Sermon given at Evensong on Sunday 27th April 2014
27 April 2014 at 15:00 pm
The Reverend Gavin Williams, Priest Vicar
All of us know a story that begins with the words, ‘Once upon a time there was...’ The book of Daniel is this kind of story, written for Jews in the second century BC about events that had taken place 400 years earlier when Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonian juggernaut and the Temple had been destroyed (586BC). The idealized hero is a young Jew taken captive to Babylon to work as a civil servant. However, although he is an excellent administrator, Daniel is subversive. When he prays three times a day, he refuses to pray to the king for salvation. He shows this by praying towards Jerusalem. By doing this he demonstrates his belief that the God whose Temple lay there in ruins, was the God who would rescue his people from exile and bring them home.
He shows his loyalty is to a God who appears powerless to help, who is far away, and who has apparently suffered an irreversible defeat. And Daniel’s hope is not disappointed. When he is thrown into the lions’ den, God shuts the lions’ mouths so that no harm comes to him. And the following day, it is Daniel’s accusers who are thrown to the lions and eaten. Moreover, the king is so impressed by events that he passes another decree to the effect that everyone in the kingdom is to tremble and fear before Daniel’s God.
If only real life were like this. But we know it is not, and I am pretty sure that the Jewish audience to whom the Book of Daniel was read knew it too. Oppressed by the Greek kings of Syria who were threatening once again to destroy Jerusalem and its rebuilt Temple, the second century audience were faced with the question, ‘What does it mean for me to be faithful?’
Which brings us to the story of Jesus. Like Daniel, Jesus is subversive. He was a thorn in the side of the Establishment and a frequent critic of the rich and powerful, speaking up for justice and against greed, idolatry and fantasy. For example, he rejects the idolatry of hard work and long hours. He appears to do no work himself and says he respects the Sabbath not because it means going to the synagogue, but because it represents a temporary escape from the burden of work.
He is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. He is presented as homeless and a friend of social outcasts. Without property, he criticises those who accumulate material possessions. He is unmarried and appears disdainful of family ties. He is a strange kind of hero. Unlike Daniel, it is hard to imagine Jesus on the board of a FTSE 100 company or as any kind of committee man.
As far as Mark’s gospel is concerned, the story of Jesus ends, not with a dramatic rescue story, but with his fearful disciples being told to leave Jerusalem and return to Galilee.
For the early church, Jerusalem was a place of opposition and persecution. Galilee was where Jesus had preached his reckless and extravagant morality, a scandal to insurers and a stumbling block to estate agents:
‘forgive your enemies’,
‘give away your cloak as well as your coat’,
‘turn the other cheek’,
‘love those who insult you’,
‘walk the extra mile’ and ‘take no thought for tomorrow’.
Perhaps Galilee was a place where the hungry were fed, immigrants were welcomed, the sick were visited and the poor were protected from the violence of the rich.
Mark is saying to us, his audience, that if we are looking for the Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, this is the Galilee to which we must direct our lives. Or to put it another way, if we are looking for this kind of society, Daniel is right. The God in whom he put his hope has provided a way of salvation, but we cannot bypass the tomb in which the mangled corpse of Jesus was laid. There will be a crucifixion before there is a resurrection.
Galilee, or the kingdom of God, will not come about simply by us voting for a different political party. It will only come if we are willing to die politically and personally to our selfishness, possessiveness and fear, and become individually and collectively a community committed to love and justice for all.
I’m conscious that this has been rather a serious sermon, so I want to end with a story about the triumph of hope. Once upon a time there was a father who had two children, a boy and a girl. On Christmas Eve he wrapped up a fine gold watch for the boy, and for the girl, a sack of horse manure. The next morning, his son opened his present and said to his father gloomily, “Dad, I don’t know what I’m going to do with this watch. It’s so fragile. It could break or I could lose it.” His daughter on the other hand was overjoyed, “Daddy! Daddy! Thank you so much for getting me a pony!” and she rushed outside to find it.