’t really deserve it, but there it was. In a small and mundane way, I had received grace. It was a little glimpse of heaven.

I pray that you will have little glimpses of heaven too. But you must be aware that they’re not necessarily where you might expect to find them, and you don’t necessarily deserve them.