s034o02evensong St Peter's Cathedral 13/1/02 The Baptism of Jesus.
"The LORD goes forth like a soldier, like a warrior he stirs up his fury; he cries out, he shouts aloud, he shows himself mighty against his foes." Isaiah 42:13
It is a great privilege to be asked to preach at the mother Church of the Diocese, and I thank the Dean for this invitation.
Our first reading from Isaiah continues the reading from the Old Testament for this morning's Eucharist, and our second reading is the account of John the Baptist's testimony to the baptism of Jesus from John's gospel.
As I read the first lesson, I was struck at the words, with their illusions to Advent: "I will lay waste mountains and hills ... I will turn the rivers into islands, and dry up the pools." (Isaiah 42:15) - a repetition of the perhaps more familiar passage from Isaiah, "Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain." (Isaiah 40:4). These words are repeated by the Baptist, in Luke 3.5 "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'" God the great road builder - I suspect that it is a less familiar image of God. Boys and their bulldozers in the dirt - all good fun! I confess I sometimes have envied the person who drives the machine which rakes the sand at Glenelg beach. Now there's a job I could cope with :-)
This image of the road builder is indeed strange, for it is couched in a hymn of praise in the whole creation - the creation welcomes this wanton rearrangement of mountains and valleys, rather than protests or fears it. "Let the sea roar ... the desert ... lift up their voice ... sing for joy."
And another strange thing is that this new song of praise is sung by people other than the elect - the people of Kedar, and Sela and the coastlands, people to the ends of the earth. They will "shout from the tops of the mountains". Something quite remarkable is happening here.
But the image is not complete, for, as I used for my text, God the road builder is also God the warrior, and this God is furious.
The picture of God being a furious warrior is less than comfortable. In some ways we may perhaps welcome the image. We look to God to be victorious. We look to God to change the world, which is our usual "doublespeak" for challenging and changing others, particularly those who disagree with us. If this can be done decisively, so much the better :-) The one sermon I still recall from my time in Theological College was on that most familiar of psalms, 23, with the image of ultimate retribution: "Thou preparest a table in the face of those who trouble me, thou anointest my head with oil and my cup will be full". The idea that God would serve us, and that those who have been our enemies in life have to stand and watch this happening, is delicious. It is, I suspect also a forlorn hope, despite the popularity of the words, and the frequency that they are used.
However comfortable we might rest in the picture of God being the furious warrior depends largely on our confidence that we are not the objects of God's enmity. We are quick to invoke the picture of the merciful God if we think that some of that enmity might be directed towards us.
For we know Jesus who was crucified, the lamb led to the slaughter, who did not open it's mouth. The God who Jesus shows us is somewhat different. But again, even this picture of God is not especially comfortable, for God might be more merciful towards our enemies than we would wish.
All this leads me to question: Is the God whom Jesus shows us different from Isaiah? Had God changed in the interim? Had humanity changed from the time of Isaiah to the time of Jesus, or was God just adopting a different and better strategy? Of course this begs the question, has humanity changed since then, or are the same paradigms of behaviour in evidence still?
Of course there is one classic time when Jesus did get angry, and that was when he cleared the temple of those who sold the animals to pilgrims to enable them to perform their ritual sacrifices and those who changed the Roman money into the correct Hebrew coinage acceptable in the Temple coffers. He did get angry, though we need to be careful, for the Bible tells us that he "began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves ..." (Mark 11:15). God's actions were perhaps more against the tables and the seats. Ah! you might say, wasn't there something about a whip of cords? That's a bit more violent towards people. The reference actually is in John, where it is recorded: "Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle." (John 2:15). I suppose Jesus might have needed a whip to move the animals, but had they stayed there their life expectancy would have been considerably shorter! So perhaps the RSPCA will forgive him :-)
Jesus got very angry with people who had their place assured in the religious infrastructure and who exercised their ministry by getting in the way of other people who had to measure up to their expectations to enter. So the quaint Palm Sunday precessions we have each year mask a momentous revolution, where ordinary people who have been previously excluded are enabled to take their place just as they are, within the worshipping community.
Ordinary people have no more mountains to climb, no more depths to negotiate - all are accepted as they are. This is why foreigners have cause to praise God, somewhat to the chagrin of those who considered themselves the elect. This is a revolution of cosmic proportions.
