Tearing down, raising up, at the heart, on the edge

A Sermon by Revd Jonathan Evens

Readings for this service: Malachi 3: 1-4; Philippians 1: 3-11; Luke 3: 1 – 6

Picture a massive road building project cutting through hills and valleys to create a new straight, level road. The vision from Isaiah that John the Baptist quotes in our Gospel reading is one that seems to require bulldozers. It reads like the specification for a new motorway or by-pass. “Get the road ready … make a straight path for travel.” “Every valley must be filled up” and “every hill and mountain levelled off.” It doesn’t sound very environmentally friendly but, like the current project on the A14, may result in major archaeological finds.

John the Baptist uses this image to describe his role in preparing for the coming of Jesus. His aim is for the whole human race to see God’s coming salvation. The idea is that everything that would obscure or obstruct sight of God’s salvation would be torn down or raised up so that throughout the entire world there would be no obstacle able to prevent people from seeing God’s salvation. Everyone should be able to see Jesus because there would be nothing impeding our view; no mountains blocking our vision and no valleys from within which we would be unable to look out. The purpose of John the Baptist’s ministry was that everyone should clearly see who God is and what God does. Picture a vast flat expanse across which the light of Christ can be seen from wherever you stand and you will get the intended idea.

By quoting from Isaiah, John is making clear that he is recovering the original vision for God’s people to be a light to the nations. When Abraham was called by God he was told that he would become a great and mighty nation and that all the nations of the earth would be blessed in him. The nation founded through his obedience to God’s call was to be a blessing to all nations. The people of Israel were reminded periodically of this call, as in Isaiah 49:6 where we read:


“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant

to raise up the tribes of Jacob

and to restore the survivors of Israel;

I will give you as a light to the nations,

that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”


The prophecies collected together in Isaiah also show the kind of place that Jerusalem was intended to become; a place to which all nations could come to hear from God:


“Many nations will come streaming to it, and their people will say,

‘Let us go to up the hill of the Lord, to the Temple of Israel’s God.

He will teach us what he wants us to do;

we will walk in the paths he has chosen.

For the Lord’s teaching comes from Jerusalem;

from Zion he speaks to his people.” (Isaiah 2. 2b & 3a)


Instead of that vision coming to pass, by the time of Jesus, the Temple had become a symbol of Jewish identity with all sorts of people excluded from worship unless they conformed to the detailed requirements of the Mosaic Law. The Temple and the worship in it prevented the free access to God that God wished to see for people of all nations.

In Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion and post-resurrection commission to his disciples, we see him tearing down barriers that prevented sight of God and raising up those whose position in society excluded them from worship. In his ministry Jesus expressly went to those who were excluded from Temple worship, including them both by accepting them (and teaching that they will enter the kingdom of God ahead of the religious leaders) and by healing them so they could actively return to the Temple worship. When he died the curtain separating people from the most holy place in the Temple was torn in two, showing that access to God was now open to all. Jesus also prophesied that the Temple itself would be destroyed and that when this happened his disciples should take his message of love to all nations.

As an Iona Community liturgy puts it, Jesus was ‘Lover of the unlovable, toucher of the untouchable, forgiver of the unforgivable, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, writing heaven’s pardon over earth’s mistakes. The Word became flesh. He lived among us, He was one of us.’ As Christ’s followers today, we inherit the task of putting into practice what Jesus has achieved through his life, death and resurrection. We are the people today who are called to work towards that Isaianic vision of nations streaming to learn what Israel’s God wants them to do, settling disputes among the great nations, hammering swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, and never again preparing to go to war. To do that we follow the up and down vision of Isaiah and John the Baptist; taking down barriers and raising up those who have been brought low.

As was the case for Jesus hearing John the Baptist quote the vision of Isaiah, we too stand at a point in history when the need of a broad and challenging vision for change is placed before us. Our Vicar Sam Wells has suggested that we live in a world that is pervaded by beauty, goodness, energy, creativity, trust, gentleness, joy and love but which is poisoned by violence, hatred, cruelty and fear. What our world needs most of all are communities of trust and support and love that show the kind of life that is possible when we believe that God is with us and rest in the hope that God’s ways will finally prevail.

We don’t have to invent these communities because God has already done so – in the call of Abraham and Jacob to be God’s people Israel, and when the Holy Spirit was sent on the dispirited apostles on the day of Pentecost. We’ve been given thousands of them all round the country and millions all round the world. We’ve been given the church. Yet we also live at a time and in a society where the church is getting smaller; and the church is getting narrower. Those who regularly attend worship are much fewer; and the church’s reputation and energy are becoming associated with initiatives that are introverted and often lack the full breadth of the gospel.

The vision that John the Baptist shared with Jesus in his time was an up and down vision of tearing down and raising up. That vision was necessary preparation for seeing Jesus but when we see Jesus we gain a different vision; an in and out vision, a vision of centre and circumference, of being at the heart and on the edge. By being in the godhead, Jesus was in the heart of God but chose to be on the edge by becoming a human being. Although he remained in the centre of God’s will by being the embodiment of the very heart of God, that led him to place himself on the edge as he took onto his shoulders the weight of the world’s sorrows and found himself temporarily separated from God. Jesus gives us a vision of being both at the heart and on the edge.

We have claimed that vision for ourselves here at St Martin’s seeing ourselves as being at the heart of London, the nation, and the church, while also seeing our calling as to be alongside those on the edge through being excluded, ignored or oppressed by society or church. We have then created in HeartEdge, our ecumenical network of churches, a means of sharing that vision more widely by fostering, catalysing and facilitating renewal on a national scale.

HeartEdge seeks to catalyse kingdom communities – i.e. it aims to foster, not to impose; it sees the kingdom as God’s gift to renew the church, rather than as a mission-field to be conformed to the church’s image; and it sees churches as lively and dynamic communities, rather than defensive and narrow congregations. At over 50 churches, HeartEdge is already big enough for communities to mentor one another, to offer consultancy days to one another, and for larger gatherings to offer an exchange of ideas, encouragement and challenge. We aspire for it not to create clones of St Martin’s, but to become the national embodiment of those committed to the vision to be ‘At the heart. On the edge.’

HeartEdge seeks to share the vision that the heart of the gospel is that God is most often made known among those on the edge and that the church is at its best when it speaks to the heart but takes risks on the edge. This vision not only renews the church but, through that renewal, speaks into the ways in which our world is poisoned by violence, hatred, cruelty and fear offering renewal of society more widely.

The visions of taking down and raising up and of being at the heart and on the edge are Advent visions; visions that that enable us to see Christ’s coming. Isaiah and John the Baptist tell us that God is seen when barriers that exclude are taken down and those who have been brought low are raised up. Jesus’ revelation of God shows that those at the centre can be alongside those on the edge and will be changed as a result.

So, God is seen through an up and down vision that has a vertical axis and also an in and out vision which has a horizontal axis. Pushing these analogies as far as possible, the vertical axis equates to the north-south axis on a compass while the horizontal axis equates to the east-west axis, meaning that all the points on the compass are encompassed by these visions. As Isaiah prophesised, all people will see God’s salvation, or, as John Oxenham has it, ‘In Christ there is no east or west, / in him no south or north; / but one great fellowship of love / throughout the whole wide world.’ May that vision become reality for us. Amen.