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12th January 2020

Celebrating New Relationships

Passage: Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:1-6, 13-17

Remember the story of the Sleeping Beauty? As a new-born baby she had a curse put upon her: that at the age of sixteen she would prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. So, what did her father, the King do? As a good father, he ordered every spinning wheel in the country to be burned, hoping to protect his daughter from this curse.

Did it work? No. The malevolent witch who had placed the curse was stronger than he was. She managed to get a spinning wheel into the palace, lured the princess to her room and because the girl had never seen a spinning wheel before, she came to take a closer look, pricked her finger and collapsed.

Unfortunately, life is like that. No matter how hard we try we cannot totally protect ourselves or our children from danger or from evil. Life itself is risky. Nature is cruel. Human beings are born with weaknesses that make us less than perfect. There is a lot we can do to keep ourselves safe and to control the environment we live in, but we cannot make ourselves invincible.

This is a hard truth to take on board, but it can actually take some of the pressure off us.

In the first place, it means that trouble in our life is never entirely our own fault. Even if we can trace a clear link between what we have done or not done and the crisis we are now facing, science has shown that life is never a clear case of cause and effect: do this and that will happen.  Take the teaching that heavy smoking causes lung cancer. It has been proved to do. But there are still many people who smoke heavily who do not get lung cancer and many people who have never smoked who do. An oncologist once told me that the causes of cancers are so varied and complex that there will never be one clear cause and one clear treatment.

My nephew is taking a degree in psychology and his course began with the “nature versus nurture” debate. Do children end up in trouble behave badly because they are born bad? It did not take long for the students to observe that life is far more complex than that. A teenager who is struggling with mental health issues will have natural causes, nurture causes, environmental causes, peer pressure causes – the list is endless. Which means that it is not the sole fault of either the patient or their parents.

And in the second place, this complex nature of life takes the pressure off our burning frustration that we cannot solve all life’s problems “just like that.” Being creatures with a problem-solving mentality, not to mention faith, we feel that there should be straightforward solutions to poverty, disease, corruption, violence, misery, faithlessness and that if we could only get our act together, we would create these solutions. But we cannot and it is quite possible that we never shall. This does not mean that our only option is to “curse God and die” in the words of Job’s wife or the modern equivalent of retiring to the sofa with a subscription to Netflix.  But it does save us from despair and self-hatred when even our best efforts to save the world from evil are not enough.

I was thinking about that reading from Isaiah about the servant of God; a different kind of leader: someone who would not shout or intimidate; someone who would not insist on ordering everybody around. And I thought of Jesus (about whom these words could well have been written) and of how he stood in front of the Roman Governor Pilate, on trial for his life, and told him “my kingdom is not of this world.” And for the first time I sensed sympathy in Jesus’ words- sympathy for Pilate. Pilate’s kingdom was of this world. He had been appointed by the Roman Emperor to govern the land of Israel; not an easy task, given that the people of Israel did not wish to be governed by Romans and were in a permanent state of unrest. Acts of terrorism were common and the whole situation could easily escalate into outright rebellion.  Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent of the charges brought against him, but he also knew that there could be big trouble if he let him go.

Pilate had an impossible job, created by centuries of power struggles, clashing cultures, economic challenges and devastating wars.  He was the victim of his own upbringing as a privileged Roman citizen, taught that Rome had the right to govern the world; the victim of his own desire for personal security and status; the victim of a genuine concern for the people he governed-to keep them safe if at all possible from rebellion and retribution.

You could say that he had to shout; he had to impose the will of Rome upon the country; he had to keep everyone in line or the whole nation would have fallen apart. Jesus knew this and he was willing to pay the price.

I know I have mentioned before the speakers at the clergy conference I attended at Windsor during 2013- all eminent men and women working in fields which, you could say, governed the future of our nation. And when I was asked to offer a vote of thanks to the Commander of a nuclear submarine, I found myself recognising that this man too had an “impossible” job. Nobody except a raving psychopath would say that Nuclear weapons are good and moral things to have. They are weapons of mass destruction which could destroy our entire planet. But the complexities of life have pushed us into this place where it is thought better to have some of our own than to make our nation vulnerable to destructive cultures, forces and ideologies of which we have reason to be afraid. I know that not everyone is able to agree with this justification of nuclear weapons, but this man was working under that understanding and I found myself having a deep sympathy for him. I could not in all conscience suggest that he might be better occupied as a priest.

