A sermon by the Very Reverend Christine Wilson to mark Epiphany

In the last week or so I have had a number of conversations, putting the worlds to right in what has been a rather gloomy start to the New Year. We have had the winter crisis in our NHS, Carillion going under and in recent days the reports of bad behaviour by leading business men at London’s President’s Club.

It is one thing talking about what might be wrong in the world and quite another to do something about it and then to resolve to make a difference.

But what is apparent is that people are longing for leadership, for voices of inspirational and moral authority. For people who lead by authentic example. Individuals who inspire us to follow them and stir us to do our bit in making the world a better place.

This morning, we have words from our Old Testament where Moses speaks of God raising up prophets in each generation and words from our Gospel reading about Christ’s astounding teaching and authority.

There has been talk about the so called contemporary leadership deficit. We may well look around wondering where the prophetic voices are to be heard in our generation.

Do we believe that the Lord will raise up a prophet from among our own people?

Until quite recently a powerful prophetic voice on the world stage was Desmond Tutu. He commanded a captive audience and a place as the conscience of South Africa. His tireless campaign agenda is all about setting people free. About tackling poverty, truth and reconciliation, human flourishing, raising awareness to climate change and seeking justice for all.

When it comes to making a difference and seeking to address what is wrong in the world no stone has been left unturned by Desmond Tutu.  He is a man with a mission!

He has spoken eloquently of the effect truth and passion can bring through those who have the giftedness to captivate their listeners, and live out their values and beliefs.

Well Desmond Tutu is now 86 years old.

When it comes to prophetic voices here in Britain one name does spring to mind. A man who has captured the imagination of the nation and grabbed our attention – and I don’t mean Boris Johnson!  This is someone with a real gift of communication and the confident authority to speak the truth.

On Monday he received a standing ovation and this year’s Impact Award at the national television awards.

There is a big clue! Perhaps you have guessed?

The person I am referring to is Sir David Attenborough. This much-loved ninety-one -year old broadcaster has stirred the conscience of the nation through his extraordinary natural history series Blue Planet 2.

And bearing in mind his great age and acquired wisdom, those of you who might have been tempted to think that you are too old to start having ideas about making a difference – please take note!

Sir David, in his passion to share the truth about what is happening to our beautiful God-given planet, has managed to bring about a light bulb moment, waking us up to the death dealing toxicity of plastic upon the natural environment.

If you think my assessment of Sir David Attenborough as a prophet is stretching things, especially given that he professes no religious faith and remains agnostic,

then it is worth remembering that one of the Anglican Communions agreed five marks of mission is to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

There is plenty of evidence of God using unlikely or surprising individuals as agents of God’s purposes.

Think of the King of Babylon or indeed St Paul, whose conversion we celebrated last week. He began with a zealous mission to terminate and persecute the early Christian Church.

Over 17 million people watched Blue Planet 2. It was the most watched programme of 2017. So you may have seen the devastating images of sea turtles caught up in plastic netting, or that emaciated polar bear, the image of a sea horse clutching a cotton bud, the fatal quantity of plastic ingested by dead albatross chicks and the deep sea populated with millions of plastic micro beads. Oceans turning into plastic soup.

There has been a great groundswell of response. Already plastic straws and non-bio-degradable coffee cups are being banned from some establishments.

Free supplies of spring water are being set up in some of our cities so that your one plastic bottle can be refilled over and over again.

I would suggest that Sir David Attenborough is a man who possesses great moral authority.

Unlike the power and influence that led to men behaving badly at the President’s Club, it is not the sort of authority that enables you to do whatever you like.

Neither is it the sort of authority we churn out over the garden fence when we are putting the world to right. That is more about describing how the world is.

Moral authority has been described as a measure of virtue. It is demonstrated by exemplary behaviour, what we might describe as walking the talk. It is what gives the capability to convince others of how the world should be.

We listen to Sir David Attenborough because his long life has been immersed in striving to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth. He is a reservoir of wisdom and insight. Essentially he knows what he is talking about because he has 91 years of lived experience and study of his subject.

When Jesus steps into the synagogue and teaches the crowd he is brand new on the scene and they are amazed at his wisdom and insight.

He taught as one having authority and not as the scribes.

The scribes could give you the benefit of their book learning and study, they had an answer and a law for every circumstance. But how to actually try and live out those principles in the real world didn’t seem to concern them.

Their authority didn’t bring life and freedom. In fact, it drove people away from God because they were set up to fail or left feeling guilty.  It was impossible to fulfil all the demands of the law.

If we think back to the text from our old testament reading, it is interesting that Moses didn’t hand over his authority to the scribes and the law makers, he handed it to the prophets of each new generation.

Ultimately the moral authority that Jesus invites us to embrace is the enactment of love. Jesus hands on to us the call to love one another as I have loved you.

What gives Christians authenticity in practicing virtue and making a difference in the world, is the capacity to convince others of how the world should be. Living out the authority and teaching of Jesus.  Enacting justice, peace and love towards all creation.

He calls us to be children of light, astonishing people with the glory of God made known through the teaching and authority of love – which are the quiet little epiphanies revealed in our daily actions.

You see the thing about Sir David Attenborough is that we know he passionately cares for planet earth because he demonstrates it when he lies down on the sand beside a giant turtle and bids it a safe journey back into the ocean. We know it when he lifts up the Impact Award he won this week and says plastic is an important issue for the whole world. His authority is self-authenticating. He is a man who practices love.

The readings today invite us to reflect on how as followers of Christ, how daily we may be astounded by Christ’s teaching and become prophets to our generation, practicing the authority of his love for the world. Amen.