Our call is to speak up for others, burning up with love whatever diminishes them……a sermon preached by Graham Low at St Mary’s on 18 August 2019
When Beethoven played the piano before polite salon audiences, he sometimes used to trick them if he thought that they were more interested in the social event than in the music he was playing. He would play a quiet slow movement of one of his own compositions: the audience would be lulled into thinking that the world is a lovely, peaceful and harmonious place, and that all will be well, as they began to fall asleep. Then, as the last notes were fading away, he would bring his forearm down on the keyboard. Crash! And then, rather impolitely,he would smile or laugh at the audience after the rather cruel gesture had been made. Of course, Beethoven had many other ways of expressing the pain and darkness of the world through his music. Indeed, he could bring great musical joy out of the sadness of the human condition in general, as well as of his own tragic life. Even so, the great crash he made after playing tranquil music is a powerful image of what today’s gospel passage is about.
Jesus is reminding his hearers once again that the crisis is coming. There is a challenge to loyalty. Paradox is everywhere. We thought the gospel was about bringing peace. No longer does Jesus appear to be the prince of peace but the prince of division. This is a message for families, households, communities, and even for nations. There will be no peace. For hundreds of years the prophets have said this. We are reminded here of the prophet Micah, who warned of an imminent crisis, and the need for people to see that the only way forward was to trust in God.
Now Jesus looks towards a crisis in which he is the central player, and which is described as his baptism. And yet he is alarmed that hardly anyone seems to recognise it, even though they are good at weather forecasting. Why on earth can they not see what is going on around them? They have a Roman occupation, the oppression of Herod, arrogant high priests, the falsity of the Pharisees, and yet they cannot understand this young man healing the sick and announcing no less than the arrival of God’s kingdom.
The people cannot see that Jesus has in mind the fact that Israel is rebelling against Gods’ plan that she should be the light of the world,and should be resisting the power of Rome. But there is no coming to terms with the situation and Rome decisively ends this possibility in AD 70. Jesus’ warnings about what was soon to happen reach a crescendo in the next chapter of Luke. But we may well ask: what relevance has all of this for today’s world?
Part of the answer is that we need to understand the crisis for Israel in Jesus’ time, before we can understand why Jesus speaks as he does of his own forthcoming death, through the words of Luke his interpreter. We shall encounter this thinking about Jesus’ own death in later chapters of the Gospel.
This passage has been taken very seriously down the ages by the Church. And it should be read seriously today. This passage has been a repeated warning that we must constantly look out for the signs of the times. As Christians we are to watch the great movements of people, governments, policies, and nations, and to think carefully and actively about where they are leading us. That is particularly called for now. As Christians we pray daily for the coming of God’s kingdom here. If we really mean this then we must be a part of the prophetic ministry of the church. This means no less than understanding the events of the earth and addressing them with the message of heaven. It may very well be that we may find ourselves, as Jesus did, with causing division, becoming involved in the consequent crisis. That may be our call.
It has often been said that the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart. Following Jesus is to follow a change of heart. As we have heard, that may well mean consequent conflict with the norms of society as well as those of our family and friends. Jesus says that he has come to bring fire to the earth, to burn away human dross in a fire like that experienced by Moses. We read that this will be a fire that roars with the eternal and loving presence of God. It will thaw the world out of its self-regarding obsession.
One of the problems facing us as we seek to see the signs of the times is that there are so many people offering differing interpretations and opinions in both the traditional media and in the newer formats such as Facebook and twitter. The process of distilling all of this into constructive concepts and practical ways forward is necessary but extremely difficult. So, should all people of faith separate ourselvesfrom the mayhem and enter a separate and still relationship with God? Yes, to do that is essential as a first step, but it should be a way by which we come to discern afresh the movements both of our own hearts, and also the motivations and perspectives of the world at large. In particular we need to become more and more aware that the thoughts and actions of small but disproportionally very powerful groups in the world are damaging and ignoring huge numbers of people.
Once we are more fully aware of such problems then the challenge begins. If we do not stand for suffering people then we will fall for anything. Our task is to be challenging the world, and that includes challenging the institutional Church. We can often be afraid to do this, but it is our clear call. It is a call of the heart and a call of God. Sometimes we need to wake people up with a crash, as Beethoven did. As Mark Oakley has recently written, Christian spirituality is a slow learning of speaking up for others. It is a burning up with love of whatever diminishes people. These are indeed prophetic words for our times and for our nation. Amen.