The Word of God

March 12, 2017

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Preached by Canon Gregory Clifton Smith using Jeremiah 22, 1–9; Matthew 8, 1-13 at Choral Evensong on Sunday 12th March 2017, the Second Sunday of Lent.

What picture I wonder comes into your mind when you hear the phrase ‘The Word of God’? It might be a general term for the words that a prophet feels compelled to speak by God to his people, as is the case in our Old Testament Reading this evening. It might be again a general term for the words that Jesus speaks both in his teaching and in acts of healing that Jesus uses, as is the case in our New Testament Reading this evening. In a metaphorical sense, this phase is often to be found accompanying acts of creation or re-creation as: in the very opening verses of the bible, the giving to Moses of the Ten Commandments, the opening  verses of John’s gospel where Jesus himself is described as the Word of God, the baptism and Transfiguration of Jesus,  Jesus calling  Mary Magdalene by name after his resurrection, words spoken by Jesus accompanying his ascension, words spoken by Peter, Paul and their successors at and after Pentecost. I’m sure this list is not exhaustive, but I hope the point I’m trying to make is clear.

Also, when the Word of God is spoken and received, apart from when God calls creation into being, any new beginning that is offered is dependant upon a turning away from all that enslaves a person or a community, so they may be set free to live life in all its fullness. This is not something that any of us are called upon to do in our own strength. We were reminded of this in this evening’s Collect. “We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” Within the context of faith we have to be honest with ourselves about what holds us back, and want to change. At that point, the good news for us of Jesus’ death and resurrection, is that we have already been forgiven.

In our Old Testament Reading this evening, Jeremiah is preaching a sermon at the palace of the King of Judah. He has not been asked to preach to the assembled gathering by the King any more than he was asked to preach in the Temple (as recorded in Jeremiah Chapter 7) with which the palace sermon shares many similarities. He is responding to a command by God to do so. And his sermon in both places is a call to repentance. In both sermons, Jeremiah invites his listeners to act justly, in other words not to oppress the alien or the orphan or the widow, nor to shed innocent blood. He is very clear that both action and inaction have consequences.  To underline what he is saying he compares the kingdom of Judah to one of the lush forests in Gilead or Lebanon (for which they are famed), and pictures any unrepentance on their part as being equivalent to turning these forests into deserts. Just as worrying is the warning that if the king and his people refuse to mend their ways, rather than others learning from God’s people, they will be forced to learn from others. It’s as through God’s wisdom will have passed to them. Clearly this passage is very relevant to us in our own contexts. The church is not the receptical of all wisdom. And when it acts unjustly, it needs to learn the values of fairness from the secular world. And if it continues to act unjustly it must be no surprise when people vote with their feet and leave. In our New Testament Reading, we hear how people are voting with their feet to stay with Jesus.

The passage we heard read follows on directly from the three chapters that constitute the Sermon on the Mount, the teaching of Jesus amplified by two of the seven miracles of Jesus contained within this chapter as a whole. Lepers and centurions both fell outside Jewish community living: the first contagious and untouchable, the second a non-Jew and thus destined for the outer darkness after death. It’s as though Jesus is affirming the importance of all peoples in the sight of God. The compassion of Jesus’ action amplifying and enacting the compassion of Jesus’ words.

When leprosy was first observed, lepers were treated by the community in which they lived as if they were already dead. (Sadly, this treatment continued well into the middle ages in this country where the priest brought the leper into church and read them the words of the burial service.)  As well as not approaching others, they had to warn others that they were lepers and so not to approach them. The legal biblical texts determining how lepers should be treated can be found in Leviticus 13: 45-46. But this leper did approach Jesus. His strong faith was such that he was sure that Jesus could heal him and so he knelt before him. Jesus did not avoid the leper as people would have expected him to do. He not only approached him, he touched him. Then, using words that seem to me to have the same transforming effect as when he ordered the dead Lazarus to come forth out of his tomb, he commands the leprous man to “Be made clean!” Leviticus 14 explains just what a leper has to do before he can be given a certificate that he was cleansed by the priest.  This was truly a moment of re-creation for the healed man. Not only had his illness gone, but, because he was no longer considered ritually dead, so too had the isolation from his community. How hard it must have been for that man to have said nothing to anybody until he had presented himself to the priest!

Despite the fact that they are Gentiles, it’s amazing how, whenever they appear in the New Testament, centurions are portrayed positively; the centurion that stands at the foot of the cross when Jesus died, being one case in point. Centurions are the long serving regular soldiers and the back bone of the Roman army. They are familiar with death in all its horror on the battlefield. They recognise courage when they see it. They are certainly not stupid. He is convinced through what he has seen that Jesus truly was the Son of God, and this, even after hearing Jesus’ dying words ‘It is finished. Into thy hands I commend my spirit’. The Gentile centurion who approaches Jesus the Jewish rabbi in the passage we have just heard, is not asking help for himself but for his slave who has no rights whatsoever. Jesus is struck both by the love this man has for his servant, and his belief that Jesus can heal  him without needing to visit the centurion’s home, a faith based on the soldier’s understanding of the importance of a disciplined chain of command. It is clear that it is this centurion’s strong faith in Jesus’ ability to heal that provides the context for his slave being restored to wholeness, Jesus’ words not so much initiating but confirming what has already taken place. Again, as with the passage from Jeremiah, it is interesting how the community of faith is not portrayed as being the receptical of all wisdom. Sometimes wisdom comes from outside it. God’s presence is everywhere, both outside and inside the city wall, as the hymn ‘There is a green hill far away’ so poignantly reminds us. Furthermore, there are, in both our Old and New Testament readings, albeit lying just beneath the surface, a picture of The Last Judgement (recorded in Matthew 25: 31-46), where men and women are divided up at the end of time, as a shepherd divides his sheep form his goats.

Crucially, once the Word(s) of God have been spoken, we have a duty to respond. Will we choose life or will we chose death? This overarching question must inform every decision we take and all our relationships one with another.

Let us pray.

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Heavenly Father, let nothing separate us from you.

Everywhere, at any place, at any hour and at any time,

daily ceaselessly, let us truly and humbly believe in you,

love, honour and worship, praise bless and glorify you,

serve you and give thanks to you,

most high and sovereign eternal God. AMEN

We pray for your Church as it seeks to minister in your world.

Give your Church, O God, the grace to follow in the steps of Jesus, who came among us as one who serves. May it be ready in all the world to spend and be spent in the service of the poor and the hungry, the sick and those who know you not. May it work with strength and suffer with courage for the liberation of the oppressed, and the restoration to all of the dignity and freedom of those created in your image: grant this O Father, for the sake of the same Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

God be in my head, and in my understanding;

God be in my eyes, and in my looking;

God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;

God be in my heart, and in my thinking;

God be at mine end, and at my departing.

THE GRACE.