PROPHETS - A Sermon Preached by Revd Dr Stephen Pix

St Martin, Bladon, 9.30 am (HC), 5.ii.17
-The Reverend Doctor Stephen Pix

OT Reading: Isaiah 58.1 to 9a
NT Reading: 1 Corinthians 2.1 to 16
Gospel: Matthew 5.13 to 20

WE live in a country which is democratic, in a manner of speaking, and this brings with it not only benefits but also responsibilities.  As citizens we are required to make decisions from time to time, albeit of a limited nature only.

Every so often there are elections, which are free and fair, when we have both the opportunity and the duty to vote for those we wish to represent us, whether at the village, district, county or national level.  We even have the occasional referendum, when we are asked to decide on a specific issue.

Quite apart from these obvious characteristics of a democratic society in which the people are consulted, there are other benefits and responsibilities which devolve upon as as a result of living in a civilised society; for example, we have a free press.

A free press is at liberty, within certain limits, to express opinions which are not necessarily those of the governing elite.  We have the benefit of being introduced to all sides of a question; but with that comes the responsibility to think through many issues.

This is where we stand simply by virtue of living in a country with free speech, fair elections and an accountable government.  Insofar as we are able, it is our duty and our joy to consider carefully the issues by which, as a society, we are confronted.

There is, though, a further question which we shall think about this morning, and it is this:  do we have a duty as Christians to view current affairs and issues in a special way?  Does faith affect public life, or is it a purely private matter?

Our supreme authority in questions of faith and conduct is the Bible, and in particular that collection of books which we know as the New Testament.  Do the writings in the New Testament shed any light at all on contemporary politics?

The short answer to that question is:  not much.  Notoriously, in the thirteenth chapter of his letter to the Romans the apostle Paul adopts a highly conservative attitude towards our civic duties; this is what he says:

'Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.  The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.'  [Rom 13.1-3a NIV]

Those who have experienced the fascism of Nazi Germany, South Africa's apartheid, or the terror of Stalin's Russia, will want to take issue with that very strongly indeed:  where does it leave Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nelson Mandela or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn?

Paul is not much better on the issue of slavery.  His short letter to Philemon, near the end of the New Testament, urges his friend Philemon to treat the returned runaway slave Onesimus with kindness as a Christian brother, but it has nothing to say about the evils of the institution of slavery itself.

The question of whether Christians should be pacifists is also virtually ignored.  The nearest approach is when, according to Luke, some soldiers approached John the Baptist and asked what they should do; they received this reply:

'"Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely - be content with your pay"' [Lk 3.14] - sound advice, but sadly thin. 

This is disappointing; and yet it is not to be wondered at.  In those days the Jewish state was controlled by the Romans, who were in occupation of the land.  Rome did not tolerate dissent, but maintained a peace of sorts, for those who cooperated.

However, the New Testament does contain a pointer to a more satisfactory time.  In today's Gospel, from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel, we heard this saying of Jesus:  '"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them."'

This takes us back many centuries, to a time when Israel and Judah were independent kingdoms, long before the Roman occupation.  In those days there was a succession of outspoken and fearless prophets, from Nathan to Elijah and Elisha, through to Amos, Hosea and Micah, and finally Zechariah and Malachi.

These men were not afraid to challenge the rich and cruel, the ruthless and the powerful, in the interests of social justice.  For them, religion was not a mere private hobby, but an all-consuming devotion to God, making total demands.

The book of Amos preserves some of the most trenchant criticisms from a prophet who was not afraid to speak out against greed and injustice in high places; this is what he saw as God's judgment on the kingdom of Israel in the eighth century BC;

    '"They sell the righteous for silver,
        and the needy for a pair of sandals.
    They trample on the heads of the poor
        as upon the dust of the ground
        and deny justice to the oppressed."' 
[Am 2.6c, 7a]

The book of Micah, which dates from roughly the same time, is equally uncompromising; here is a small sample:

    'Woe to those who plan iniquity,
        to those who plot evil on their beds!
    At morning's light they carry it out
        because it is in their power to do it.
    They covet fields and seize them,
        and houses, and take them.
    They defraud a man of his home,
        a fellow-man of his inheritance.'
  [Mic 2.1f]

The real complaint which these prophets had was that the people professed to be serving God, with their fasts and other religious observances, but their professions made no difference to their social attitudes and behaviour; this is what Amos says:

    '"I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
        I cannot stand your assemblies.
    Even though you bring me burnt offerings
        and grain offerings,
        I will have no regard for them. [...]
    But let justice roll on like a river,
        righteousness like a never-failing stream!"'
  [Am 21-24]

The eighth century BC, the days of Amos, Micah and Hosea, are often regarded as the high point of the prophetic tradition, but the movement started long before then, with Nathan, Elijah and Elisha, and lasted on for a long time afterwards as well.

Two centuries later than Amos, the people of Judah had returned from exile in Babylon and had re-established the practice of their religion in Jerusalem.  An unnamed prophet, some of whose writings are to be found towards the end of Isaiah, was at work.

We heard some of his words in our Old Testament reading earlier in the service.  He had no time for those who fasted and prayed plenty, but whose social attitudes were selfish and ruthless:

    '"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
    to loose the chains of injustice
        and untie the cords of the yoke,
    to set the oppressed free
        and break every yoke?
    Is it not to share your food with the hungry
        and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter -
    when you see the naked, to clothe him,
              and not turn away from your own flesh and blood?"'

Last Sunday we celebrated Candlemas, a pivot in the Church's Year when we turn from looking back to the joys of Christmas and forward to the rigours and discipline of preparation for Easter; today is the Fourth Sunday before Lent.

Jesus came, not to abolish the words of the prophets, but to fulfil them.  We live in times when there has been a great deal of selfishness displayed, both in our own preparations for the Brexit vote and in the American presidential campaign.

Last year, we were happy to laugh at Donald Trump's hideously self-regarding talk, but now that he holds power it is no longer funny.  We need to take seriously the demands of the poor, the oppressed and the disadvantaged on both sides of the Atlantic.

Let us determine, with God's help, to think for ourselves rather than go along with popular opinion, to speak up for the weak and the powerless where we can, and to avoid greed and self-regard:

    '"[...] let justice roll on like a river,
        righteousness like a never-failing stream!"'


- Reverend Doctor Stephen Pix