Archives for posts with tag: Pharisees

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, 14th July 2019

Genesis 32:9-30, Mark 7:1-23 (see https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=430034390)

I could tell you a good story about Jacob and Esau and the beginnings of the nation of Israel: how Jacob cheated his brother Esau, as we heard last week; how he in turn was cheated by Laban, his relative, father of Leah and Rachel, so that eventually Jacob managed to marry both of them: how Jacob in his wandering prospered, again through some sharp practice, this time getting his own back on old Laban. He said Laban could have goats and sheep, provided they had certain markings on them, and Jacob would have the others, although quietly he was making sure that he was breeding only the sheep and the goats that had his markings on.

So Jacob became rich and prospered. Still, his brother Esau was out to get him, for taking away their father’s blessing, his birthright. So Jacob went out with a huge gathering of cattle and various other presents for his brother to appease him, and to make him forgive him.

On the night before he was due to meet his brother, (and both of them were accompanied by private armies), he met a mysterious man, with whom he wrestled all night, and who dislocated his hip for him. He wouldn’t tell Jacob his name, although the mysterious man said that Jacob’s name would not be Jacob any more, but Israel, which means ‘God strove’, or ‘God struggled’, so Jacob deduced that he had had God as his opponent. Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, meaning, ‘the face of God’.

I could tell you all that story; Oh, and I could also mention Jacob’s dream, of the angels ascending and descending a ladder to and from heaven.

In the story there’s a real intimacy between Jacob and God. It doesn’t seem to be particularly the case that God is upholding Jacob because he is a good and moral man – which he clearly isn’t; and even after Jacob has stolen his brother’s birthright, nevertheless his father Isaac, too, seems to treat it as just one of those things. He blesses Jacob and he sends him out to start a family. I could tell you that story.

Or, I could go into the other story today in our Bible readings, about washing one’s hands before you eat, and various other Jewish rules which were not part of the law of Moses, which Jesus condemned as forms of hypocrisy.

The part about washing hands doesn’t translate very well into a modern context, but the other half of the story, where Jesus goes on to tick the Pharisees off for relying on the small print, relying on get-out clauses allowing them to avoid having to do good, to avoid having to care for their parents as it is laid down in the Law of Moses, is something we can easily understand.

Apparently a practice had grown up according to which people could get out of looking after their old Mums and Dads and devoting resources to it, if they had first set aside the bulk of their savings for a sacrifice, or sacrificial offering, to God. This is what was called ‘Corban’.

Whatever was set aside as Corban was no longer available to be used to benefit one’s family, one’s aged parents, and so you were excused from having to look after them.

I could spend a long time teasing out all the various bits of meaning in our two Bible lessons. On one level you might possibly find it edifying, even enlightening; just as you would do, if you were watching a documentary film or going to one of the Art Fund lectures at the Yehudi Menuhin School.

But then I think, an hour or so after you come out of church, you might have a moment of dismay, because those stories just don’t bear on all the important things that are going on in our lives.

What on earth has wrestling with a mystery man in the night, or seeing angels climbing up and down to heaven, got to do with our worries about naval threats in the Gulf of Hormuz, or the unpredictability of Pres.Trump and his refusal to follow the norms of statesmanlike behaviour?

What do Jacob’s wanderings and Jesus’ teaching about hypocrisy really have to say to us in today’s world? Some of it is, on its face, out of date or inappropriate. Our children really ought not to think that Jesus says it’s OK not to wash your hands. (I know it’s about ritual washing, but that’s even further away from real life).

We are worried about knife crime. The terrible murder on the train at East Horsley. It was a shock. It seemed to be something that could have happened to any of us who commute on that line, on our local line to London. What has God got to do with that?

What will happen about ‘Brexit’? Our country has already been greatly diminished in the eyes of the rest of the world and the preparations for Brexit have cost billions. Where will it end?

Austerity, over the last ten years, has not made our economy any stronger. But is has meant that the poorer people in our society are now desperately poor, and food banks are everywhere. Our own food bank will supply over 3,000 food parcels, locally, here in this area, in the next twelve months. What would Jesus say?

During the ITV debate between the two candidates for the Conservative leadership, when one was asked about his Christian faith, he said: “I sometimes pray. I’m like regular Church of England folk: it’s part of my life and my identity, but I don’t think it defines my politics.” [https://twitter.com/churchtimes/status/1149735677430390784?s=21]

Why doesn’t his faith in God define his politics? Is there anything more important? How worrying is that? I’m not concerned about who the politician was or that it was one party or another: this could have been said by almost anyone. But he was an MP, an important person, a minister. Why shouldn’t such an MP’s faith influence his politics?

