December 6, 2020
Categorised in: Sermons
Are you ready for something better than this?
This pandemic, I mean. This life of lockdown. This Tier 2 limit on gathering with friends and wider family. Nine months we’ve had, and the tears are beginning to flow. Did you see the two pastors in the news earlier this week? In Burnley? Giving food to people that don’t have enough? They’re not just about managing. They’re just about surviving. And these guys with dog collars are weeping for their people.
Aren’t we ready for something better than this?
Every Monday we start our week in the School of Mission with a team meeting, to pray for one another. It pales into insignificance compared to Burnley, but the first four people who speak, have tale after tale of sadness and loss. The third person describes how she spends her birthday clearing up the mess the builders made in her kitchen repairing the leaking roof of her new house for the 4th time, only to find that a new leak has sprung from the hot water tank.
Then the next person describes how, after feeling ill he ends up in hospital for nine days, separated from his family, including his birthday attached to an IV drip.
Aren’t we ready for something better than this? Aren’t we ready to embrace our elderly parents? Don’t we want to get back to socialising? You know, I’m even excited about getting back to the office, and I bet all those thousands of people whose jobs are on the line in retail and hospitality would like a job that gives them a little bit of stability. These aren’t just first world problems, they go to the heart of what it means to live in a society together.
When Mark, the gospel writer, launches into his mini-biography of Jesus, he has an economy of words that sets the agenda for change. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ He starts off using the word ‘gospel’ which to his listeners means ‘regime change’.
Gospel, ‘Good news’ is the word that was used to herald a change of Roman Emperor. He says, ‘What I have to say to you about Jesus Christ is going to blow your socks off. Things are going to be different. Things are going to change.
I think back to the time when Dean Catherine was installed as Dean of this Cathedral – the first woman Dean of Winchester Cathedral ever – our Dean is a pioneer, and I thought to myself – well, if this isn’t regime change, I don’t know what it is. Things are going to be different… and they are – things have really fundamentally changed through Dean’s Catherine’s leadership.
I’m reading a biography of Napoleon the Great to address the gaping holes in my European history, and boy, autocratic Emperor though he was, did that guy know how to change things! He didn’t hang around. No sooner has he conquered Italy he establishes it as a Republic. No sooner does he become the First Consul of France and he changes everything: education, constitution, relationship with the church, foreign policy, establishes a central bank, promotes trade, brings law and order. Bang, bang, bang. This guy not only changed a nation, he changed a continent and much of what he did is still being used today.
But there are significant differences between the regime change of an Emperor who modelled himself on Julius Caesar, and the regime change of Jesus Christ the King of the Jews. The scale of change Jesus brings is described by Mark in allegories that are so daunting that even Napoleon could not compete. Napoleon dragged his cannons and army through the Alps, but using the words of the prophet Isaiah, Mark says, Jesus lays mountains low and fills up valleys. Jesus lays motorways in the wilderness to replace winding paths. The impact on the world that Jesus initiated hasn’t just changed 200 years of history, Jesus changed 2,000 years of history.
So, how does Jesus do that?
Not by force of character.
Not by the force of an army.
Not by skill, strategy, precise planning or attention to detail – all of which were strengths of Napoleon.
That other prophet, John the Baptist, says that Jesus does it through forgiveness. Jesus’ regime change centres not around success, but around acknowledging failure. How might our attitude to the government restrictions be different if for once, a government minister admits that they might have possibly got their pandemic response wrong in a few areas? Didn’t we once hear that 20,000 deaths would be a good result?
Wouldn’t an apology from the Builder go a long way for my colleague with the leaky roof?
In a society where you can be prosecuted for not looking after your dog properly, don’t we need someone stand up and say, ‘I’m sorry, we’ve got it wrong, food poverty is not acceptable in the world’s 6th largest economy.’ Aren’t we ready for something better? Don’t we need to learn about about saying sorry and being forgiven?
I learnt something about forgiveness by taking part in an alternative arts festival, called Nuit Blanche, in Amsterdam a few years ago. I volunteered, together with a Roman Catholic priest and a Reformed pastor, to be a living exhibit in a confessional booth, but instead of people coming into the booth confessing their sins, we, the priests confessed the sins of our churches.
I choose to confess the sins of child sex abuse that have occurred in the Church of England. Although I wasn’t myself an abuser, I felt the shame of being part of a church where abuse has not been dealt with properly. As I confessed these sins to complete strangers, in the privacy of the confessional booth, I asked for forgiveness. It was very intense and moving. Some people did forgive these horrible sins. Others said, “No,” there is no forgiveness for such sin.
It takes enormous courage to say sorry and take the blame. Even more to take the blame for something that you haven’t done. And that’s what Jesus did – he took the blame for sins he hadn’t done, so that forgiveness is possible for us for the sins we have done. Forgiveness is how Jesus brings about regime change.
That’s what Mark’s inviting us to consider as he starts his gospel. That’s the regime change that is going to make a difference in the world. Jesus Christ makes a difference; he’s going to make things better, by taking the blame, for all the bad stuff we do, for all the failures we’re ashamed to confess.
Jesus’ words on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Jesus didn’t say that just for the people who put him there. His prayer is for us, so that we initiate a regime change in our lives, as a step towards making the world a better place, even in the midst of a pandemic. I wonder…. If you say sorry to someone today, isn’t that going to make things better?