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The Patience of God and the Parable of the Sardines

December 3, 2011

Isaiah 40:1-11             2 Peter 3:8-15             Mark 1:1-8


We look at the world, and we see injustice… unrighteousness. We see a world whose population has just reached 7 billion. And 1 in 7 of those 7 billion people is hungry. Well over a billion people have to live on the equivalent of $2 a day. We see a world in which incredible wealth and power is vested in a tiny minority – a kind of new aristocracy – while millions die, a world where some countries have a life expectancy of half that of countries like our (yes a life expectancy of about 40 years in some places).

All of our three readings today have this in common: they are confident that the justice of God will come… And the basic reason for this is simple faith in God… the faithful creator. God is not uninvolved in creation or disinterested or impotent… God’s justice will come.

So when Isaiah sees his people oppressed and injustice in the ascendancy the voice of God says to Isaiah. ‘Comfort my people…’ Then the voice cries out:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Have you ever stood near a great mountain and wondered what it would take to move it? In the face of apparently immovable and impossible opposition…the justice of God will come to earth.

But how? How does change come?

Our epistle reading from 2 Peter is an odd one in the bible. It speaks of a cataclysmic burning up of the world before the new world. The Epistle of Peter stands alone in the NT with this idea. Revelation 21 talks more neutrally of the passing away of an old world with the coming of a new one, whereas in contrast Paul in Romans talks of the renewal of a creation in bondage.

In short we might say that although the whole Biblical tradition never gives up hope that God’s justice will come, there is some variation on what will happen to the world of injustice that appears right now to be an immovable mountain, and an impossible problem.

One thing they do agree on in the New Testament is that the justice of God has already broken into an unjust world. Change has both come… and is still coming.

For the Gospels the justice of God comes decisively with the life of Jesus. They wrote these things called Gospels or ‘good news stories’ to tell of the good news of the coming of God’s kingdom – justice was breaking into the world in Jesus.

And so today we read of John the Baptist, a voice crying in the wilderness. John was an interesting change agent. He epitomized the outsider. He left the city and civilization for the wilderness. He stood outside the injustice of the world, he looked like an outsider, dressed in camel’s hair, he ate locusts and honey. [He was like the green party before the advent of Russell Norman when Nandor Tanchos set their fashion agenda.] His keyword was ‘repent’, which basically means ‘change your mind’. I was going to say he was like the Occupy movement… only he didn’t occupy, he went outside. So people came to him and listened to his rant about what was wrong with the world and agreed to turn their lives around. They symbolized this with a ritual washing in the Jordan river, and then headed back to life-as-usual full of good intentions. It was like a Bible Class Camp really… or like a New Year’s resolution.

And like both of these things… I suspect… it didn’t change the world. Perhaps it can never change the world. Recently I’ve been reading a book by James Davison Hunter called To Change the World. He says that the standard view of how the world is changed goes something like this. If people change their ideas, one person at a time, the world will change. It’s about the power of the individual and the power of ideas. This is our default setting. Hunter says it’s wrong. Ideas on their own don’t change the world. The world is not rational like that. Ideas are always linked to ways and patterns of doing things with others. They are bound up with habits and institutions. He says, look at the States… faith communities have been a dominating presence there for all of its history. “As late as 1960s less than 2% claimed not to believe in God (even today you only get 12 to 14%). That means over 80% (nearly 90%) have this belief, and some faith commitment, most having some kind of Judeo-Christian idea of God. And yet in the business world, in government in academia and in entertainment it is profoundly secular and materialistic in it’s culture. It seems like a prime example of a place where ideas don’t change the world.

I think he’s right. And I think John the Baptist realized too that something was wrong with what he was doing. Resolutions do not a revolution make. At the end of our passage we read:

“The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Baptism with water is merely a way of symbolizing one’s own determination to change one’s ways. Baptism with the Holy Spirit is a whole different kettle of fish. It‘s God’s entry into and engagement with the inner working of our psyche and our social life. So John, in spite of all he had been doing on the outskirts of town, ends up declaring that unless God’s justice interrupts our world and invades the innermost workings of our lives nothing will really change.

Will Watersford, the NZ Director of the Global Poverty Project, tells a parable that he thinks Jesus forgot to mention, but should have. It’s the parable of the sardines.

The kingdom of heaven is like a School of Sardines. A School of Sardines has the same biomass as a Blue Whale. A whale takes about 3 minutes to change direction. On the other hand a school of Sardines switches direction in an instant. It appears positively nimble in comparison. But what happens with the Sardines is that there needs to be a group of ‘committed sardines’ (to use the technical scientific term). And when there are sufficient ‘committed sardines’ moving in a certain direction the whole School will suddenly turn.

Slow down the video over 2000 and more years… what appears ineffectual (from the point of view of the committed sardines)… just a small proportion of people, not simply people with different ideas, but people with different lives, going against the flow, can quite suddenly make an enormous difference. So that in the end it seems like a school of sardines suddenly changing direction.

We think history is a whale… (like Isaiah’s mountain)  but it’s really a school of sardines.

It matters that we are, unlike John the Baptist, in the world. It matters that like Jesus we are empowered by the Spirit of God with the courage to live differently (not simply to have the idea of God in our head). It matters that we are ‘committed sardines’, even if the world seems ‘hell bent’ on destruction.

Let’s go back to the Epistle of Peter, even if Peter does see the world as destined to be consumed by fire…. Let’s go back to epistle, with eyes more shaped by Paul’s vision of a world in bondage, being set free by the work of the Spirit within…. and in that light, let’s read the exhortation that Peter offers us.

13But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. 14Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 15and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Good things do take time. God is patient. The world is not a whale (it’s got committed sardines in it). God’s Spirit will transform the world. The coming of Jesus will be completed. And in the end it may appear like the twinkling of an eye.

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