This is the sermon I preached this evening, at the beautiful evensong and service of welcome in Croydon Minster. The readings were Iaiah 61 and Luke 4:14-21, by the way.
When I realised that the New Testament reading set for this evening was the passage from Luke which we’ve just heard, I was tempted to change it. How could anyone dare to begin a new ministry with that text? ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me’ … But then again, how can anyone begin with anything else? In Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry this is a pivotal moment, as Jesus proclaims the good news for the first time. Unworthy as any of us are, it is the same good news we are all called to live out as Christian people. And as our two readings make clear, Jesus was identifying himself and his ministry with the prophetic message already spoken through Isaiah. The message of hope he proclaims through the power of the Spirit is the same message that God always speaks – the message of salvation and hope.
Isaiah’s message comes not to those who were confident and self-assured, but to those in danger of despair – to people who are not sure if they have a future at all as God’s people, who are not at all sure that there is any good news to be had. The most likely setting for this part of Isaiah is after the people have returned to the promised land from captivity in Babylon – and as they begin to discover it isn’t quite as marvellous as they had hoped. Despite their liberation, they still feel that the future is with the gods of Cyrus the Persian, that a new world order is beginning from which they have been left out, that all that is left is decline and eventual extinction. They are a people desperately in need of words of hope.
I believe that now is a time of hope for the church, because all times are times of hope. If we lose hope, we lose part of our core identity. Hope is not optimism, though; it is more realistic than that. Christian hope recognises the extent of the challenges that face God’s people – and though I’m not going to dwell on them tonight, there are very many different challenges which confront our society as a whole, and the life of the church in particular. But Christian hope is also realistic about God. God is the one who brings life from death, who transforms sorrow into joy. Christian hope is not based on our own efforts or merits, but on the love and grace of God. Christian hope is not passive, though; salvation comes from God, and it flows through us.
The words Jesus proclaimed were Isaiah’s words, and they are ours. It is not someone else who is called to
Bring good news to the oppressed; to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
it is us. A challenging enough calling, but one that I believe the church can, and does, rise to. It includes the whole range of the church’s mission, which is nothing more or less than to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom. We have no alternative but to witness that in Christ we have found new life and hope, the salvation of God. We have no alternative to demonstrating that new life in service to the poor and marginalised, to all those who seem furthest from God. These are not separate options, two paths into the kingdom: they are both part of the one whole which is God’s project for the world.
That project is too glorious to be described in prose – the prophet has to turn to poetic imagery
To provide for those who mourn in Zion,
to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
The endpoint of the prophet’s message is a three fold transformation: those who felt they were beneath other’s notice are made beautiful – the ultimate makeover, starting from the heart, not the wardrobe. Those who felt they had nothing to offer are anointed, made special. Those who were weighed down with loss are lifted up with praise. All of this leads to a culmination in how they are seen – the meek, the broken hearted, the captives, the prisoners – it is they who are now recognised as ‘oaks of righteousness’. Not the prophet, but those who would have seemed, to themselves and others, as weak and hopeless. They are now as strong as the strongest tree.
There is a another reason why I chose to focus on that passage tonight – in fact, I knew I was going to preach on the Isaiah passage at least before I even looked at the lectionary. I was intrigued to discover – I don’t know how many people know this – that the emblem for the Croydon Area, at least on the chair I sit in in Southwark Cathedral, is an oak tree. The image of the oak tree as a sign of the transformation that can come to individuals and communities through the action of God is a powerful one, full of possible meanings. As part of the Scripture it is of course relevant to all believers, but it stood out to me as something of particular relevance tonight. And following that lead, I would like to explore a little of what it might mean for the church today to live out our calling – and take the oak tree as our example. They are some of the reasons why I have hope for our future, and why I feel so honoured and privileged to serve as bishop in this part of God’s kingdom.
