The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      27th January 2019
He has sent me to proclaim - the year of the Lord's favour
Handley Stevens

Epiphany 4, Year C
1st Lesson  : Nehemiah 8.1,2,5,6,8-10
2nd Lesson : 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a
Gospel       : Luke 4.14-21

Text: He has sent me to proclaim … the year of the Lord’s favour (Luke 4.18-19)

A poignant text for holocaust memorial day, but a reminder that the Lord God never abandons his people, even in times of great darkness.  Moreover, after weeks of rather ill-tempered and divisive political debate, it is a relief to be invited this morning to focus on readings which point to the sure foundations of our faith and the robust principles which guide and sustain our common life as a Christian community.

We began with Nehemiah’s account of the solemn reading of the books of the law of Moses to celebrate the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple following the exiles return from Babylon.  Respect for the law was the foundation on which the restored community could be securely rebuilt.  The people wept when they solemnly affirmed the depth of their renewed commitment. They wept, but Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest urged them not to grieve, but rather to rejoice and to share their joyful feast  with those for whom nothing was prepared, ‘for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’  (Neh 8.10)  What a great celebration that must have been.

Next we heard St Paul’s inspired description of the Christian community as the body of Christ, in which we all have our particular part to play, and every part is of equal value – indeed, within the body the humbler parts rightly require and receive more attention than the grander parts which can look after themselves.  It’s a pity he rather spoils his point by urging us all to strive for the grander roles, as if the role of the preacher (for example) was of more importance to the life of the community as a whole than the attentive welcomer at the door, or the kind person who polishes the brass rail or mops the floor of the toilet. 

To be fair to St Paul, the passage which immediately follows this morning’s reading promises to show the reader a still more excellent way – the way of love.  The text of 1 Corinthians 13 is very precious to us all, but we don’t need to go there this morning, since we have instead the passage from Isaiah which Jesus himself chose to read in the synagogue at Nazareth to set out his own mission statement –

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. Luke 4.18-19   

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.  He knows they won’t accept the claim he makes for himself, but that is not going to unsettle him. He will go on to live a life which is utterly consistent with his manifesto, and of course it will cost him his life. 

So we have three wonderful statements of principle to ponder this morning and to take away with us to guide us in the coming days.  We must take seriously the Word of God, as revealed to us in the Scriptures.  We must take seriously our responsibility as a Christian community to be the body of Christ in the world.   And as Christ’s body, we must continue to take seriously his commitment to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour both in word and in deed. 

It’s a lot to ask.  We come with good intentions – that’s why we are here this morning.   But we know how hard it will be to live up to them.

First, we must take seriously the Word of God.  The Bible is not the easiest book to read.  It was written between two and three thousand years ago, reflecting literary, cultural and historical norms which are very different from ours.  The Word of God is there, and still speaks to us, but it helps to use a good modern translation and a commentary or a book of bible reading notes such as you will find at the back of this church.  Another approach which you might find helpful is the monthly series of meetings in which we consider a whole book at a time.  We have just been studying Joshua. Next up is the Book of Judges and then the Gospel of Luke, which is the main gospel from which we shall be reading at this service throughout the coming year.  It’s a good way to gain some insight into the different books, when and why they were written, and what we might learn from them to-day.  Do consider joining us.

Next, we must take seriously our responsibility as a Christian community to be the body of Christ in the world.  Many of us have joined the teams of volunteers supporting our winter night shelter, or our family of Syrian refugees.  Others engage with issues of current concern in our discussion groups, maintain contact with the charities we support, or work with our children and young people.  There is a role for everyone.

Finally we must take seriously our responsibility to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.  This is a reference to the year of jubilee, which was intended to offer a fresh start to those who had fallen on hard times.  It is not clear how this worked in the real economy, if indeed it ever did, but it was treasured as a sign of God’s loving concern for all his people, and especially the poor.  This is the God whom Jesus was proclaiming, the God of the more excellent way to which St Paul would point.  But now every year is a year of jubilee.   

So we have three firm principles around which to order our lives.  As a community of Christian people we are commanded to take seriously the Word of God, to be the body of Christ in the world, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour - witnessing as He did to His Father’s love, not just in what we say, but in the way we behave to one another, and especially to those who are less fortunate than we are.  Like him, we cannot tell where that will lead us.  All we know – all we need to know - is that we can never be separated from the love of God.

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