Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 25 August 2013: Year C, Proper 16
God does care!
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Today’s a wonderful day of new beginnings. It’s the beginning of the school year, and it’s always lovely to welcome children to church today. We’ve been celebrating new beginnings with the families of Freya and Amy-Rose to church, as we celebrate their baptism today. And every Sunday is a day of new beginnings for Christians, because for us Sunday is the first day of the week.
According to the old legend of creation in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, God created the world in six days, and rested on the seventh. That day of rest was called the Sabbath, and the Jewish people observe a day of rest on the last day of the week, our Saturday. In the Highlands, we’re used to thinking of Sunday as the Sabbath, but is really the day after the Sabbath, not the last, but the first day of the week. For according to the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth was put to death on a Friday, the day before the Sabbath. The Sabbath day passed, and early in the morning of the following day- Sunday- some friends of his, faithful women, came to visit his tomb. They found it empty, for he had risen from the dead. And that is what Christians celebrate, not just on Easter Sunday, but on every Sunday of the year.
In the Russian Orthodox Church, I’m told the babies who are baptised are fully immersed into a big basin, not once, but three times- in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Freya’s and Amy-Rose’s parents are probably pretty happy that we didn’t do that today! A friend of mine spent some years working with the churches in Mozambique. He told me that when they had people converting to Christianity, their baptisms would take place a service on a beach, and each one would be fully immersed into the waters of the Indian Ocean. However we do it, baptism is a symbolic participation in the life and death of Jesus That’s why I said near the beginning of the baptismal liturgy
Jesus went down to death,
but out of the dark depths of sorrow and suffering
he rose to life and victory.
This was his Baptism.
This we recall each time someone is baptized.
Baptism means ‘coming through the waters’,
to life and salvation in Jesus Christ.
If we have been baptized, we have symbolically participated in Christ’s death and resurrection. As St Paul wrote to the Church at Rome:
When we were baptized into union with Christ Jesus, we were baptized into union with his death. By our baptism, then, we were buried with him and shared his death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from death by the glorious power of the Father, so also we might live a new life. For since we have become one with him in dying as he did, in the same way we shall be one with him by being raised to life as he was (Romans 6.3-5).
Baptism is a symbol of new beginnings. Baptism reminds us that through faith in Christ, we can our old selves die, and begin again. For new beginnings are at the heart of the Christian faith.
Those of you who work with computers will know that, with all the capabilities, they are often frustrating. Every so often, a computer will stop working, and nothing you will make it work again. You press keys, wiggle your mouse around, but, no nothing doing. The only thing you can do is what the tech guys call a reboot. Basically you kill the programs you’ve been working with, often by switching the computer off completely and restarting it. Once you are rebooted, you can carry on what you were doing. The thing is, we humans can all do with a reboot. We need to opportunity of God’s forgiveness, the chance to start afresh, to have our sins washed away and to let old things die and new faith take its place. That’s why baptism is such a powerful symbol of what the Gospel is all about.
The Bible is full of stories of people who start anew, begin a new life. We have two stories like that today. The first comes from around six centuries before Christ, and it’s the story of a man called Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived through a time of great crisis and despair for the Jewish people. The Jewish nation of Judah, centred on Jerusalem, was in crisis. It was surrounded by more powerful kingdoms, and although the kings of Judah tried to keep their independence, the nation seemed increasingly weak. Eventually the powerful rising empire of Babylon made war on Judah, with disastrous consequences. Jerusalem fell, and most of inhabitants, Jeremiah included, were taken off into exile in Babylon. The city, including its famous temple to Jeremiah’s God, was reduced to ruins.
Jeremiah loved his country, but he was called by God to be a prophet who pronounced judgement on his countrymen. He told them straight that their problems were cause by them turning away from God by oppressing the poor and worshipping other gods- of course there would be judgement. The destruction of the temple and the exile in Babylon- out of the promised land- must have seemed something like the end of the Jewish faith. Yet Jeremiah was remembered, in the Babylonian exile and later, when the people were allowed to return to their land. For they realised that he had spoken the truth- both when he spoke words of judgement, but also when he spoke words of hope.
And so we read one of these remembered stories about Jeremiah. In our passage, Jeremiah tells of how, when he was young, God called him to be a prophet. Even before he’d been born God had selected him to be a prophet. But this story comes from the time when Jeremiah was a very young man. He says he struggled with this call, because he thought he was too young. His words can be translated, ‘I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy’ (Jeremiah 1.6 NRSV). But God convinces Jeremiah that he is commissioned to speak God’s words to kings. He might not be confident, he might be only a boy, but God will give him words to speak which will lead to the fall and rise of nations.