For this road-building warrior still has other tasks to perform, not only has the person got to build the road and clear away those who would get in the way. The person also has to lead others. And they are not just ordinary others, people who are able to follow as Jesus charges on ahead. No, the words in Isaiah talk about leading the blind ... "I will lead the blind by a road they do not know, by paths they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them." (Isaiah 42:16) The blind can't follow, because the road is newly made, so they cannot even feel the way. So this person not only makes the road, clearing the mountains and the valleys along the way - even the rocks on which the blind people may stub their toes are cleared away, as well as clearing the human obstacles with considerable gusto. He leads the blind along this road. And one leads the blind by allowing them to hold on and by travelling slowly. Perhaps the blind were unaware of their real destination. To lead the lame means that this person has to lend a supporting shoulder. There is an intimate caring being displayed here.
To be considered a full and equal participant in the community of faith is not something to which ordinary people, blind or sighted, actually often aspire. But this is precisely where Jesus led them. It is Matthew alone who notices what happens after the triumphal entry into the Temple and the path cleared into the holy of holies, which we celebrate each Palm Sunday. He recalls that "the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them." (Matthew 21:14).
But the reference to the mountains and hills being "laid waste" in our reading for tonight, lead me also to reflect on why people climb mountains. So often it is only "because they are there ..." They are, as we say, a "challenge". Now a challenge in this modern usage has no immediate moral connotations. A person who doesn't climb a mountain isn't a lesser person, though he or she might be regarded as a bit of a "woos", depending on the height of the mountain, of course. I will be content to live my life without seeing the sights from the top of Mount Everest. Yet the root meaning of the word "challenge" is a battle - to challenge someone to a duel. Unfortunately the only use of the word "challenge" - so frequently used these days in "Christian" circles - in the NRSV is in opposing God. Jeremiah 50:24 says "You set a snare for yourself and you were caught, O Babylon, but you did not know it; you were discovered and seized, because you challenged the LORD."
It is my contention that what God has done in sending Jesus and to live and die and rise again, is to remove all obstacles from everyone's full participation in the worshipping life of the community. If challenge there is, then it is to oppose any who would get in the way of others exercising this participation. But like Jesus, we oppose not people, but the symbols of their unwarranted authority, their tables and seats.
I recall once a person speaking about the text "you are the vine" and saying that vines, as wood, are useless. "You cannot even make a clothes peg out of a vine." I am not sure I agree. As a confirmed claret lover, I think vines have an exceedingly important task to perform.
Yet God leads the blind and the lame into full communion, and there is one thing that comes across, is that God leads these people into the kingdom, not because God benefits from their presence, but simply because God loves people, whoever they are. God leads all people into the kingdom, for the sheer joy of their presence, not because of what they can contribute.
In another forum within the Church, they use the phrase "God is counting on you", and if this means that God needs us to bring in the kingdom, then I think I would worship another God. But if they mean God relies on us to reflect this same acceptance of all people, then I think God does count on us. Mind you, if we don't accept other people as they are, we are very likely going to be exceedingly uncomfortable with the others we will find ourselves amongst.
In the schedule attached to "A measure for - An Ordinance Relating to the Status of Clergy and Lay Ministers in the Diocese" "Status of Clergy Ordinance 2002" (I presume it will be) the words are given us that "... the member of the clergy is to encourage and build up the Church ... by (5.) empowering and challenging lay members of the Church in their mission in the world." (Papers page 15) I contend that the challenge is always to be inclusive of other people, no matter who they are.
One of the favourite passages of scripture for some people is John 14.6: "No one come to the Father but by me" and I suspect that it is a favourite because this is interpreted as Jesus being the heavenly bouncer, keeping the "riffraff" from the presence of the Father. You know, all those people who don't measure up, those who don't believe, those who don't believe enough, those who don't believe in precisely the right terms. The picture in Isaiah of the furious road building warrior is a powerful statement against this. Jesus spent his time clearing out the self appointed people who got in the way of ordinary people coming into the holy of holies. Indeed we find again that the real reason that the religious authorities killed Jesus was precisely because he saw the holy in ordinary people and bypassed their petty empire building. To turn Jesus into a heavenly bouncer, for me is indeed to sin against the Holy Spirit - it is the ultimate blasphemy.
So lay people or clergy are not authorised to build mountains of expectations for others to climb over. Church people are not authorised to dig personal psychological ditches that people have to empty themselves of their own personality before they can be filled up with orthodoxy.
Indeed the greatest challenge for us all is always to be inclusive. It is hard to see others considered as on an equal standing to ourselves - people of other denominations - people of other faiths - people who doubt - people of no faith, people who have only come recently after we have done the bulk of the work, working through the heat of the day.
The Lord is a warrior, but it is important to recognise what God battles for. I have occasionally been told: "Choose your battles carefully" and this is wise advise. I may not like it, but I am happy to be criticised and ridiculed, provided only that it is for the same reasons that Jesus himself was willing to suffer the ignominy of the Cross. The last thing I would want to happen to me is that I was criticised or ridiculed for something Jesus actually didn't care about at all!
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