In the Bible, Jacob could talk to God and lament that he had not followed God’s commandments; but nevertheless God kept faith with him. They had this regular contact. In his dream he saw the angels climbing up and down a ladder, Jacob’s Ladder, into heaven. And God met him at night to wrestle with him. Was that a dream as well? Whatever it was, Jacob felt that he had seen the face of God; he had been close to God.

But we, we don’t seem to experience anything like that. Perhaps like the Pharisees, we’ve become too regimented in our approach to God. Perhaps our prayers are too formulaic. Perhaps we are not open enough to see the face of God any more. Perhaps we’re like that politician. Like the one who said, “I sometimes pray. I’m like regular Church of England folk: it’s part of my life and my identity, but I don’t think it defines my politics.”

When Jesus told the Pharisees not just to go through the motions, not just to follow the rules for the sake of following the rules, I think he could have been talking precisely about the ‘regular Church of England folk’ that this politician said he belonged to. The Pharisees went through the motions, but they didn’t actually do anything. It didn’t ‘define their politics’.

I think what Jesus is teaching us in relation to washing one’s hands and setting aside resources that might have gone to look after your parents, is that this is sham love, and it is no good. Jesus wants us to show risky love, real love, the sort of thing he preached about in his Sermon on the Mount.

The love that Jesus was recommending, going the extra mile, loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, being like the Good Samaritan, is generous love and it’s a love which is not calculating in any way. Paul wrote about it in 1 Corinthians 13. ‘Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant’. It isn’t necessarily love which you can easily afford. It could be like the widow’s mite. Not much, but it could be more than you can easily afford.

But when you do see that kind of giving, giving which does not count the cost, at work, when, (and this seems especially apt today, which is Sea Sunday), when you see the risks that Captain Carola Rackete, the young German sea captain, took in order to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean and take them to a safe port, even though it might result in her going to jail; or more mundanely and closer to home, when you see someone give their entire trolley of purchases from the supermarket to our Foodbank, all for their poor neighbours: it may not be a sensible gift: it may be really extravagant: but it is loving. It is a blessing. A real blessing, and I think we may begin to see the face of God in it.

Just as Jacob was really concerned to be blessed, to have his father’s blessing and then for God to bless him – he said, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me’ – we need to look out for our blessings. If we count our blessings, I am confident that we are going to find, not that we are alone, but that God really is still at work among us.

So may God bless us and keep us, and make His face to shine upon us.

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Sermon for Mattins on Palm Sunday, 20th March 2016

Zechariah 9:9-12, 1Cor.2:1-12
We know what happens next. Or as people say nowadays, ‘Spoiler alert!’ ‘Ride on, ride on in majesty’. If you’ve just been to the family Eucharist at 10 o’clock, and seen the lovely tableau which the children presented, and maybe you have admired the Shetland pony on your way out, you will know why, when you were little, Palm Sunday was one of the best Sundays in the year to go to church. Donkeys are, alas, in rather short supply these days: there are now rather strict rules about what you have to do if you are going to carry a donkey around.

Mind you, in Stoke D’Abernon, many of the Mums do have the right vehicle for towing a horse box. Somewhere around here there is even a Range Rover with the registration number KT11 MUM! Anyway at St Mary’s we have had a lovely Shetland pony, and I am sure that Jesus would not have turned his nose up at a ride on him.

Processions are fun. Walking down the hill in a happy throng following someone riding on a Shetland pony was a very jolly thing to do. You can wave your palm leaves and your palm crosses. People do get quite carried away when they get caught up in supporting somebody who seems to take away their cares and blot out the annoyances that they have to put up with.

It’s quite noticeable, for example, that Donald Trump seems to have caught the imagination of a lot of people who feel left out by mainstream politics in the United States. They feel that big government doesn’t listen to them. Trump is their champion.

The Israelites had been in exile, and then under foreign domination, in their own country, for hundreds of years. At the time of Jesus, of course, the Romans were in charge and the Jews were second-class citizens. They were looking forward to the coming of a messiah, a deliverer, a king who was going to liberate them. They looked back to the various prophecies in Isaiah: the servant king, and in Zechariah was this strange image of a king coming on a donkey.

The basic model for the procession was what Roman generals did when they came back from foreign wars. If they had been successful, they were granted the right to have what was called a ‘triumph.’ A triumph was a magnificent procession through the centre of Rome, parading their captives and soaking up the applause of the people.

