Friday, 19 November 2021

An Incompetent Messiah?

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
21 November 2021 

Isaiah 9.1-7
Matthew 4.12-25
A few years ago now, in about 2008,
          the Baptist Union were trying to get to grips with the fact
          that some of their accredited Baptist Ministers
          were simply not up to the task.
Research had revealed that there were a disturbing minority of ministers
          who, over several decades, moved from church to church
wreaking havoc and destruction in each successive community,
          before moving on to the next one.
Most of these people never did anything
          that warranted their dismissal from ministry;
rather they were just the wrong person for that role.
In an attempt to address this,
          the Baptist Union published a document
defining what core competencies for ministry should look like.
It included things like preaching, pastoral visiting, administration,
          leading meetings, leading public worship, using IT, and the like.
I have the list somewhere.
And clearly, if a minister is incompetent in such things,
          they probably should get some training or find another career.
But the problem was that this list didn’t really address
          the deep-seated personality traits and flaws
          that characterised the serial-church-destroyers.
It didn’t address the subtle tendency to bullying,
          often disguised as pastoral care;
it didn’t address the empire-building mind-set
          fuelled by macho conversations in ministers meetings,
where typically male ministers boasted
          about who had the largest… church!
Against this, Ruth Gouldbourne, our former minister here at Bloomsbury,
          gave a lecture at the Baptist Assembly,
which she provocatively entitled, ‘In Praise of Incompetence’.
She starts by making it very clear that she isn’t arguing
          that ministers should be incompetent in the essentials.
But rather, that competence in these things
          does not equate with competence for ministry.
So she asks: What is a minister? What is a minister for?
Let me read a paragraph for you:
Being skilled and competent matters.
Skills and competences will sustain us
          through significant parts of our daily activities.
They will allow our congregations the relaxation
          of knowing they can trust us and not to worry about us or for us.
But if skills and competences define our ministry,
          we run the risk of fearing to go beyond what we know we can do,
          what we are confident we can accomplish –
and our activity and service become what we can do
          rather than our openness to what the Spirit is doing through us.
It is in our incompetence, our unskilledness –
          beyond who we think we are and what we think we can safely do –
it is there I suggest that we discover the country of the Spirit’s ministry
          and the transformational activity of the everlasting Love.
- Ruth Gouldbourne, In Praise of Incompetence
Well, things have moved on,
          and to an extent Ruth won the argument.
These days, whilst competence still matters,
          there is also a recognition that there are other qualities of leadership
                    that matter equally if not more,
          and which cannot be measured in the same way.
So those of us who serve churches through offering leadership and ministry
          are invited by the Baptist Union to engage in a process
          of Continuous Ministerial Development.
This is not unlike what many of you will have experienced
          as CPD in a professional context,
and it engages with the intangibles as well as the tangibles.
For example, it encourages us to have a Spiritual Director,
          a Mentor, or a Pastoral Supervisor;
it encourages us to read and think, to take further training,
          to engage in regular processes of review and consideration.
Some of you here today have been asked recently by Dawn or I
          to share your insights into our ministries, as part of this very process.
And this is all to the good, and I welcome it.
But just as Ruth pushed back in 2008
          against the definition of ministry as competency,
so I want to ask a question of the process
          of Continuous Ministerial Development.
And my question relates to a truism,
          which whilst not always true,
          is true often enough for there to be truth in it.
The truism is this:
          ‘Churches get the ministers that they deserve’.[1]
Not always, of course.
          And we can immediately think of exceptions.
But I do think we need to pay attention to the role of the church,
          to the actions and influence of those in the congregation,
if we are to have any chance of assessing the significance
          of an individual minister’s contribution.
In large parts of the US, there is now a hire-and-fire approach to ministry,
          with growth targets and short term contracts.
If you’re the minister of a church such as that,
          it will certainly shape the way you lead!
But even here in the UK, in less obvious and more subtle ways,
          congregations shape their ministers.
Sometimes this is a glorious process of mutual growth,
          but sometimes it can be a process of destructive dysfunction,
as a minority of congregations
          grind down successive ministers until they leave.
Now, you may wonder why I’ve started
          with these reflections on the nature of leadership,
as we come to our text today from Isaiah?
And the reason is this:
          Isaiah, in our passage for this morning,
                    creates a culture of messianic expectation
                    around the leadership of Israel.
He sets up a situation which leaves the people longing for the perfect leader,
          waiting desperately for God’s messiah
          to come and sort out their mess.
And yet their experience was that for leader after leader,
          from prophets to judges to kings,
the nation found itself disappointed,
          as leader after leader failed to deliver.
No-one ever lived up to the idealised standards
          of the great king David of old.
We’re going to take a dive into this passage and its context now,
          and as we do so I invite us to think
          about what it is that we expect from our leaders:
                    whether in church life, political life,
