A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Graham Low on 22nd October 2023
At times of such extreme disarray in our world, we may, like many people ask the familiar question: where is God in all of this? I suggest that, as so often, today’s readings offer some pointers towards how this question may be answered, or at least approached.
Let us look first at Cyrus. How can a non-Israelite worshipper of idols, and representative of an occupying power possibly be called God’s messiah, anointed? Such a term had previously only been given to kings in the line of David. Cyrus is also called God’s shepherd, the only person to be so described apart from David and Jesus himself. And, remarkably, under God, Cyrus allowed the exiles to return, and then for Jerusalem to be rebuilt.
The Israelite exiles appear to reject the idea of an idol-worshipping pagan to rescue them: there are signs of a storm of protest in a later part of the chapter (45.9-12). They want to be choosy about their rescuer, but they cannot afford to be. In our own times, the church can be challenged by secular agencies, or unconventional non-believers, to change its ways. It often responds with suspicion. But maybe we need to ponder what God may be saying to us through people like Cyrus?
Isaiah places God here not only as the tribal God of Israel, but as the one true God of all the earth: “I am the Lord, and there is no other”. If God can use leaders who may not know him to be mysteriously part of his activities or purposes, then our prayer today may be that God will shape the leaders of Palestine and Israel, and all of today’s nations without any exception.
Our second reading may well have been from one of the earliest of Paul’s Letters, probably written less than 20 years after the death of Jesus. Here we are given a picture of the early life of Christianity as a distinct movement, a movement with a radically new message. It’s mood is passionate, energetic, exciting. We read that the heart of the Thessalonian’s conversion experiences is the rejection of idols. This rejection has been at considerable cost to these new Christians, including persecution. They have been alienated from sections of the communities in which they have lived. At that time relationships were still formed around communities which were closely linked to pagan temples. Here Paul is rejoicing that the new converts have resisted these social pressures. Now they delight in seeking to live with the virtues of faith, love and hope. These virtues are seen by Paul as the fundamental elements of a time when the whole community shall embrace them, as the Lord comes.
This is a passage which can well prompt us to look at our own spiritual wellbeing. Are there idols in our own lives which hinder our attentiveness and response towards the Holy Spirit? Perhaps those idols block our way to the living and true God.
We might also reflect on some of the idols which very crudely drive our current political world: consumerism, power, and at least covertly, racism. Having a sense of history as well as a desire for dialogue and compromise seem to be rarely spoken of in today’s disputed Middle East. We need to remember that the calamity of the war between Palestine and Israel has its origins well before Hitler. The antisemitic persecution that created the need for a secure Jewish homeland can, at least in part, be traced back to origins in an extreme protestant Christian perspective of the British government in the 19th century.
We recently visited a new synagogue complex whose construction was supervised by a friend of ours. Almost 100 security cameras operate in the buildings and there are two guards at the gates into the main road. We heard that there are frequent peaceful but antisemitic demonstrations outside the gates. Antisemitism is an increasing problem not only here, but in many parts of the world. Somehow we need to counter this evil attitude with the virtues of faith, love and hope.
In today’s gospel passage Matthew makes it clear that the kingdom of God embraces the whole of life and is not split into factions belonging to Caesar or to God. The controversies initiated by the Pharisees are intended to trap Jesus into saying something that might either be blasphemous, or heretical. They have already decided to kill him and successful trapping would strengthen their case against him.
Here as always, Jesus gives an answer to which the guile-filled Pharisees cannot respond. At the same time they give Jesus’ followers a further indication of the nature of his mission and his identity. In sharp contrast to the extreme violence of revolutionaries in Gaza, Jesus’ words here are those of another kind of revolutionary, even though his followers expected him to use force. Jesus’ gives the authorities their due, and then goes on to preach his subversive message of God’s love and forgiveness, seemingly within the established social order. May those words, so passionately spoken by Jesus in the very land where they are forgotten today, be heard and responded to within all relationships, all communities and all nations involved there today. Amen.