Sermon delivered on the Twenty-third Sunday after Trinity (4th Before Advent) the 30th October 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the St. Alban’s congregation of the Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.

Scriptures: Isaiah 1:10-18     2 Thessalonians 1:1-12     S. Luke 19:1-10

Isaiah 1: 16f “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression.”

It is central to our understanding of life as Christians that we men and women cannot live in a lasting peace together unless and until there is a cleansing to our hearts, and a real repentance. This is certainly affirmed by the words of the text we have just heard; and in Christ this is something that God may accomplish deep within us.

Now there are on various occasions, including in modern Remembrance Day services, prayers for reconciliation across the nations and within them. Prayer may also be offered on various occasions for reconciliation between people who follow different religions. There is nothing necessarily unreasonable about such prayers. The ever-present question though is how people of different faiths and understandings, such as Christianity, Islam and atheism, who in important respects have diametrically opposing world-views, can really be reconciled except at a superficial level. Illustrating this, there is no shortage of opinion, expressed both by intellectuals and by simple people, and from both a religious or an atheistic point of view, not only disputing Christianity but arguing that it is a fundamentally harmful force both to individuals and to society. In response to this a robust defence of Christianity’s positive influence upon a person has been made by a number of authors, including most notably in the last century CS Lewis. More recently the former Bishop of Rochester, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, has been similarly outspoken, as has Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo of the Barnabas Fund movement. Indeed their defence asserts what I steadfastly believe, that “Christianity is the very root and foundation of Western civilization.” It follows that to assume, as many now do, that every conceivable level, extent or character of diversity contributes positively to a rich, stable and cohesive society is fundamentally erroneous. Accordingly, the proposition that I should be content never to enquire into the beliefs of the person situated next to me, or the person I am considering hiring to work for me, would not indicate a mutual acceptance, but rather, at best the acceptance of estrangement.

In the first lesson today from Isaiah chapter 1 verses 10-18, the prophet proclaims to Judah and Jerusalem a God who cannot endure the combination of “iniquity and solemn assembly”, and eventually it is made clear that the iniquity of God’s people includes blood on their hands. The core of God’s quarrel with His own people here is that while they purport to worship Him with all necessary style and elaboration, they do not even stop at murder, or, perhaps, such severe oppression of the poor or the vulnerable that they bring the lives of these unfortunate ones down to the ground. God cannot be reconciled to His own people without their genuine repentance: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

The prophetic word makes it clear that God’s quarrel with His own Old Covenant people is over the state of their hearts - their will and intention - which is most dreadfully displeasing to Him. The prophetic word makes clear also that their hearts’ state must be causing terrible rifts between a man and his neighbour, since God’s quarrel is that those with power are oppressing even to death those who have no power. It is clear that the prescription, as it were, for reconciliation within the community is that the offenders become reconciled to God. Nothing has changed in that from all the years between those days and our own. If we are looking for reconciliation among men, we must seek first to be reconciled with God, and for that, cleansing and repentance and the acceptance of His grace are necessary. But let us not miss the hopeful note in this word. The Lord invites His people to come and reason with Him. He has made a demand and now He makes a promise: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” The removal of the sins is not merely necessary: it is possible, because it is something that the Lord Himself can bring about.

The truth is that the Lord is always engaged in a kind of war with those who are being unjust, and they may only make peace with Him on His terms. In our second lesson from 2 Thessalonians, the apostle writes to a church which is being oppressed and persecuted by the secular power, a situation that is widespread today. He is not telling them that God regards those who persecute them in the same light as He regards them. No, the apostle tells those humble and persecuted believers that while their affliction will serve to increase their steadfastness and faith, and declare them to be worthy of the kingdom of God for which they are suffering, those who are afflicting them will be justly repaid by God with His affliction. While those who are being persecuted will one day enjoy rest, those who are treating them so unjustly will on that day receive God’s retribution. That does not mean that God has already closed the door on any of the unjust who may one day repent; it is, however, describing the state of things currently. God’s holy wrath and everlasting condemnation are realities, and without repentance and cleansing, all of those who have bullied, tortured and killed God’s little ones in this life will endure endless ruin and separation from Christ. In various parts of the world, such persecutors might represent the secular power, or they might be local extremists of one sort or another, or indeed invading armies. We in the modern western churches get it completely wrong if we assert that God’s love for all men means that He does not make justifiable distinctions or does not positively discriminate between us. Of course He does positively and justly discriminate - that’s what His judgment is all about. And we can make peace with Him only on His terms, not on ours.

Our Gospel today describes Zacchaeus, a man of Jericho, unpopular with his fellow-Jews, who was (we might say) engaged in a personal surveillance of the Son of God during a journey through that town. His assumption, it appears, was that he would be able to see this wonderful Person, and yet remain unseen himself and on the periphery of what was going on. He perhaps hoped to see Jesus in the same way one might expect to see visiting royalty passing by. In this case, however, the Royal Prince did the unexpected: He told the thrilled and chastened Zacchaeus to get down from his vantage point, come along with Him, and receive Him in his own house! Zacchaeus was a despised person among his fellow-Jews because he was in the service of the oppressive Roman authorities in their perceived role of bleeding from them as much tax as possible - and taking an over-generous cut of it himself. His undertaking to give back to the poor a half of his goods and to restore anybody defrauded by him fourfold was a serious act of repentance. How did he find the heart to do it? Because Jesus had accepted him. Because those whom Jesus receives have their scarlet sins made white as snow, as the prophet Isaiah declared. And this, because Jesus is the Christ who died to redeem us from death and the power of sin. He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities; and upon Him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with His stripes we are healed. This is the context in which God has provided the way of grace for our reconciliation with Him, which is our healing at the most fundamental level, and this also is the context in which the ways are provided, as for Zacchaeus, so also for ourselves, for our reconciliation in society with one another.

And so I would like to end with some questions for us to consider. First, Are “living peaceably with” my neighbour and “being reconciled to” my neighbour one and the same, or might they actually be quite different? Secondly, In what way is God calling His own people to real and tangible reconciliation to Himself in today’s world? And thirdly, How or in what terms are Christians to convey God’s call to all people to become reconciled to Him?