A sermon on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28 & Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11 by Nathan Nettleton
A number of you have been chasing me up to ask for updates about the situation with Matt Glover at the Lilydale Baptist Church. It has been all over the news, but not everyone quoted in the news reports had their facts right. Matt and the church have now parted ways. I believe that a good severance package was negotiated, but Matt and his family are emotionally devastated and would value your continued prayers. The congregation are also devastated and deeply divided, and in need of much prayer. Although the circumstances were very different, we are a congregation who knows how traumatic it can be to have a pastor suddenly removed, and we can pray with a fair degree of empathy for our hurting brothers and sisters at Lilydale.
Among the many awful aspects of this tragic case are the messages that it sends to the wider community about what the Church is all about, what it values and how it treats people. The letters to the editors and the comments pages on news sites have been full of people gloating over the church’s failure to look anything like a community of love and grace and acceptance. And some of you have told me of receiving similar messages from non-Christian friends who feel that this has yet again vindicated their decision to have nothing whatever to do with the Church. In light of all that, it is a bit confronting to find our gospel reading tonight talking about being a witness to the light. When we looked at John the Baptiser last week, it was through the eyes of Mark’s gospel, and Mark, Matthew and Luke all give a bit more of the content of John’s preaching. But tonight we heard of him from John’s gospel, and the emphasis is not on the content of his preaching but on his role as a witness — a witness to the light, a witness to the lamb of God, a witness to the one who is among you who you do not know but who is so much greater that John feels unworthy to untie his sandals. Witness, witness, witness. I am not the one, says John. But I am the voice crying out to bear witness to the one.
The reading we heard from Isaiah also speaks of a significant act of witness. In a passage that Jesus later takes up to define the launch of his own public ministry, Isaiah speaks of an anointed one who brings good news to the poor, proclaims freedom, and announces that God’s time has come. Witness, witness, witness. And sometimes what we refrain from saying is just as significant a witness as what we say. When Jesus takes up this passage, he cuts it short, deliberately leaving out Isaiah’s reference to “the day of vengeance of our God”. Jesus regularly edits like that, bearing witness to a God who is entirely free of vengefulness. And such witness can be costly. To a people eager for a God-on-our-side who would take vengeance on their enemies and oppressors, Jesus’s witness to a God who longs to redeem “them” just as much as “us” very nearly has him thrown over a cliff that very day.
The passage we heard from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians makes no mention of witness at all, but perhaps is the one that might speak loudest about the real nature and content of our witness in light of current events. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” If this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for us, then it is both the medium and the message. The gospel message is that we are being set free to be such a people, and the our living out of that is a witness to what God is doing in Christ Jesus for us. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” Joy, prayerfulness, thankfulness. None of the letters to the editor I’ve seen recently were commenting on the apparent joy, prayerfulness or thankfulness being displayed by Christians. When people hear of the likes of Saltshakers wanting to see Matt Glover “improved or removed”, I don’t think it is joy, prayerfulness and thankfulness that are the dominant images coming through. Probably more like hostility, coercion and vengefulness.
But, of course, joy, prayerfulness and thankfulness are not things we can just put on at will. This is all too apparent at this time of year when joy and thankfulness are turned into marketable commodities and pushed to us by every Christmas advertising campaign. Joy and thankfulness become an annual charade, a tinselly veneer draped over our lives for a few weeks before being quietly put out on the nature strip with the dead Christmas trees at the end of the month. The church has no monopoly on hypocrisy! True joy, prayerfulness and thankfulness are the fruits of an ongoing immersion into the life of God, into the abundant, overflowing, scandalous love and mercy and hospitality of God, revealed in Jesus.
Did you notice what the very next words in Paul’s letter were? “Do not quench the Spirit.” Do not quench the Spirit. How often is the witness we offer to the world around us one that suggests that our task is to quench things, to suppress things, to make sure that nothing happens that might break the boundaries of our set-in-stone ideas of right and wrong, clean and unclean, insider and outsider? How often do we say, “This can’t be of God because it is outside our rules,” instead of seeking for signs of new life and people being set free to love God and one another across previously impervious boundaries and asking whether this could be anything but the Spirit at work. “Test everything,” Paul says, “hold fast to what is good; reject every form of evil.”
