Bible Sunday: Being light in dark and despairing times

IMG_1698My goodness this has been a turbulent few weeks. The Westminster Parliament, or more to the point the government, has been in meltdown and the third Prime Minister this year is about to be appointed. The cost of living crisis is biting even harder, as even more families are coming forward for help at foodbanks, there was a significant increase in the number of those taking shopping bags of basics through St Woolos School this week, 9/10 households were reported to have delayed putting the heating on this year, and many are anxious about how they will cope. There is more than a background of unease and tension. Anger and despair is flooding in on us from all corners and it takes its toll on the emotional temperature within us and around us. I want to think a little this morning about how we respond to this and how we can be people of hope and light in dark and despairing times. 

With the storms battering, our calling as a people of God in this place, in words from our readings, is with Luke to bring good news (Luke 4:16-24), with Isaiah the cry for justice and salvation (Isaiah 45:22-25), and with the Epistle to advocate living in harmony (Romans 15:1-6). We are to breathe peace into a troubled landscape. How do we do that when we too may well be feeling all those anxieties and strains?

We bring all of this with us this morning as we gather to pray, to break bread and celebrate the sacrament in bread and wine; to hear and receive the Word of God in the Bible. And these three represent the sure ground of God’s love to help us be people of praise and thanksgiving, hope and joy, in the midst of major crises. This is not to ignore the struggles and fears, but to ‘Be still and know that God is God’ (Psalm 46:10). Those are words that come from a Psalm which talks of the nations being in uproar. It is to be a still place when the battle rages around and offer a sure place, to point to a place, where all whose footing is unsure can find solidity.

Today is Bible Sunday. This week at daily prayers we have had readings which have plunged themselves into the storms and crises of political turmoil, shipwreck and leadership disputes. It’s interesting how the Bible can hit the mark. In these they have affirmed God’s presence, constancy, and hope which transcends all the trials and tribulations. On Thursday morning, during the Psalm, we read that in the sight of God, ‘a thousand years are but as yesterday, which passes like a watch in the night’ (Psalm 90:4). From the perspective of eternity, the transitory is fleeting and there is a bigger scale in which to assess it. That bigger scale builds confidence and provides the solid ground to hold on to; it lifts us above the turmoil, countering a malaise and prevailing culture that everything is futile and purposeless with a sense of the purpose that comes from confidence and faith in God. It is that confidence and deep trust that sets the tone to face the storms and be light to dispel the darkness.

Again, on Thursday, in the Acts of the Apostles, we read of Paul breaking bread amidst a great storm, after having given thanks (Acts 27:35f). Where do we hear those words – breaking bread and giving thanks? Paul used the Eucharist, the meal in which we share at the heart of this service, as the sign of hope in the storm. All of those who were with him were encouraged. Why would breaking bread, the Eucharist, be a sign of hope? Because it stems directly from the act of Jesus, the night before his death, in the storm of betrayal and plotting, where he gave a banquet of God’s Kingdom to shine precisely when trouble is at hand. Our confidence and faith is rooted in the saving, life-giving act of Jesus Christ and his resurrection. Nothing beats that.

Passages like these bob up all the time. Through immersing ourselves in the stories and narratives of the Bible we keep this hope tuned for us. And we had more of them this morning. Isaiah (45:22) tells his hearers to ‘turn to the Lord and be saved, for God is God’, echoing the ‘Be still and know’ passage from Psalm 90. Only in the Lord, is righteousness and true strength found (v24). In case we are stumbling and feeling shaky in our steps, the Psalm encouraged us to keep our steps steady, to never let iniquity have the upper hand, have dominion over us. (Psalm 119:133). How the strains and powers that darken life can have the upper hand if we let them. Trust in God and drive away those dementors.

The Gospel reading gave us the triumph of hope (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus gives his Nazareth manifesto of anointing, good news, release, recovery and freedom. And here the gear shifts. This is not just passive hope, but active encouragement to bring about change if and where we can; to strive for it. In this mess that our national life has entered, prayers for the government, for people in it at this time, are also to be prayers for change and for those who have it in their means to step up to bring it about. They are being called to remember that the priority is for those who need to hear good news, who long for release to be set free from whatever holds them from flourishing, to look beyond their own interests and even party interest to the good of all, and that by definition has a bias to the poor.

So this morning we come here to pray, to break bread and to hear the story of faith, hope and love retold from the pages of the Bible. Through these we are enabled to tell a different story, one of joy and thanksgiving, the bigger picture that holds the passing news items. As we place and renew our trust and confidence in God, in the purposes of God, that in God there is a point, so we are enabled to be people of light and hope. May that be the song we sing today, that enables us to bring light in these dark and despairing times.

Sermon for Bible Sunday, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 23rd October 2022

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About Ian Black

Ian is an Anglican priest and Dean of Newport Cathedral in the Church in Wales. He was previously Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes in Faversham. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury in partnership with the Diocese of Rochester. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare’s Church – Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus, was published by Sacristy Press on 1st July 2017. There is also a hymn based on this – Christ the Saviour. Other online writings can be found under the Books & Publications tab above. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s and was a contributing blogger to the ReJesus website. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his Facebook and Twitter posts.
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