A sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11, 1Thessalonians 5:16-24 & John 1:6-8,19-28 by Nathan Nettleton
Sometimes the best thing to do is the least obvious. Sometimes the most effective thing to do is the one that seems the most futile. Sometimes the most world-changing acts are the ones that at first glance look merely symbolic.
No doubt John the Baptizer had his moments when he felt like chucking it all in. The task he was engaged in not only eventually cost him his head, but it was one which seemed so futile that the phrase he used to describe himself – a voice crying in the wilderness – has come down to our day with strong connotations of being a voice wasting its breath. John knew that many of those coming to him for baptism were merely window-dressing and he said so. He knew that he was the forerunner for someone who would make his own ministry seem inconsequential – less than a thong strap by comparison. He did not overthrow any rulers or bring down any corrupt systems. He simply came as a witness to testify to the light. He was the spokesman announcing what was going to happen next. But history has not judged him inconsequential.
Sometimes that which seems futile is actually the most revolutionary thing to do. Sometimes though, we are pretty reluctant to see that. In the churches I come from, the passage we heard from the prophet Isaiah is something of a favourite, along with the passage in Luke where Jesus quotes it. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to announce release to the captives and freedom to the prisoners.” It was a favourite, and we used it to mandate various social justice enterprises ranging from soup kitchens to sabotage of military installations or logging equipment. Although I’m not renouncing any of those particular activities, I am now wondering whether they really had much to do with what these parts of scripture are calling us to.
You see I think that often we were motivated by anger, albeit a righteous anger, about the injustices that we saw rather than by a vision of the world fulfilled, the world as God created it to be. And when I look at these texts again, what I see is that the first and foremost thing they are calling us to do is not actually to take direct action against injustice, but to proclaim the day of justice, to proclaim the coming reign of God.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring welfare services to the poor? No, to bring good news. To break the captives out of prison? No, to announce release and declare freedom. To establish justice, freedom and peace? No, to proclaim that the time has come when the Lord will save the people.
Now I’m not saying for a moment that we should be all words and no action and that taking direct action for justice and peace has got nothing to do with us. But what I am saying is that unless we have a God-given vision of creation fulfilled and justice established, and unless we are able to speak out that vision and celebrate it, then the chances are that all our activism will be at least as futile as any mere words could be. And the strange paradox is this: that holding a vision and declaring the vision and celebrating the promise of that vision is often the most effective strategy for change anyway.
How many of you saw the episode of Compass on the ABC a couple of weeks ago that profiled Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa? It struck me that one of the hardest things for the the opponents of Desmond Tutu to deal with was that he is a man of irrepressible joy and hope. His denunciation of injustice was always shaped by a clear and hope-filled proclamation of the inevitability of the day of freedom coming. In the face of Desmond Tutu’s continual joyous celebration of equality and freedom, it became more and more difficult for the advocates of inequality and oppression to hold their ground. There was one scene that most gripped me, and which I think is a powerful metaphor for what we are doing each time we gather to worship.
The most powerful Christian organization in the fight against apartheid was the South African Council of Churches. Desmond Tutu was its General Secretary until he became Bishop of Johannesburg. Because of its central role in organizing the opposition to apartheid, the South African Council of Churches became a target for violent reprisals and in 1988 a huge bomb blew up their office building. In the words of the commentator, “staff arrived to devastation but they sang and danced in the street as an act of defiance.” They continued to celebrate, to proclaim the day of freedom, because their spirits were not crushed, their vision was undiminished and they knew that the mere demolition of a building could not halt what God was doing in their midst. If you listen to the music of the South African freedom struggle, you’ll hear it clearly. You don’t hear songs that speak of anger at injustice and hatred of the oppressors. You hear celebrations of what is coming. “Freedom! Freedom is Coming! O Freedom! Freedom is coming! O yes I know!”
In the face of despair, retaliation will only multiply the despair. But despair cannot stand long in the face of a celebration of hope. Sing and dance in the face of despair and its defeat is at hand. As Paul said, in the reading we heard from his letter to the Thessalonians, “be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances.” He’s not saying “be thankful for all circumstances”. What he is saying is that if you hold on to the glorious vision of God’s day of salvation, then regardless of what is going on you will still have reason to be thankful. You will be able to celebrate the promise that whatever oppression or hostility or illness is dominant now, it is going to fall and it is going to be swept away by the light of a new day of joy and peace and freedom.
If all our work for justice and peace is being motivated by anger and fear, it will ultimately fail because we are actually allowing the agenda to be dictated by the patterns of injustice and hostility around us. The activism that will turn the world upside down is that which is shaped by a joyous and hope-filled vision of creation brought to fulfilment in the outrageous love of God. It is a great paradox, I know, but worshipping the coming Christ and proclaiming and celebrating the advent of God’s Reign can actually be the most radical form of social activism there is. It not only challenges and undermines the structures of injustice, but it energizes and empowers us to resist them and live the alternatives.
What we do in our worship here then, is not unrelated to the needs of the world around us or to the call to act justly in society. We gather to give thanks in all circumstances, not in denial of the horror facing much of the world, but in celebration of the fact that horror will not have the last word. We sing with Mary the God-bearer, and acclaim the greatness of the Lord, not as an escape from the world, but in defiant hope, trusting in the promise that God will pull tyrants from their thrones, raise up the humble and fill the bellies of the starving. We say “Peace be with you” not in some sort of shallow pretence that there are no divisions among us, but as a prophetic proclamation that our communion will be fulfilled around the banqueting table of God.
If we are truly people of love and compassion we will weep with those who bear the wounds of the world, but we will also sing and dance, for as the psalmist said, those who went out in tears will come back laughing and singing for we know that God’s new day is at hand. In this feast at this table, we see the whole story – God coming to us wounded, in solidarity with the brokenness of creation, and gathering it all up into a celebration of the day of redemption when we will all stand around the banqueting table of God and raise our glasses saying, “He has come! All is fulfilled! Justice and peace have been reconciled and all are one in God!
Therefore, in a spirit of defiant and joyous hope, let us celebrate the feast!