It is when we do that backwards, when we start by strictly defining good and evil and then test everything accordingly, that we miss what God is doing and quench the Spirit. You can see this in the attitude of the inquisitors who come to John the Baptiser. “Why then are you baptising if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” Can you hear that? “You’re operating outside of the rules as we know them, and our job is to protect the rules. If what you are doing doesn’t fit our categories, then it cannot be of the Spirit.” Sounds a lot like the Saltshakers mob too, doesn’t it? We know the rules, and anything that falls outside of the boundaries cannot be of God. But, says the Apostle, “Do not quench the Spirit, and do not despise the words of prophets.” And is it not the case, from Elijah to John to Matt Glover, that the prophets are always unsettling us with news of God shattering our expectations and our boundaries and doing new things that we didn’t expect and find hard to welcome. “Do not quench the Spirit, and do not despise the words of prophets.”
Clearly there has been lots of very bad news in all of this, but God is very much in the business of bringing good news to birth in the midst of the worst of news. Even when there is no place of welcome and Herod’s death squads hunt for any sign of new life, the light is born, and the light is the life of all humanity. The inquisitors try to quench John’s testimony, but John continues to bear witness. “I am only the witness. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” But the clouds of spirit-quenching opposition continue to gather, and it will not be long before John is dragged off and plunged into a baptism of suffering and death. And then Jesus is similarly dragged off to a baptism of suffering and death. The gospels do not portray the way Jesus was scapegoated and killed as unique, but as representative of a long line of spirit-quenching, prophet-despising lynchings that stretch through history before and after. What God did through the death of Jesus is something new, but what we did to Jesus was nothing new or different at all, and that was the point. That same-old same-old has now engulfed another prophet, our brother Matt, in a baptism of suffering with his Lord.
And it is vey very hard for us to hear the good news in the midst of all that. I reckon it was hard for John too. When John spoke of “the greater one who is to come”, I suspect that he, like most of us, imagined greater to mean greater in might and power and readiness to wield the big sword of vengeance in the name of the Lord. And I know that when I see what they’ve done to Matt, I want to see that big sword wielded too. But once again the Spirit is at work outside the boundaries of our expectations doing things we struggle to understand or recognise. It is very confronting and disturbing and challenging to see Jesus refuse the temptation to call down a legion of avenging angels, and instead to go about the redemption of the world by surrendering himself to the hostility and violence of the oppressors, absorbing in his own body the full force of their bitterness and rage, and rising again, not to avenge his death but to speak words of forgiveness and invitation and welcome. In Jesus, we see that the only measure of greatness is the measure of one’s capacity to absorb the world’s deadly sin and return only mercy and grace. And it is in so doing that Jesus blazes the trail of salvation which is the only hope for you and me and Matt Glover and the Saltshakers and all the world.
And so, concludes the Apostle Paul, “may the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” Do you hear that? Do you get what he is saying? The fatal error of John’s inquisitors and the Saltshakers and frequently us too is to think that we are sanctified and made blameless for the coming of our Lord through our own efforts to define and control and stamp out sin where ever find it. And we become rigid and controlling and joyless and lifeless as we try to batten everything down and eliminate every possible space where freedom and sin might lurk, as though freedom and sin were one and the same. And in so doing we succeed only in quenching the Spirit and despising the call of the prophets to be people of lasting joy, prayerfulness and thankfulness. But says Paul, it is not your own efforts, but “the God of peace who will sanctify you entirely. The one who calls you is faithful, and will do this.”
And with that I think it is about time I shut up and got out of the way and invited us all to joyously return to our true calling, to prayerfulness, to the giving of thanks, to the joyous worship of the one whose unfathomable greatness is known in the suffering love that is the light of the world. Now there’s something to bear witness to!