It has been tried, has it not, to put religion at the head of politics; to make the faith leader in a country also the political leader. For centuries after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity, the head of the Christian church was also the head or very near the head of the empire. This should surely have created a world of peace and justice, the very kingdom of heaven. But it did not. Perhaps because the sheer complexities of life, of politics, of economics, of human nature tended to get the better of the faith values held by those in leadership and they ended up as controlling, as bullying, as corrupt, as compromising as any secular leader. Perhaps because as fast as one social injustice was set to rights, another arose to take its place and leaders became exhausted and cynical. And perhaps because you cannot impose faith upon a people. Unless they are convinced in their hearts of its truth and validity, they will not respond authentically to a religious state. “Going along with it for the sake of a quiet life” is the nearest you will get and that is not faith. To make the Archbishop of Canterbury also the Prime Minister will not help the Archbishop, nor the nation nor the church. Jesus said, “my kingdom is not of this world.”

Let’s think about baptism for a moment.  The original practice, still carried out in some churches today, is for men and women to go right down into the water.  This deep water symbolised two, almost contradictory things. On the one hand it stood for the dark, destructive powers in life which could suck you down and kill you. There are a lot of references in the Bible to deep, dangerous waters from which you pray God to save you.

But on the other hand, the water symbolised a cleansing force. There are also many verses in the Bible in which we ask God for the water of life to wash us and make us clean.

So, which is it? Darkness and destruction or life and healing?

It was in the baptism of Jesus that I found an answer. Jesus descended into the darkness and destruction of human life. He was not immune from any of it. He was born with a human body, subject to all our pains and weariness and disease. He was born into a human family and community, subject to all our misunderstandings, relationship tensions, loneliness, alienation, betrayal, even violence. He was born into a natural world which was dangerous and unpredictable and into a political situation which was oppressive, corrupt and unjust. His willingness to be baptised showed his acceptance of the human life he had taken on. He was not and could not be “protected” from life’s darkness.

But in rising out of the water, the Spirit of God was seen to be upon him. It was as though somehow, the water of darkness had become a means of new light; that in accepting life’s darkness, he was empowered to be light for the world. In baptism Jesus did not receive protection but empowerment.

Do you remember how, right back in the ancient creation story, the Spirit of God moved over the water and the darkness. God said, “Let there be light and there was light.” The darkness was still there. The water was still there. But the Spirit of God transformed them into creative, life-giving space rather than bleak chaos.

And do you remember how, back in the story of the Sleeping Beauty, the King could not protect his daughter by destroying the spinning wheels which appeared to be threatening her. The risks were far deeper and more complex than that. But in the end the princess was saved by a greater power even than that of malevolence and lived  “happily ever after,” hopefully in a land where spinning wheels were allowed to exist again because what the people wore all those years if no clothes could be made, I cannot imagine….

Baptism is a powerful symbol of life. We are born into a world of risk and danger. We cannot protect ourselves and our loved ones indefinitely. We have to go right down into the world as it is. But it is there that we receive God’s Spirit to give us the power to overcome despair and destruction. Think of all the people who have lived in harsh, unjust and violent situations but have never given up on charitable work, on community building, on medical progress, even on economics and politics. By getting deeply involved in what can be dark and dirty places, they have become light and cleansing. By the grace of God, the water of sin becomes the water of salvation.

In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul says that Jesus Christ “became sin” so that we might become the righteousness of God. This is the leadership promised by Isaiah, which is “not of this world.”

For this is not the leadership which organises nations, but which transforms human existence from evil to goodness one life at a time.

This is not the leadership which takes us over and dictates our every move but the leadership which comes close to us and asks us “what is it that you most want? “

This is not the leadership which declares that one size must fit all and that you are useless and inadequate if you cannot fit this size. It is leadership which affirms every size, every colour, every shape, every condition of humanity as having their part to play.

This is not the leadership which pours scorn on our feelings and frustrations but the leadership which says, “I am with you. Let’s walk together and see what we can do.”

This is not the leadership which dictates that only the best will do and that you are not good enough but the leadership which tells us, “you can do it and I am here to help you.”

This is not the leadership which has no idea at all how the other half live but the leadership who has been precisely where we are and who can show us the path from darkness to light.

This leadership has succeeded in transforming whole families and communities; social structures and national politics. But it does so not by coercion but by leading each heart to God’s heart.

So, try the practice of “follow my leader” during this coming week.

Say to Jesus Christ- you are my leader. Show me where you want me to go. And see where he leads you. Outwardly your week may look very much like last week, if you follow a tight schedule. Inwardly you may find yourself in a rather different place and seeing your week from a slightly different perspective.  You will not be “protected” but you will be empowered.

Thanks be to God.