Our Gospel reading gave us John the Baptist (Luke 3:1-6). These next two weeks of Advent are John the Baptist’s starring moment. In these weeks of preparation he comes centre stage, since that’s his function, to get people ready for the one to come. He is the warm up act. And so that passage talked of making a smooth path through difficult terrain, a highway for the saviour to travel down. With the Brexit debates taking place at the moment, longing for a smooth path through difficult terrain rings a bell. I have quite a lot of sympathy for Theresa May at the moment. Whoever is in the Prime Minister’s seat, they have what looks like an impossible task. There is no clear common ground between those who want out of Europe and cry why can’t they just get on with it, looking for a no deal Brexit, and those who believe that is reckless and fool hardy, a fantasy.
Where we have ended up does seem to be the worst of both worlds, the very vassal state caricatured by the Brexiteers where there is no say. Before we had a vote and a veto, under this we will have none of that. A further people’s vote is probably needed since the first one was just devoid of any detail about what the future looked like beyond wild and irresponsible claims. What is on offer is not what anyone seems to have had in mind. Politicians need to give people that choice, otherwise they will be accused of overturning the democratic will, which is not really the case but how it will be spun and appear. In politics perception matters more than facts. The idea that the people have spoken just ignores how split that vote was two years ago. The people have not given a clear and distinct sound and so it is not surprising that the mandate is not clear either.
This is a very difficult, almost intractable moment in our national life. Tempers are high and inflame quickly. Any mention of Brexit raises the temperature of the room very quickly. We need to take deep breaths and take stock of where we are. It is only then that wisdom has any hope of breaking through. When I hear politicians talking of wanting to crush the opposition, that is a very worrying and toxic climate for debate. A 48/52 split vote is not a moment for wanting to crush the opposition. It is a recipe for serious disturbance. So talking of ‘smoothing the path and making winding roads straight’ are in this case words of caution. One way to do this, of course, would be to battle on and destroy the obstacles and those who are presenting as obstacles. The Bible can be abused if we are not careful and John the Baptist is often seen as an uncompromising character who is very blunt and very forceful in his challenge. There is a place for that, perhaps in a call to wake up and realize just how serious this debate and disagreement is, for social cohesion, for common life and for how we look after the most vulnerable in our midst. There are so many issues of government not getting the attention they require as the energy is distracted by this great matter.
Whatever side you are on over this, and I know that our congregation has people of all sides within it, we have to live together with our differences and that means hearing what it is that leads the others to call out for what they call out for. What does ‘getting sovereignty back’ really mean in a world where major companies cross boarders all the time? What is actually being desired? Perhaps it is anxiety at a world that feels remote, alienating and where power seems to be beyond democratic control. There need to be trade deals and common standards for trading and that by definition limits and compromises. What does controlling boarders mean when mass movements of people are caused by political instability and corruption, mixed up with the need to plug skills shortages? How do those who feel they are not heard get heard above the clamour of other voices which come with so much more power and influence? It’s easy to sling mud at ‘elites’ on whichever side they are on – and lets face it if elite means people who think they are above accountability, then they are on both sides. Brexit has exposed some very deep faultlines in our society and globalized trading, and these have come out in a very distorted and mixed up way.
Within the church, the Anglican Communion is also facing the challenge of holding deeply divided opinions and constituencies together. Sometimes this goes well and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes those who differ listen to one another and sometimes they shout from their respective bunkers. So we have some deep faultlines within our communion. They too present as being over one thing but are actually about something else. Church arguments and splits over sexuality are really about how we read the Bible and relate this to other understandings from medicine and science, approaches which draw on different criteria. And as ever there are nuances in the positions so it’s not a straight contest between binary views but there are shades on a scale. One of the things we have been trying to do is to get people to listen and hear the other. I’ve done this with divided church groups before and it is transformative when it works. People begin to see that their view is not the only view and a way forward is going to have to take that seriously.
Over something like Brexit we have to end up in some kind of treaty arrangement with the rest of Europe and for the rest of the world to know who they are dealing with in trading zones. Trading requires this. You can’t move goods and people can’t move without some kind of agreement that they can cross boarders. The complexities of unpicking 40 years of interweaving do seem to have proved insurmountable in such a short time.
For me John the Baptist’s voice is not to wipe away all opposition and make the roads straight by driving a bulldozer; if people get in the way they will be squashed. That is a recipe for serious civil unrest. And that feels a real threat, so our politicians’ words need to be very carefully chosen to avoid inflaming high passions. For me the voice of John the Baptist, calling out of the pages, is to stop, breathe and listen to voices we are not hearing. The cry for justice from those so easily overlooked, the real challenges of finding new relationships with partners nearby and around the world. John the Baptist has a passion for justice and equity. And the Bible is passionate about those who are most vulnerable, including those who migrate in search of safety. John the Baptist had sharp words for political leaders; that they needed to remember the awesome responsibility given to them. The Old Testament prophets had sharp words when compassion was scarce or oppression present. These challenges still apply and those who play games end up in the Baptist’s firing line.
So today we hear of John the Baptist, his longing for difficult paths to be smoothed so that salvation can dawn. In particularly troubled and divided times we need to watch just how we think that can be achieved. Park the bulldozers and find more relational solutions. We need to live together and build a nation for all. That can mean sitting with the differences and listening to what really lies behind them, not just how they are presented. And listening to take them seriously. There is a bite back in this debate which is still not being heard. We are at a crossroads and whatever the outcome this week, there is a need to bring together deep divisions. The alternative is very ugly. John the Baptist’s smooth path is one for a place of flourishing and justice, not one built on the bodies of opponents. Pray for the healing of our nation.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Advent 2, Sunday 9th December 2018