                    in your workplace, your family system,
          wherever those leaders may be.
Do we compare them against the great leaders of old,
          against whose standards they will never measure up?
Do we constantly hope that the next leader
          will be ‘the one’ to fulfil our dreams?
And let us hold in our minds the possibility that, sometimes,
          unrealistic expectations might be a factor
          in that person’s failure to live up to their promise.
And so, to Isaiah.
If you remember, a couple of weeks ago
          we heard from the prophet Elijah,
calling the Northern Kingdom to renounce their idols,
          purify their religion, and worship God alone.
Then last week we heard from the prophet Amos,
          originally from the Southern Kingdom but called to the North
                    to tell them that their religious purity was not enough,
          and that for their worship to be acceptable to God
                    it must bear the fruits of justice and righteousness.
Well, today with the prophet Isaiah, we are about fifty years on from Amos,
          and the location has moved from the Northern Kingdom to the South,
          to the city of Jerusalem.
The reason for this is simple:
          the Northern Kingdom has been invaded by the Assyrians.
The historical backdrop here
          is that the Norther Kingdom had recently been laid waste
                    and occupied by the Assyrians.
The twelve tribes of Israel had been reduced
          to just the land allocated to the tribe of Judah,
          with Jerusalem as its capital.
David’s city and Solomon’s temple still stood,
          but most of the land they had ruled was now lost;
and Isaiah was prophesying to the people of Jerusalem
          at a time where they must have been wondering
          if it was their turn next for invasion and destruction.
Would the Assyrians keep pushing south to take Jerusalem and Judah,
          or would some other power swoop in and swallow them up?
Isaiah’s time was certainly a time of gloom in Jerusalem,
          with the dark clouds of war gathering on the horizon;
a time of threat and anguish,
          of oppressive empires and frightening armies.
And Isaiah can see that the writing is on the wall for the South.
          Much of his prophecy is taken up
          with warning Jerusalem of a coming disaster.
But then, here in chapter 9,
          we have this fascinating, compelling, surprising message of hope.
One is coming, Isaiah said,
          for this people who are now walking in darkness.
A child will be born, he said,
          who will be a true son of David.
And so Isaiah created a hope
          that this coming king would re-establish David’s throne,
would succeed where all the previous kings since Solomon had failed,
          overthrowing Israel’s occupying enemies,
          restoring the nation’s borders to their fullest extent,
          ushering in a new golden age of peace and prosperity
                    over which he would reign with justice and righteousness
                    as a kingdom of endless peace.
Well: news flash, it didn’t happen that way.
It wasn’t long before the Babylonians
          were the new ascendant power in the region, displacing the Assyrians,
and they were the ones who invaded Judah,
          sacking Jerusalem, destroying the temple,
          and carrying off many Israelites into exile in Babylon.
But Isaiah’s hope for a messiah endured.
It went with the Israelites into exile,
          it took deep root in their psyche,
          and became a part of their hope for God’s future for their people.
The people of Israel clung to Isaiah’s hope for an idealised king,
          a new ‘son of David’ who would do again in Israel
          what David of old had achieved in the distant past.
You may remember from a few weeks ago
          that I drew a parallel between the way King David functioned for Israel,
          and the way King Arthur functioned for England in the middle ages.
Both are kings from the mythic histories of the two nations,
          and the stories told about them
          shaped the respective national identities for centuries.
King David’s stories spoke to Israel of a dream for a united kingdom,
          stretching from the North to the South,
          from the Mediterranean in the east
                    to beyond the Jordan in the west.
And similarly King Arthur’s stories spoke to Medieval England
          of the importance of the values of chivalry
          in shaping the nation of the English speaking peoples.
But there is another parallel
          between the mythologies of King Arthur and King David,
and it speaks to our passage today from Isaiah.
There is a prophesy in the Arthur legend that he will one day return,
          to save the people of England in their hour of greatest need.
Similarly, what we find here in Isaiah
          is a prophecy about King David,
that one day a child would be born who would be the true ‘son of David’,
          who would take his rightful place on the throne of his ancestor David.
Messianic expectation, whether at a national or local level,
          can be a compelling narrative to live by.
It keeps people hoping that salvation is just around the next corner,
          that the next leader will be the one to usher in the new age.
And so we come to our second reading,
          to the story of Jesus going to live for a while in Capernaum,
          in the region known as Galilee of the Gentiles.
Did you notice that Matthew specifically mentioned
          that Capernaum is in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali?
The same two tribes mentioned by Isaiah
          at the beginning of his messianic vision.
There’s something going on here, and it’s worth exploring.
I’ve said before that in these biblical narratives,
          geography isn’t accidental.
The relationship between the people of Israel and the land of Israel
          was so intertwined that the land and people were inextricably linked.
So for Isaiah, the land of Zebulun and Naphtali
          was the land Israel lost to the Assyrians.
It was the land of darkness, the land of anguish,
          the land of oppression, the land of contempt.
It was to the people who suffered in Zebulun and Naphtali
          that Isaiah addressed his message of hope:
