Synod 2018: Opening service – Sermon

Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; 2. but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear. 3. For your hands are defiled with blood and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies; your tongue mutters wickedness. 4. No one enters suit justly; no one goes to law honestly; they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies, they conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity. 5. They hatch adders’ eggs; they weave the spider’s web; he who eats their eggs dies, and from one that is crushed a viper is hatched. 6. Their webs will not serve as clothing; men will not cover themselves with what they make. Their works are works of iniquity, and deeds to violence are in their hands. 7. Their feet run to evil, and they are swift to shed innocent blood; their thoughs are thoughts of iniquity; desolation and destruction are in their highways. 8. The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths; they have made their roads crooked; no one who treads on them knows peace.

9. Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not overtake us; we hope for light, and behold, darkness, and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. 10. We grope for the wall like the blind; we grope like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among those in full vigour we are as dead men. 11. We all growl like bears; we moan and moan like doves; we hope for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us. 12 For our transgressions are multiplied before you, and our sins testfy against us; for our transgressions are with us, and we know our iniquities: 13. transgressing and denying the LORD, and turning back from following our God, speaking oppression and revolt, conceiving and uttering from the heart lying words. 14. Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands afar off; for truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter. 15. Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.

The LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. 16. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him. 17. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak. 18. According to their deeds, so will he repay, wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies; to the coastlands he will render repayment. 19. So shall they fear the name of the LORD from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun; for he will come like a rushing stream, which the wind of the LORD drives. 20. And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the LORD. 21. “And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the LORD: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the LORD, “from this time forth and for evermore.”

My friends, this is not the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning. Here we find the prophetic reply to our first question, the question which is our cry – both silent and unsuppressible, hidden yet inevitable: “Where are you, Lord?….. in the world, in the church, in life….. where are you, Lord? Must we do it all ourselves? Do it in your name, seeking always the good, yet all in our own strength, because you have withdrawn your grace?”

This cry finds an immediate response: The LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull that it cannot hear. He has not changed. He has not become less powerful, less public, weaker, withdrawn into ‘privacy’. NO! God has not changed. God remains the One with the arm which is both powerful and also merciful towards his people.

Where are you, Lord? The knowledge of God, the contemplation of his works, is blocked by a curtain of sin; sin which contaminates the hands, the fingers, the lips and the tongue, a curtain which his people is not able to draw aside, because it has become an accepted part of ‘normality’. It is like a flow of dense, sticky magma: thoughts and words which dominate and contaminate us, becoming what we might call ‘cultural sin.’ And the ‘cultural’ sin has become ‘cultic’ sin, because this contamination prejudices the relationship with God, and becomes, in the end, ‘social’ sin: actions and words which reveal our thoughts show a decay into an obscuring of the adoration which ought to be directed to God. This obscuring is plain for all to see. During the 1930s, Bonhoeffer wrote: “Whoever does not raise his voice in defence of the Jews, that person has no right to sing Gregorian plainchant!” Not “Whoever hates them”, nor “Whoever legislates against them”, nor even “Whoever follows orders”…. but “Whoever does not raise his voice”, whoever keeps silent, whoever merely whispers….. That person does not have the right to pray. The ‘cultural sin’ (“Why ought I to raise my voice in favour of the Jews?”) becomes ‘cultic sin’ (My song irritates the ears of the Lord).

In the days of the Prophet, whose words we have heard, as in the days of Bonhoeffer, as in our own day, there was a deep and long economic crisis, and we know how such times are able to make people unsteady in their beliefs. Haggai, a contemporary of the prophet whose words we have heard, lamented that “the people live in well furnished houses, whilst the LORD’s temple is in ruins (Haggai 1: 4). Here we see the selfish individualism which rebels against God’s Law, the cultic Law – because the Temple is not the place where God belongs to his people but the place where God’s people belong to him – a Law which (however partially) sought to recognise on earth the God whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain. This temple was the sign that God’s people are not sufficient, not perfect, not holy, without God and without his Law, which tells us to adore God and to love our neighbour.

You see, my friends, the restoration of the Temple remained limited to that of the foundations, whereare the people had erected luxurious houses. “I will do what I want! I will defend my own property and privacy! I will defend those who agree with me, and will not discuss my opinion with you! I will defend my own ‘do it yourself’ religious beliefs, and will tolerate the anti-Gospel spirituality which justifies sin and condemns the sinner! I will remain in my well furnished house; perhaps I will come into the streets to complain against (the/your) truth but I will not meet you in the Temple, not before God, for I refuse to see you and listen to you in the sight of any ‘higher authority’ which might demand that I/we repent and seek purification from our sins. No! I refuse to become involved in anything outwith my own….. After all, it’s difficult enough as it is to get to the end of the month…….!”

