Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 26 January 2020.
• Old Testament: Isaiah 9: 1-4 (The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light)
• Epistle: 1 Corinthians 1: 10-18 (Paul’s plea for unity)
• Gospel: Matthew 4: 12-23 (Ministry in Galilee, proclaiming the good news and healing)
One of the recurring themes of our national politics is the need to condemn others. It is not enough to disagree or disapprove. It is necessary to pour as much bile as possible into the debate.
It is as if finding a resolution is far less important than impressing one’s own supporters and making sure that they are still ‘on side’.
In this sense entertaining the troops is more important than finding a solution to the problem and the polemics outweigh the conduct of any kind of rational discussion.
In this sense our lessons are all about the calling of God. But it is a calling for His own purposes and plans. His own priorities and methods.
If it seems that the thinking is going sideways then it is because our ways of thinking are not the same as God’s anyway.
That is why so much in the bible is counter-cultural and it runs against our normal way of thinking and acting.
There are different methods and priorities and not surprisingly then the outcomes are different as well.
When we look at Isaiah there is the new promise of renewal and release. The conqueror would not prevail forever and the bonds that hold the people against their will would indeed be broken.
If we think about the end of WW2, the joy of peace was soon overshadowed by the threat of new hostilities as Berlin was closed down and there was a new race for the atomic bomb. One enemy may have been overcome but there were others, and the peace would be short-lived.
In this sense there was a kind of ‘Same old, same old’. The treadmill may have been paused but it was never dismantled.
And yet Isaiah speaks of the people who walked in darkness having seen a great light; the nation would be increased in its joy, the yoke across the peoples’ shoulders would be removed forever and the rod of oppression would be broken.
At a time when Israel and Judah were the filling in the sandwich between the great powers of Egypt and Assyria / Babylon, no normal person would expect a permanent peace, free of enslavement and impoverishment, but this was the vison.
But Paul shows us something else. He certainly came preaching the gospel message and he left behind churches, but they soon fell into disputes and arguments.
This was now what he had come for, and he was not interested in establishing a chain of new institutions much like those anywhere else.
He was not interested in power centres or spheres of influence and these had nothing to offer the gospel message.
This was about the utterly radical nature of the cross of Jesus, and take that away and there would be nothing. Yet if they centered their lives on the cross then there would be a wholly new kind of process going on.
Instead of condemnation there would be forgiveness and renewal. Instead of looking for advantage over one another there would that sense of edifying the whole of the Body of Christ.
The power of the resurrection was never going to underwrite the power structures of society while the effect of the atonement of the cross was always going to undermine that sense of condemnation and criticism that provide the mainspring of so much of our public life.
To vie for influence and to score trivial points against each other would be to disregard the nature of the gospel, the power of the cross and the glory of the resurrection. If these were reduced to the familiar and the routine, then they would themselves be sidelined in the lives of the believers.
And so the gospel is about a devastatingly simple message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
No discussion about the affairs of the temple or the kingdom or of the Roman empire. No debates on multi-culturalism – and Rome was nothing if not multi-cultural.
No anguish about identity politics, the politics of grievance or proper spending of the public purse.
Efficient and honest public administration would – or should – be an outcome of the gospel, and not a substitute for it.
The revolutionary idea was that the things of God were indeed close to, and intimate with the affairs of people going about their daily lives.
It would be about doing justice and acting mercifully with one another, fulfilling one’s promises and speaking the truth. It would be about being at peace with and loving one’s neighbours, even when one did not like them.
Above all it would be about living in the forgiveness that God grants to those who seek His face and finding new priorities of life, especially when all others are consumed with getting and holding, finding advantage over the other person, and of course revelling in the latest gossip and the more salacious the better.
None of this was ever going to be a life in the glory of the resurrection of Jesus, or the beauty of His atonement. So yes, now is the time to look alive for there is new thing about us.