that one day there would be no more gloom,
          that they would be glorious again,
                    led by a bright light that shines in their darkness,
          living with joy and rejoicing,
                    with the symbols of oppression broken and burned.
So when Matthew says that Jesus goes to live there,
          this is no accident.
Matthew has Isaiah’s prophecy firmly in mind
          as he describes the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.
He has Jesus move into the neighbourhood
          of the suffering and the outcast peoples.
He has Jesus locate himself in Gentile territory.
Even before calling his first disciples,
          Matthew shows Jesus enacting the truth
                    that his ministry will be for all nations,
          for those who sit in darkness,
                    for those who live under the shadow of death.
The early followers of Jesus
          found the messianic hope articulated by Isaiah
          to be helpful in understanding the life and ministry of Jesus,
and we see this as Matthew quotes directly from Isaiah chapter 9,
          locating Jesus as the one who fulfils
                    the long-awaited messianic expectation
          that had come down through Israel from the time of Isaiah,
                    through the years of exile in Babylon,
                    through the centuries of occupation under successive foreign powers,
                    to the time of Israel under the Romans,
                              the time of Jesus.
But there is a significant difference
          between the way Matthew and the other gospel writers
          portray Jesus as the fulfilment of messianic expectation,
and the way Isaiah set things up six centuries before.
Clearly Jesus was not the political messiah
          that Isaiah had longed for.
When Jesus went to Jerusalem it was not to take David’s throne,
          overthrow the oppressor, and re-establish the kingdom of Israel.
It was to die at the hands of the invading army of Rome.
But nonetheless, Matthew and the other early Christians
          saw a deeper truth in Isaiah’s words
which spoke to them of the hope that entered the world at the birth of Jesus.
Not a nationalistic hope of restored borders and defeated enemies,
          but a hope that reached beyond Israel, beyond the Jordan,
          to encompass all people.
A hope of sins forgiven, of broken relationships restored,
          of a vision of humanity where all are equal, and all are equally loved,
a hope of an end to the power of death to dominate people’s lives.
Isaiah’s vision of a son of David coming to Israel,
          becomes in the hands of the early Christians
a far more wide-ranging hope
          of a world transformed through the birth of Jesus.
Those who hailed Jesus as the messiah
          had to learn a new way of understanding their hope for the future.
They had to let go of their unrealistic expectations,
          their unfulfilled dreams of nationalistic restoration, and political success.
They had to realise that their messiah
          would not look like they thought he would,
          and would not act as they wanted him to.
They had to relinquish their deeply held hopes,
          and embrace instead a messiah who came to suffer, to die,
          to embody the incompetence of failure.
Because it is in that moment of ultimate vulnerability
          that God is finally and fully encountered.
It is in Jesus that God is incarnated to humanity.
It is the birth, life, and death of Jesus
          that brings into being the definitive moment
                    of God reaching out, to touch our lives
                    in every area of our existence,
          bringing healing, restoration, and transformation.
God does not come in Christ to fight all our battles,
          defeat all our enemies, and give us the gift of happily ever after.
Rather, in Christ God draws alongside us;
          in Jesus God moves into our neighbourhood,
                    meeting us in our failure, our sin, and our incompetence;
          forgiving us and drawing us
                    into a new relationship of acceptance and love.
And it is also in Jesus
          that we find the fulfilment of Isaiah’s hope for a reign of eternal peace,
where the justice and righteousness longed for by Amos
          and prophesied by Isaiah become a reality
in the lives of those who find their reconciliation with God through Jesus.
And so as we turn our eyes towards Christmas,
          and over the next few weeks journey through the time
          of longing and waiting that is the season of Advent,
we turn our thoughts to what it means for us
          to proclaim Christ’s kingdom of peace in a world of conflict.
What does it mean for us to long for peace in a world of war?
What is the point of lighting our peace candle each week?
Does that small glimmer of light really shine in any meaningful way
          on those who live in the land of deep darkness?
The reality of history is that warfare never really ends,
          it just moves elsewhere for a while.
But in Christ comes the gift of peace.
Peace-making is an ongoing task.
          It requires commitment, and faithfulness, and hard work.
But in Christ we are brought into a peaceful relationship with God,
          and like the stillness at the centre of a hurricane,
the peace that we have with God
          is a still centre in the midst of a chaotic world.
We carry within us, each of us, the candle of peace.
          And that light lightens the world,
          because it is the light of Christ within us.
As we learn to live peaceably with others,
          the light that guides us also sines on those who still walk in darkness.
It is as we follow the path of Christ,
          responding to the call of Christ on our lives,
          that the light of Christ shines in the world.
The peaceful kingdom may not yet be fully realised, but it has begun,
          and it is with us here today, and it is within us.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
          those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined.

[1] This is a paraphrase of the quote by Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) that Toute nation a le gouvernement qu'elle mérite. Every nation gets the government it deserves.

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