Sermon preached at Evensong in Oriel College Chapel, Oxford, on Sunday, February 16, 2020

Sermon preached at Evensong in Oriel College Chapel, Oxford, on Sunday, February 16, 2020

The first verse of our text this evening from the letter to the church at Colossae reads as follows:

God has delivered us [or, rescued us] from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Redemption. I wonder what that idea suggests to each of you cloistered here this evening. Unlike some New Testament words, a form of the word “redemption” is not uncommon today; for instance, I’ve often heard certain films described as having “redemptive” themes. Similarly, we hear that certain approaches to the treatment of prisoners are more “redemptive” than others. The idea is that someone on the wrong track has been set right. In the case of the films mentioned, it usually means that the main character has been reformed in some way, changed into a better person. He or she has been redeemed from a bad way of life into a new way—often by the love and care of another. Do any of you think you need redemption? Have any of you received redemption? I’m not sure that the average person in today’s culture (not that any of you are average persons…) thinks about redemption from an outside power. We’re encouraged to think almost exclusively in terms of self-help, self-care, self-creation. Biblical faith teaches us something quite different.

In quotidian parlance, I don’t often hear the noun form of the word, “redemption.” It’s as if we are glancing away from it when we make it an adjective—”redemptive”; or even a verb in the past tense—“redeemed.” But what about this familiar verse from the Psalms?

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer (Ps. 19:14).

This is often said by preachers as they begin their sermons. The appeal is to “my Redeemer.” What does that mean? In this case we begin to see that God is the one who performs the act of redemption. From what is the preacher being redeemed? We’ll get back to that.

I wonder if any of you would say that you were looking for redemption, or wanted to receive redemption. The word “redeem” suggests deliverance, but from what? Sin? Do we really believe in sin? Many leaders in our churches (I can speak for the States, anyway) will go a long way out of their way to avoid any mention of sin. It’s off-putting. It might scare people away. It sounds judgmental. So the result is that Christian people today have a very underdeveloped idea of sin. This leads to the subject of Ash Wednesday, which is coming up very soon. This is a very important day in the church calendar, but not always very well attended. Ash Wednesday is not about going around with ashes on your forehead. That’s easy. Anybody can do that without ever thinking deeply about it. I know of some prominent Episcopal clergy, even bishops, who go out into the streets giving the sign of ashes to passersby. Ashes to go! It seems to me that undercuts the whole corporate meaning of Ash Wednesday. The day is so serious and so probing that it’s no wonder it’s not well attended. And note this: it’s not all about individual sin. On Ash Wednesday, relatively small groups of Christians go to church partially on behalf of those many who are not there. Of no other day in the church year is this more true. We are on our knees at some length and in some detail, naming and repenting for our “manifold sins and wickedness”—not only our own, but those of all humankind and particularly those of the church. As the Epistle of Peter says, the household of God should be the first to stand at the bar of judgment—with confidence in our Redeemer.

This is what Moses does in our passage from Deuteronomy. People who don’t know the Old Testament complain about the wrathful God of the Old Testament. If you read selectively and without understanding, that is indeed what you might get from this text tonight: “The Lord was so angry with you that he was ready to destroy you.” But in this same passage Moses, the servant of the Lord, repeatedly abases himself on behalf of the people. He lies flat on the ground confessing the sin of the whole people and begging God for mercy on their behalf—and they receive it. Moses is willing to bear not only his own sin but the sin of the whole people. This is mirrored for us in the prayers of the church when we say “have mercy on US” even if we don’t think we are as sinful as other people. By identifying with the sin of the whole people, we put ourselves on the front line.

Again, from Colossians: “God has delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” Because of the fall of Adam—figuratively understood—we live under the power of darkness, the rule of the Adversary of God. This is true of us as individuals and it is especially true of the human race and our fallen planet as a whole. The flooding that we are seeing now in England is only a hint of what we are doing to our climate. We need redemption from what we have done to ourselves. This cycle of self-destruction is part of the human story. I don’t know how much you know about this, here in England, but in only three years, the United States has become an empire of lies, and no one knows how or if that can be turned around. The author of Colossians, like all the New Testament writers, knows that there is a sinister power at work in the world, larger than any single human project. I am an enthusiastic user of Twitter, but as we all know, the internet has exponentially magnified the power of darkness, and scores of millions of Americans who identify as Christians have embraced lies, deception, and assaults against the humanity of the world’s peoples. I look to the desperate, yet confident prayer of Daniel:

Give ear, O our God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, hear! O Lord, listen and act! For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.” (Daniel 9:18-19)

In the meantime, there is much we can do to try to make a difference, and God blesses our efforts as part of his redemptive project. Those who are deeply rooted in Christian faith understand that the grip of the powers of darkness continually subvert our efforts. Getting rid of plastic straws and bags cannot of itself reverse our headlong course, but nevertheless we persist, doing what we can in the name and in the power of the God who alone is able to redeem the sin of the world. This is not at all the same thing as what is often called “the triumph of the human spirit.” Biblical theology teaches us that the myth of human progress cannot sustain the realities around us. The greatest literary novelists show us the human heart from the inside: how it deceives us, goes its own irrational way, draws us into situations we did not intend—and they show us how little real control we have over our more destructive impulses. The wise among us are people who come to know that they need redemption.

Now we come to the central part of the gospel—but first, a bit of clarification. There has been a heated argument in the church about whether we should conceive of redemption as a price paid. In recent decades there has been great resistance in the church to the idea of payment. I’m not going to take up the details of that tonight, except to make the all-important point that the apostle Paul says twice that you and I “were bought with a price” (I Cor. 6:19-20 and 7:23).

Austin Farrer, Warden of Keble College in the 1960s, goes to great lengths, in his book Saving12 Saving Belief, to defend the idea of a price paid. He laments the lack of imagination, the literal-mindedness of those who object to the idea of redemption at great cost. He writes that although God’s action in Christ “is nothing so formal or so ineffective as the deletion of a ledger entry on account of payment received from a third party,” nevertheless “God’s act of universal forgiveness is the whole train of action he sets working through Christ…And of this great process Christ’s blood was…the cost.”

I asked at the beginning, why does the preacher seek the Redeemer? I seek a power infinitely greater than myself this evening because I do not want to fail in my calling. I did not come all the way from the United States to this distinguished college and chapel to repeat the barren idea that the work of Jesus Christ was to set an example for us to follow. His life and his death were not just models for us. They were the unique life and the gruesome death by crucifixion of the Son of God. The enormity of crucifixion as a means of putting a person to death is the sign of the plan of God “to pay the price of sin” in God’s own self.

I beg you to take seriously to heart the “tympanic power”[1] of this tremendous passage from Colossians which declares the unique greatness of Jesus Christ, God’s “beloved Son, in whom we have redemption,” and by whom we are transferred “into the kingdom of his beloved Son”…

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things…through the blood of his cross.

AMEN


[1] I picked up this phrase from Paul Lehmann, who fluently formulated such arresting phrases all the time as a matter of course.

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