Full of the Knowledge of the Lord

Isaiah 11.1–10; Acts 17.22–32
a sermon at Matins on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity
preached before Her Majesty’s Courts of Justice
in the Counties of Durham, Northumberland, Tyne & Wear and North Yorkshire
in the Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert, Durham

by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright

The temptation is overwhelming, when faced with a large gathering of lawyers, to indulge in the regular pastime of lawyer-jokes. There is a problem with that, of course; lawyers don’t think they’re funny, and the rest of us don’t think they’re jokes. And of course, since lawyers are schooled in the art of appropriate redress, there are quite a few vicar-jokes out there, not to mention bishop-jokes, including the dangerous one about the bishop who dreamed he was preaching a sermon to a cathedral full of lawyers and woke up to find it was true. But I prefer, to get us going this morning, one of those multi-part analyses. You know the sort of thing: in Germany everything is forbidden except that which is permitted; in Russia everything is forbidden, including that which is permitted; in France everything is permitted except that which is forbidden; in Italy everything is permitted, including that which is forbidden. In the UK, everything is either forbidden or permitted, but we can’t figure out which it is because we’re waiting for the European Court to make up its mind.

Now that awakens a regular problem to which I may return presently, but let me offer you a somewhat simpler multi-part analysis. What’s the difference between a consultant, a lawyer and a theologian? Answer: a consultant borrows your watch and tells you the time. A lawyer borrows your watch, tells you the time, and keeps the watch as part payment of the fee. A theologian tells you the time, and suggests you adjust your watch. My friends, it’s my job to tell you the time.

The theologian tells the time by looking at the future and the past and discerning where we are in relation to both of them. And a great deal of the trouble in today’s world is caused by people who think we’re living in the past, on the one hand, and by people who think we’re living in the future, on the other hand. You and I are called to live in the present, in appropriate relation to past and future, but in a realistic appraisal of the differences between present and past and present and future.

Now that’s horribly abstract, so let me at once jump to something solid, concrete, and actually stunningly beautiful. Here is the vision of the future we heard a few minutes ago, one of the most evocative passages in all poetry:

The wolf shall live with the lamb
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah’s vision of a world put to rights: not only put to rights, but transformed, made to be more fully and gloriously itself, discovering at last what the Garden of Eden might have become if only we hadn’t messed it up.

Imagine a beautiful, finely made silver goblet. There it stands on a shelf, a thing of beauty to be admired. Now imagine that same goblet filled with the finest red wine. (I know lawyers never dream about fine red wine, but please make the effort, just this once.) Now imagine that we are actually in a service of Holy Communion, and this fine wine is actually conveying to us the lifeblood of our blessed Lord Jesus himself. The silver goblet is still as beautiful as ever it was. But now it is filled with something which transforms it, which makes it a vessel of something beyond itself yet utterly appropriate to itself. In the same way, declares the prophet, this whole creation, this wonderful world, is like a beautiful silver goblet, destined to be filled, flooded to overflowing, with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea, flooding in to every harbour and inlet at the fullest of tides.

That is the future we are promised. Forget the fantasies about leaving the world of space, time and matter and flying off to a disembodied heaven. That is Plato, not the Bible. In the Bible, God’s creation matters, because God made it good and beautiful and intends to rescue it and fill it with his own love and glory, so that every blade of grass and every baby hippopotamus and every man, woman and child will know the Lord, the God of creation and covenant, the God of judgment and justice.

Yes, judgment and justice, because this glorious future state of affairs doesn’t come about by accident. It comes about by a great act of judgment. Isaiah’s vision of a world flooded with the knowledge of God comes about through the judgment, the deciding, the setting-to-rights, which will be performed by the Messiah:

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

And this coming great judge will be equipped to do all this, to perform that utterly righteous and totally faithful act of final judgment, final putting-to-rights of all things, because he will be equipped, endowed, with the Spirit of the Lord himself: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. ‘Judgment’, as you all know well, is not simply the condemnation of the wicked. It is a matter of restoring a balance to the world, bringing things back as they should be. Without it, communities reel and stagger this way and that. Where people suspect that justice is not done, they are at once tempted, as we say, to take the law into their own hands. Isaiah offers the great sigh of relief: justice will be done at last, and will be seen and known to be done. Isaiah declares that the Coming One will perform that act of judgment on a cosmic scale, resulting in a world set right at last. That is the future framework, the first of our reference points as we discern what time it is and learn to reset our watches.

