John 14.8-17, 25-27; Isaiah 40.1-9.
Have you ever found yourself lost for words? Simply unable to find the appropriate syllables to put around the thoughts that exist in your head? A kind of verbal equivalent to ‘writer’s block’ where the words just stop flowing and sentences refuse to take shape? It has occasionally been remarked about me that this is something that I rarely experience, and I’m not sure that that’s a compliment!
I suspect that, in reality, it is a universal experience, the temporary inability to speak the momentary loss of voice the unexpected silencing. And, for most of us, it passes, our thoughts re-order themselves, and the words return. A friend of ours tells the story of the day she had a stroke, triggered by preeclampsia during her second pregnancy. She suddenly found that she couldn’t reliably speak even simple sentences, and she would look at people, know who they were, but be unable to speak their name. Thankfully, she has now made a complete recovery, but for a few days she was dis-voiced, disempowered, verbally paralysed.
This image of being unable to speak is one which speaks powerfully to the situations faced by many people in our city. Not in terms of momentary confusion, or medical crisis, but in terms of their everyday experience of the world. Think of the asylum seeker, refugee, or migrant worker, recently arrived and as yet unable to speak English. The proliferation of language schools within shouting distance of where we are today speaks of the scale of non-native English speakers in our city. Just as a matter of interest, I wonder how many of us here today would not class English as our first language?
According to the 2011 census, whilst 78% of those living in London would say that they speak English as their main language, 1.7 million people, that is, the 22%, have a different first language. And of these nearly 320,000 say that they cannot speak English well or at all. Modern London is massively multi-lingual, and whilst this is, in my opinion, a great thing, there is a genuine concern that those who cannot speak English, are not only dis-voiced, but disempowered and disadvantaged.
Someone who cannot speak the dominant language, will struggle to access medical or legal help, and will most likely struggle to find employment, or to access training, or further education. Yesterday, Bloomsbury hosted the annual conference of the Churches Refugee Network, and we heard from Sarah Teather, MP for Brent Central. She spoke of her frustration at inaccessibility of the benefits system for asylum seekers and refugees, and of the intransigence of the Home Office in processing requests for leave to remain in the UK, something which many of us in this congregation can I’m sure echo from our own experience of these bureaucratic systems.
And then there are those who are dis-voiced in other ways; those who might speak the dominant language but who, because of other factors, such as ethnicity, gender, disability, or socio-economic status, still struggle to have their voices heard above the dominant narratives of power which give voice to the interests of the powerful whilst effectively silencing the concerns of the disempowered. Some people are simply unable to speak for themselves and are at greater risk of injustice because no-one will speak for them and they cannot speak for themselves.
What they need, of course, is an advocate. An advocate gives voice to the voiceless, an advocate empowers the powerless by allowing their cause to be heard. Which brings me to the plight of the ancient Israelites at the time of their exile in Babylon. The history is well-known; it was the sixth century before Christ, and the Babylonian empire were conquering all before them. The city of Jerusalem lay in ruins, with its temple burned, and the ruling class of the Israelites had been deported to Babylon where they were living in exile in a foreign land.
Those who had once had status and a voice in their own land were now exiles in Babylon. They were separated from their friends and families, their homes were destroyed, their possessions confiscated, and they were trying to survive in a strange land and a foreign city. In many ways, the situation of the Israelites in exile in Babylon was not dissimilar to the situation faced by many of those who find themselves exiled within our own great city. And it was to this group of dispossessed, dis-voiced, and disempowered Israelites, that the prophet spoke what may be the most radical and unexpected message of hope in the Old Testament.
Isaiah 40:1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
What’s interesting here is that the word translated as ‘comfort’ in our Bibles is the same word in the Greek version of the Old Testament as that which we meet in John’s gospel to describe the Spirit of God. It’s the word paraclete, and it carries a range of meanings. Yes, it can mean ‘comforter’, but it can also mean ‘counsellor’, or ‘helper’, or, as our Bibles put it, ‘advocate’
The message of comfort to the people of God in Babylon wasn’t a message of, ‘there, there, it’s all right’, or even, ‘there, there, it’ll be alright’. Rather it was promise of comfort that derived from the assurance that God had not forgotten his people, that God had not abandoned them to their fate, that God would not leave them disempowered and voiceless forever, that God would advocate for them, that God would speak up for them, would speak out for them, that God would ensure that their cries for justice did not go unheard that their shouts for mercy did not fall on deaf ears. The message of comfort was a message of advocacy, it was a message of re-voicing, re-empowerment, of the lifting up of the fallen and the binding up of the broken hearted.
If we read on through the opening verses of Isaiah 40, we find a recurring theme of speaking, of giving voice: verse 2 ‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid’. Here we encounter more words of comfort, spoken to people who are suffering; and offering assurance that their time of trial is coming to an end. verse 3 ‘A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD”’. Here we hear a voice proclaiming the imminent arrival of the Lord who comes to those who thought God had abandoned them to their fate. verse 6 ‘A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?"’. Those who have been silenced are now given a voice but to start with they don’t know what to say, they don’t know where to begin. And it is often the case that those who have been dis-voiced for so long may need someone to speak for them, they may need the advocate, who can take their cause and clothe it with words to ensure that it is heard. But then we hear the message, the shout that cuts through the narratives of power, the cry that offers hope to the hopeless: verse 9 ‘Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!"’ The message of hope is the message of the arrival of God, the coming of the one who hears the cry of the marginalized, the one who gives voice to the cause of the silenced.