You can see that it would very much depend on your point of view how such a procession, with Jesus at its head, would be viewed. Even though Jesus was riding on a donkey, it might look rather challenging to the powers that be. In Palestine at that time, the ‘powers that be’ were both the Romans and the Jews, (the Pharisees and the scribes), because the Jews had a form of self rule, under the overall authority of the Romans. So if this big procession came over the hill from Bethany and down the Mount of Olives, it’s fairly understandable that both the Jewish authorities and the Romans might well have found it disturbing.

Even today, although we are supposed to be very liberal in our approach to free speech, you have to get permission for a demo to take place. You can’t just have a procession through the centre of the village, so that it blocks the traffic. For people in authority, processions are a sign of discontent.

There was a raw energy about to this crowd. In St John’s Gospel, we are told that the people were particularly excited because they had heard about Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life from the dead. Jesus, riding on a donkey, was a fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy. It all added up to a moment of great hope for the people. A man who could bring a dead man back to life could certainly be the king that they were looking for, to throw off the yoke of Roman rule so that Jerusalem would be liberated again.

But we know what comes next. ‘Ride on, ride on, in lowly pomp ride on – to die.’ A huge amount of the New Testament is devoted to the events of next week, Holy Week. A quarter of St Luke’s gospel; a third of Saint Matthew and St Mark and nearly half of St John’s Gospel. This is what Christianity is all about. And certainly, in this week, it is not about a triumph. It is not about conquest. It is more like a catalogue of suffering and failure.

When you’re little, you can only really take in nice stories about people riding on the back of donkeys. Good Friday is not something that we go into in great detail with our children. It is in a very real sense what in the cinema would attract an X rating. It is something which is too shocking. What we are talking about is the death of God, people putting to death the man who was also God. Five days earlier this man was being feted as the returning hero, as the Messiah, the king from over the water.

Nevertheless he, this same man, was going to be strung up on a cross along with common criminals.

Saint Paul says that the authorities would never have done it if they had known the full story. ‘We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery which none of the princes of this world knew; for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.’ [1 Cor. 2:8]

In Spiritual Cinema next week, on Tuesday, we intend to show the shortened, animated version of Ben Hur. We debated what would be an appropriate film to show during Holy Week. One film which we have shown in the past, which I felt was perhaps the very best one, was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. A few years ago, we actually showed it in St Andrew’s Church, in the church itself.

For those who haven’t seen it, it is a very harrowing film, because it does show, in a very realistic way, exactly what happened to Jesus; how he was flogged, humiliated and ultimately crucified. Somehow it brings home to you the awfulness of what he suffered in a way that cold print on a page just can’t do. It would be a shocking film if you were watching somebody – just anybody – suffering in that way. Nobody should be treated in such a brutal and bestial way. But Jesus did suffer in that way, and he was the son of God.

The contrast with the jolly man on a donkey could not be more profound and more complete. We know what happened next. What must it feel like if you have just committed the most terrible crime, and realise what you have just done? What will the Judge say? What will your sentence be? What if that crime is to kill the son of God?

Oh, you say, but we didn’t. We weren’t there. It was the bad people, even the Jews. But in a sense, we were there. In a sense, the turnover, from his triumph to his downfall and being lifted up on the cross, was entirely predictable. It made sense in human terms to the powers that be. It wasn’t specifically because they were Jews or because they were Romans or whomever. They were just ordinary fallible human beings. They didn’t recognise his divinity. Pontius Pilate having the inscription put over the cross, naming Jesus as the King of the Jews, says it all. In one sense, he was the king of the Jews, but in that the Jews were the chosen people of God he was also king of heaven.

In Lent we have been encouraged to reflect, to deny ourselves, maybe to fast, and to pray. Now in this week, this Holy Week, we are invited to think about the full awfulness of what Jesus suffered, and why he suffered it. Maybe we should do it without a spoiler alert. Maybe we should say, we don’t know what comes next. Maybe we aren’t too comfortable. If Jesus died for all of us, for all of humankind, we should reflect that the sort of evil which pushed Jesus on to the cross is still with us.

People are still hurting each other, pursuing gain without thought for the loss to someone else that that gain entails. We are still returning an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We are still going by on the other side. We are still worshipping false gods.

‘Ride on, ride on in majesty. In lowly pomp, ride on to die.’