Interestingly, it is the reference-point which St Paul highlights at the end of his great speech before the highest court in the greatest intellectual city of his day: ‘God has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed.’ In other words, gentlemen of Athens, nobles of the court of the Areopagus: you are not, after all, the highest court around. There is a higher one still, and that’s the one that will ultimately matter.

But St Paul goes on to speak, not simply about the future, but also about the past. That future is assured, he says, because the God who will set the world to rights at the last is the God who has acted in the past to unveil that judgment, to launch that putting-to-rights, to get the project of ultimate justice off the ground. God has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged rightly by a man whom he has appointed – and of this he has given assurance to all by raising this man from the dead. The facts about Jesus of Nazareth, and especially about his resurrection from the dead, are the foundation of the assurance that the world is not random. It is not ultimately a chaos; that when we do justice in the present we are not whistling in the dark, trying to shore up a building that will ultimately collapse, or to fix a car which is actually bound for the scrap-heap. When God raised Jesus from the dead, that was the microcosmic event in which the ultimate macrocosmic act of judgment was contained in a nutshell, as a seed, the seed, of the ultimate hope. God declared, in the most powerful way imaginable, that Jesus of Nazareth really was the Messiah, the shoot from the stump of Jesse, the one upon whom rested the spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord. In the greatest irony of history, he himself underwent cruel and unjust judgment, coming to the place which symbolized and drew together all the myriad cruelties and injustices of history, to bear that chaos, that darkness, that cruelty, that injustice, in himself, and to exhaust its power.

And Easter Day was therefore a moment of which any judge worth his or her salt would be filled with proper pride: because at Easter the living God declared, in an act of judgment that rang around the world, that all that injustice had been overthrown, that all that cruelty had been confronted and named and shamed, that all that chaos had been dispelled, and a fresh, wise, healing, restorative order had come to birth. There is the past action, reaffirming the great creation story itself: the God of creation declaring that this world is good, and is to be put to rights; that it is a world of fresh, lively order, and is to be restored as such; that it is a world of love and laughter and happy vegetarian animals and children playing, and is to be recreated as such.

There, my friends, is the future; and there is the past. Now let me tell you what time it is right now.

In the present age, God calls rulers and judges to implement his great act of justice in the past, and thereby to anticipate his great act of judgment, of setting all things to rights, in the future – but not to imagine that they themselves can actually reproduce the first or accomplish the second. The task of rulers, judges, magistrates, administrators and so on is vital but limited. It is crucial, but it is provisional. There is solid work to be done, but you have to know where the boundaries are. What does this mean?

The prophet Micah spoke memorably of the task before us: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. You may know that there’s a memorial in the great cloister at Westminster Abbey, commemorating members of the Indian Civil Service. It says, ‘What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice and to love mercy.’ When I first saw that, I thought, Well, two out of three isn’t bad, and perhaps you can’t expect humility from the Indian civil service. But actually the third one is very, very important, and part of telling you the time is to warn you against the lack of humility which comes when we imagine either that our justice is inaugurating a new era or that through our justice we can actually create the future, instead of merely anticipating it, partially and fitfully.

Our entire system of justice has been reframed, quite sharply and suddenly, within the gradually unfolding vision of the Enlightenment and its notion of human rights. As Vernon Bogdanor says in his new book on the Constitution, we have replaced one constitutional order with another. There is no sign, to put it frankly, that this has been thought through. The danger is that we imagine our new system is the foundation of all true justice. It isn’t. True justice comes from the living God, from his order in creation, and his re-establishment of that order in Jesus Christ. To sweep that aside – isn’t it interesting that modernist scepticism about the resurrection has gone step by step alongside this revolution? – is to imagine that previous systems of justice didn’t really understand what had to be done, but that we now do. And that arrogance, as the Pope pointed out a year ago in his important speech to the United Nations, means that we are trying to get the fruit of the tree – a system of justice and rights for all human beings – while cutting off its roots in the deep Christian culture of Europe.

