A sermon on Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-17, 21, 22
To be human is to tell stories. And why do we tell stories? Not as momentary escapes from our lives, but in order to teach us how to live.
At the moment, there are three big films showing in cinemas:
Lincoln is based on the historical person of Abraham Lincoln;
Les Miserables is a fictional tale set against an historical backdrop, revolutionary France;
The Hobbit (part 1: An Unexpected Journey) is pure fiction, drawing on northern European mythology;
three different kinds of story, but with common threads.
Lincoln deals with the final four months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, before he was assassinated. It focuses on his efforts to secure the passing of the thirteenth amendment, abolishing slavery, before the Civil War comes to an end. This was by no means guaranteed, as others believed that priority must be given to ending the war, whereas Lincoln believed that unless the issue of slavery was settled first, all could be lost. In many ways, the work of those final months was what Lincoln’s whole life up to that point had been preparing him for.
Les Mis follows the misadventures of Jean Valjean, and others, caught up in the struggle between law and grace, injustice and freedom, violence and peace. It is often described as a story of redemption, painted on a huge canvas, in novel, musical and now cinematic form.
The Hobbit tells of the adventures of the unlikely hero Bilbo Baggins, a home-loving hobbit drawn into a classic quest by his friend Gandalf, overcoming dangers and disagreements, and eventually returning home...to discover that neither home nor hero are quite as they were before. It is worth remembering that Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, and its sequel The Lord of the Rings, in the build-up to, course of, and aftermath of the Second World War, when ordinary men and women needed to go on just such a journey.
We tell stories, and the stories tell us the same thing over and over: life is made up of two main parts, each with their own concerns and tasks.
The first part of life is concerned with creating a structure that will enable us to live life. This is where we are equipped by education, where some are gifted inherited security, where we form friendships and alliances, where some marry and create a new family.
The second part of life – which may be far shorter – is concerned with actually living the life we were, uniquely, made for: that no one else can live in our place.
The dilemma is this: we need a strong structure in order to face the later challenges, but the more comfortable it is, the less likely we are to step out into the unknown. That is why we must be forced – as Abraham Lincoln was by the impending end of the Civil War – or even tricked – as Bilbo is tricked by Gandalf; as Jean Valjean is tricked by the Bishop of Digne – into such a journey of discovery.
To be honest, whether oppressed by poverty and war or wealth and comfort, the concerns of the first part of life are as much as most people engage with. In our society, the mid-life crisis, which is meant to be an invitation to step out of the first half of life into the second, is seen as an opportunity to go back and re-do the first half, to re-invent ourselves instead of discover our true identity.
John the Baptist spoke about one who would separate the wheat from the chaff, storing the wheat in barns and burning the chaff in fire. We are mistaken to believe that this is a separating out of bad from good. Chaff surrounds the grain, and protects it, but has no nutritional benefit. The chaff must be removed – by the difficult process of winnowing. Then the grain is revealed. The chaff is burnt. The grain, of course, will be crushed and kneaded into dough and also put on the fire, to be turned into bread. This is not a story about judgement, but about the process by which our hidden identity is first revealed and then transformed into something else.
I love this passage, the first seven verses of Isaiah 43. Listen to how they begin: the Lord created you, O Jacob, and formed you, O Israel. Listen how they end: in sons and daughters, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made. First created; then formed. First created as Jacob; then formed into Israel. This is a process of redemption. It is a difficult and dangerous process, but one through which God promises to be with us and save us: because of his love for us, we are invited not to be afraid.
Jacob was Abraham’s grandson, one of the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah. You can read his story in Genesis 25-50. He wrestled with his brother Esau in the womb. When Rebekah asked God why, he told her “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” Esau was born first, with Jacob grasping his heel: and so he was called ‘he grasps the heel’ or ‘he deceives’...and he lives up to his name, first cheating Esau out of his birthright, then deceiving his father Isaac in order to receive the blessing that should have been Esau’s, before running for his life. On his journey, God meets him in a dream, and reveals to Jacob his determined purpose, to be with him and bring him back home and bless all peoples through his descendents.
But Jacob is alone, not yet ready to move into the second-half of life. He goes to his uncle Laban, and each tries to get the upper hand over the other by deceit, until Jacob must run away again. By now he has a large family, by four women, sons who will become the fathers of tribes. Jacob runs, with angry Laban behind him and Esau – last seen very angry – in front of him.
God comes to him again by night, and this time they wrestle, all night long. Wrestle, as Jacob has done his whole life, until, unable to overpower him, God...cheats, dislocating Jacob’s hip. And as the dawn breaks, Jacob is given a new name by God: Israel, the one who struggles with God; the one who wrestles and will not let go until God blesses him. He will still be known as Jacob – indeed, he is taken up into the name by which God reveals himself, as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob – but he now limps into fruitfulness, out of the life he had known and into the long and difficult process by which God brought together all the division Jacob had created, starting with reconciliation with Esau, ending with his sons reconciled before Joseph’s Egyptian throne...
God takes what he has created – Jacob – and forms his creation – into Israel – through waters and fire, through winnowing, gathering, burning; the process of redemption, not discarding and starting over again but taking what is, and transforming it into what waits hidden within: to reveal our true identity, and fulfil our true purpose.
Jesus enters into the water of the river Jordan. He knows that he must leave the security of his home, his family, his trade, and step out on a journey that will lead to his death. He will return from death: the same, and yet not the same: having fulfilled the purpose for which he was given to live among us. But the journey lies ahead of him, exactly what will transpire unknown. To begin, he needs to hear the voice of God:
“I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you...when you walk through the fire, you will not be burned...you are precious and honoured in my sight, and...I love you...Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring you children from the east...the west...the north...the south...everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
That includes you, and me. Created and formed. You see, being created is only half of the story. We need to be formed. It is a perilous process, one which many of us will avoid at all costs. That is not what God wants for you. Do not be afraid.
We are in the season of Epiphany, of learning to see signs of God being at work in the world, involved in our lives. What is the epiphany for you, today?
Perhaps, in the place of force or trickery, it is the revelation that you need to stop resisting and step out from the familiar into the unknown, trusting your steps to the one who loves you and calls you by name?
Perhaps, facing waters or fire, in the disorientation of winnowing and burning, it is the revelation that God is with you, that you are precious to him?
Without epiphanies, our lives remain a mystery to us: comfort a velvet prison cell, disruption unintelligible. Our lives may never be portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, but we have been cast in the greatest story ever told...