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Sermon: Turning The World Upside Down

Luke 14:1-14

One of my daughter’s hobbies is gymnastics. Sometimes I think she would prefer to cartwheel somewhere rather than walk.

The other evening, she asked me to time how long she could hold a handstand with her feet against a bedroom wall. I had to ask her to stop, because I could see her face going beetroot red with the blood. She was disgusted, as it turned out she had not achieved the time she wanted to make.

Our Gospel reading today is about Jesus turning things upside down. Just as the early Christian preachers were accused, according to the Book of Acts, of ‘turning the world upside down’, so had Jesus done precisely that before them. They were only following in their Master’s footsteps.

There are two major areas of life that Jesus turns upside down in these verses. The first is religion itself.

Think about the story of Jesus meeting the man suffering from dropsy on the Sabbath (verses 1-6). The Pharisees are watching him. Healing is banned on the Sabbath, but Jesus asks an awkward question:

“Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” (Verse 3)

In the face of their embarrassed silence, Jesus heals the man, sends him away, and then asks another embarrassing question that exposes the hypocrisy of the religious rules they were operating:

“If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on the Sabbath day?” (Verse 5)

Again, embarrassed silence (verse 6).

Now, it’s easy for us to be smug and talk about those wicked Pharisees. But … there are a couple of elements here that should make us nervous.

One is that what Jesus shows up with his light here is the darkness of hypocrisy. You know as well as I do that one of the charges non-Christians level at Christians is that we are hypocrites. I know we can retort with comments such as, “Yes, the church is full of hypocrites – but there is always room for one more,” but perhaps sometimes we need to look at our hypocrisies, or at very least our inconsistencies. What are the areas where our lives contradict what we claim to be the truth of God? For a lot of us, there are rather too many.

Sometimes, this is blatant in the way that we do not lives up to the stringent standards that Jesus laid down for the life of discipleship. We do not love the poor. We are glad to have a Food Bank at our church, but we do nothing to support it, not even an occasional tin in the basket.

But our inconsistencies can show up in the most surprising forms. We proclaim that God is love, but we don’t actually believe he loves us.

The late Brennan Manning, one of whose books we have been studying in the Discovery Group, once said that he was convinced that on Judgement Day, God would only ask us one question, and it was this: “Did you believe that I loved you?”

“Do you believe that the God of Jesus loves you beyond worthiness and unworthiness, beyond fidelity and infidelity—that he loves you in the morning sun and in the evening rain—that he loves you when your intellect denies it, your emotions refuse it, your whole being rejects it. Do you believe that God loves without condition or reservation and loves you this moment as you are and not as you should be?”

Some of us actually don’t believe that God loves us. And because deep down some of us don’t truly believe God loves us – and loves us like this – we manufacture a substitute religion. It comes out in the other thing that Jesus is criticising here: we construct a religion of rules. If we can’t believe God loves and live in response to that, then we will come up with something else that makes it look like we truly believe: outward conformity to rules. It’s as if we are saying that keeping the rules makes us acceptable to God, or keeping the rules shows that we are on the inside of the boundary between those who are God’s people and those who aren’t.

That is what the Pharisees were doing – and they ended up with labyrinthine rules that led to the prohibition on healing on a Sabbath day.

But it’s also what we do. We do it when a sincere churchgoer says to the preacher after the service, “If we only returned to the Ten Commandments, all would be well.” (Not that I am knocking the Ten Commandments!) We see it when we turn those in the religious hierarchy into people who police the laws of our institution, rather than preachers of the Gospel. Anglicans can turn Archdeacons into their police officers, and Methodists can do it with their Superintendents. When we are more concerned with maintaining the institution, we have fallen out of love with God.

Turning religion into a set of rules can actually happen for the best of reasons. We are so used to seeing the Pharisees as the villains of the New Testament piece that we forget they started out as good guys. Before the birth of Christ, they had begun as a group that wanted to return the people of God to the purity of the faith, and away from spiritual compromise. It was a noble goal. But somewhere along the way, they took a wrong turn or two and ended up with a caricature of pure faith. Could it also be possible of us that we are people who began with worthy goals as Christians, but took our eyes off Jesus Christ and the grace of God and ended up with a distortion of the real thing, one that – unlike Jesus – rarely brought any kind of healing to people? If that is a description of our faith, then do we not need to start dwelling again on the radical nature of God’s love for us and for the world?