Sermon for Holy Communion at St Andrew’s, Cobham, on 9th February 2014, the Fourth Sunday before Lent
Isaiah 58:1-9, Matt. 5:13-20

It’s funny how words change their meaning over time. When Jesus was speaking to his disciples, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, he said they were ‘the salt of the earth’. He meant that they were pretty good: that they had a strong flavour: they were capable of doing good things.

They used salt, in those days, to preserve food; so if a piece of meat was well salted, it would stop it going off. But these days, when we say that somebody is the ‘salt of the earth’, we tend to think of them more in terms of Arthur Daley or Eddie Grundy in the Archers: a little bit fly, a bit of a lad. Heart of gold, but the cheque’s in the post. You know what I mean.

So maybe to get the full flavour of what Jesus was saying, you need a slightly different expression. Not ‘salt of the earth.’ How about ‘light of the world’? As we’ve just heard, Jesus told His disciples that they were ‘the light of the world’ [Matt.5:14]. In St John’s gospel he says that He himself is ‘the light of the world’. Here He goes on to talk about the disciples being like ‘a city built on a hill’, which can’t be hidden from view, and that, once you have lit a lamp, you mustn’t hide it away: you mustn’t ‘hide your light under a bushel’.

What does it all mean in practice? Jesus was to some extent contrasting His message with the teaching of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law – the Jewish law, which was the 10 Commandments and the laws of behaviour which you get in the first five books of the Old Testament, and then in the Jewish law as developed by the various rabbis over the years and recorded in the Mishnah and the Talmud.

Jewish Law has a rule for absolutely everything, and the Pharisees were famous for knowing all those rules and punctiliously carrying them out. But of course in the story of Jesus, in the gospels, the Pharisees are not the good guys. They are the ones that opposed Him. They are the ones that Jesus called hypocrites, ‘whited sepulchres’; they looked all right on the outside, but on the inside they were full of awfulness, ‘full of dead men’s bones’.

But it doesn’t mean that Jesus was against the Jewish law. The Jewish law, in its essence, was – and is – a very good set of principles. The bit that we’re familiar with, the 10 Commandments, is a fine ethical code, and Jesus assured the disciples that He wasn’t there to dismantle the Jewish law: not ‘one jot or one tittle’ would be taken away. But, He said, you have to do better than the Pharisees and the scribes if you’re going to have a place in heaven.

Then Jesus went on to preach His most famous sermon – probably the most famous sermon there’s ever been – the Sermon on the Mount, about going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, loving your enemies. All this is contrary, counter-cultural stuff, which is the essence of Jesus’ teaching.

But He wasn’t going against what the law and the prophets had previously taught. If we look again at the first lesson, from the book of the prophet Isaiah, it’s actually the same kind of message. What do you do in order to show that you’re obedient to God, that you have a proper respect for Him?

Do you cover yourself with sackcloth and ashes, and do some drastic fasting? According to the prophet Isaiah, the Israelites are complaining, because they do do all that, they go through all the ritual of fasting and self-abasement: but they don’t think God takes any notice.

Isaiah points out – and as a prophet he’s speaking the words of the Lord – that the right kind of penitential behaviour is not doing something which only really impacts on you yourself. Instead it is doing something for other people: ‘to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free’. Sharing your food with the hungry: taking the homeless poor into your house: clothing the naked when you meet them, and never sneaking out of looking after your family.

‘Then’, Isaiah says,’your light shall break forth like the dawn.’ If you give of your own food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the wretched, ‘then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom will be like the noonday’.

How should it affect us? There are posters for the Alpha Course, where there’s a man looking a bit puzzled and asking himself, ‘Is that all there is?’ Is his normal life all that there is – or is there more to life?’ The course introduces you to the idea that there is more to life, and the reason that we know that there is more to life is because, as Christians, we understand that the meaning of the gospel, the good news of Jesus, is that God does care for us.

But what Jesus is telling us here in his preaching is that this is not just something good for us as individuals. If we’re disciples, the fact of our being a disciple should shine out from us. ‘Let your light so shine … so that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father in heaven.’

Let’s assume that we are all trying to be good disciples. What does it mean in practice to say, ‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works’? What good works? ‘To loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free’. But – are you actually oppressing anybody? What do you think? Do you think that it applies to you in any way today?

Isaiah suggests that the way to set free the oppressed is to share your food with the hungry: take the homeless poor into your house: clothe the naked when you meet them.

