Text: Luke 3.15–17,21,22 – The Baptism of Jesus
Deaths are rising again, along with hospital admissions. Parents and teachers are worried. Hospital patients and self-shielding people with suppressed immune systems are desperately lonely. And that’s not all. The self-proclaimed leader of the free world – America - is in political chaos. Police in Khazakstan are shooting protestors, and the Russian army is lined up at the borders of the Ukraine. At home, 13 year-old teenagers are still 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 this community as well as I'm able.
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, just and above all kind society could 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’.
This last week, I've been at Chichester University, where I'm studying for an MA in Christian Ministry. We were thinking together about how the bible has been used, and sometimes abused, by politicians. It was fascinating, for example, to read a famous speech of Margaret Thatcher, known as 'The Sermon on the Mound'. (The Mound was the meeting place of the Church of Scotland, whose General Assembly she was addressing at the time). Her speech was, actually, a very well crafted exploration of Christian themes, seen through the lens of the Conservative Party that she then led. Perhaps the most arresting thought (which certainly hit the media in 1988) was her argument about the acquistion of wealth. She argued that the Good Samaritan was only able to help the man on the road because he was a sufficiently good capitalist to have been able to be charitable. It is of course, a compelling argument...but I can't help but think it rather misses the point of Jesus' story. Thatcher shows us how the Bible can be a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands, as well as a source of inspiration and wisdom.
I got myself into some hot water over Christmas. I was struck by a line from the Queen's speech, in which she described the teachings of Jesus as the bedrock of her faith. I was struck by the irony of one of the richest women in the world making such a statement. After all, Jesus' teachings on the acquisition of wealth were pretty clear. The Queen has four palaces (and numerous other properties and land holdings), whereas the Son of Man, famously, was born in a stable and had nowhere to lay his head. There was real irony at the heart of the Queen's message. It's magnificent that she regularly references Jesus in her Christmas Day talks...but its indisputably ironic that she does so from a gilded palace.
So, cheekily, I pointed out this irony on Facebook! The reaction was surprising, to say the least! I was inundated by a barrage of responses - some rightly pointing to my hypocracy as a member of an institution - the church - with billions of pounds worth of assets. Others, however, clearly assumed that I was somehow opposed to the Monarchy, or critical of the Queen's character, personally. Lots of people posted responses which can essentially be boiled down to: "the Queen is a magnificent servant of us all, and how dare you suggest otherwise?!". Of course, I had done nothing of the sort - and I was compelled to point out that I pray publicly for Her Majesty every Thursday at our mid-week Eucharist. But my point had been misunderstood. Sincere supporters of everything the Queen so nobly stands for confused my mild criticism with republicanism.
I hesitate to compare myself to Jesus in any way. But he faced a similar conundrum. Jesus didn't seek to overthrow the State, or the Religious establishment. He never called for the overthrown of the Emperor, nor of the Regligious elites. He only asked them to change the focus of the ways they acted. But they couldn't hear him. They heard only opposition, and assumed he was inciting violent revolution against the status quo. They assumed he wanted to overthrow them, when all he actually wanted to do was change them, and to offer them a new, kinder way to live. So they crucified him for it.
Today, as part of a sequence of epiphanies (or ‘revealings’) we mark Jesus' 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. On Thursday, with Canon Tim's help, we remembered how he was revealed in the Synagogue, as the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord rested. Today, in Luke's gospel, 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 for all Christians is how to invite the world to listen to Jesus, the revealed Son of God. How shall we proclaim his radical, alternative view of the world? What if our society was structured around the principles that Jesus taught? What if we really ‘listened 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 and social system 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 write-offs, no more tax havens. Just basic 10% tithing. How different would the finances of our economy be? For that matter, how different would the perilous finances of the parish church be, if its members embraced the Bible's teaching on tithing?
I don’t know the answers to any of these 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 to all of us. Jesus is neither a capitalist, nor a socialist. But he has wisdom in abundance for both. 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. So, why don't we listen to him?
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