The second are of life that Jesus turns upside down is power. He notices how the guests at the meal lust for the places of honour. But he tells them instead to seek the place of least privilege, and when putting on dinner parties themselves not to invite the movers and shakers of this world but the least and the last, for that is the way of eternal blessing (verses 7-14).

This is the same Jesus who would refuse the request of James and John to sit at his right and his left in glory. He knew the human tendency to seek power, or – if we are unable to gain it for ourselves – to associate with those who are powerful, and so at least be influential.

Unaccountably, despite Jesus’ clear example, this is a lesson the church has struggled to learn over two thousand years. For some bizarre reason, we think the testimony of a celebrity who has become a Christian is more valuable than that of nobodies like us. We think that the church should have clear links with power, whether that is Anglicans clinging on to the idea of being the Established Church, or Methodists not wanting to move our central offices out of London, where we suppose we can talk with national politicians.

And if you think it doesn’t infect ordinary local Methodism, think again. When I arrived in one previous circuit, I inherited a building refurbishment programme. Six months in, we had a grand reopening and managed to get the President of the Conference to preach and dedicate the bright and shiny new premises, with the local mayor performing the official ‘opening’. My biggest headache in the organisation of the day was in satisfying a circuit steward that we had the right dignitaries on the platform. When all that was juggled and agreed, there was no space on the dais for the local MP. He had to sit in the congregation. Thankfully, he wasn’t bothered – unlike the circuit steward!

We need to see, along with Jesus, that the world’s ideas of who should be preferred by virtue of status and power are wrong. They need to be reversed. Let’s think about the examples I’ve just given. The evangelistic initiative that features the testimony of a famous person is actually less effective as a method than ordinary, everyday Christians telling the stories of their faith to friends. The linking of the church with powerful political forces is more likely to end up with spiritual compromise as we try to stay on the right side of these people in order to gain a hearing, whereas the work of the church at street level in standing up for the poor and the forgotten is more credible. And if we have a big event locally, then if we choose to invite the great and the good in order to garner headlines and attract people who otherwise might not come, we will probably largely attract people who come for the wrong reasons – reasons that are inimical to the Gospel, reasons that harden their hearts to Jesus’ message of God’s upside down kingdom, as one author put it.

So the question is, how upside down are we when it comes to power and status? Do we have our own little hierarchies, where we elevate people in a worldly way? Is there any sense here in which we see certain people as more important than others? I certainly hope you don’t see me as your minister as more important. Maybe we even say that some people matter more than us, because we think so little of ourselves, despite the fact that we are loved so much by God.

Or do we set an example here of reversing the world’s values? Do we raise up the lowly and bring down the mighty? Do we bless the poor and not worry too much about what the rich think? Do we favour servanthood over power-grabbing? Are we impressed with humility and disdainful of attempts by people to elevate themselves to positions of prominence?

And do we translate these words and attitudes into action? We know the early church did what it could, even though politically it was a powerless organisation. Slaves became bishops. One early bishop was called Onesimus – the same name as the converted slave Paul sent back to his master, Philemon. It could be the same person. Are we as willing to go against social convention when the Gospel demands it as those first Christians were?

In my teens, we used to sing a modern hymn, ‘O Lord, all the world belongs to you,’ by Patrick Appleford, the man who wrote ‘Living Lord’.

The fourth verse of five pertains to this second point about Jesus upending power and status:

The world wants the wealth to live in state,
but You show a new way to be great:
like a servant You came,
and if we do the same,
we’ll be turning the world upside down.

However, the first verse – which is repeated as the fifth and final verse, too – sums up all we have been talking about:

O Lord, all the world belongs to You
and You are always making all things new.
What is wrong, You forgive,
and the new life You give
is what’s turning the world upside down.

May we be turned upside down by the love of God in Jesus. And may we go out, cartwheeling and hand-standing, to do the same in the world.

Sermon: The Revolutionary CV Of Lady Wisdom

Proverbs 8:1-36

For the most part, classical music is a realm of closed-off mystery to me. I cannot understand it or appreciate it. A Local Preacher in my first circuit tried to educate me with the beauties of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, and while I did indeed think it was beautiful and even bought a CD of it, Wolfgang Amadeus didn’t open the doors of heaven for me.

