Tuesday, 4 December 2018

The Great Levelling

A sermon for Advent Procession with Carols 
St Barnabas, Ealing, 2/12/18

Isaiah 40.1-11

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
            make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
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.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
            and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

In the middle decades of the seventeenth century, nearly 400 years ago,
            it must have seemed as if English society was being turned upside down.

In addition to the political ramifications of the civil wars,
            the ‘new normal’ of a national Church of England,
                        only a hundred years old at this point,
                        was already facing threat.
Breakaway groups such as the Quakers and Baptists
            were refusing to pay their tithes or baptise their babies,
and other even more radical groups such as the Levellers and the Diggers
            were arguing on religious grounds that the wealth of the country
            should be redistributed in the benefit of the poor.

I find the Levellers particularly interesting,
            not least because of their links to the early pioneers of my own, Baptist, tradition.
Unlike the more anarchist Diggers,
            the Levellers weren’t arguing for some proto-Communist ideology,
            where the rich are thrown down and the poor raised up.[1]
Rather, they argued that the land itself was a gift from God,
            given for the benefit of all those live upon it.

Their issue was not that some were wealthy and some poor;
            rather it was that the land, the fields and the forests of England, belonged to neither.
This was God’s territory, and humans are merely God’s tenants.

So they took issue with the enclosure of the common land,
            and argued for the right of each person to be able to make a living from the soil.
The Levellers also argued for greater democracy,
            believing that all humans are worthy of a say in the running of society;
for greater religious tolerance and freedom;
            and for the equality of all before the law.

And on these issues, I confess I find myself in considerable sympathy with them:
            I do believe each person has the right to make a living,
                        the right to vote, to believe as they choose,
                        and to be judged impartially by the law.

The Levellers of London, many of them members of a Baptist church in the City,
            mounted a campaign, with petitions and actions,
to present to the civic leaders
            in the hope that their cause would be heard,
            and changes could be brought about
                        to benefit the poor and curb the excesses of the rich,
            without the need for wholesale revolution.

In the end of course, as we know, they didn’t succeed,
            revolution came, armies were mobilised,
            a king lost his head, and a nation fought for its identity.

And in many ways,
            the challenge of those turbulent years from four centuries ago,
            still rings down to us today.

On Thursday evening this last week,
            I was chairing an event with Sadiq Khan the Mayor of London,
                        organised by Citizens UK,
                        which I know you’re involved with here at St Barnabas.
We were speaking with him about issues such as the right
            to earn a living wage,
                        to live in affordable housing,
            to have full and equal participation in society
                        whatever your ethnicity or social standing,
            and to be treated fairly by the police.

The issues that inspired the Levellers
            to organise their members for a better society
            are still issues that inspire people to do the same today.

And the cost of failure remains just as high:
            if these things are not addressed,
            then even more people will die on the streets of our city.

One of the most moving parts of the evening on Thursday
            was as the names of the 121 people
            who have been killed in London this year were read out.

It matters deeply that society is just, fair, equal, and impartial.

And here’s the thing:
            it is the responsibility of those of us who make up our society
            to make every effort to bring a better society into being.

And we do this, not just out of self interest,
            although that should not be underestimated.
But rather, as Christians, we do this
            because be we believe it is in the interest of God.

The passage I read just now from Isaiah
            speaks of every valley being lifted up,
                        and every mountain and hill being made low;
            it speaks of uneven ground becoming level,
                        and of rough places becoming a plain.

It is a vision of the levelling of society,
            of the evening out of those areas
                        where people are laid too low, or raised too high,
            of the removal of the obstacles to inclusion and participation
                        that cause people to trip and stumble.
            It is a vision of the in-breaking kingdom of God,
                        and it tells us that this process is the mechanism
                        by which the glory of God is made known amongst people.

So as we gather here at the beginning of Advent,
            to prepare ourselves for the revelation of God in Jesus Christ,
we do well to hear this challenge once again:
            that God is discovered when injustices are undone.

According to Luke’s gospel,
            at the beginning of his ministry in Nazareth,
            Jesus also quoted from the book of Isaiah,

Luke 4.17-21
  He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."
 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
 21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

The call to become involved in the levelling of society
            runs like a thread through both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament,
I could have pointed us to the sermon on the Mount, or the Magnificat,
            or countless other places that speak of justice and reconciliation.

And it challenges each of us to take the faith that we have in God,
            who comes to us in Jesus Christ,
and to turn that faith outwards to the world,
            to have faith in a new world
that comes into being as we live and pray it into existence.

The vision here is of a world where wrongs are righted,
            a world where the poor receive good news,
a world where those captive to forces beyond their control find release,
            a world where those blinded to the humanity of the other
            are able to see clearly for the first time in their lives,
a world where those oppressed by ideologies of hatred
            are finally released to love someone other than themselves,
a world where those who are despised by all
            find themselves the object of God’s favour.

This is the levelling we long for,
            this is the levelling that bring life and does not take it,
this is the levelling of the coming kingdom of God for which we pray and long,
            and it is before us, as it is before every generation.
And the question is:
            what are you going to do about it?

[1] Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, 119

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