You see, my friends, how cultural sin and cultic sin have combined, and have generated ‘social sin’: injustice and unconfined violence which walk our streets with heads held high. In the beginning it was cutural sin: egosism, lying, demonising the adversary. “People are sick and tired of it all – join us if you are indignant. Those who want immigrants and other social outcasts can take them into their own houses…” And then comes the cultic sin, with closed minded ‘gospels’proclaimed in electoral campaigns which have aims far different from that of spiritual growth; and with it, more generally, the degradation of religion which becomes a symbol of proud and exclusive identity. And finally, social sin: the threat that gates will be closed against immigrants in order to provoke some sort of international pressure – unheard of in our history as a Republic. Luther described sin as ‘Man curved in on himself.’ We see peoples, continents, churches curved in on themselves, without any other horizon than that of their own ‘in crowd’, trapped in their self-understanding as ‘better’ because ‘we’ can compromise our ethical positions, yet claim to have good intentions. Ah – good intentions! How often they are suppressed by bad solutions!

Driven by the prophet’s words, in this dark pitch in which we find ourselves trapped, we are not allowed our usual ‘self absolution’, in which we claim to be ‘not as bad as the others’; instead, thanks be to God, because this is true Gospel, this is true liberty, this is truth: thanks be to God we are driven to the confession of sin, sin which is ours, which is also that that ‘nominal members’ of the Church, and also that of the disinterested, of the bravely dishonest and the cowardly honest….. sin which is true of us all: “We have rebelled against the Lord and have denied him” (v. 13). The prophet, who accused the sinful people, now confesses with the people their common rebellion against God. And what about us? We also have listened only to those who agreed with us, and even then only to the extent they agreed with us. We also have spoken evil words – sometimes against one another, sometimes against others (‘outsiders’). We also have deliberately excluded others and so often we, too, have wanted to give up in difficult and complcated situations, involved in suffering and conflicts, so as to avoid the grit which might have produced a pearl, and, instead, dedicate our time to more gratifying (or at least, less frustrating) things.

Where are you, Lord? The LORD sees, prepares, intervenes against the enemy and in favour of his people, and his coming shakes the earth. When everything – yes, everything! – seemed to point naturally to a definitive and final punishment, towards the destruction of a culture, a form of worship, and a society enslaved to injustice: behold the Gospel! Why? Because God’s repsonse to this disaster is not destruction but the Kingdom, the Kingdom of his Messiah. “A Saviour will come to Zion…” (v. 20). It is a kingdom with a temple destroyed and rebuilt in three days (Matt. 26: 61), a kingdom with a temple formed of believers all around the world. And in that temple, in Christ and in the witness born by believers, God speaks. This is a kingdom with God’s justice, which is a justice freely given, assigned, imputed. It is a kingdom with a clear, certain, known and understood word, listened to, proclaimed and sealed in people’s hearts by the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a kingdom with a law – ancient, yet ever new: love of God above all other things and love for the neighbour as for yourself. It is the kingdom proclaimed and fulfilled by the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the victorious kingdom which puts the adversary (‘Satan’) to flight, borne away as in an overwhelming flood (v. 19).

This is the prophetic word which responds to the lamentation “Where are you, Lord?” The LORD is, and comes: he who was and is as is to be, the Omnipotent One (Rev. 1: 8). You may hear him. You may speak to him. You may belong to him, as one redeemed through the work of his Son, and this is your only consolation in life and in death (Heidelberg Catechism, Q.1). This is the profetic response to the lamentation. It is a response which the prophet must give, a response which a faithful, and therefore prophetic, church must give. It is a response given in an explicit proclamation, given in the name of Jesus Christ both to those within and to those outwith the church, through word and action, with words which are not reticent or ambiguous, and with works which proclaim the Gospel, works which are freed from the blackmail of moral niceties which pretend that if I’m not doing something I don’t exist, or which put the onus on me “because if I don’t, who will?”, because social welfare cannot be relied on any longer….. This is the prophetic response to those internal to the church and to those who no longer come to hear the preaching of the Gospel (and they are the majority both in Italy and in Europe generally!); this is a prophetic response to the small groups and isolated churches, to the Protestants in Latina and Felonica who ask “Will there still be a church here in a few years time?” It is a response to all our churches and to church members who need attention, who need to be heard, understood, cared for, accompanied, moulded, consoled and called, who need the faithful support of the entire church fellowship. We need to love and care for this body! The churches and church members have the right to know themselves cared for!

And this is a response to those who are outwith the church, to those who love the Lord as ‘interested independents’ (and their numbers grow constantly), as well as to those who have lost all interest, to those who feel deluded, to those who have left the churches which have too many certainties about useless things and too many hesitations about fundamental questions, whilst many desperately seek a new and true word, a living word which give life.