Nor did a girlfriend who loved classical music. When I tried to show an interest and started to like some baroque music, she scorned that style because it wasn’t as demanding as her beloved Sibelius. I tried him too, but beyond Finlandia it all washed over me.

Yet there are other areas of life which I enjoy but which remain a strange land to others. Cricket, for example. To me it is the sport of heaven, especially in the glory of its full five-day Test Match version. Innovations like Twenty Twenty are to me a dumbing down into crash bang wallop territory that lose the subtlety of the game in its fullest expression.

What is the difference? When it comes to classical music, I have never truly learned an instrument or had a mentor. But with cricket, I had a mentor and I used to play. As a child, I watched my father play every time his club team had a home fixture in the summer. I picked up the bug from him. When I started to play, he would take me over the park and place a ten pence piece on the ground to show the exact place where I as a bowler should pitch the ball. When I was slightly older, he took me with him to winter nets practice with his club. Only as an adult did he tell me that the batsmen couldn’t read my Chinaman. If only I’d known that as a teenager, I would have developed as a spinner, not a seamer.

And yes, I realise that the last couple of sentences are gobbledygook to some of you.

What about wisdom, though? What if wisdom is – as I said in the all-age service a fortnight ago – the ability to live well for God? Is that not something we all desire? Yet do we not struggle with it? Is the competence to live for God’s glory a mystery to some of us? Could we not do with a mentor to help us play?

Step forward Lady Wisdom herself. In Proverbs chapter eight she presents her CV for guiding people in the way of wisdom[1]. Is she someone you would take on? Let’s compare the way things are with what she can offer. Of course, this being an ancient document her CV won’t tally exactly with how we write them today, but we do see how she presents herself as qualified for the position.

Firstly, Lady Wisdom offers her skills to everyone. Imagine the dilemma like this. Could it be that the average person is short on wisdom, lacking in the ways to live a life that pleases God? Could it be that many a typical Christian earnestly longs to please God but struggles to do so? And might it also be that the same typical Christian thinks, “I can’t be wise, because I don’t have the theological education or the special gifts that others do”? If so, we face a situation where those who would love to be wise in the biblical sense feel unable to meet their good and godly aspirations.

I wonder whether that is how you feel at times. Do you long to please Christ, yet regard yourself as some kind of second-class Christian?

If you do, Lady Wisdom has something on her CV for you. She is everywhere, and therefore available to everyone. She calls out at the meeting of the paths and at the entrance to the city (verses 2-3). She calls out to ‘all humanity’ (verse 4), including the ‘simple’ and the ‘foolish’ (verse 5). Lady Wisdom’s special attributes are not for the élite but for all. Why? Because they are not about cleverness, talent or charisma. Lady Wisdom empowers all and sundry to live for God’s pleasure. She doesn’t require you to gain alphabet soup after your name, she only requires a heart of obedience and a willingness to depend on God’s Spirit.

Secondly, consider some of the reasons we as Christians feel uncomfortable with the values and priorities of our society. An emphasis on wealth and possessions. An undue attachment to celebrity. Lies, deception and spin. Do we not get frustrated and disheartened by the shallow and tawdry things that capture the imagination of our world?

Lady Wisdom says, I bring qualities of true value. If you want something truly precious, she says, I have it, and I can give it to you. Her words are ‘trustworthy’ (verse 6), ‘true’ (verse 7), ‘just’ (verse 8), ‘right’ (verse 9) and more valuable than silver, gold or rubies (verses 10-11).

She says we can have a choice between a culture that is tone deaf to goodness[2] and one that rejoices in her pure and beautiful teaching. Which do we want?

Thirdly, Lady Wisdom invites us to think about the civil and social order and imagine what it could be like. Christians are not immune to the popular perception of politicians as only being in their profession for the amount of gravy they find on the train. We are used to viewing them as having their fingers in the trough and their ducks in the moat.

And of course in the wider public culture we have the corruption of journalism. We await Lord Leveson’s report into the role of the press and the police in the phone-hacking scandals.

However much we also know that in truth there are many decent politicians, journalists and police officers, it’s hard to evade the conclusion that smell of rotting vegetables in our public life.

