A Man of Two Countries

15 Jan

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

As we discussed last Sunday, Luke’s story abut Jesus sits firmly within the conflict around the concept of sovereignty – who is or isn’t sovereign – the state or God, humans or the Divine Mystery?

Luke leaves us in no doubt who the villain is in his worldview. The state as represented by Herod is portrayed as having done endless evil and compounds it by locking John up. Once again the state has moved to silence the prophets, God’s whistle-blowers, in order to maintain the status quo.

Today’s Gospel continues the juxtaposition of Herod and the Godhead. In this very succinct passage Luke repositions the perceived power of Herod in his relationship with John. There is little doubt, in this particular side story, who is going to end up the winner. It’s not John.

John is committed to his prophetic role and the reaffirmation in the physical world of the sovereignty of God. For him there is no other cause worthy fighting for and it is for this cause he will die. John is the earthly being standing between humanity and God and striving to reconnect God as the sovereign power in a world gone mad.

People come to him to be baptised, not for personal sin alone, but for the role they have and continued to play in the maintenance of the status quo. John’s mission was to straighten the world so that it can receive the visible form of God’s sovereignty, Jesus. It maybe argued that he failed in this task, yet perhaps not.

Like John we may feel we live in a world gone mad. In fact the world is in better shape now than ever before according to Julius Probst, a PhD researcher at the Economic History Department at Lund University in Sweden:

  • Life expectancy continues to rise
  • Child mortality continues to fall
  • Fertility rates are falling
  • GDP growth has accelerated in developed countries
  • Global income inequality has gone down
  • More people are living in democracies
  • Conflicts are on the decline

We may believe that a return to old fashioned values and Christendom is desperately needed to save us from an uncertain future. The truth is a little more complicated.

Much of what we have accepted as being appropriate values and standards have been imputed in the Gospel of Jesus by people wishing to maintain what they are comfortable with. Are those values and standards the values and standards of God or of a particular time in human history when one particular culture or nation had the capacity to dictate what was and wasn’t acceptable?

Thomas Merton, when reflecting on his times at an Anglican school, commented that the school chaplain equated being a Christian to being a gentleman and a good sport, the melding of upper class values into the Christian life at the expense of all that made the Christian life worthwhile. There was no room for whistle-blowers and prophets. No room for such as John the Baptist with his alternative lifestyle and truth-telling.

Perhaps one of the accusations that could be laid at the feet of the church, us, is that we have failed to try being Christian at all and remained committed only to what we have become comfortable with.

Mark Wingfield writes: “As we look toward new year’s resolutions, my hope is that the Christian church might be able to utter just three simple words in 2019. These are words that would change the course of history, foster civil dialogue and perhaps even bring sceptics back into the church. But they are hard words to say: “We were wrong.”

He goes on to suggest 7 things we, the church, were wrong about, there may in fact be more:

  • We were wrong about race.
  • We were wrong to protect sexual predators.
  • We were wrong about women.
  • We were wrong about what it means to be ‘pro-life.’
  • We were wrong to measure the kingdom of God in numbers more than in souls.
  • We were wrong to put our hope in politics.

We could take some time to unpack each of these and to discuss others and it is in this atmosphere that we reflect upon John’s call to repentance and the clash about sovereignty. It is also in the shadow of these that we are confronted with the recognition of Jesus as the embodiment of the Godhead and its’ set of countercultural values.

Juxtaposed to the John story is the brief account of the baptism of Jesus and the carefully chosen words Luke uses to signify that there is new evidence of creative power at work in the world. In this context David Ewart suggests, “Jesus’ baptism is not about repentance. It is about his identity being publicly, ritually re-rooted into God.”

Up until this point Jesus has simply been another Jewish man going about the normal activities of daily life that would have required. He would have been seen as just another person. In this moment Luke suggests that Jesus chooses to realign his values publicly with those being espoused by John and clearly the values of the Godhead. He was no longer his own man, he now belonged and was identified as belonging to God.

He was now a man of two countries. “William Loader writes, “In a world of above and below, above and below meet in Jesus.” It was the task of Jesus to affirm through his life the sovereignty of God of all that is created. It did not involve the abrogation of being human, but the bringing together of the human and the divine as the example of the immense possibility found in those who give themselves fully to the Great Mystery of the Universe.

Jesus life was the embodiment of anticipatory theology – living fully in one world while being open to what is hidden from it, what is found only in the Divine Mystery. The capacity to live with great uncertainty while being confident that there is more, much more to come, and to wait for it to appear with out fear.

This is living in the sovereignty of God. It is not about certainty or knowing that what you believe is the truth, the one truth and all the truth, as some do. It is in fact not knowing what it is you are waiting for but waiting just the same. Why? Because you understand God is sovereign and what will be, will be ok, no matter what it looks like at the time.

In Luke’s two stories in this passage we have the setting down of the conflict humanity continues to struggle with – the conflict between, in Loaders terms, above and below. In the baptism of Jesus we have the coming together of both in such a way that displays clearly where true sovereignty lies – in the body, the life of Jesus.

While we maybe right to see the completion of this conflict over sovereignty in the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is vital that we do not ignore the day-to-day struggle this conflict brought about in the life of Jesus. If we jump straight to his death and resurrection and particularly as the propitiation for sin, we will miss the fact that this conflict is our conflict and, like Jesus, we have to address it everyday of our lives. The hope we have is this, we do it like he did, in the power of the Spirit. Amen.

Seven charts that show the world is actually becoming a better place

3 words for the church in 2019: ‘we were wrong’

One Reply to “A Man of Two Countries”

  1. Great sermon, Glenn. Thank you.

    In addition to your words, I have lately been thinking, it is important that there are times when ‘we’ has to be ‘I.’ I was wrong. It is perilously easy for each one of us, especially those who hold positions of ‘power’ – leaders of church communities or schools or social groups, parents, politicians – never to own this. To recognise that ‘I was wrong’ is to see our individual humanity. It is to take responsibility, yes, but also deeper than this. ‘I was wrong to say words that undermined someone’ or ‘I was wrong to take control in a situation where my actions were inappropriate’, to be able to say these words is to affirm the gift of the spirit and recognise that I am refreshed by acknowledging my individual wrong doing. Reparation can then happens relationally. Baptism cleanses sin; baptism commits us to living between living both above and below. ‘I was wrong,’ said truthfully, redeems the action, the other and redeems the self. And it’s from this, that maybe that the corporate ‘we’ then springs.

    Bless and thanks for your great words. There are so many lines worth pondering:
    ‘This is living in the sovereignty of God. It is not about certainty or knowing that what you believe is the truth, the one truth and all the truth, as some do. It is in fact not knowing what it is you are waiting for but waiting just the same. Why? Because you understand God is sovereign and what will be, will be ok, no matter what it looks like at the time.’ We wait, and as Theresa of Avila reminds us, ‘God alone sufficeth.’

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