Tootling with Vigour

Given by John Barratt
12th December 2010
Matthew 11

I read in the newspaper recently that there are about three septillion stars in the universe, and that, every second, 65 billion neutrinos pass through each of my eyeballs [and yours!].  Anyone who knows what a ‘septillion’ or a ‘neutrino’ is, please tell me afterwards!  We now know how tiny a place we human beings occupy in the visible universe, and science explains so much of why our bodies are as they are.  The President of the Royal Society recently wrote that the Society’s founding 350 years ago “signalled the emergence of a new breed of people – described … as “merchants of light”.  They sought to understand the world by experiment and observation, rather than by reading ancient texts.”  He also wrote that the application of science has led us to a risk of irreversibly degrading the earth’s environment.

Holy Scripture, unlike Science, deals with un-measurable human experiences, especially our failures to do what is obviously right, by exploring the rich mystery of our lives, which the best intellects cannot penetrate and the most eloquent words cannot precisely describe.  A recent book [1] has shown that, in the West, the best ideas about human nature have always been shaped by the interplay of science and technology with philosophy and theology, and that recent developments in neuroscience, genetics, artificial intelligence, and biomedical engineering call for fresh reflections on what it means to be human and how we might shape our future.  So let’s look carefully at some of the church’s “ancient texts”, to see why their different focus is so important for the inspiration of good human achievements.

Next year we will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, and remember with gratitude the sacrificial courage and dedicated skill of those who, over centuries, produced a version of these ‘ancient texts’ in English.  Translation of the texts’ permanent truths from a different cultural background adds to the mystery of their subject-matter.  Bill Bryson gives an enjoyable example of correct but strange translation – a warning in English to motorists in Tokyo: “When a passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn.  Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigour.”  Much Biblical language can sound rather like that.

The Bible records millennia of human wrestling with life’s mystery, recording and revising the insights gained, so it is not a structured science textbook.  There are some parts we will reject for good reason.  Look in Deuteronomy at commandments for stoning people and animals to death, or Psalm 137, which ends: “Happy is the man who … takes [Babylonian] babies and smashes them against a rock”.  Try following that with a choral evensong’s “Glory be to the Father”!  Think of the medieval church’s official resistance, because of a phrase in a Biblical poem, to Galileo’s insistence that the earth moved round the sun, or consider the view of some Christians today, following their reading of the Book of Revelation, that all-out war with the Muslim world is needed to bring on final Armaggedon and, for them of course, their translation to heaven.

Jesus was inspired by his deep study of the Old Testament and we are introduced to him in the New.  In reading and discussing the Scriptures usefully we must be open to Jesus’ teaching and example, applying the two great commandments he selected from the Old Testament – to love God and our neighbour – so that we can hear in our hearts the living Word of God, the Father of all human beings.

This morning’s “ancient texts” are about our opportunities to make a new start in righteous living, rather than being discouraged by our failures.  The factual times in which the Scriptures were written were as chaotic and full of terrible events as our own.  Order and Justice seemed as unattainable to most people then as they seem to us today.  Today’s psalm and the extract from Isaiah are both poems which express the Old Testament message of God bringing Order out of chaos, and challenge the whole community to exchange selfish mind-sets for the deeper reality of God’s all-encompassing Justice.  A couple of generations after Jesus, and in very testing times, the book of James urged the avoidance of theoretical faith, and exhorted patient, practical responses to the liberating word of God, remembering that “The Judge is standing at the gates.”

Today’s Gospel reading is about two cousins, John the Baptist and Jesus, both deeply committed to their ancestral Jewish faith, despite their nation’s collapse.  John, following the prophets, had encouraged people to change their mindsets, and Jesus at his baptism had been clearly endorsed by John.  Thereafter their ways had separated.  John, in desert penury, had offered people a once-only opportunity to change their mindset; Jesus, sharing everyday life with ordinary people, insisted that the opportunity was always and repeatedly available.  John, now a hapless prisoner expecting the death sentence, wanted re-assurance that Jesus would lead the people aright.  In his reply to John, Jesus explained how he encouraged ordinary people by emphasising God’s constant blessings, rather than his condemnations.  Using Isaiah’s poetic language [2], he says [in the ‘Good as New’ version], “Go back to John and … tell him that blind people are getting their sight back, disabled people are able to get about again, outcasts are being restored to the community, deaf people can hear, many are getting a whole new life, and those who don’t count for much in our society have had Good News for the first time in their lives.”

There can be no doubt that ordinary people have remarkable capacity to respond to challenge, as some recent newspaper reports have shown.  Think of the schoolgirls in the middle of a demonstration who recently linked hands round an empty police van to protect it from yobs, or the remarkable youngsters who care so assiduously for their incapacitated parents.  Or listen to this:  “When PC Dave Hill heard on his radio about an explosion at Edgware Road tube station, he and a colleague changed course and went straight to the scene without stopping to think.  At the mouth of the underground tunnel, it occurred to him that there could be a second [explosive] device, but he carried on into the dark.  Asked why, during the inquest into the deaths of the 52 people that died in the 7/7 bombings, the policeman simply replied: “Because I was there”.  It was a refrain that was heard, in varying forms, throughout the evidence.  Ordinary men and women who had performed extraordinary feats, who had, in some cases, literally taken a leap into the dark to help injured passengers in desperate need of help, repeatedly down-played their heroism. What enabled these people to act so calmly and efficiently?  Or, to put it another way – what turns ordinary people into heroes?” One expert emphasised training.  Another expert said “… you don’t have to be special.  With the right mindset and opportunity, most people are capable of heroic acts.”  [3]

Jesus challenges us to change our mindsets and train to achieve what he called ‘the Kingdom of God’.  If, this Advent, we can overcome our hesitations and past failures, there will be no lack of opportunities to meet people’s deep needs or to stand up for what is right.  Next week, our Advent inspiration will be the committed response of a very young woman called Mary, who found herself unmarried and pregnant in an unwelcoming society, and who remained constant to that commitment through the disturbing years that followed.

Let us use to the full the resources and fellowship of the Church, in training for the life-enhancing way of the generous, self-sacrificial, unpompous Jesus of Nazareth.  So we will become ‘merchants of light’ as we engage tangibly with people’s needs by the committed use of our time and talents, tootling melodiously but, in the face of obstacles, tootling with vigour!


[1] Murphy and Knight, Human Identity at the Intersection of Science, Technology and Religion Ashgate 2010.

[2] ch 35, 5-6; ch 42, 18; ch 61, 1.

[3] Guardian 26 Nov 2010.