That is where Lady Wisdom offers her gifts again. Verses 12 to 16 centre on the place of wisdom in public life. Wisdom brings prudence, knowledge and discretion to the public square (verse 12) and evicts evil, pride, arrogance and perverse speech (verse 13). Instead, she says,

Counsel and sound judgment are mine;
I have insight, I have power.
By me kings reign
and rulers issue decrees that are just;
by me princes govern,
and nobles – all who rule on earth. (Verses 14-16)

It’s a common thread from the ancient world, applied here in terms of Israel’s God:

In the ancient Near East, kings ruled, judged, waged war, protected the weak, and gave laws by means of the authority and gifts of the gods. They mediated divine blessings to the people and ensured peace and prosperity.[3]

I’m not simply saying we should always vote for Christian politicians, but I am saying this: Lady Wisdom invites us to dream of a different social and political order from the one we have.

Fourthly, and related to this, do we not also dream of a society where righteousness and justice are rewarded? Goodness is sometimes rewarded in our culture, but we also witness the way the unrighteous gather power for their own benefit and use it against others. If the allegations about the late Jimmy Savile are true – and the Met Police seem to be talking as if there is clear evidence – then we have a case of someone who garnered fame and fortune and then used his power base and his connections with those in authority to carry out and cover up great wickedness.

It is Lady Wisdom who says that a society which rewards goodness is possible. When wisdom is exalted, truth, righteousness and justice receive their reward. It is not celebrities and entertainers who flourish; rather, it is the wise, who walk in the ways of God, are recognised. Verses 17 to 21 describe a place where wisdom receives riches and honour. Surely we long for a world like that.

Fifthly, let me suggest that we long for a world that needs more than science as an explanation. Science cannot tell us whether anything has a purpose. It can only analyse cause and effect. The trouble is, we have people so committed to science as the answer to everything that they speak about a world that is only explained by cause and effect. They rule out any sense of purpose. The logical end product of this is the claim of Richard Dawkins that the universe displays what he calls ‘pitiless indifference’. It is a cold, purposeless, pointless place.

I am not denigrating science. I am saying it cannot explain everything. It is one important discipline among many. And although the ancients did not conceive of science in the way we do, in our passage Lady Wisdom alerts us to the fact that there is purpose in the universe. We see this from the extended description of Wisdom as having been present before all things in verses 22 to 31 (‘given birth’ in the NIV may be misleading). Not only that, wisdom was involved in creation itself. It is a rich passage that I cannot examine in detail this morning. But if the wisdom of God was present before all things and involved in creation, then we have a guarantee that God baked purpose into the universe.

So – is this what you want? Do you reject a world where only the élite are candidates for wisdom and long instead for a world where wisdom is open to all who wish to live well for God? Do you despair of a culture that values vacuous celebrity and long instead for one where wisdom is prized? Are you sick of the corruption of the powerful and pray for a society where wisdom rules with justice? Are you fed up with a world where the influential use power for themselves and earnestly desire instead a place where goodness is rewarded? And do you say ‘no’ to those who insist on describing life as meaningless, mocking those who disagree as stupid, because you know deep down there is purpose ingrained into life?

And if this is what you want, then what to do? The concluding five verses of this chapter urge us to get familiar with wisdom, the wisdom of God. Ultimately in New Testament terms that means Jesus Christ. What we need to do is embrace the teaching of Jesus with the help of the Holy Spirit. It is Jesus, God’s true wisdom, who turns the values of our world around. His is what one author called ‘The Upside-Down Kingdom.’ He reverses the priorities of this world. He is ‘making all things new.’

To follow God’s wisdom in Jesus will likely never win a majority at the ballot box. It will not be widely popular, except in versions so diluted they lose their power. We are likely to be a minority, operating at the margins of society rather than in the corridors of power.

How, then, can this change the world? It’s a curious thing, but often the most powerful social movements are those who which are minorities operating on the margins. Jesus certainly works this way.

Does anybody want to start a revolution?

[1] Raymond van Leeuwen describes verses 6-21 as ‘Wisdom’s self-presentation. Self-praise seems strange to Westerners today, for whom it seems immodest and naïve. But the function of such speech is like a modern résumé, in which people present their qualifications for such a position.’ (New Interpreter’s Bible Volume V, p90.)

[2] op. cit., p91.

[3] op. cit., p92.