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The Third Sunday of Epiphany - Tom Clammer

Salisbury Cathedral spire crossing
Posted By : Tom Clammer Sunday 26th January 2014

1 Cor 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A huge amount of paper and ink in the newspapers has been taken up over the last few weeks discussing “what Michael Gove said about Blackadder!” You will remember that the Education Secretary, whilst commenting on the observations of the centenary of the outbreak of World War One which we have just entered into, suggested that depictions of the War such as Blackadder Goes Forth, starring Tony Robinson, Rowan Atkinson and company, have denigrated and made foolish the efforts and sacrifice of those soldiers and officers who strategised, fought and died in the trenches of the Great War. He drew attention, in his article in the Daily Mail, to the “left wing academics” whom he believe, by using Blackadder Goes Forth, and other such shows as part of history syllabi in schools and universities, are perpetuating the myth that the war was a “series of catastrophic mistakes perpetuated by an out of touch elite.”

And then of course the public arguments began between teachers, the Department of Education, and indeed Tony Robinson weighed in at one point as well.

This isn’t going to be a sermon on the relative virtue of left wing academics. Nor is it actually a sermon about the Great War – there will be time and lots of it, for those sermons later this year as we approach the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June, and then the declaration of War in August.

But here, in the middle of the season of Epiphany, when the crib still stands in the centre of our house of worship, and we gaze daily on a baby who is the King of the Universe, I do think this is a sermon about recognising things, about looking properly, and about the subtlety of things.

One of the criticisms of Michael Gove has been – and you need to draw your own conclusions of course – that he was not able to recognise that actually teachers are able to identify satire, and that yes, Blackadder is satirical, it pokes fun at leadership and authority, it raises issues about the justification for war, but what it doesn’t do, and anyone who has watched the final scene of the last episode will know this, what it doesn’t do is ridicule or belittle or make light of the sacrifices made by the hundreds of thousands of men who died in that terrible carnage. I, like many other school children, went on a trip to the battlefields when I was studying for my GCSEs. They showed us the last episode of Blackadder in our hotel one evening, and then we visited the Somme the next day. I don’t remember any of us struggling to recognise that you can hold together profound respect and healthy satirical criticism at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive. It is more subtle than that.

The world, and indeed our own experience, is filled with things that are complicated and difficult to navigate, and which require us to approach with open minds, and relax the rigidity which seems to be built into things at the moment in a society which wants everything to be black and white, quantifiable, simple, and definable in terms of objectives, strategies, and the rights of the individual.

Well we all know that things are not that clear cut. Anyone who has grappled with war or abuse or unexpected death knows that. Anyone who has had to come to terms with an unwelcome and unexpected medical diagnosis knows that. Anyone who has spent time with or in the military, or with young people, or with local government, or indeed in almost any walk of life knows that things are almost always complicated and beset with competing questions and challenges.

But here’s the thing: the saints know this too. The Christian tradition is overflowing, not with people who made a rational, thought through decision that, weighing the options and all things considered, this Jesus is probably the proper King of their life. There might be some who go through that sort of analysis, but they are not the majority.

The majority of the great cloud of witnesses stumble, like the Magi, into the stable by accident. The majority, like St Paul, whom we celebrated yesterday, were pretty bad sorts on paper – ‘unconvincing applicants’, as a short listing panel might say if they were assessing whether to call St Paul for an interview to be Apostle to the Gentiles! Or Peter, Andrew, James and John in today’s Gospel. Fishermen. Manual workers – blue collar. Grimy hands. Not the type for the Board of Directors of the Kingdom of Heaven!

But these people, and those whom our Lord calls to be saints in his Kingdom today – you, perhaps – are those who are able to recognise that if we try to boil down the Kingdom to a collection of targets and objectives for leading a good life or attaining salvation, we entirely miss the point. The Kingdom is the lived experience of the faithful, ground out in prayer and worship and thinking in the midst of challenge and trial and just plain apathy, marinated in doubt and hope and just enough faith just enough of the time, and ready to live in a world where things are subtle, and not immediately straightforward, and certainly not summarisable in a sixty word abstract.

This season of Epiphany is all about reminding us that the way in which we discover the significance of the person and nature of Jesus Christ is incredibly subtle. A whisper here. A stray prayer there. Four fishermen here, a chap bent on eradicating new cults there. A star, an encounter by the Jordan, a wedding party – miracles, signs, indications, not all laid out and ready to wear, but clues and hints and nudges, outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual graces. And certainly not straightforward.

I think we need to regain our confidence in the subtlety and mystery of our faith. It’s ok for there to be several approaches to things. It’s ok for us to struggle and wrestle with the ethics, or the doctrine, or the ecclesiology of this extraordinary family that we find ourselves drawn to by starlight and water and wine. And it is certainly ok to doubt. If we can’t grasp that now, how on earth will we begin to approach Holy Week? How on earth will we deal with the open ended messages of our Lord, like “I still have many things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now?” How will we deal with watching our Lord pitch forward from the Cross into the depths of hell on Good Friday? How will we handle folded grave-clothes, or the wind and fire of Pentecost?

I’d like to defend Blackadder from Mr Gove, because I think he misses the point. It’s supposed to be subtle, multifaceted and there to wrestle with and explore. It is supposed to provoke and generate questions and cause us to ask hard truths.

So is faith. But here’s the thing that marks faith out as exceptional – the marker and sign of the Kingdom. Our lived experience of faith is subtle and malleable and never the same from day to day. But the person at the centre of it, the baby in the crib, the wanderer on the lakeside of Galilee, the man standing blazing with glory in the garden on the first day of the week – he is permanent, everlasting and enduring, and his message, though subtle, is pure simplicity. Here I am, and what I offer you is life – deeper, richer and more wonderful than you could ever imagine. Be captivated by me, walk with me, discover life. The message of the Cross, says Paul (once he has finished worrying about whether he has baptised anyone), the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.

And the power of God is that which inverts the whole lot, flips it on its head, and says, your King is a Carpenter, and your priorities will never be the same again.

Amen.