Sharing your food with the hungry may be quite straightforward. As the manager of our Foodbank, I’m very grateful that so many people – and that certainly includes lots of people here – have gone and bought extra food when they’re shopping and have given it to the Foodbank.

But what about taking the homeless poor into your house, and clothing the naked when you meet them? Would it be stretching it too far to ask, in this context, how you think that the ‘Bedroom Tax’ fits in with the idea of taking the homeless poor into your house?

Say somebody works for a low wage, and gets housing benefit. In the old days, they would have had a council house at a cheap rent which they would have been able to afford. Unfortunately they don’t have many council houses any more, so now we have housing benefit, to make up for the extra cost of privately rented houses. The poor person’s children have grown up and moved away; so strictly speaking, they don’t need three bedrooms any more.

So the new rules say that their housing benefit will only be paid to cover the cost of a house which the government says is necessary. So they are paid enough to be able to afford a one-bedroomed house – whereas they are actually living in a three-bedroomed house. There aren’t any one-bedroomed houses available. Very soon our poor person won’t have enough to live on.

In effect, Isaiah suggests that we, as individuals, should be doing something about that. The Jewish law, the law of Moses, is pretty clear that society must care for its weakest members. In Deuteronomy ch.14, Moses tells the Israelites to make a tithe on all their wealth, to provide for ‘aliens, orphans and widows’ living with them, so that those aliens, orphans and widows may have enough to eat.

Aliens, orphans and widows. Immigrants, refugees: children in care: people living on their own. It really doesn’t take too big a stretch of the imagination to realise that we still have the same sort of people in our society that Moses was worried about 3,000 years ago.

I’m not telling you what the answers should be. But I encourage you to go away and think about it. Just to suggest one instance: is it right that, when the property market is booming, we should be imposing taxes on the poorest people so that they have to make a choice between paying the rent and buying food?

Or, do you think that things have changed, and in fact these ideas from the Jewish law and from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are not actually directly referable any more to present-day circumstances? What do you think?

Last week was Candlemas, when we celebrated the coming of Jesus as ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’, and Jesus said later on, ‘I am the light of the world’. This week, we’re looking at Jesus’ teaching that we, his disciples, his followers, we also are the light of the world.

Our challenge today is to make it a reality, so that our light is not in fact hidden under a bushel, so that it is not just a matter of us feeling a rosy glow: instead the challenge is to us, so that we really do become a light, a light to the world outside.

So I pray, ‘Let our light so shine, so that they may see our good works, and give glory to you, to our Father in heaven’.

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.

Sermon for Evensong on the 17th Sunday after Trinity, 22nd September 2013
Ezra 1; John 7:14-36

‘By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept: when we remembered thee, O Sion …
How shall we sing the Lord’s song: in a strange land?'(Psalm 137). The Israelites had been enslaved by Nebuchadnezzar, and they had spent fifty years in a strange land, Babylon, from 587BC until they were freed by King Cyrus, Cyrus the Great of Persia, who defeated the Babylonians and generously decided to allow the Israelites to go free, to go back to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple.

That’s the story we hear from the book of the prophet Ezra, written in the fourth century BC, Ezra being the great prophet of the Second Temple, the temple which was rebuilt following the return to Jerusalem under the Persians.

The great story of Israel, leading up to the Christian gospel, is one of obedience to the Law, to the Law of Moses; and the question whether the Israelites were faithful to one god. ‘Thou shalt have none other gods but me.’ When the Israelites turned aside and did worship other gods, Baal and Moloch for example, as a result they were deserted by God and the Temple was destroyed.

You can read all this story very succinctly in the Acts of the Apostles, in the sermon delivered by St Stephen in Acts 6 and 7, or in one of the ‘history psalms’, such as Psalms 78 or 106. The Israelites regarded the Temple as being of huge importance. They made a house for God to live in. It was the same idea that the apostle Peter had at the time of the Transfiguration, to make tabernacles, little houses, for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. (Matt. 17:4)

But Stephen in his sermon explained that Jesus had changed things. ‘Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet, Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool; what house will ye build me, saith the Lord: …. Hath not my hand made all these things?’ (Acts7:48f)

In our New Testament lesson from St John’s gospel, Jesus is pointing out that the Jews are very literal in their adherence to the Law, so there are certain things that the Law allows them to do, for instance carrying out circumcisions, on the Sabbath, but not, according to them, healing the sick.

So the Jews were questioning Jesus about what authority, what basis he had, for challenging them, and Jesus answered that he wasn’t simply a man, but that he got his knowledge also from his divine origin. St John’s gospel has a major theme, which is that Jesus was the Son of God.

