Sermon – Rev. Gill Webb
On Friday the news reported that a group of five men and three women had been found guilty of modern slavery. These people had ruthlessly exploited vulnerable people from Poland to come to Britain with promises of a better life and what they really found was misery, degradation and daily abuse. It is hard for us to believe that others can seemingly prosper without any conscience through the misery of others. As they bought their expensive cars they had no pity on those living in the same city and controlled by their rigid rules.
The hope in this story is that the perpetrators will face justice and punishment while those who have been abused may find a better life and enjoy the freedom they have been denied.
The Bible holds many stories of enslavement and rescue; the escape from Egypt, the journey to the freedom of the Promised Land, exile in Babylon and then the return to Jerusalem. There are many to choose from but they are united by the theme of God’s saving power and his desire for his people to live in harmony under his holy rule. Our readings today speak in different ways about the freedom that God has desired for his creation. In the Bible freedom is linked to life, joy and fullness of life and its absence is seen in slavery, darkness and death. God’s chosen people had a history of obedience and life in harmony with God and times of disobedience and rebellion that usually led them into trouble and moments of despair. Why did these things happen? Mainly it was because Israel forgot its vocation to live under the loving rule of God and to worship him before all others.
Israel chose to follow the patterns and practices of other nations and turned to all kinds of idolatry. These ways robbed them of the life that God had planned for them and their calling to be a light to guide those nations to him as their creator. When they turned away from their true worship of God and a love of his righteousness and were enthralled with new ideas, new practices and new beliefs they lost their way and it led them time and again into paths of destruction and death. It was at such times they called on God again to rescue them from the mess they had made of their lives.
From Isaiah 66 we hear the words of rejoicing as the people rebuilt the holy temple after their return from the exile in Babylon. They had returned to a ruined city and we know what that looks like as we see the pictures of the broken land of Syria on our televisions. But the people rejoice in their return; they are no longer strangers in another land and culture; they have come home and now they are free once more to worship the God who always remains faithful and true to them. Their freedom is precious as they embrace once more their vocation as God’s chosen people.
In Luke Jesus sends out the seventy to proclaim the Kingdom of God to all the neighbourhoods they can cover as he makes his way to Jerusalem. He knows that his time is limited and he uses these disciples to reach as many people as possible. They are offered the message of God’s call to his Kingdom on earth. They can be part of that kingdom now. There is a real urgency about the message, so much so that the disciple must not linger in long arguments but move on to those who really want to hear. It seems Jesus wants as many as possible to have the opportunity to respond to his invitation and to find the freedom that life in this kingdom will bring them.
St Paul in his letters to his early church communities is concerned with the freedom of the new Christian converts. He faced a battle with the conservative group in Jerusalem who wanted the practices of Jewish circumcision to be required from new followers. Paul was to fall out quite spectacularly with Peter over this issue, because Paul knew that Jesus’ promise in the new covenant superseded the old order and God’s kingdom required only the law of love written on our hearts and the outward physical signs of belonging had had their day. No need for circumcision and no need for pernickety food laws.
Now as we read through the pages of the Old Testament and the comings and goings of the Israelites we may wonder at their foolishness, their blindness and their stubbornness. Every time they wandered off it ended in tears. They never seemed to learn; they kept repeating the old mistakes in new situations. We may read these stories and say ‘look how God punishes them but always gives them another chance.’ The Psalms certainly speak about God’s anger and disappointment in them and the prophets often warned the people that they were heading into trouble by turning away from God.
But maybe they were in a sense responsible for their own downfall. In choosing to give allegiance to current fashions and trends they unwittingly failed to see where it would take them and how eventually they would become enslaved to destructive ways of living. And of course we know that their mistakes are the same mistake that every generation makes and that includes you and me. We might imagine falsely that idolatry is the practice of building statues of Gods to worship and adore but this is one strand. There are many and various kinds of idolatry and they are alive and well in our twenty first century.
Whatever we give our allegiance to can become the forces that will shape and guide our life. We know that addiction is a form of slavery; the addict gives himself over to the power of alcohol, drugs and betting and slowly all other things in life are eclipsed. In more subtle ways others give themselves to the pursuit of money, status, sex and power. When these things happen they become idolatry and we replace the life of God’s kingdom within us to worship these false gods.
I am a great admirer of Tom Wright and his theological insights. He writes this: The problem is that humans were made for a particular vocation, which they have rejected; that this rejection involves a turning away from the living God to worship idols; that this results in giving to the idols- forces within creation- a power over humans and the world that was rightly that of genuine humans; and that leads to a slavery, which is ultimately the rule of death itself, the corruption and destruction of the good world made by the Creator.
Jesus spoke passionately about the kingdom of God. He did not mean that if we were good folk we would go to heaven and live in the kingdom of God. He meant we were to help God establish it here on earth. We pray that each Sunday-Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We are to work for that, we are to pray for it and we are to live it-here and now. And we cannot do it if we are enslaved to idols that distract us. We lose our way, our society loses its way and the church loses its way too but like those who listened to the seventy sent by Jesus we have the choice to stop and listen and make our choice; where does our allegiance lie and who shall we worship? Which path leads us to freedom and which will enslave us?