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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Signs of revolution

Isaiah 35.1-10; Luke 1.47-55; Matthew 11.2-11

For Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist has a special place amongst the prophets of Yahweh.  He is the one who goes before the Christ of Israel, to announce his coming and prepare the way.  Yet even John, when he is imprisoned by King Herod for criticizing his regime, is capable of doubt about Jesus’ true identity.  He sends his disciples to ask Jesus a question:  ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?’  The answer John receives from Jesus recalls the prophecy of Isaiah that we read just now, a prophecy that imagines how things might change when God’s salvation has arrived in the world.   Let me quote:
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are fearful of heart, 
“Be strong, do not fear!  Here is your God! . . .”
The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
Waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert wastes.
         (Is 35.5-6)
Hear, then, the parallels in Jesus’ answer to John in Matthew’s gospel: 
Go and tell John what you hear and see:  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.
We may conclude, then, that for both Isaiah and Matthew the advent of the messiah is attended by graphic and visible signs.  The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead are raised, the outcasts are brought into the community once more, and the poor hear good news.

It is important that we understand these signs in their theological as well as their literal sense.  There can be no doubt that Jesus was a faith healer.  He did cure specific medical ailments, and he did raise the dead to life.  Even the most sceptical historians have found it difficult to explain away the sheer abundance of the evidence on this point.  Still, if we are Christians, we must understand that the healings are not just healings, and the raisings are not just raisings.  They are not, in other words, to be understood simply as facts amongst other facts; they are not to be read simply as history.  For the miracles of Jesus have a theological meaning as well.  Theologically, they are to be read as advance announcements or signs of a religious, social, and political revolution, a revolution initiated by God in the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth, but not yet completed in its fullness.

I talk of revolution because the coming of Jesus has changed, indeed transformed, far more than the medical fortunes of those individuals he happened to meet in Galilee more than two thousand years ago.  The coming of Jesus has changed everything, from the way we imagine God, to the way we value our fellow human beings, to the way we construct our law and government.  We Westerners so easily forget how deeply our values and our whole way of life have been influenced by Christ and the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  We forget that the discourse of human rights is grounded in the narratives of Christ’s hospitality towards the excluded and marginalised members of this own society.  We forget that feminism found its genesis in the way that Christ formed relationships with women.  We forget that the greatest books and poems of the Western tradition may be read as conversations with the Bible.  We forget that liberation movements, from the abolition of slavery in the Americas to the more recent revolutions in South America and South Africa, have looked to Jesus for inspiration and encouragement.  We forget that many of the modern medical miracles we take for granted are grounded in the research of Christian doctors working in missionary situations.  If there were time, we could talk, also, about the theological origins of the Rule of Law, the Welfare State, the University, the School and the Hospital.  In these, and in a thousand other ways, the coming of Jesus has changed the world.  In these, and a thousand other ways, the love of God in Christ has so changed our humanity that we have been enabled to change the world after Christ’s example.  In so many ways, Christ’s people have been salt and light for a dark and sterile world.

Let us not be content with all of this, however.  For Christ’s revolution is far from complete.  The messianic kingdom has clearly not yet arrived in its fullness.  If you don’t believe me, just look around this country we’re making.  Instead of helping the poor, we lock them up – whether the poor be asylum seekers, the mentally ill, or Aboriginal people.  For these are the people who overwhelmingly populate our detention centres and prisons, each of them all but crushed under the weight of grief, abuse or criminal neglect. I could speak of other national tragedies this morning—like the massive cuts the government has made to foreign aid programmes, or the steady rise in rural and suburban poverty, or the epidemic of depression and anxiety that is sweeping through our young people.  But I shall not.  Instead I would simply remind you that Advent faith is not only about remembering the way in which Christ came to us the first time around.  It is about looking for the signs of that arrival in our own place and time.  Most of all, it is about making ourselves available to God as the church, the body of Christ, so that Christ’s revolution might again become present to the world through the faithful deeds of love and care we offer to our neighbours in response to the grace we have experienced in Jesus Christ. 

I know that many of us care for others deeply.  We work as volunteers with the sick, the disabled, the despairing and the voiceless.  Or we work with the poor and the helpless in our paid employment.  Many of us are generous with our surplus money and goods, living simply so that others may simply live.  But others of us are like so many other Australians.  We look only to feather our own nests, and those of our families.  If that is so, then Christ would confront us this morning with the call to revolution.  “Be converted,” he would say, “be really converted!  Let my Spirit into your cold heart so that the seeds of love may be sown.”  For that is what God’s revolution is essentially about:  love.  God’s love for a lost and broken world; the touchability of that love in the life, suffering and death of Christ; and the power of love to change things, one small corner of the world at a time, through the power of Christ’s resurrection.  If Christ is raised, you see, then the powers of evil and decay we named this morning shall not have the last word.  The last word will be love.  This I believe, and for this I pray daily.  So God help all of us to look for the signs of Christ’s coming, and to become such signs ourselves.

This homily was first preached at St Luke's Uniting Church, Mount Waverley, in December 2004.

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