Rev Dr John McCulloch
St. Andrews Jerusalem and Tiberias
Sunday 27th January 2019, 3rd Sunday of Epiphany (year C)
Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10 & St Luke 4:14-21
Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable to you o Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
The promise of restoration
Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel once said: ‘There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest (…) I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation’.
Elie Wiesel was 15 when Germany occupied Hungry and Romania where he was living. He and his family were sent to Auschwitz, where his mother and sister died. He and his father were transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp and kept alive only because they were fit enough to work. Elie’s father was beaten to death shortly before the camp was liberated at the end of the war, but Elie survived, and he wrote about his experiences in his memoir entitled Night. In it he wrote:
Never shall I forget that first night in the camp, which has turned my life into one long night (…) never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust (…)never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
Today, is Holocaust Memorial Day, and it is right that we pause for a moment, and remember…for the Holocaust represents one of the darkest chapters in human history in terms of man’s capacity to inflict unspeakable suffering on his fellow man, and also raises questions God’s apparent silence in the face of human suffering, not just during then but down through the ages.
Our Old Testament reading from Nehemiah 8 takes place in a context of exile and suffering for the children of Israel, some years after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC. Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem to find it in ruins, after many of his people had been killed or taken into exile. Throughout the book of Nehemiah, the theme of restoration is present, as Nehemiah and Ezra help to rebuild the broken walls. In the verses we just read together we heard of how Nehemiah read the people the law as they rebuilt the broken walls. The law of God, which reminds them of his covenant with his people, in times of peace and in times of suffering. The law which commands us to walk in justice, to love the stranger, to look after the widow and the orphan; reminding us that we worship a God of restoration, even though at times he may seem silent and distant.
As the temple was destroyed and the Jewish people were driven into exile at the hands of their oppressors, many would have asked where is God now? Why has he not come to save and deliver us from our enemies? Many would have longed for the days of Moses and Joshua, when deliverance was clearly seen in the wilderness, or when Joshua crushed their enemies through military might.
And yet, when we come to our gospel reading in Luke 4, who is it that Christ identifies with? Who does Jesus quote from the OT writings? You will find that Jesus never associates himself with those who are associated with violence, he never associates himself with Joshua, or with the military campaigns of King David; but with the suffering servant of the Second Isaiah, and quotes directly from Isaiah 61:1,2:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
God does not come as a mighty warrior to crush those who are opposed to his reign, like Joshua and the many warrior kings of old, but he comes to teach us a different way, embodying healing and deliverance through non violence.
In a world of war, violence, oppression and poverty, the world does not need more violence, but a saviour who associates with the broken, with the despised, the rejected, those on the margins, those who are living under occupation and with the whole of suffering humanity down through the ages.
It is understandable how in the face of such suffering Elie Wiesel lost his faith.
It is understandable today that as we look out to our world, that so many ask the question ‘where is God?’
I would like to read you something that was written in the early 1980s. It is called:
The Long Silence
At the end of time, billions of people were seated on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly, not cringing with cringing shame – but with belligerence.
“Can God judge us? How can He know about suffering?”, snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror … beatings … torture … death!”
In another group a Negro boy lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched, for no crime but being black !”
In another crowd there was a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes: “Why should I suffer?” she murmured. “It wasn’t my fault.” Far out across the plain were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering He had permitted in His world.
How lucky God was to live in Heaven, where all was sweetness and light. Where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that man had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.
So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most. A Jew, a black person, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the vast plain, they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.
Before God could be qualified to be their judge, He must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth as a man.
Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind.
Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured.
At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die so there can be no doubt he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.
As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled. When the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered a word. No one moved.
For suddenly, all knew that God had already served His sentence.
Anon (written before Summer 1982)
May it be in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning was now, and evermore shall be. Amen.