A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Nikolaj Christensen on Sunday 27 October 2019
When I returned from holiday on Wednesday, I had really hoped there would be some clarity over what’s going to happen to this country in this week ahead, just so I could prepare to comment on it in my sermon. But no!
Well, instead last week we heard the incredibly sad news that 39 people had died in a trailer while being smuggled into this country. I’m reminded of Jesus’ words earlier on in the Gospel of Luke than what we’ve read today: ‘those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?’ It certainly seems those who died in that container had done nothing to deserve what happened to them. And Jesus continues, ‘No, but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ (Luke 13:4–5) What a stark reminder of the injustice of this world, and of our own mortality as well.
There is so much uncertainty in our world, and that is of course a big part of the reason why we gather here week after week: to still our worried hearts, to set our minds on bigger more lasting things. Week after week we bring out ancient words from the Bible and apply them to our lives. And so our Collect, our special prayer for this Sunday, praises God ‘who caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning’ and asks for God’s help ‘to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them’ with ‘patience’; in other words to dig deeper and deeper into the scriptures from our initial hearing to the point where we really take them to heart. For what purpose? That ‘we may embrace and for ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you [God] have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ’; in other words we read the scriptures week by week, and day by day, over and over, because this is where we find something solid to hold on to, something that gives us confidence that the world can be better than what we see before our eyes.
So I thought this evening I would offer one little hint for how we might digest the scriptures. It’s no coincidence that the Collect for today is used in the week leading up to the 31st of October – a date that has been in the news a lot recently, but on which in 1517 a certain German monk and professor called Martin Luther published his 95 Theses which came to signal a revolt against the Pope. Luther and his followers were concerned with measuring the church of their day against the scriptures and bringing the church back in line with them. Today’s Collect was written by one of these followers, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the primary editor of the Book of Common Prayer who gave the Church of England this rich heritage of reading and praying through the scriptures at morning and evening prayer.
The renewed understanding of scripture that the reformers came to was based on a discovery that two different elements could be discerned in scripture: what they called Law and Gospel. Now, I’ll use our Old Testament reading for today to illustrate what we mean by Law, and our New Testament reading to illustrate what we mean by Gospel, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you couldn’t find the Gospel in the Old Testament or the Law in the New Testament.
Our Old Testament reading comes from the Book of Ecclesiasticus which is one of those later additions to the Old Testament that, according to another Reformation era document, the 39 Articles, we can ‘read for example of life and instruction’ but ‘not apply them to establish any doctrine’. That’s because this book is in a way itself a work of interpretation and reflection on the Old Testament proper, by a writer in the 2nd century before Christ, who applied the wisdom of the scriptures to his own time.
In today’s section he writes about offering sacrifices to God and he uses this image of God as a righteous judge who does not accept bribes. But I wonder if you might have been puzzled by this phrase: ‘He will not show partiality to the poor’? Surely it’s good to be kind to the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner – that’s something we’re told to do throughout the Old Testament.
I believe what the author has in mind is that the poor don’t need any specialpartiality, they just need to have a fair hearing, because likely as not they havegenuinely been wronged.
This reflects what the Book of Leviticus says: ‘You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor ordefer to the great’. The Kingdom of God is a place where what we today call the rule of law reigns supreme. And what Martin Luther realised was that faced with such a perfect, omniscient judge, no one can claim to be blameless. The law of God reminds our consciences of this fact. Everything good we have is from God; any way we fiddle with it we seem to spoil it. If you ever have any illusion that people are perfect, just read the news. Or just take a good hard look at your own heart.
So what do we do then? Despair? We might be right to. But instead today we have come together in the house of God to worship, much like the Pharisee and the tax collector each standing apart from a crowd of worshippers in the little story of Jesus’ in today’s New Testament reading. Tax collectors were reviled for working for the Roman occupying forces, and in addition were usually corrupt – but this one seems to have seen the error of his ways: he simply says ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
That’s all he has to bring. But Jesus concludes that the one who was willing to admit his own shortcomings was the one who counts as justified. That is what the reformers called Gospel, or ‘Good News’. The law of God had driven the conscience of the man to rely on God’s mercy – and the Good News is that that is enough. Again, as the 39 Articles says: ‘WE are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ – by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings’.
What a contrast with the Pharisee who tried to big himself up by claiming to exceed the demands of the law, who thought he was so pure that he had to stand apart from the crowd in order not to be made unclean by them, whereas the tax collector stood aside to avoid making others unclean. Well, it was the first man who was naïve: ‘all who exalt themselves will be humbled’, as Jesus said, and ‘all who humble themselves will be exalted’. This is what he lived his life by: he, the Son of God, humbled himself not only by living among us as an ordinary human being but by subjecting himself to being executed as a common criminal on a cross, in the most humiliating and painful way. And God his Father exalted him, raised him, and will exalt and raise up anyone who follows him and clings to him.
So we return to the scriptures again and again, because in them we see ourselves reflected, warts and all, sinners as bad as ourselves, judged according to the Law, but we also see the grace of God reflected, we see ourselves loved unconditionally according to the Gospel.Thanks be to God!