Sermon: Sunday 24 January 2016
Third Sunday of Epiphany
The Revd Canon Dr Johannes Arens, Canon Precentor
‘Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ This sentence really should be among everybody’s top ten list of bible quotes. It’s a sentence one could have as a screensaver, written with lipstick on your bathroom mirror or as a relief over the house door. Equally beautiful is the scene described in the same paragraph: For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. It’s an astonishing description which needs a bit of background information.
In the books chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah parts of the story of the people of Israel are taught. For centuries the people tried to be the people of God as well as to be like the peoples around them. For example, they introduced the monarchy after the example of other nations surrounding them. This has now failed. In the mid 6th century before Christ Jerusalem has been destroyed, the temple has been destroyed and the leading classes of Israel have been deported to Babylon. Decades later, after the Babylonian Empire has been replaced by the Persian Empire the exiled Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem. Now, under new conditions, as a province of the Persian Empire, Israel is about to discover anew its national identity: a people whom God has blessed by giving them the law of life in the desert. The reading from Nehemiah we just heard tells of a big open air service when this experience becomes really tangible: the people become conscious that God has called them and that in the past they wasted away their life and the opportunities God has given them. All the people wept when heard the words of the law, tears of joy and tears of remorse about previous missed chances. Joy about the new start which is now possible.
As Christians we are mostly dismissive about the Jewish law and its complicated code of holiness and its rules about what to eat and what not to eat. This is contrary to the experience of the people of Israel, who celebrate their relationship with God which now is possible to be lived again publicly. The law given to Moses in the desert can be proclaimed again publicly and the Jews are permitted by the relatively tolerant Persian Empire to live their own customs, to live under the Jewish law as well as the law of the Empire. This has a totally different meaning than our understanding of law as something which is binds us, hinders us or gives us stupid rules for the sake of rules. Law for the Jewish people means orientation, community, identity, vision and something to hold on to. It is a tangible, audible and visible confirmation that God has called them and blessed them. Pious Jews have a feast day to celebrate the giving of the Torah, the Law, a feast called Shavuot.
This is so different from how many of us understand religious customs, regulations and prescriptions. Do you experience these as liberating and life enhancing, as a daily reminder that you are blessed and known by God? Possibly marriage can serve as an example. By getting married or entering a committed partnership you say ‘no’ to billions of other people out there who may be more attractive and more suitable and more intelligent than your partner. In Jewish terms marriage means property rights: by marrying your spouse you became part of his or her property, he or she has rights on me, you are bound and restricted in what you do. Seen like this, it sounds like a rather miserable thing to do – why would anybody get married? But God tells us that this is a blessed state, a sacrament, something mirroring his love and beauty and glory. It may even be seen as a concession: I only have to try to love one person properly and see him or her with the eyes of God, I am not required to love everybody in the same way – that’s for God to do and to sort out in heaven. By restricting freedom voluntarily in this way I find vision, protection, orientation, company and identity. Of course I find restriction, frustration and misery and boredom as well, but hopefully marriage gives more than one has given up. The relationship of God with his people has often been described in similar terms: the law given to Moses is something like a marriage contract, a covenant between God and his people.
Have a look how Ezra summarises the law: ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to the Our Lord.’ At the centre of the law is the protection of the poor: send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared. And this is obviously not only about the poor who have no money, but about the protection of the powerless, who cannot stand up for themselves, the widows and orphans, the homeless and the stranger, the children who have no voice, those who cannot fend for themselves, have no weapons or strength to protect themselves. I think this is one of the most cutting questions you can ask of every law: Does this law protect the poor? Just think of some laws passed in this country. What if at every meeting of any governmental committee the first question on the standing agenda to be discussed would be: Does this law protect the poor? Does this law protect the weak, the homeless, the stranger and refugee, the powerless and the children? I think this is an amazingly perceptive question.
One difference is striking: Nowhere in the Jewish Bible is the relationship with God an individual one. God has made a covenant with his people and if anybody sins the people as a whole suffer, not individuals. Our understanding of law and our understanding of God is incredibly individualised, me and my God, Jesus my Saviour, give my heart to Jesus and that sort of thing.
But there is not such thing in the scriptures: God has redeemed his people, we pray to our Father, not my Father. Nobody can be Christian on her or his own, I am forbidden to celebrate the Eucharist on my own because it is essentially something which has to happen in community. On my own I can’t be a community, it needs at least one other person. A lot of contemporary Christianity ignores that we are essentially a community religion. It may be terribly annoying, fellow Christians are often total pains in the neck, but I cannot recognise God without being in fellowship with others. And this is costly, tiring, infuriating and deeply offensive – look no further than the Primates of the Anglican Communion. Tough – it’s our calling to love each other, we don’t have to agree or like each other.
It’s already in Genesis. When God made humankind he created them as male and female in the image of God. To be in the image of God you have to be at least two. Community is established in the very creation of human beings. Love and connection is given by God to us and we are asked to remember that redemption and citizenship of heaven is not just about myself, but that we should ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to the Our Lord.’
© The Revd Canon Johannes Arens