Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 14th December 2008
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour .” Isaiah 61:1-2
Let us go from the sublime world of the prophecy of Isaiah to the ridiculous world of children’s television; let us revisit that favourite of ten to twenty years ago—Postman Pat.
Postman Pat is an animated figure who appears on television, video and in numerous books. The material is probably directed at children around the age of 5. Pat is postman around the village of Greendale, which is supposed to be a little village in the heart of the English Lake District. I discovered from one story, “Postman Pat goes to London”, that his proper name is Pat Clifton, (not a lot of people know that.)
I often wondered why it was that I found Postman Pat fascinating. I remember one day, ten years ago, in 1998, there was a Postman Pat video playing in our house. The person who had put it on had gone to some other amusement and I realised that I was watching Postman Pat by myself!
I think the fascination lies in the life of Greendale. Greendale seems a perfect sort of a place to live. It is a little community where everyone knows each other and where they all help each other and where they all care for each other when something goes wrong. There is a village school where the children seem happy and secure. There is PC Selby, the bobby on the beat who knows everything that is going on. There are little farms where people can earn a living. There is a post office at which everyone calls and there is a little parish church where the vicar is the absent-minded Reverend Timms. Greendale seems perfect, things go wrong sometimes and people get cross sometimes, but there is a community in which everyone has a place.
I think I was fascinated by this children’s programme because it showed the sort of community we would all dream of. It showed a place without crime and fear and violence, it showed a place where everyone was respected and valued.
Perhaps it was a sign of the times that it took a children’s programme to remind me that people used to live in communities, that there might not have been much money in times past, but there was a neighbourliness and a care which no amount of money can buy.
We have lost that sense of community and we seem to have lost the values and the principles that held the community together. When people are asked what thing they miss most from the past the answer is usually the sense of friendship and the sense of community they remember.
Perhaps the single most important thing Christians can do is to work to rebuild that sense of community.
Why is this morning’s reading from Isaiah so important? Because these are the words Jesus uses when he begins his ministry. Jesus goes into the synagogue on one occasion and picks up and reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he reads the words we read from Isaiah Chapter 61..
It is appropriate in this season of Advent that we set down Jesus’ manifesto; that we remind people that he is not about cuddly Christmas pictures and nice Christmas stories. Jesus has set down the values for a Christian community. Believing in the year of the Lord’s favour means starting the work of rebuilding our community. We won’t ever capture the land of Greendale, but we can make our community a happy place to be.
Jesus comes to preach good news to the poor. Being poor is not just about money, it is about not having what is called ‘social capital’; not having friends and neighbours, having no-one to lean on, having no support and no-one to share your troubles. Some of the richest people I have known have had very little in material terms; they were rich because they were surrounded by a community that knew them and loved them.
Jesus comes to proclaim freedom for the prisoners. Looking at places where there are strong communities, there is little crime. When everyone knows everyone else there is little opportunity for crime. The highest crime rates are in big cities where people become anonymous. Communities discourage crime and they nurture people who are less likely to become involved in crime. If you live in a community where people care about you and where you are respected you haven’t the motivation to break all the ties that mean so much to you.
Jesus comes to proclaim recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed. I once read that one of the marks of a community was that no-one should sit at night alone with a sick member of their family. How simple, but how important; just to know that there is another person who cares enough just to be there.
There are 101 things, little things, that can be done to support those who suffer or who feel oppressed by their circumstances, just picking up the ‘phone or knocking at the door can make a difference. This is not ambitious, this is not a grand scheme, this is the way things used to be, this is what life is like in a community. This is what life is like in Greendale.
Isaiah’s vision is a disturbing one. It demands commitment. It demands more than a faith that sees being a Christian as saying the right words. It is no good us confessing Jesus Christ as Lord with our words, if our lives contradict every word we say. Sometimes the most religious people are the least Christian.
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me”, declares Isaiah. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me”, declares Jesus. The Spirit of the Lord demands radical changes in society—it is no wonder Christians try to ignore such a Spirit!