Let’s not fool ourselves. Human rights matter, but they matter because humans are made in the image of the living God, and are loved into life through his son Jesus Christ. Forget that, and before you know what’s happening the rhetoric of ‘human rights’ becomes simply a tool for the powerful to oppress the weak once more, or for every individual to imagine that his or her felt wants suddenly have the status of legal rights. That way lies chaos, not the wise, refreshing order of which the prophet speaks. And you who represent our legal profession – which, joking apart, is not only a vital and essential element in our society but also noble in its traditions and aspirations – you have the responsibility, made all the more difficult by these waves of ideology, of speaking and deciding not just in the light of new systems imposed from elsewhere but of the deeper justice which goes back far more than two hundred years and refreshes the parts that ideologies cannot reach.

We must not, then, live in the past, in the sense of imagining that we have created a system of justice out of thin air, replacing the wise order of creation and redemption. But nor must we live in the future. We do not build the kingdom of God by our own efforts. Rather, we build for the kingdom, fulfilling our various vocations in the present in ways which anticipate God’s eventual future. We cannot, by ourselves, make the wolf lie down with the lamb (there is a zoo in Los Angeles which claims to have done that, but the trouble is that they need a new lamb every day). But our acts of judgment and mercy do genuinely anticipate that final day. Every time you try a case; every time you think through a complex and tangled web of muddled evidence; every time you come to a conclusion and pass a sentence; what you are doing is the present task which builds on the genuine justice-giving past and anticipates the genuine justice-accomplishing future.

And that constitutes a call to humility. We won’t always get it right, and that’s why we have further checks and balances in our systems. But this doesn’t only apply to the legal profession. It applies to the making of law. Law is there to provide the framework, not to micro-manage the living drama that goes on within that framework. Law is there to provide the scaffolding for the building we call human life, civilised life, life in all its fulness, not to set about putting up the bricks and mortar. We are in real danger at the moment that our lawmakers imagine it’s their job to force God’s future upon us, inventing more and more regulations to tie us up in more and more forms to fill in and hoops to jump through. The recent story of a paramedic who took twenty minutes to conduct a risk assessment of the patient’s house, during which time the patient died, is one among many classic examples of what happens if you imagine you’re living in the ultimate future rather than in the humble present where you have to get on with the job. The great irony of Alasdair Campbell’s famous statement, that ‘Downing Street doesn’t do God’, is that ‘doing God’ was and is precisely what Downing Street had been up to for quite some time, and still is. Once you banish the old ‘God’ upstairs somewhere, you are not only free to suppose but compelled to suppose that, in the absence of the framework of God’s past and future, it is up to politicians to regulate every last aspect of life, to try to imitate the loving providence of God by micro-managing the whole of human society, rather than constructing, and keeping in good repair, the outer framework within which genuine human life can flourish even in the present time where joy and sorrow, order and chaos, remain in a mixed economy.

And your task, precisely as members of the legal profession, may in fact include not only the doing of justice and mercy with appropriate humility, but the raising of your voices to protest against the corruption of that noble vocation into an arrogant would-be ‘justice’ which is in fact bossy regulation, and a laissez-faire would-be ‘mercy’ which insists on tolerating everything except intolerance. A society which lurches from deregulation to re-regulation and back again has forgotten what law is there for. It’s your job to remind us.

My friends, we live in a world of parodies, and we are called to glimpse and grasp the reality. We live in a world which has forgotten what time it is, and imagines it can re-invent the past and accomplish the future. We are to be people of the present, people of the reality, people of that sober, humble and life-giving judgment and mercy through which God is honoured, human society can flourish, and people can go about their business in a creative and unfettered peace. We do not create God’s kingdom of justice and peace. God does that in God’s way. But part of your calling, shared in a measure by all faithful people, is so to pray for the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord, that you may discharge your duties with a humble wisdom, and thereby enable the rest of us to catch an early glimpse of that silver goblet filled with the restorative lifeblood of the Messiah; to know, in part and fitfully but nevertheless truly, the beginnings of that great incoming tide which we are promised, the filling of creation with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

My friends, it’s time to reset your watches.