Oppression

The following is the text from my sermon this evening at Ripon Cathedral. The readings are Exodus 6:2-13 and Romans 5:1-11.

The story is told of the man who was out for a walk on a mountain one day, when a freak gust of wind blew him over the side of the cliff. Fortunately he managed to grab hold of a tree root as he fell, but he was left dangling over almost certain death.

He called up for help, but there was no-one around, so then he looked up to heaven and shouted out “Is there anyone up there? Please help me”.

A voice from heaven answered him “Yes – I will help you, but you have trust me”

The man replied “Oh – thank you God. Yes, I trust you absolutely, with everything I have and all I am”.

God said “Let go of the root”.

The man paused for a moment, then said “Is there anyone else up there?”

 

This story is a bit like our Old Testament reading today, in that the people of Israel are in a pretty bad way, and crying out to God for help, but when he comes to save them they are unable to recognise and respond to him.

We have to rewind a little bit to get the full story. In Genesis 12, God calls Abram to be the founder of a race who will be God’s chosen people, chosen to be blessed and in turn to be a blessing to the entire world, modelling both a true relationship with God and an extraordinary ethical and moral framework for society. Abram (or Abraham) has a miracle son called Isaac in his old age, who in turn has a son called Jacob (later called Israel). Jacob then had twelve sons, each of whom became the founder of one of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Via a very round-about route, one of the 12 sons – Joseph – ends up as Prime Minister of Egypt, and when a severe famine comes, Jacob and the other 11 sons all move to Egypt (where there is still food), and settle there, with the Pharaoh’s blessing.

So far so good. However at the start of Exodus, the old Pharaoh and the 12 brothers have died, and the new king doesn’t look too kindly on the Israelites, who have multiplied and multiplied. The pharaoh makes them his slaves, and makes them build his towns and cities. Their treatment is harsh, and culminates in an order by the king that every baby boy is to be killed at birth. From the midst of this, God calls out Moses to lead them back to Canaan, where they can be God’s chosen people in the promised land, as we first heard in Genesis 12.

Moses makes a first attempt – Moses goes to Pharoah, to ask him to set the Israelites free. Not only does Pharoah say “no”, he is so cross that he increases the oppression of the Israelites, saying that they have to continue to make as many bricks, but without being supplied with the straw anymore. Understandably, this isn’t seen as an improvement!

In today’s passage, God is commissioning Moses again to go the Israelites and lead them out of captivity. There is incredible sense of force and promise in what God says. He identifies himself as the one who appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but then goes on to identify himself by name – “my name is Yahweh”. In fact He says this five times in the passage we read. “Yahweh” is the name God used for himself when He first spoke to Moses in the burning bush. In our bibles it’s printed as “the Lord” (in small capital letters), but it is actually His Name – “Yahweh”, like “Bob” or “Sally” or “Angela”. It’s like He is saying “it really is me, and I am going to free you”.

So, Moses comes to give this message to the Israelites – that Yahweh has promised to set them free from the slavery and oppression of the Egyptians. And what is the response? We see it in verse 9: “they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery”. Isn’t that heart-breaking? To be so broken in spirit, that you refuse to even listen to a message of liberation. That hope itself has gone. Of course, as we know God does rescue his people in the end – and what is more this experience of suffering, oppression, and slavery becomes some of founding principles of the constitution of the nation of Israel. In Deuteronomy the Israelites are charged to “remember you were once slaves in Egypt” and “remember you were once foreigners in a strange land”, and to treat slaves and foreigners accordingly. Somehow God took the suffering, and turned it into a force for good. The suffering became formational, if you like. Something similar is happening in the Romans passage, where suffering produces endurance, character, and hope, and even becomes something we can boast about. It’s not that the suffering is good, but that it becomes a means of good.

Today we are not enslaved by an Egyptian pharaoh, and made to build bricks out of straw. But, as today’s collect prays, we can still be enslaved by the “chains of sin” and need deliverance from this as much as the Israelites did from Egypt three and a half thousand years ago. These might be chains of addiction or destructive patterns of behaviour. They may be chains of an historic or an ongoing abusive relationship. They may be chains from lies or betrayals, whether by us or to us. They may be chains of body image, wealth, or poverty. Today’s readings don’t promise an end of suffering (if anything the opposite!), but they promise that God hears our cry, that He will take the initiative in delivering us, that we can find peace with him purely and simply by faith – by believing and trusting that Jesus died for us, and rose again. That our suffering can have a purpose, have a point – so much so that we will be able to boast about it!