It’s interesting how these theological questions evolved. In 600BC, 2,700 years ago, it was a live issue whether there was one god; but it was already part of the Jews’ vision that that one god had to have a house, and the house had to be magnificently furnished. The idea of God being beyond time and space had not really taken hold; but it was true that the Jews understood God as not being something made, like a golden calf – God was not a ‘brazen idol’. He was the Creator and sustainer of the world.

It is perhaps a bit salutary to realise that these steps in the history of our own civilisation – the Persians conquered the Babylonians, the Greeks conquered the Persians, the Romans conquered the Greeks and the Romans conquered Britain – those early steps took place in those mysterious and rather feared places which perhaps today we would see on the map and say, just represent threats and trouble: Iraq, Iran, Israel, Syria. That’s where it happened. It is perhaps difficult for us to remember that these places together represent the cradle of our civilisation.

It does look as though things have regressed from the time when the great king of Persia, Cyrus, could be so generous to the Jews living in exile in Babylon. The dreadful use of chemical weapons recently looks to be an innovation in brutality – but if you look at Herodotus’ Histories, you will realise that even in the days of Cyrus there were some ghastly inhumanities going on.

I don’t think it’s appropriate to go into the gory details here, but suffice to say that man’s inhumanity to man seems to have been a hallmark of this part of the world, at once the cradle of civilisation and at the same time the scene of bestial cruelty. That was true even in these heroic times, when the Jewish exile was coming to an end.

The idea that God did not live in a particular place was not something which Jesus started. ‘Heaven is my throne and earth is my footstool’ is an idea which comes from Isaiah chapter 66. So Jesus’ preaching was not that revolutionary – it was simply emphasising what was in the prophets’ teaching already – but, as often seemed to happen, the Pharisees didn’t understand, and thought that Jesus was some kind of a charlatan.

I think it’s not very fair that we should have this idea that the Pharisees were all bad. I think we have to have some fellow-feeling. What would we have thought if we’d been there? For instance, if we’d heard a rumour that Jesus might be the Messiah, but we’d compared it with what we could remember had been prophesied about the Messiah: ‘You won’t know where he has come from.’ But we did know exactly where Jesus had come from.

Would we have been clever enough or trusting enough to become disciples? Or would we have stood on the sidelines, going with the flow, like the majority of the Jewish people? Would we have recognised all the miracles that Jesus did and realised that He was who He claimed to be?

But hang on a minute. Isn’t that all really rather academic? What possible difference could any of that stuff make to our lives? How does the fact that we go to church and we call ourselves Christians affect how we look at what’s happening in the Middle East today? Or if we come across people who are in need, or suffering from disabilities; do we put it down to their ‘lifestyle choices’, as a government minister did the other day?

Where is God in all this now? Is God speaking to us through His Holy Spirit, or has He left us to sort things out by ourselves? I think Jesus would be cross with us, just as He was cross with the Jews, if He saw us not taking care of the hungry, the weak, the poor, those who are not as fortunate as ourselves in our society: not, in other words, loving our neighbours as ourselves.

Jesus was clearly right in saying that the Pharisees had forgotten the law of Moses, because they were setting out to kill him. They had conveniently forgotten ‘Thou shalt not kill’. He was absolutely serious when He pointed out that, even on the basis of conventional wisdom, on the basis of the Law of Moses, ‘Thou shalt not kill’. That was true in the early years of the first century, when Jesus said it (or at least when Jesus implied it); and it’s true today. The right answer to the crimes of someone like Mr Assad of Syria is not more killing.
Nearer to home, Jesus’ emphasis, when faced with the fact that many people are hungry today, even in England, even in the rich borough of Elmbridge, in Stoke and Cobham, Jesus’ emphasis would surely be on feeding those people rather than trying to blame them for somehow bringing hunger upon themselves.

I can’t help the feeling that, although I don’t think Jesus actually said it in words, what is implied by his great commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves – which is in the Law of Moses; it’s in Leviticus, chapter 19 verse 18 – is that you have to take people as you find them. The Good Samaritan didn’t check to see whether the man, who had fallen among thieves and was lying injured on the road, he didn’t check whether the man had been imprudent or had not gone out properly prepared, or even had perhaps said the wrong thing.

None of that mattered. The only thing that mattered was he was hurt and in need. That should surely be our motivation too. Remember what Jesus said that the eternal Judge would say at the day of judgement: ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’ (Matt. 25:34f).