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5th February 2017 - Revd. Preb Maureen Hobbs

Sermon for 4 before Lent - Evening Service

Amos 2. 4- end
Ephesians 4.17-end

Recently I have been enjoying an audiobook written by Rowan Williams the former ABC (it's great when one is dog walking!). Now you may think that would be quite heavy - and it does contain some really meaty theology, but Rowan has the ability to communicate really well and clearly when he wishes - and this book, Being Christian, is about the four basic elements of what it means to be a Christian - Baptism, Bible, Eucharist and Prayer, and is written to be accessible to almost anyone....

In writing about the Bible, Rowan says some things that are very dear to my heart.
Rather than taking the Bible as the literal word of God, he advises us to always read any part of the Bible with a view to the overarching purpose of the whole work. And as Christians especially, to do so in the light of what we know and understand of Christ and his teaching. The Bible, he says is God's great gift to us that says "this is my story. This is how human beings have responded in the past to what I have tried to tell them. Read and learn from them. Use the gifts of intellect and understanding I gave you. And just as Jesus used parables to teach greater truths to the people around him, so too the whole Bible may be understood as a parable that demands of us to work out where in the story we see ourselves. How do we understand our actions in the light of what God has to say to us?

Just because something is written in the Bible does not imply that God automatically approves of some of the more extreme reactions we read about - especially in the Old Testament. For example, for hundreds of years slavery was thought of as a natural ordering of society - so the Bible contains many references to it without any suggestion that slavery is of itself wrong - although slaves are urged to respect their masters and masters urged to treat their slaves with compassion and justice.

As the history of the world has moved on, more and more people came to question whether the concept of one human being owning another could possibly be just! The whole concept has come to be thought of as deeply flawed and against the will of God - irreconcilable with a loving and compassionate God. So while, sadly, slavery does still exist in the world, it is no longer considered acceptable in civilised society. Modes of behaviour change as we come to better understand the over-arching command to love one another as God loves us - freely and without compulsion.

Tonight's readings throw our developing understanding into some contrast and relief.

In the passage from the Old Testament, we are left in no doubt that God will wreak a terrible punishment on those who displease him or go against his laws. This is a very black and white justice. Hard-hearted and unforgiving. Even the strongest will not be able to stand against God's anger and justice. Righteous anger to be sure, but still anger.

But in the New Testament Passage we have something much more nuanced. Hardness of heart is something to be avoided. There is still no licence to go against the divine will and the Laws God has given us for our own good, but we are bidden to be kind to one another; "put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice" Forgive one another as I forgive you!

This is perhaps the hardest commandment to hear and act on isn't it. Righteous indignation and anger is something we find much easier to deal with.... we can do that very well.

But compassion and kindness? Even to those who do us harm? That is another matter entirely!

And yet we know too don't we? That to harbour bitterness in our hearts and feelings of revenge while we may get a short-term buzz of adrenaline, ultimately begins to eat away at our very soul .... Who suffers in the long term?

Whereas if we can find it in ourselves and in our souls to forgive someone for the perceived insult or injustice - maybe not to forget, but to forgive, and let go of the destructive emotions we feel - well, in the end, that may well be much healthier for our peace of mind and even physical well-being.

So where do you see yourselves in our readings this evening? Are you stuck with the picture of God in the OT? Meting out retribution and punishment against all who do you wrong? - of course you may be the one who is the transgressor too!

Or can you place yourself in the NT with Jesus, forgiving those who sin or trespass against you, just as you yourself are forgiven by God. We remind ourselves of this each time we pray the Lord's Prayer - do you really hear the words you recite? Do you believe them? And how will that affect your actions and your conversations in the week ahead?