Sunday, January 10, 2021

Listen to him!

 Text:  Mark 1.4-11 – The Baptism of Jesus

Deaths are rising, along with hospital admissions.  Parents and teachers are frantic. Care-home residents and self-shielding people are desperately lonely.  And that’s not all.  The self-proclaimed leader of the free world – America - is in political chaos.  Lorry-loads of fresh food are being dumped in landfill because of the wrong paperwork at our borders.  13 year-old teenagers are stabbing each other on our streets.  Our world is in chaos as never before in most of our lifetimes.

And what am I doing about it?  I’m carrying on…celebrating the Eucharist, singing the Mass, praying, and serving as best I can. 

Some of you may wonder why I don’t speak out more often on political matters.  After-all, Jesus spoke out into the politics of his era, and the Bible is full of instructions about how a fair and just society should be structured.  Indeed, as I’ve said myself on occasion, ‘anyone who thinks that politics and religion don’t mix has clearly not read their Bible’.  But that’s a tricky road.  I certainly don’t claim the wisdom of Jesus, nor of the writers of the societal codes of the Bible.  And stepping into politics in more than a general way is (I have found) a recipe for discord and disharmony among parishioners.

I read an article this week from a Conservative Christian, the political journalist Harry Phibbs.  Phibbs is a former Conservative councillor who argued (in this essay) that our Archbishop’s frequent forays into Government policy were serving to drag the church to the left, and alienating committed Christians of the right.  Examples he gave included Justin Welby’s proclamations on the amount of overseas aid that we give, his explicit endorsement of the Black Lives Matter movement, and his siding with the EU (and the Opposition) over the Internal Markets Bill. 

The nub of Phibbs’ argument was that when Bishops (and other senior clergy) align themselves with either side of a political debate, they drive their political opponents away from church, and from faith.  He argued that the ongoing decline in churchgoing in England (which stands in contrast to much of the rest of the world) was essentially the result of clergy proclamations on contentious political issues.  And, he may be right.  A majority of the English people voted for both Brexit and for a Conservative Government. Any institution which vocally condemns those two majority opinions is just asking for an exodus of members!

Jesus faced a similar conundrum.  He came to a society in which the religious leaders and the political leaders had reached somewhat of an accord.  The Pharisees and Sadducees had reached an accommodation with the Roman occupiers of Judea – so that they could maintain their religious authority, their wealth and their status.  Rome looked after the management of the rest of society.  It was an iniquitous accommodation – and one which Jesus frequently challenged.  He called people back to the source-materials of their faith, and as we saw last Thursday, he quoted passages of Scripture which proclaimed good news for the poor, healing for the blind, and release to captives.  And eventually, they hung him for it.

Today, as part of a sequence of epiphanies (or ‘revealings’) we mark his baptism in the River Jordan.  That sequence includes his first epiphany to the Wise Men from the East.  It includes the revealing of his divine authority through his first miracles – casting out demons, according to Mark, or changing water into wine, according to John.  Today, Jesus is revealed to as God’s proudly-declared Son, with whom God is well pleased.  Later, in another epiphany moment on the Mount of Transfiguration, God tells Jesus’ followers to ‘Listen to him!’.

The challenge then, for all Christians who care about the world we live in, is to ask how far we should go in listening to Jesus, the revealed Son of God.  And, crucially, how shall we proclaim his radical, alternative view of the world?

It is actually quite dangerous to criticise the individual policies of one’s political opposites.  Such criticism inevitably carries with it a level of judgement.  If I criticise your policy, you are naturally bound to assume that I think you are stupid, or at the very least that you’ve been lazy in your thinking.  Such criticism is not likely to win you to my side.  Indeed, our political debates are far too often characterised by shouts of ‘idiot’, ‘fool’ and ‘charlatan’.

But what I must do, as every Christian must, is to hold up my finger, and to ask the ‘what if’ question.  What if our society was structured around the principles that Jesus taught?  What if we really ‘listen to him’?

·         What if our society was structured around the fundamental notion that ‘there shall be no poor among you’, as the Bible teaches (Deut.15.4)?  How different might our benefit system be?

·         What if our society was structured on the assumption that God’s Kingdom breaks down barriers between people, rather than erecting new walls?  (Is.66.18). How different might our concepts of nationhood be?

·         What if our teachers prioritised the teaching of ethics and spirituality, as Jesus did?  How different might our education system be?  And how different would life on the streets be for our teenagers?

·         What if our approach to foreign aggression was to turn the other cheek, rather than to respond with greater violence?  How different might our foreign policy be?

·         What if our approach to healing was as generous and overflowing as Jesus was to those he healed?  How differently might our health system be structured and funded?

·         What if our approach to taxation was based on the Biblical principle of tithing?  No more get-outs, no more write-offs, no more allowances.  Just basic 10% tithing.  How different would the finances of our economy be?  How different might the perilous finances of the church be?  How many off-shore tax havens would still exist for the uber-wealthy to secrete their ill-gotten gains?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  They are only questions…they are ‘what if’ questions.  But whether we sit on the right, the left or the centre of earthly politics, Jesus has wisdom to offer, ideas to ponder, and guidance to give.  With his own body and blood, he has earned the right to be heard.  He is God’s son, with whom God is well pleased.  Let’s listen to him.


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