This week has been a dark one for this city. The conviction of a number of men and teenage boys for abuse of young girls has left many feeling sickened. It comes on the back of over a year now of child abuse being on the front pages nationally, from Jimmy Savile, through high profile celebrity trials and convictions, to cases of trafficking and exploitation. If anyone is tempted to try to blame any particular community for these we have so many cases in front of us which shout the lie to that. As a children’s commissioner said this week, these cases are everywhere, in every community and no place can be complacent. They bring a dark cloud and over time we all start to feel grubby.
For those who have suffered, they have been violated and that runs very deep indeed. That some of these assaults took place in a children’s play park is a violation of childhood. That touches us deeply too because childhood should be safe and a time to grow through play. There is help and any group working with children and young people has procedures in place to minimize the risks. The truth is, though, no one can ever remove all risk, but when potential perpetrators know people are on the look out, they tend to go elsewhere, where the pickings are easier. A rule of thumb in safeguarding young people is that things should make sense and where behaviour is odd or something just doesn’t seem right then dig until you are satisfied, share your concern with someone you trust. If you are not satisfied, keep digging until you either are or things come to light. It’s a bit like when cash doesn’t reconcile by a few pence. If that can’t be explained, then dig about because it can expose larger discrepancies. I know this from reconciling my own bank account. When my statement doesn’t agree with my record it usually means I’ve written something down wrong or added it up incorrectly, or an unexpected payment has gone out. In one case it meant that someone had cloned my bankcard and that became dramatic as the sales assistant took a pair scissors and cut it up at the check out!
These cases of abuse are extreme and can breed a kind of paranoia about stranger danger. The vast majority of people are actually trustworthy and safe. One of the remarkable things despite all these cases is that people are generally good natured and kind. The internet can be a dark place of any kind of depravity anyone cares to look for or even not look for. But I find that if you have a problem making some piece of software work there will be a web page set up by someone with the answer and solution. These are free and whenever I’ve tweeted a problem someone will reply with advice and encouragement. I find that the internet is generally a place characterized by generosity and kindness. So as with so many things balance and perspective are needed. This is one of those weeks when we need to restore our grasp on this because it looks so dark and the scale can be overwhelming when presented without seeing all those others who can be trusted.
But sin is real for all of us and it lurks in our hearts. It is the struggle between the good we desire and the evil we desire. As Lady Gaga put it, 'Jesus is my virtue, but Judas is the demon I cling to'. The inclinations of the heart are not always virtuous and we are fallen, fragile and vulnerable mortal creatures. We are not perfect and sin is written through the human condition like a message through a stick of rock. We have a need for salvation if there is to be any hope of eternity because how we are now is not ready for eternity. We are a seething soup of desires and drives, which create and destroy. That needs an answer and a solution and these do not lie within ourselves because while we can make incredible headway, we can’t ultimately change the condition that is both virtuous and vulnerable, godly and greedy, creative and destructive.
Into this struggle, walks Jesus in our gospel reading (John 1:29-42). John the Baptist has been baptizing by the River Jordan. He was doing this as a symbolic action to reinforce a spiritual preparation for God. Those who came were responding to his message that God’s kingdom matters; the world belongs to God and we need to recalibrate our settings so that we aim to live as God would have us live. But that recalibration is not, on its own, enough. John points to Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. This is not just a washing away of sins, the actions where we mess it up or the thoughts it would be better that we didn’t have. This is the removal of the very flaw in the system in the first place. This is the removal of mortality and the limited scope of where we live and therefore how we live. Jesus is the answer to the problem of sin, of suffering and humans being mortal.
There is a way open for human beings to share in the life of God because God makes that way open. It is God who made the world the way it is and so only God can expand its horizons beyond being locked into the limit of our flawed nature. As things stand the natural order and condition of human life ends with death. It goes no further. The prospect of passing through a veil or slipping off into eternity doesn’t actually deal with the root problem. It just keeps us as we are and as we are is not perfect or a condition to stay in forever. The New Testament does not talk about just walking into another life with no interruption at death, it talks about a new creation, a new way of being, where sins are removed and we are changed. God in Christ brings a new life where there would otherwise be death; his salvation disrupts the expected outcome.
The hope which this brings is that whatever the darkness we may encounter or perpetrate it is not eternal. It doesn’t have the final word. We know this instinctively which is why so many people find lighting candles as a sign of prayer helpful and encouraging. Light shines in the darkness. Healing is available for the injured and violated. Forgiveness is offered for those who offend and with it a new start to live differently. Places of violation are not tarnished forever but can be places of blessing and joy once again.
The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world brings hope and new life. We need this because there are things we can’t deal with on our own and the power and hold of evil, of the pain and shame, are profound ones. We need the healing grace of God in Christ. In him we find the space to be heralds of his new creation and to find that the evil and pain do not have the final word. Christ takes away the sin of the world and that is the source of our hope and much rejoicing.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 19th January 2014