For God, no-one is too young. God can make prophets out of boys and girls. Often it is young people, with their enthusiasm and idealism, and their rebellion against our comfortable ways, who speak the truth to the rest of us. God took Jeremiah when he was very young, overcame his reluctance to speak, and made of him a prophet to the nations, to be remembered for centuries to come.
Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet too. He showed people- in words and actions- how God was at work in the world, how God wanted them to live, and how God made change for the better possible. Perhaps the most striking examples of that are to be found in the stories of healing miracles which we find throughout the gospels. For modern people, these stories may be hard to believe. But if we pay attention to the meaning of these stories, they help us to see how God makes new life, new beginnings, possible. They are prophecies of the better world which God is bringing into existence.
And so Luke the Gospel writer tells us of a woman who has been ill for eighteen years. She’s bent up and cannot stand straight. The popular belief of the time was that such a disability was caused by a demon, an evil spirit. She’s in a synagogue, where Jesus is teaching on the Sabbath. It seems that she did not seek healing: the text says, simply, ‘When Jesus saw her, he called out to her, “Woman, you are free from your sickness!” He placed his hands on her, and at once she straightened herself up and praised God’.
Women were not highly regarded in ancient times- but Jesus chooses to heal this woman. She may well have been quite elderly, and often old women are over looked by other people. But Jesus sees her, is filled with compassion, and heals her. His actions are prophetic. By healing this woman, he’s making it clear that God offers a new start, a new life, to anyone, male or female, the sick and the healthy, young and old. God’s love and grace knows no bounds. God does care about all kinds of people.
But there is a problem with being a prophet. Prophets make enemies. You can imagine that Jeremiah was not a popular man for blaming the people of Judah and their kings for bringing God’s judgement upon themselves. And the same was true of Jesus. Some people imagine Jesus was someone who went around mouthing platitudes, saying nothing and doing nothing that could upset anyone. But you don’t end up crucified if all you’ve done is be nice all the time.
On the Sabbath, the Jews believed, God rested from his labours after creating the world. And on the Sabbath, the Jews believed that they, also should refrain from work. There’s a lot of wisdom behind that point of view. We all need to rest. We need time for ourselves, for our families, for God. Just last week there was a news story about a 21 year old, working as in intern in London at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. It appears he collapsed and died after working until 6am for three days in a row. Soon afterwards more stories appeared of similarly ridiculous working hours1, described as ‘the exhausting combination of all-nighters, weekend work and the magic roundabout’. It’s an extreme example, but it reminds us that the human body- and soul- is not designed for a seven-day week. We are all need rest, and the Jewish Law recognised that reality.
Yet sometimes religious people get the wrong end of the stick. I am told they used to lock up the swings in the parks in this town on Sundays, because many people here used to believe that God didn’t want children playing on a Sunday. We find a similar kind of attitude in the Gospel story. You’d think everyone would be delighted that this poor woman had been cured. But no- the synagogue leader goes around preaching against Jesus. ‘There’s six days for work- come on those days for healing, but not on the Sabbath’. Jesus, however, is no Sabbatarian killjoy. In fact, he suggests that it’s a wonderful things that this woman should have been freed from her illness on the Sabbath, of all days. His enemies- the religious leaders- are silence, and the ordinary people rejoice.
For Jesus reinterprets the old traditions, and reminds people what they are really about. Why shouldn’t he heal on the Sabbath, God’s day- for God is bringing healing, salvation, the chance of a new start. And so the people rejoice, for they understand better than the theological experts Jesus’ simple message: that God cares for them, and loves them.
In their baptism, Freya and Amy-Rose have been promised new life, the chance of a new start. And we hope and pray that one day they will discover what that means for themselves. Because the promise of baptism is available for all of us. Male or female, young or old, regardless of healthy or fit we are, the offer is there for us all- that through Christ we can know new life, be rebooted, make a new beginning, and live our lives rejoicing because we know we loved and accepted by the God who cares for us all.
Ascription of Praise
Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who by his great mercy
in raising Jesus Christ from the dead
has given us new birth into a living hope:
the hope of an inheritance reserved in heaven for us
which nothing can destroy or spoil or wither! Amen!
From 1 Peter 1.3-4
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo