Sermon for Third Sunday of Epiphany High Mass Sunday 24 January 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Luke 4.: 18.
Jesus, quoting Isaiah, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.
God is the Creator, not the Decorator. God is your life. God begins everything, He doesn’t just add the finishing touches, a Christian makeover, a nicer you. God hasn’t got time for home improvements. He starts with you as you are. He loves you as you are. It is He that hath made us and not we ourselves. The Spirit of the Lord is upon you.
Jesus quotes Isaiah more than any other prophet. Today’s Gospel makes better sense if you know what came before, the temptations in the wilderness, that hard and essential training in self-knowledge which lies in wait for all of us, and what comes afterwards, that the people hated what Jesus was saying and threw him out of the synagogue. We heard the nice bit, when all spoke well of him and marvelled at his gracious words, but never mind, I’m all for a free interpretation of the Christian gospel. It’s up to you. You can read as many commentaries as you like, but in the end what matters is that these living words stay alive in your life and mean something. The Word grows within us. Jesus tells you who He is, and what He can do for you throughout your life. Yes, He is talking to us, we who really are poor in spirit, who always find ourselves back at square one with ourselves for company, He is talking to us. He proclaims our freedom. To those who are blind he gives vision, the strength to lift our eyes to the horizon again. He comes “to set at liberty those who are oppressed”, and that includes those of us who know ourselves to be oppressed, day after dull day, by the cold calculation of the ego, which always, always, keeps God at a safe distance, year after year. And then at the end, Jesus says he has come to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, then he closes the book and he sits down. This is it. The acceptable year of the Lord meant, in those times, a Jubilee year, when all debts were forgiven. So this is what Jesus is about, forgiveness, mercy, starting afresh. Somehow or other, the freedom Jesus offers is tied to forgiveness, forgiveness of ourselves, our forgiveness of others, and above all God’s forgiveness of us for misunderstanding who He is and what He, as Creator, continues to do in our lives today.
Are you up for any of this? We should be, because Jesus was a man of his time, with his knowledge and perspective limited by the times in which he lived, as we are, yet he was clearly a man in communion with God, so why do we find it difficult, why does the signal come and go? Jesus brought the message, spirit and matter are one. They have never been separate. There are not two worlds, the spiritual and the non-spiritual. That is called dualism, dividing things into two to suit ourselves. God is not out there, or in the next room, ready to provide feelings of happiness and love. But we can’t see this until God puts matter and spirit together in one person, Jesus Christ. This is what the Mass is all about, and many of the epistles in the Bible are human workings out of this fundamental knowledge as in today’s epistle: “by one Spirit we were all baptised into one body”. What is Christianity after all? Christianity, says Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century, is “an imitation of the divine nature”, it brings us back to our original good fortune and delight in being created in the likeness of God.
What does this mean for us? Where it will take us? I’ll tell you. Our lives change beyond recognition. Everything is different now, when ordinary life is eternal life. I’ll give you a few examples. All that we see, the sunlight, the colours, the night, the horizon, wild nature, even in a London park, all are a delight because there too you find God’s glory, or as the psalm says concisely, the firmament sheweth his handiwork. Even the tears, the most challenging of personal tragedies, death itself, are not separate from the life of God, because Christ shed his last drop of blood to show that He is with us to the end of time, sharing hopes and our well-founded fears, whatever happens. When we know the Spirit of the Lord is upon us, we know ourselves to be, each of us, a unique, yes unique, reflection of the mystery of God. That knowledge, even if only fleeting, dimly remembered from times of grace in past, maybe as a child when God was real, should turn us into serious enquirers after the truth, ready to try again to pursue that mystery in silence, in prayer, meditation, or sacred reading, to keep us in a way of life, Christ’s way of life, and, if necessary, to start over, again and again, for there is no other way for us to go. Christianity is daily work. Coming to Church on Sundays is not enough, it can’t be. With God at the centre of our lives, Christianity becomes less a matter of belief, than of behaviour. You see, with God on our side comes responsibility, responsibility for carrying on God’s work of loving creation. Lastly, with the Spirit upon us, as Jesus promises us, we begin to see the glory of God in the dignity we see in all human beings, and in the tolerance, compassion, humility and courage we find among them, and in the affront to God when this dignity is denied. The Gospel is the social Gospel, there is no other. It is He that hath made us and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Remember that? The Jubilate from Mattins. O be joyful in the Lord. It really is that simple. We are the People of God, and His Spirit is upon us.