Sermon – 4th of Epiphany 2019

4th Sunday of Epiphany, 27 January 2019, 8am, 9.30am, 10.45am
1 Corinthians 12.12-31a Luke 4.14-21

Mark Hart

How much do you like change? Many people have told be about the way Nantwich has changed in their lifetime. The buildings which have gone. The many houses built. The reshaping of the roads and the rise of the traffic. That’s all before we consider the wider changes in society and the transformation of our lifestyles by technological innovation.

It wasn’t always like this. We have lived in more rapidly changing times than any previous generations. We should remember that, for most of human history, change has been so slow as to be imperceptible over the span of a human life.

Imagine living in ancient Egypt, a civilization lasting some 3000 years with barely any development. The same hierarchical structure and rituals, the same art and culture. You are born, you live, you die, and all with a sense that this is the way the world is and was and always will be. In prehistoric times the change was even slower.

The result was that people had little sense that the world was going anywhere, or that it could change or needed to be changed.

Observation of the natural world tends to reinforce that view. The regularity of the days and seasons, the movement of the stars, the circle of life. Time is cyclical. The basic order of nature is fixed. It’s a small step to believing that the ordering of society is not meant to change.

And then came one event which blew that idea apart. A challenge to the steady state theory of the world unlike any philosophy or religion. And that event was one human life: Jesus Christ.

Consider our Gospel text. It’s an ordinary day, and in our terms, Jesus is on the rota to read the lesson that Sunday in church. It takes him a while to find the passage from Isaiah because he has to roll and unroll the ends of the parchment scroll. As everyone waits, the Rector is wondering why Jesus didn’t prepare this beforehand.

He then reads the familiar passage from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me… to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Ah you say, that’s from the prophecy of Isaiah, written hundreds of years before Jesus. And it’s talking of social change and progress. But that’s not how it would have been heard. In its original context it’s about going back in time to before the Jewish people had been taken captive into exile. How can we recover the life we once had as a nation?

Jesus gives the text new meaning. “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”. In other words, the acceptable year of the Lord is now. The time for God to act is now. And that act, says Jesus, is here before you.

Fast forward to today. We’ve gathered to worship on the day of resurrection, the Lord’s Day. We are in a place which proclaims, even by the way the stones are arranged, that Christ has died and Christ is risen. Our worship is a foretaste of a future kingdom, because we are guests of the risen Christ, in the company of angels and archangels, eating the food of heaven.

We hear Jesus saying these words, announcing his mission, and we understand that this event of Jesus Christ, this one life and death and resurrection, is a revelation, at the centre of time, of the whole purpose and direction of the world’s history. And more, it is the means by which that purpose can be given.

Our world reset its clocks to make this incarnation the centre. And as I was saying earlier, it is arguable that it is only because of Jesus, because of this particular event, that we have a sense of history as development and have hope for a future of freedom.

You say, well that was a long time ago, and there are still many people who are captive and oppressed. Why is it taking so long? Shouldn’t we be more vigorous in implementing this political agenda? Someone may say, “Isn’t Jesus speaking the language of the left by calling out against oppression?” Another may say, “No, Jesus didn’t spend his time organizing social change. He helped people, one by one, to be responsible, active citizens. He had a right wing agenda of individual freedom”.

We live in politically turbulent times when there is growing here and in other parts of the world a greater polarization with the rise of harder, more ideologically driven movements on both the left and the right. People are impatient with the inequalities and the lack of opportunities that have arisen, and as their fears have been fed, radical solutions of one kind or another become seductive. Charismatic or populist idealogues offering a rapid and radical route to freedom and wealth become more attractive.

I’m currently reading a book called “The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties” by the eminent economist Paul Collier. Now I know that any six eminent economists will give you ten different solutions, but I think this one has a point in arguing for a more patient, pragmatic approach, discerning answers to particular problems by informed hard work, and not resorting to any extremist quick fix.

I say that, not to be political in any particular direction, but because Jesus didn’t give us a political ideology. He gave us his own life. And he gave us his Spirit that we might live that life. He gave us history. The event of Jesus Christ changed the world. The resurrection makes the point that the world doesn’t always have to be like this. It’s not an endless cycle. And the resurrection makes the point that God’s judgement prevails. No human power is unaccountable.

And it is the ultimate significance of this one life in history which means that now we see every human life as significant. Any political theory which regards people as explainable or predictable parts in a system, is doomed to failure.

So any apparently small and unrecognized acts can have far reaching consequences. Eternal consequences. Some may say that any work of charity we do to bring more freedom and justice to the world is a waste of time. What we need is a programme of revolution, of one kind or another. But that’s not the way of Jesus.

The good news of Jesus is revolutionary, but not by a system being imposed from above which everyone has to fit into. The good news is a leavening from within. Our epistle gives us the image of a body where each part has its own honour and dignity. None is dispensable. The health of the whole depends on the health of each one.

So our manifesto now is this same as that of Jesus. His one exceptional, outstanding life paradoxically tells us that every human life is potentially exceptional and outstanding and world-transforming, if that same Spirit is upon us and working through us.

So never underestimate the significance of all you can do, and all we do as a church. I look at our This Week sheet and see mission support for young people among the divided nation of Bosnia and Herzegovena; the CAP Job Club helping people towards employment; fundraising for Christian Aid and a call for a representative from St Mary’s; a mental health awareness day; a Mothers’ Union appeal in support of victims of domestic abuse; Ellen Matthews’ adventure to Malawi; a safeguarding awareness module – all of that and more is a sharing in Christ’s mission.

We are living in the year of God’s favour. This is God’s time to act. Thank God that he wants to change the world, and that he calls you and me to be agents of that change.