The arrival of the Spirit of God is nothing short of social revolution, as the Advocate speaks out and those who mourn are comforted and those who have been brought low are raised up and those who have been silenced brought to speech. The revolution of the coming of the Spirit of God is the equalising of humanity: as the proud are humbled and the humble are heard. The scale of the radical nature of the coming of the comforter is found in the metaphor used to describe it: verse 4 ‘Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.’ This is the ultimate level playing field, it is the levelling of humanity as God intervenes to deconstruct the oppressive narratives of power and replace them with a divinely spoken story of equality.
The coming of the Spirit on Mary, the lowly maiden from Nazareth, had much the same effect. In Luke’s gospel, we are told Luke 1:35 ‘The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.’ And in response, Mary raised up her voice: the insignificant teenage girl sang aloud, and what a song! It has become known as the Magnificat, and in it, Mary echoed the words of radical equality from the prophet’s message to the exiles in Babylon as the appropriate response to the coming of the Spirit of God. She sang, Luke 1:46-48, 51-54 ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy.’
When the Advocate comes, the world is changed. When God intervenes by his Spirit, to speak words of truth and justice and righteousness the narratives of the powerful are challenged as the voice of the powerless, the martyred and the dispossessed cries out from the ground. As Jesus himself said, when instructed by the Pharisees to silence his followers: Luke 19:40 "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out." The cries of the oppressed cannot be silenced forever, and whether it is the comfort of the Advocate to the Exiles in Babylon, or coming of the Spirit of equality to an insignificant young woman or the outpouring of praise from those who have seen liberation coming. The Spirit lifts up the fallen, and gives voice to the oppressed, the Spirit brings a revolution of equality to humanity.
And we see this in the events of Pentecost as the Spirit came in power on the disciples empowering and enabling them to speak fearlessly the message of radical equality whereby the Spirit is poured out upon all flesh; upon slaves and free alike, upon men and women equally, with sons and daughters prophesying, with old and young receiving visions from God, and it is a message that knows no ethnic boundaries, accessible not to just those who spoke the dominant language but to those who were gathered there from every nation under heaven. This is the effect of the coming of the Advocate, this is the comfort brought of the Spirit of God: All the divisions in humanity are broken apart, the prevailing narratives of power and domination are challenged, and the dis-voiced are given a new language that transcends the boundaries of human speech and brings those with no voice to new voice before God.
The paraclete, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, that Jesus speaks of in John’s gospel is the Spirit of the Lord who anoints those who receive it to ‘bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.’ Luke 4:18-19. And we, as the Spirit filled community of Christ, are called to speak out and not be silenced we are called to have courage and not to be afraid we are called to be advocates for others to speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves to bring to realization in our lives and in our city the radical equality of the kingdom of God. And we might usefully ask ourselves who the disempowered & the dis-voiced are in our city who are those whom no-one will speak up for? Those who volunteer here on the Open Doors project, which keeps the doors of the church open every day with a warm welcome for all will tell of some of those who come in through the doors, and of some of the ways in which we are able to advocate for those who have no-one to speak for them
One of the things which we value very much here as a church, is that as the Spirit filled people of God we are not called to be inward-looking, and we’re not called to speak only our own Christianese language to one another. But rather we are called to be outward-looking, and we are called to speak many languages. And I don’t just mean in terms of relating to the many different ethnic languages of our city, important though that is, with our Filipino group and our association with the Japanese church forming important aspects of our life together. But we are also called to learn the other languages of power that dominate our city: Who among us can speak the language of politics? Who among us can speak the language of economics, the language of the civil service, the healthcare system, the education system, the legal system, the voluntary sector, the asylum and immigration system? All those languages of all those institutions which promise so much but within which people can so easily become disempowered and dis-voiced.
Between us, we speak so many languages, and the Spirit of Truth, the Paraclete, the Advocate calls, and gifts, and anoints us to speak words of truth, and justice, and righteousness. Sometimes, the greatest comfort we can offer to the dis-voiced is someone to advocate for them, to hear them and then speak on their behalf. Sometimes, what is needed is for those of us who bring to the world that radical combination of a Spirit-given commitment to human equality, and the ability to speak the languages of power, to become the advocates for those who are unable to speak for themselves.
And part of this, and this is something we can all do, is to persistently challenge the prevailing narrative of ethnic protectionism. We can tell stories of truth about those whom society stigmatises. We can speak a Godly alternative to the insidious propaganda of racist ideology born of fear, self-interest and ignorance. Just because a nice man with a pint and cigarette says it confidently and with a smile, doesn’t mean it’s true! And who is to say differently? Who is to speak up for those cannot speak for themselves?
As Christians, we have a deep tradition which speaks to us the profound language of human equality. And as public opinion continues to shift towards language which affirms me and my clan, whilst denying the other and their reality; whilst public opinion makers continue to vilify the vulnerable and scapegoat the susceptible; there is an urgent need, as Sarah Teather told the conference here yesterday, for prophetic Christian witness, for those who will stand up and be counted, for those who have a deeper, richer, fuller vision of human flourishing, to tell the stories of truth in the face of ideologies of deception.
The Spirit-sent message of comfort to the dispossessed and disempowered of our city is one of advocacy, it is one of empowerment, it is a message of re-humanising those who have been dehumanised by their inability to speak the languages of power. And the Spirit that is come upon us, calls us to action as we join our voice with the prophet of old, and say to the people of the city:
Isaiah 40.1-9 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken." 6 A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!"