Sermon given at All Saints' - Epiphany 2
14th January 2007
Isaiah 62: 1-5; 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11; John 2: 1-11
I have, this weekend, been reading an article about the continuing conflict in Darfur, in the far western area of Sudan. Sudan, as some of you know, is a country that has been close to my heart for many years. It is where I got my first overseas experience when I was in the Diplomatic Service. It continued to feature in my life when I went to train for ordination in Salisbury, because Salisbury Diocese has a long-standing companion link with the Episcopal Church of Sudan. When I arrived in Alnwick for my curacy, I discovered that our CMS link missionary was working in Juba, in S Sudan. And when I turned up at Lambeth, the plight of the Sudanese church and people, still immersed in a bloody 40year old civil war, was one of the central stories with which the Archbishop tried to engage. You could say that Sudan is in my blood, and many people who have experienced living in Africa say that of course. It changes you. You become literally – but rather pleasantly – infected by it. So the tragedy and scandal of the present suffering of the people of Western Darfur has a particular resonance for me.
I would like to think, though, that it affects not only those who have a special connection with the country. The violence there, as I am sure you know, is the same sort of ethnically-based mass murder as we saw in Rwanda and in the Balkans not so many years ago. For two years this campaign has been waged by government-supported militia, and in that time over 300,000 people have been killed and three and a half million been forced into refugee camps. They have been submitted to a campaign of terror, or rape, murder and destruction as appalling as anything that has been seen in recent years. A half-hearted attempt by the United Nations to deploy peace-keeping troops was rejected by the Sudanese government, aid agencies that have continued to try to bring relief to the suffering have themselves been terrorised and the small force of African troops have no chance whatsoever, in such a huge and remote area, of being an effective presence for good.
And so, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year ordinary people are brutalised and murdered for no other reason than that they are black Africans. And the world – which includes us – does nothing. From time to time a minister says something in parliament. When a specially bad incident comes to notice, the media takes a momentary interest, and we, the people, who could, if we chose to, create havoc for the politicians, complain of 'Africa fatigue' or 'compassion fatigue'. Well, those who employ that phrase might just like to go and experience something like the struggle to survive in Darfur, or Zimbabwe or Somalia or just ordinary, everyday life in most parts of the continent of Africa before using a word like fatigue. We would learn what fatigue is really like.
The Africa Commission: are we not going to act?
Three years ago, with much trumpeting, the Prime Minister gathered together an international group of influential people and launched the Commission for Africa. Applause. A year later the Commission reported. Quote: “The contrast between the lives led by those who live in rich countries and poor people in Africa is the greatest scandal of our age.” Quote: “Globalisation must also mean justice on a global scale. The people of the world have an instinctive urge to help those in distress” Quote: “The eyes of the world may be averted from their routine suffering, but the eyes of history are upon us. In years to come, future generations will look back and wonder how could our world have known and failed to act?” There is the question.
What about us?
So what about us, here in Nottingham, sitting in Church today, warm in the post-Christmas glow? What difference does it make to us that something like the total population of the City of Nottingham has been destroyed in Darfur over two years? Are we fatigued by it? Are we going to join the chorus of those who say they don't get to sing their favourite Christmas Carols in the carol services and leave others to worry about the Sudanese people. I am glad that some people were shocked by the information given to us by Carrie Pemberton two weeks ago in St Peter's about sex-trafficking in Europe, with the Christmas Tree lights twinkling, and singing 'Joy to the world, the Lord is come!'
Christmastide and transformation
The contrast between our fun at Christmas time and the message that the Christmas story proclaims is stark; and as we travel on through the Christmas and Epiphany period, it is not just that the Gospel readings tell us bits and pieces about the early life and ministry of Jesus. They are actually trying to establish in our hearts – in order to inform our actions – what it is all about. It is indeed joy to and for the world that God has taken the initiative to demonstrate once and for all, upfront, plain for all to see, what his covenant with the world actually means. This Jesus is what truth looks like in human form. Look into Jesus, really look into him, and you will see both the life of the world as it is, and at the same time how God wants it to be. In Jesus, life in and with God is recognisable and is accessible. But we have to look, and we have to look with the desire to see and to act. And today when Jesus is physically not visible, we have to believe still that he is present and that if we look with the same desire into the life of God's world, that that truth is still recognisable and still accessible. That is what the great passage that opens John's Gospel is all about. And if we need reminding of the earthiness of this vision, then we need to live the Christian calendar, because the day after Christmas Day is St Stephen's Day, remembering the first Christian martyr, and two days later it is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and a day later, Thomas a Becket, and then John Wyclif.
And the readings this morning give us yet more to dwell upon as we try to understand the meaning of the Incarnation. They are about transformation; transformation in Christ. Well, they amount to that anyway even though it would be inaccurate to say that Isaiah was writing about anything 'in Christ'. He was proclaiming the transformation that would take place when all is conformed to God, when God's truth is seen, known and responded to. So, in other words, unknowingly, he was talking about transformation in Christ. Paul is speaking to a newly converted church, and points out the difference between the gifts of the Spirit, and those which pertained whilst they were still pagans.
And Jesus, well....in that beloved story we see that truth in Jesus, transformation personified. There is something ordinary, water, and apart from Jesus' presence remains for everyone else just that, water. Jesus does nothing. He doesn't wave his hands over the jars. He doesn't dip a magic wand in the water and utter gobbledegook. He doesn't even say a prayer. He issues two commands – fill the jars; now draw some out. And in that encounter the ordinary is made special, the most special it could possibly be. And as it stands, it is a miracle. There is no disputing it. No ifs and buts, so far as John is concerned, no rationalising, no explaining away. We are simply presented with a picture in words. Water, the command of Jesus, the response of Mary who sees and knows, wine. The ordinary transformed into the precious.
The love of God is
The love of God that transforms, that makes complete everything that is made, is not just a theory, not just a doctrine, not even just a possibility. The love of God is. And in Jesus, all is made alive, all is made whole, now. So when the Report of the Africa Commission says: “Yet we have to remember that behind each statistic lies a child who is precious and loved” it states a profound truth, probably more profound than its members realised; and when that paragraph finishes: “Every day that child, and thousands like her, will struggle for breath – and for life – and tragically and painfully lose that fight.” it is acknowledging the world's blindness to the truth, our failure truly to celebrate Christmas.
So as each one of us, this morning, in this church in this city, comes to the altar to feed on Christ's presence, saying to the world 'I believe in the transformation that God in Jesus brings', what are we going to do?