Christ has no hands, no feet, no voice but ours
A sermon preached by David Barton on Sunday 15th December 2019
After six weeks of non-stop politics invading our lives, and then a political upheaval that leaves many of us stunned, the lectionary gives us a set of readings in which the Biblical writings get about as political as they ever get. A wonderful passage from Isaiah, in which he uses the template of the escape from Egypt as the model for the escape of the exiles from Babylon. For them the desert will blossom, its mountains and valleys levelling out to become a highway to Jerusalem. It’s a great song in praise of freedom.
That’s the theme Jesus takes up in his reply to the imprisoned John. And in between is a bit of the epistle of James – a writer who should never be underestimated. “Be patient. Don’t grumble. Even now the Judge is at the door.” Words for our time perhaps.
But the Gospel is central here. John, from prison, asks a question. “Are you the one to come…..?” He had said that the one who followed him would lay an axe to the roots of the trees, and throw the whole mess of society onto the fire. The Jesus who preaches in synagogues and heals the sick is not at all what he expected. What is going on? he asks. And Jesus’ answer, linking back to Isaiah is interesting. We don’t know if that was a general expectation of who the Messiah would be in the time of Jesus. But it is a fair bet that when John heard those words from Isaiah in answer to his question they would be as near to the answer “Yes” as you could get without being explicit. Being explicit was dangerous when there was someone like Herod around. After all John was in Herod’s prison awaiting certain death.
But there is a darkly mysterious edge to Jesus’ answer. If Jesus was the Messiah, then why wasn’t he freeing the prisoners like John? The fact that he doesn’t says a lot. Jesus would have been in no doubt about John’s suffering and certain death. But Jesus lived in God’s time, and his hour was not yet. One of things we have to get used to in Jesus’ ministry and right down to the present time, is the “now” and “not yet” of the Christian Gospel. As James says: the Judge is known, and even now at the door, but do not expect everything to be sorted out in the present. It’s what Advent always reminds us: Glory, but frustration too: it’s about waiting…. Patience.
So ……… What about where we are now? Someone pointed out to me this week that Elections tend to encourage us to think in binary terms, and this was a sharply polarised election. Leave or remain. This party or that. Simplistic stuff. And while some of the venom may drain from that now it’s all over, nevertheless some deep divisions were exposed. There is a marked difference between urban, metropolitan culture and our small towns and the countryside. There is wealth around, but the gap between rich and poor is getting greater. The racism and violent language were concerning. And there is increasing separation between the different parts of the kingdom. Complex problems and not easily put right. Binary thinking doesn’t help. But as long as they last they have no good implications for our society.
There will be political responses to all of this, of course. But the point here is to ask, what can we do as Christians, out of our Christian faith? We pray for Christ’s Kingdom to come. But we also know – uncomfortably – that Christ has no hands, no feet, no voice but ours. That is where we arepart of the mystery of the now and the not yet. By what we say and what we do, we are the ones who are bringing in the kingdom.
Ninety years ago my father was a young curate in an inner city parish in Birkenhead. It was a place with shocking levels of unemployment and poverty, and also deeply divided. The population was a mix of English and Irish Catholic. There were regular fights in the streets between them, often violent. My Father’s vicar was deeply troubled by this and one day, he decided to call on his catholic counterpart. It was an extraordinary move for the time. The two churches never met. But he discovered an equally worried man, and their encounter was warm and human. The upshot was that they decided that they would regularly walk through the streets of their community together, talking and demonstrating their friendship. People stood in silence at first, amazed. And then the conversations started and they began to talk about the violence and division. It didn’t end the fights, but it diminished them, and from then on both men used to get warnings of impending trouble and were able to intervene before things got worse.
It was a simple human response from two people who rooted themselves back into their faith and overcame division as a result. St Paul talks about us “having the mind of Christ.” What is so striking about Jesus is his holding together of opposites: he sat at the table of rich men, and counted himself among the poor. He was respected and listened to by the devoutly religious, but ate with tax collectors and sinners. He healed Gentiles and Jews without distinction. He forgave the men who nailed him to the cross, and told a thief they would be together in Paradise. If he tells us to love our enemies, it’s because he saw no one as an enemy. He saw only women and men loved by God. God is not about separation and division. Jesus’ message was of wholeness, oneness.
You and I are gifted with the mind of Christ. Part of what we are learning as we pray and read our bibles and break bread together is that sense of a world held in wholeness and unity by God in Christ. Here and now, in this now of God, it is within our powers, to bring simple, ordinary, healing love to situations of conflict, and to look out onto the world in forgiveness and love.
And notice. It’s not a matter of our love. It is Christ’s love, in us and flowing through us. That is what changes things. So our response to the ups and downs of our nation’s politics and our society’s troubles, is simply to settle ourselves more deeply into the love of Christ – a love already gifted to us – and then live with open eyes for whatever it is God needs us to respond to. Then church can be a healing presence in our society.
I saw a video last week about a class of primary school children learning stillness and silence and prayer. The teacher had a bottle of water. It was clear, except that there was some mud at the bottom. She shook it up, and it became cloudy. When she put it down, of course it cleared again. She explained that it was how it is when we get worked up and angry. We drag up things from the bottom of our lives, things we buried or had forgotten about, and everything then becomes muddled up. No clarity. Stillness and silence before God clears the mind. Everything settles down. Prayer matters. Is always the priority.
And I think the teacher could have added something that links us back to Isaiah. In Christ the mess and muddle at the bottom of our lives is forgiven and gloriously transformed. And because of that, you and I become the highway in the desert, and the desert around us begins to blossom like a rose.