I don’t know what our friend hanging on the tree root did in the end, but if you are living in oppression, or have no hope, or cannot even listen because of a broken spirit, then please don’t leave this place this evening without asking God for His help. I or any of the Cathedral staff would love to pray with you after the service.

Let’s pray together now.

Father God, Yahweh. Thank you that always hear the cry of the oppressed and the hurting. Thank you that you can turn our suffering into something beautiful, in a way that is beyond our understanding. Thank you, Jesus, that you died for us while we were still weak and far from you, and that you have opened the way to perfect peace. Thank you Holy Spirit that you fill us with your passion and peace, and our God within us.  Amen.

Breaking Glass

A couple of weeks ago, I dropped and broke a glass while I was preaching at church!

Actually, it wasn’t real glass, and I dropped it on purpose to illustrate a point. Took me longer to make it then it did to write the rest of the sermon!! (Plus I spent the rest of the service sweeping up the fragments). But I digress…

I believe the Bible teaches that there is a cost to sin, which Jesus takes on (or “covers”) in our place, as a substitute. Now I greatly dislike the “cosmic child abuse” charicature set up regarding substitionary atonement – that there is an angry God who has to punish someone, and so decides to punish his own innocent son instead of us. I believe that is utter nonsense, and poor theology in almost every regard. But I’ve found Tim Keller’s book “The Reason for God” really helpful in shedding some light onto why sin has a cost, and it is his analogy which I adapted and developed in my sermon.

Suppose I was to drop a glass, and it shatters. There is now a cost to making this right. Firstly, someone has to “pay” the time and energy to sweep up all the bits of glass, to tidy up the mess. Secondly, a new glass has to be purchased (or donated) to replace the one that has broken. Anyone can pay these “costs”, but unless someone does, there will remain a dangerous mess on the floor, and we have one less glass. The cost is inherent and unavoidable. I may have deliberately broken it, I may have accidentally knocked it over, I may not even be aware that I broke it. None of this changes the fact there is a cost to making it right, to putting things back to how there were before.

And so sin is a bit like the dropping of a glass – there is an inherent and unavoidable cost which must be “paid” to put it right. Paul writes in Romans 6, “the wages of sin are death”, or in other words the unavoidable and inherent cost of sin is death. Somehow in Old Testament times, the blood of animals served the purpose of paying this price, of putting things right again. That the sacrifice of the animal is in way spiritually analogous to sweeping up bits of glass. I don’t claim to understand the mechanism for this, and it can seem offensive to modern Western ears. I utterly and absolutely do not believe there is a capricious or angry God demanding a blood-letting. I think rather that there is a deeper spiritual truth in play, and that part of the reason we struggle with this is because we are more put out by the fact we can’t sort ourselves out then we are by sin (to paraphrase John Stott).

So on the Day of Atonement (or “At-one-ment”, as it is more accurately written), the High Priest would offer sacrifices of animals for himself and the whole company of Israel, to “pay the price” of sin. But the Day of Atonement didn’t actually work. Glasses kept being broken. Israel kept on sinning. The cost of putting it right kept coming back. So each year more animals, more ritual, to try and deal with this sickness.

But the glass shattering brought to mind the title of another book, by Stanley Hauerwas, called “Cross-Shattered Christ”. Could it be that what happened (in part) on the cross was that Jesus took the ‘shattering’ once and for all? So that the glass no longer even breaks when it is dropped? That instead of the glass shattering, the one who takes its place shatters. That instead of the glass being broken, the body of the one who has taken its place is broken.

Was this what he foresaw at the Last Supper – his body being broken, his blood poured out? “This is my body, given for you”, and “this is my blood, shed for you”.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed. (Is 53:5)

 

As with any analogy or model, it only tells a small part of the story of course, and has limitations. I offer it only as one way of thinking about the miriacle of the cross, and as an invitation to wonder and worship. I am not for one second suggesting that sin no longer has any consequences, or “doesn’t matter” – just that we no longer have to bear the cost of being made right (or becoming “at one”) with God; the temple curtain has been torn, and the Most Holy Place is open.

