A sermon given at Choral Eucharist by The Rev’d Canon Bill Goodes, on the Eighth Sunday of Pentecost.

Readings:Hosea 11:1-11,  Psalm 107:1-9,43, Colossians 3:1 – 11, Luke 12:13 – 21

Sunday 31 July 2022 (Cathedral)

This what the Lord says:  “They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be  be their king, because they have refused to return to me”   (Hosea 11:3)

What do you think that the Lord wants to say to the people of this generation, of this world, of this land, of this community?   Will this God be speaking to us words of judgement, words of lament, words of hope?

Over these last few weeks, since Trinity Sunday, our readings from the Hebrew scriptures have directed our attention to the prophets — we began with Elijah, and then Elisha, whose prophecies were not written down, but rather told in story form — Elijah’s contest against the prophets of Ba’al, Elisha and the Syrian leper, and so on.   Then we had a couple of weeks when we read from the earliest of the writing prophets, Amos.   Remember how he told forth God’s stinging criticism of the careless injustice shown in the dishonest practices of the market-place:  his demand for righteous living.   Last week we had that deeply troubling reading from the beginning of Hosea’s prophecy.    At God’s command the prophet married a prostitute, and they had those three strangely-named children, each name pointing to God’s judgement hanging over his people because of their disloyalty to God.

Next week we will be moving to the third of these prophets from the 8th century BCE, the first one writing in the book named Isaiah.   Each of these “forth-tellers” (for that is what the word “prophet” means) cries out the message of God to his people in the light the events of the time.   Much of this forth-telling is in the form of judgement, blaming the disasters of the time on the people’s disloyalty to their God.   Even in the midst of today’s beautiful passage from Hosea, there is this underlying theme.   “The more I called them, the more they went from me;  they kept sacrificing to the Ba’als, and offering incense to idols.”   “They shall return to the land of Egypt…”   For God is a righteous God, judging unrighteous action.

But along with this fierce condemnation there comes also the theme of lament — God is deeply grieved at the behaviour of his wayward children, and their consequent suffering.   God cries over them “I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them.”  For God is deeply moved with compassion for the dis-ease of his people.

A third theme of the prophets’ acting and writing is the powerful theme of hope.   God shows himself as one who wants what is best for his people, and is prepared to change the way he acts so that they may be restored to God’s favour.   Hosea, in today’s reading, has God speaking of his warm and tender compassion, “I will not again destroy Ephraim (using the name of one of Joseph’s sons to signify all of Israel)   I will not again destroy Ephraim, for I am God and not mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath”.   For God longs for what is best for his people, and his purposes will remain in steadfast love for them, offering hope.

So, what does this righteous, compassionate, hope-filled God want to say to our generation, our world, our nation?   Does God have a message of judgement, of lament, of hope for us?   And what place do we, the Church have in echoing the prophetic voice that this God wants to be told forth?  

What are the events of our day that are most in need of the prophetic message?   If we are to believe the news media they might include such world-wide issues as the War in Ukraine (but not forgetting the strife in Sri Lanka, in Sudan, in Yemen, and in so many other places which are not so widely reported!).   They will certainly include Climate change and its causes and effects, the COVID pandemic, or the monkey-pox and foot-and-mouth outbreaks, the growing gap between rich and poor, arguments about gender identity, marriage and family.   Many of these issues have their particular local implications, but there are also particular ones  that have to be dealt with on a national basis.   We are rightly concerned with matters like inflation, cost of living, housing shortage and affordability, restrictive trade barriers, control of migration, indigenous voice and race relationships, national security, wage and social security justice, mask or vaccination mandates, and the quality of government.      We have these concerns,  and does God have a lament, a  judgement,  a hope for our life in these areas?    May it even be that God has a message about heavy vehicles on the South-Eastern Freeway, football coaches, ambulance ramping, public transport, or planning regulations?   I guess that each of us has an issue that I haven’t mentioned that we might want to put at the top of the list for God to speak on!

One thing is clear from the prophets’ messages is that God is concerned with the everyday issues of life, and that it is within these issues that matters of justice, compassion, fulness of life — salvation in its widest range — are worked out.

When we were discussing Lynn Arnold’s presentation last Sunday night on the ethics of love, we began to wonder where the Church’s prophetic voice had gone.   Some of us can remember the far-off days when the Church’s voice on a particular social issue was sought and valued.   That is not the case now, and some people both within and outside the Church have a theory about why that is, but our question is how God’s word is to be told forth in our world concerning its every-day events.

[The recent General Synod of our church provides us with an example of how difficult it is for the Church to make pronouncements about God’s message — in this case on the subject of human sexuality:  proposed motions were debated, amended within an inch of their lives, and the resulting resolution demonstrated little more than that the Church is still wrestling with the subject, and there is still deep division within its ranks.   In addition, there is a feeling in the community that the Church does not have the right to be making statements on anything but religion!   One parish church, for example, put up a Climate Change Action Now” banner by their notice board, only to receive a message from a neighbour asserting that it was not the Church’s place to be advocating such change!]   Will the bishops of our Communion meeting at the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury have prophetic words which tell forth God’s message  — or will they be spending al their time on internal arguments?

One of the things that was clear about the prophets of old is that they were not popular figures, either with the religious or the community leaders — prophets were arrested, imprisoned, persecuted, killed as they set out God’s messages of judgement, lament, and hope.    Like John Baptist, they were often voices in the wilderness rather than religious authority figures, so we shouldn’t expect widespread acceptance of our messages!   However, that does not excuse us from the task of discerning and then telling forth what God is saying.    It will involve us in examining the facts of the case, not simply how it is reported — and examining it in company with others may be helpful as “when two or three are gathered…” in God’s name, God is in the midst.   It will then involve finding ways of telling it forth through the many avenues of communication open to us in our day.

There is the duty to tell forth the prophetic message, but there is also the duty of listening for that message through other people’s words and actions.   And that can be an uncomfortable activity for Christians, who may well be forced to realize that God’s message of justice, of lament, of hope is being spoken by those who do not have any religious affiliation, let alone those from a religious tradition that is not our tradition!.   For Christians to be able to endorse such messages would be a sign of our faithful listening for God’s word.

Thanks be to God for his servants the prophets.   May we listen to God’s voice in the words of the prophets of our own time, and take our part in discerning and telling forth God’s messages concerning the issues of our day.