Skip to content
Home » Sermon – Sunday 4 February 2024

Sermon – Sunday 4 February 2024

    Second Sunday before Lent

    Listen to audio version

    Readings: Colossians 1: 15-20 and John 1: 1-14

    The gospel reading seems to take us back to Christmas, after all, we heard exactly the same passage on Christmas morning. So I’d like to develop some thoughts from one verse in that reading, partly generated from some questions people have asked since the horrific events in Israel on 7th October. The verse that struck me, not for the first time, was verse 11 in chapter 1. John says Jesus “Came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” This is the first sign of a troubling theme in John’s gospel, that of resistance to noting Jesus’ true identity as a Jew, and it is followed in the gospel by many derogatory or pointed references to ‘the Jews’. It’s troubling because Christians later detached Jesus — a Jew — from his proper context, and often demonised ‘The Jews’.

    To be fair to John the gospel-writer, when he says ‘the Jews’, he is generally referring to their authorities and leaders. I expect you remember the passage when Jesus appears in the Upper Room after the resurrection. John says the disciples were meeting behind locked doors, ‘for fear of the Jews.’ Well, the disciples were Jews also, so why didn’t he say ‘for fear of the authorities, or the police’ or something like that?

    The gospel of John, and the letters of John, were written to new Christian communities in Greek-speaking societies, who felt threatened. They tried to maintain the distinctiveness of their Christian identity by keeping out and being suspicious of anybody hostile towards them. So the language used became quite divisive.

    Anti-Semitism has always been a tragic feature of life, right across the world, really. There are a number of causes for this. Some people have resented the suggestion that the Jewish people are God’s favourites, and because Jesus died at the hands of Jews, this has been held against them. In this, some folk conveniently overlook the fact that Jesus was a Jew himself. When I was a student in Lincoln, I was surprised to learn that Saint Hugh, the 12th-century bishop there, did much to protect Jews from hostility and persecution, even then. One might ask why Jews in Lincoln were being persecuted in the 12th-century, though I suspect that their success in business had something to do with it. In 1255 a rumour spread in Lincoln that a little boy had been killed by Jews as a part of a ritual sacrifice. The claim was false, but it led to the expulsion of Jews from England by Edward I. I just use that example to show how anti-Semitism is as old and ingrained as the race itself.

    And now we have a tragedy in the Middle East. And since October 7th, a number of people have spoken to me about how we make sense of that conflict which, in a way, both sides would see as a Holy War of sorts. Amongst the questions people ask: Do we worship the same God as Jews and Moslems? Do Jews have ‘divine right’ to the land of Israel, as they would claim? And an associated question — is the Old Testament God our God? Sometimes he seems to act in a very vindictive way.

    I might say that there are no easy answers to any of these questions, because in tackling them we unearth all sorts of secondary issues, and you will find a whole range of interpretations dependent on one’s history, culture, personal faith and world view. I’m not going to try and answer those questions in a definitive way, because if I had clear-cut answers, I would probably be on the way to receiving the Nobel Prize for World Peace. But I hope I may be able to give you some food for thought. Many of these questions revolve around our interpretations of the bible.

    So, first, a point about our interpretation of the Old Testament. These are the scriptures on which the Jewish people rely, after all. The Old Testament charts God’s creation of the universe, and our world, the bringing of humans into being; his calling of the ‘chosen people’, led by some of the great figures — like Abraham, Moses and David — which are celebrated by all three of the faiths we are considering — Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The Old Testament records the wanderings of the formative Hebrew people under Moses until they reach the Promised Land. They had to drive out nations ‘more numerous and powerful than they’ to take the land. We read of the conquest of some of these territories under Joshua with some disquiet today; much of it seems to amount to ethnic cleansing. We’re encouraged to think that these barbaric conquests were under the instruction of God and according to his will. Eventually, we get to the creation of a stable Israel, under the kings: Saul, David, Solomon, and so on. And we’ve just been celebrating the birth of Jesus, born ‘of David’s line’ and in the city of David.

