THE PROPHETIC TASK - TURNING THE CAPTIVITY
Sermon delivered on the Third Sunday in Advent the 17th December 2017 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11 1 Thess 5:16-24 S. John 1:6-8, 19-28
Isaiah 61: 1 “The Lord has sent me ... to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound”
S. John 1:23 (S. John the Baptist said he was a voice crying:) "Make straight the way of the Lord".
On the face of it, as we have already considered, there are two ways out of a prison, either a literal prison or a metaphorical one. One way is what might get you out very quickly, like scaling a wall. It may, if you are successful, like St. John of the Cross when he was unjustly imprisoned at Toledo, get you out quickly in the short term, but as a permanent solution to the difficulty it usually does not work well, especially in modern times. It’s somewhat like the holder of a mortgage, desperate to get out of the captivity of debt, indebting himself further by borrowing from a second lender in order to fend off the impending sanctions of the first. Such a one is liable to land up inside captivity again with the last state worse than the first. So the other way out of the prison or other captivity is normally the better way, and that's when they open the gate for you – or when you have worked assiduously and you and your family have lived frugally so as to pay off the debt and retain the property. It will take you longer to get out that way, but it is still the far better way. Now there are many forms of captivity, physical, mental, spiritual, or social, but the same basic principle applies to them all. Every sort of frustration or even annoyance is a form of captivity or the result of it. In spite of the billions passing through the banks of George Town, the Cayman economy has experienced the prison, of what Charles Dickens described in David Copperfield by the mouth of Mr. Micawber. “ ... Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and, in short, you are for ever floored.” The economists seem to say too that what brought the global economy to its knees in the last decade was its captivity to debt.
I doubt if the Christian message, the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, can be understood at all by anyone who has never experienced some form of captivity. I am sure that every adult person here has experienced it in some form. It could be that some form of it is part of what brought you into contact with the Church in the first place. For we understand that God's people the Church have in their midst or among them some thing, some power, some One that promises a real release from whatever we identify as our captivity.
Today's Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah Chapter 61 is a prophetic declaration that one is at hand who is anointed to relieve the poor and broken-hearted and to proclaim liberty to the captives. The oppressed will be set free and the unblessed will be blessed. But there is an underlying current in the passage that goes beyond external fortune for the unfortunate. That underlying current has to do with delivering justice. It was not merely that the people were in captivity; indeed rather, it was an unjust captivity, and the deliverance was all about putting that injustice right. "For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrong; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them." Sometimes we are annoyed and frustrated and in captivity merely because we cannot get our own way about something we want. As the child in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory cries, "I want the moon and I want it now!" She's in captivity but it cannot be considered an unjust captivity, until such time as she repents of her greed. The deliverance of the Lord takes the “captives” out through the gate He opens for them. He does not help the “captives” get out by cutting the fence. What I mean is, He does not merely give the “captives” what they want, like when we claim relief on the supposed grounds of our “rights” when we are not actually short of our rights but only our wants, yet He does truly deliver with justice. For His deliverance has the spiritual component: it is a deliverance of the spirit and the mind as well, not a deliverance of the body or the appetites alone. It is that kind of deliverance that is promised to us by the Gospel of Jesus.
The world's humanism says to us always - and how many times have we heard it? - "You can be whatever you want to be, and you can be empowered to do whatever you want to do." The divine humanism of the Gospel, on the other hand, working with morality, justice and ethics, declares, "You can be what you ought to be, and you can be empowered to do what you ought to do." That is the promise of the Gospel of the Lord. It is a promise that is made not only to individuals as they approach the Church and the Glorious Power that is in the midst of the Church, but it is a promise made to churches and congregations themselves. To us too the Lord is saying: I am at hand to bring you out of your captivity. I am here to empower you to be what you ought to be, and to do what you ought to do. Such empowerment is the true way out of our captivity, whereas the way of the world's humanism merely beckons us to cut the fence.
The Gospel of Christ has its witnesses several hundred years before the Incarnation, including the witness of the prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson this morning. In the Gospel today we hear of the remarkable S. John the Baptist, who we know can be regarded as the last in the series of Old Testament prophets that witnessed to Jesus. He came for a witness, to bear witness to the Light. St. John the Evangelist uses for the word "witness" the Greek word "martur". Those who die for faith in Christ are given the title of "witness" in that they are called "martyrs". S. John the Baptist was indeed that kind of witness. Meanwhile he would be that wilderness voice crying, "Make straight the way of the Lord!" He would be the divinely appointed herald of the approaching King. The herald was an important official whose function was to clear the path for an approaching king. Now the Lord Himself was at hand. The witness of John the Baptist and the Old Testament prophets reminds us in the Church that we have a prophetic forward-looking witness as well. God's people look back to the Incarnation and work on earth of our Lord, and God's people even look back further, for example to Israel's exodus from Egypt and to the call of Abraham. But St. John the Baptist and his witness remind us that God's people are to look forward as well in our witness to the overturning of the captivity. We also are called to be heralds - to clear the pathway for the coming of the Lord. As St. Paul says in the New Testament lesson, May the God of Peace sanctify us wholly, that we may be found sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Preparing for His coming may be uncomfortable: He will not give us “the moon” where and when we want it, but His promises to release us from whatever captures and enslaves us are much better than that. Like S. John the Baptist our life in Christ as individuals exists so that we may declare through the power of the Holy Spirit what He is about to come and make of us; and our life as the Church, also, exists so that we may declare faithfully the liberty that the Lord is about to come and unfold upon the earth. Let the Forerunner, then, be our model: in the times when we may seem to be a mere voice crying in the wilderness, let us ensure that we are voicing the great release that the Lord will indeed bring about.