Further reading
Keller, T.J. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008)
Stott, J. The Cross of Christ, 2nd edition (Leicester: IVP, 1989)
Hauerwas, S. Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2004)

Christmas Eve

The following is the text of my sermon at Midnight mass today.

Well, we’re nearly there, the wait is almost over!

I don’t know if your household is anything like mine, but we’ve all been getting really excited as Christmas has drawn closer – and my younger son even wanted to set up a “santa-cam” in his bedroom so that he could catch Father Christmas filling his stocking!

But I don’t know if it has ever struck you as odd to have this huge celebration now – at this time of year? I mean, here we are – it’s literally the middle of the night, on mid-winter’s evening (give or take a day), the longest and darkest night of the year. And in any case why do we even remember the birth of a baby born over 2,000 years ago, to an otherwise entirely anonymous teenage couple living in Palestine? Not exactly front page stuff, is it?

Except, of course, it is front page stuff – or at least it became headline news. Because this baby wasn’t just another baby. This baby grew up to become Jesus Christ – that strange and mysterious figure that history simply won’t let go of. As his followers today, we believe him to be the Saviour of the world. We believe that this baby was the only person in the whole of history who chose to be born – and that he chose it out of love to rescue us from darkness and sin. This baby, who we believe to somehow be God himself in human form, come to earth, to be born in an occupied backwater of the Roman Empire. Who came to be the light – to show us the way back into relationship with God. As we heard in the reading:

“The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:2)

And this perhaps is a clue as to why we have gathered here this evening in this long, dark, and cold December night – exactly because it is a long, dark, and cold night. The truth is that the world needs a light because it is dark. We need only look at today’s headlines to see just how dark these times are. War, death, corruption and violence. But into this darkness comes the Good News, the glad tidings of the angels that Isaiah goes on to talk about:

“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.” (Isaiah 9:6,7)

This is the Good News of Christmas, that God has come to earth to be our light.  I think the wise men were onto something when they studied the stars – you see, each and every year, a cosmic drama is played out in the heavens, which in some way reflects the whole story of creation. We start in June, when all is new and good. Life abounds, the sun shines. But then our sin and selfishness spoils God’s good creation, and the darkness gains a foothold. In the same way the sun starts to be slowly but surely beaten back by the night. Every day a few more minutes are stolen by the night. The darkness grows, and the light retreats. Until eventually we reach the end of December, where the night lasts almost twice as long as the day, and it feels like the sun barely rises above the horizon.

Will it just continue getting darker and darker, colder and colder? Is there any hope?

But then, in the deepest midwinter, something changes. It takes several weeks before we start to notice, and the coldest time still lies ahead – but the balance of power has shifted, and the sun is now in the ascendency. From here on, it is the night which must give up the minutes, and the light which will return – bringing with it as we know the new life of spring, the warmth and long days of summer.

So it is with this baby, born in Bethlehem. The balance of power has shifted, if you like. This baby, when grown up, will defeat the power of darkness, by giving up his life on the cross. The true light has come into the world, bringing the promise and first fruits of the new, eternal, spring.

We are still living in cold, dark days – as our newspapers and televisions daily remind us. Darkness is not giving up without a fight. But Christmas reminds us that the tide has turned. That there is hope. That one day the darkness will disappear completely, and that we are invited to live in a new heaven and new earth, where there will be no tears, suffering, or sickness, where God himself is our light. The baby in the manager is our own winter solstice. The turning point of history. And unlike the astronomical dance of the planets, this is a permanent solstice, which will never be reversed.

So, this Christmas eve, maybe you are already living in the light of the Son. You are living in the hope of the spring – in which case hallelujah, let’s celebrate the birth again with joy and wonder.

But maybe you are in the middle of a deep dark winter. Maybe you need a winter solstice in your own life, a glimmer of hope, a hint that maybe lighter days are ahead? If so, this Christmas time is an invitation for you to dare to believe the message of the angels, to dare to believe that this helpless baby is God himself, to trust him and accept him as your saviour.

Isaiah promises that a great light will come to those living in a land of darkness. Jesus is that light. For unto us a son is given, the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.