    We rightly consider the bible the ‘word of God’, and inspired, but we must remember that it was compiled over a lengthy period of time; its books and chapters written by huge numbers of people. Some of the history may have been written at roughly the time those events occurred; other parts were written much later, maybe centuries later than the events they concern. Very often, accounts of historical events were coloured to reflect a particular religious standpoint, or to justify some unworthy action that took place. I shudder when I read of some of the violence meted out ‘in the name of the Lord’ about which we read in the Old Testament. But as we know only too well, throughout history people have shown violence to others because they believe it to be God’s will, or at least, their interpretation of it.

    So when people ask ‘is the God of the Old Testament our God?’ — the answer is definitely ‘yes’, though we do not have to assent to some of the violence we read in the Old Testament, just as today we shudder at the violence Moslem extremists carry out in the name of Allah, as indeed many peaceful Moslems shudder. Many said, after October 7th “It has not been done in our name.”

    As to the question of whether the Jewish people have a ‘divine right’ to the land of Israel, the Old Testament unequivocably says ‘yes’. But then we have the question of whether Christianity has superseded Judaism, and, if it has, what becomes of the ‘old covenant’? Jesus spoke of the ‘new covenant’ sealed through his own blood. I’ve always been tempted to say that the Church has become the new Israel and so the community on which God’s favour particularly rests. But, of course, it isn’t as simple as that.

    There is the political dimension to the present conflict as well as the religious. This is not my area of expertise, but I appreciated this comment by John Piper, writing for a website called ‘Desiring God.’ “We are not whitewashing terrorism and we are not whitewashing Jewish force. My aim”, he says “is to put the debate on a balanced footing in this sense: neither side should pre-empt the claims of international justice by the claim of present divine rights. Working out what that justice will look like is still a huge and daunting task. But I think we will make better progress if we do not yield to the claim of either side to be ethnically or nationally sanctioned by God in their present conflict.”

    And the question remains: if the saving blood of Jesus seals God’s new covenant with all the peoples of the earth, what becomes of promises made under the old covenants — with Abraham and Moses and David? Surely God cannot have been wrong when he singled out his ancient people, the Jews, for favour under the old covenant? I wonder what any faithful Jewish person feels about our ‘new covenant’? Someone has said it’s as if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, alias the Mormons, were to claim that their Book of Mormon was divine revelation on a par with the Bible. We would not agree! So — many complex questions. You will find a whole kaleidoscope of views about this in Christian thinking and maybe we should just trust in God’s providence and loving purposes and not seek for an answer.

    If we rejoice in our own faith and in the salvation brought by Jesus, we do not need to be hostile to those who find God by other paths. We are directed to fix our eyes on Jesus and his human kinship with us. ‘Through him’, as Colossians says, ‘God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, by making peace through the blood of Jesus’ cross.’ Jesus is the language in which God speaks to us, and comes in a form that is familiar to us — a human being — yet some still manage not to recognise him. And, of course, not just those of other faiths. Many people are without faith; many have actively disowned faith and belief in God; and some who would think of themselves as Christians perplex us in their behaviour which seems not to reflect the glory of God’s image in them.

    When we call out to God in despair at so much evil and suffering in the world, it’s as if we are demanding an explanation. If we are tempted to think the answer doesn’t come, we are bidden to look at Jesus. It may not seem a satisfying answer, but in Jesus we see love in the face of suffering. He also suggests a way of living that confronts injustice and that has compassion for suffering.

    Traditionally, prayers for the Jewish people are offered on Good Friday, and I close with one of those prayers:

    Lord God of Abraham, bless the children of your covenant, both Jew and Christian; take from us all blindness and bitterness of heart, and hasten the coming of your kingdom, when the Gentiles shall be gathered in, all Israel shall be saved, and we shall dwell together in mutual love and peace, under the one God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.


    Skip to content