A woman who had lost her only son in tragic circumstances once asked me: “What relationship can I have now with my son?” Are we capable of preaching Christ crucified, of preaching the death and resurrection of the Son of God, in the light of this question? Or do we limit ourselves, pietistically, to contemplating Christ, without ever proclaiming him, without ever managing to plant the pain of this woman into the pain of Christ which has been taken by God the Father to himself, so that we amay be able to proclaim salvation because God knows, takes to himself, sustains, consoles this woman, because God saves through the suffering of his Son?

Where are you LORD? God acts, and his actions (and in particular his kingdom) have to do with our society, just as the preaching of the Gospel has to do with society, though without the pretensions of the fly on the mule’s head in Phaedrus’ parable (who thought he was guiding the cart simply because he was at the front), but equally without being intimidated. Giovanni Miegge (20th century Waldensian theologian) wrote: ‘The Gospel can and must extend itself into every sphere of life, both in terms of motivation and evalutation, and not limit itself only to personal salvation or even to the internal activities of the church. Jesus is Lord, not only of the interior life and the eternal destiny of individuals, but of every aspect of human life. The spiritual powers defeated by Christ… are the transcendental equivalent of the authority of the state, and correspond to the idea of ‘political’ order. Christ is therefore Lord also of the State. This thesis is not to be understood in the easy theocratic sense of Church domination over the State. In the apostolic vision, found in the New Testament, the church and the State have distict missions, and are both in immediate relationship with God, with his plans, with his dominion (…) But from the fact of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ there flow certain fundamental decisions, which have value not only for the church but for every form of human community. The church, which believes in the incarnation of Christ, has the right and the duty to remind the State of the dignity of that humanity which Christ took upon himself. The church, which believes in ‘Christian liberty’ must also tell the State about the value of civil and political liberty. The church, which is a communion of the redeemed, must take a position in favour of a concept of economic relations which does not accept the patent denial of human solidarity (…) In such a way, without assuming to itself the guidance of the State, the church can and must remind society that the Kingdom of God is the supreme model which the earthly city must strive to emulate, for Christ is Lord also of the earthly city.’

Where are you, LORD? And the LORD responds, directly, of himself: “As for me…” (v. 21) God renews his covenant, pours out his Spirit, entrusts his efficacious word to generations of believers. God is efficacious where we are ineffective. His word will never depart from our mouths, but this is a promise, not a possession; indeed, this promise demands that we, in Europe at least, recognise the urgent need to renew the way in which we ‘catechise’ our churches. Despite much laudable commitment and much effort, it is evident that our catechetical schemes, as presently organised, do not produce people who listen faithfully to the preached word or participate in the life of the church. This is a fundamental point, because the promise of God’s covenant, that his word will not depart from us, cannot be understood as an infusione of certain ‘data’, nor as an innate part of our humanity, but, on the contrary, signifies a permament catechetical effort. It signifies a return to being a church which studies, which does not limit ‘education’ to the first quarter (if we are lucky!) of our human life. It requires, not the abolition of Sunday School, but the insistance that every act of worship be ‘Sunday School’; not treat catechism as a hurdle to overcome in order to become a church member, but that acts of worship be always ‘catechism’. The church where I am currently minister sets aside three minutes, just before the creed, during Sunday worship, for ‘catechism’ aimed at the whole church. It’s not much, I admit; but it is at least a signal that we are here, always, to learn, investing time and effort in deepening our understanding of our faith. I believe that if we were to revolutionise our use of ‘catechism’ – in the sense of growing in our understanding of our faith – we would revolutionise the life of our European churches, and see in practice the promise of the Lord, the gift of his efficacious word from generation to generation.

Where are you, LORD? In the following chapter of the Book of Isaiah, (chapter 60), the LORD reveals himself as a light which illuminates Zion and which directs all people towards it. This is the prospect before us; but we are still in the preceding chapter, in the chapter of lamentation and prophetic word. So this is not the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning, an end of a beginning already glimpsed so many times. The beginning of a humanity which wants to be a law unto itself, the beginning of an individual who wants to be a law unto him or herself: this is the end of this ‘beginning’. For the Law of God is fulfilled by the work of Christ, whose justice is given to the sinner. This is the end of the beginning, the sinful beginning. The end shall be the Kingdom of God: not the revolution, nor the reactionary jackboots; not ‘progress’ nor the conservation of the past. The proclamation of the Gospel, the true proclamation of the Kingdom, was not silenced by Caesar’s Rome, and neither shall it be by governments in China or North Korea. It is undefeated, and will remain so, despite the compromises and mistakes made by the church.

Why? Because the true temple remains the resurrection body of Christ, raised after three days, now in heaven, where we may enter and have communion with God. Certainly there remains the temple of living stones to be constructed, to be cared for, to be opened in all the world, and in our own houses and places we inhabit day by day. Certainly there is the Kingdom of God to be proclaimed – which is a stupendous vocation, is it not? In this ‘end of the beginning’, may his light illumine us, and his word guide us – by still waters if possible, or roughly if neccesary! – but always with his love and his grace.


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