Oak trees are durable. It takes a lot to knock an oak tree over. They may lose a branch or two, or have a crown taken off by lightning, but an oak tree which becomes established will live for hundreds of years. Some will fall in the storms of the years, but as a whole, they survive. The church has something of that quality too, by God’s grace. We may get knocked about, apparently devastated by terrible storms or random lightning strikes. We may suffer damage – but the tree keeps on going, it keeps on putting out new shoots each spring, sometimes where all life seemed to have gone. As Christians, we need to remember that the church of God is more than our own congregation, more than our diocese or denomination. That should set us free to experiment, to grow and to change, even to make mistakes.
Oak trees are deeply rooted. It is from those deep roots that our hope comes, and our capacity to respond to the challenges of mission that face us. It is being sure of the heart of our faith – the faith ‘revealed in the holy Scriptures, and set forth in the Catholic creeds’ that enables us to worship God together as one body, as one church. It is that security which enables us also to change. If the church does not change, it dies – living things are always changing, but in continuity with their past. So we must be open to the ways and places in which the church can share the love of God with the world. We live in a mixed world, in which there are many people who find their networks and contacts far from wherever they lay their head at night. But most people still find their meaning in the places where they are day by day and the people they meet day by day. The church must be wherever a community forms, actively building the kingdom of God in the midst of the other kingdoms which claim people’s allegiances. The church needs deep roots, drinking from its sources of truth in scripture, in tradition and in reason, so that it is able to continue to be the church for our changing and developing communities.
Oak trees are hospitable. Hundreds of species of beetles, swarms of moths and birds and mammals as various as the dormouse and the wild boar all flourish under oak trees. If the church is to live up to the prophet’s calling, we must learn to exercise that same hospitality. Hospitality is difficult and demanding. I started writing this part of the sermon in Malaga airport, after my flight had been cancelled, and I was put on to one nine hours later. In compensation, we were given vouchers to use in the food outlets – which were carefully calculated to be enough to prevent open rebellion breaking out, whilst not being nearly enough to carry any sense of an apology for the extreme inconvenience we were all suffering. That’s not hospitality – hospitality makes available to the stranger not what we can spare, but what we cherish. Hospitality invites the outsider to change us. Many churches manage to be friendly – which often means that we like each other (and that’s quite an achievement), and we like people who are like us. The hospitality of God loves those who aren’t like us, whom we don’t like, and sees God in them too.
I’m sure there are other analogies, but those are the ones I would like to focus on tonight: that the church can live in hope because, and insofar as it is durable, it is rooted, it is hospitable. If we can be those things, we need have no fear.
There’s one final reason for our ‘oak’ theme tonight, which is more personal. When I discovered – it was at the photo shoot after the announcement of my appointment – that the symbol for the Croydon Area was an oak, I was delighted but also slightly spooked. A very long time ago, when I was a keen young undergraduate, a fellow member of the Christian Union said to me that in their prayer, they had felt that the final verse – ‘they shall be called oaks of righteousness’ was in some way a particular word from God for me. I felt flattered, but a little over-awed. Who would ever dare to think of themselves as an oak of righteousness, after all? But it remained with me, nevertheless, and though I know I’ve never attained it, it has been one of my guiding lights in my own spiritual life and in my ministry.
It may be an analogy which individuals should shy away from claiming for themselves, but it’s definitely something the church should not be afraid of seeking. Churches and chaplaincies are planted in particular places in order to represent there the universal good news of Jesus Christ. So it may be completely appropriate that I was making that connection, there and then, at the announcement of my own appointment as a bishop. Because one of the key tasks of a bishop is to help the church to realise its own identity. To realise in both senses of the word: to know again who we are as a community of faith, and to make that real in our lives, as communities and as individuals. My job is to be a gardener in the kingdom, tending and planting oaks of righteousness, that God might be glorified. All of here share that calling, those of us who call ourselves Christians. We are those who have heard the good news – our lives should be becoming those of which others say ‘see what God has done there’. And precisely because we have received hope, we should also be heralds of hope, standing in the place of the prophet, enabling others to hear that same message we have received.