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Divine Subversion – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

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Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Title of sermon: Divine Subversion

Date/time/service: Sunday 26 June 2022,Choral Evensong

Readings: Genesis 27:1-40, Mark 6:1-6


I stand here in some trepidation because as a Preacher, when faced with that reading from Genesis about Jacob and Esau, who was ‘an hairy man’, one can never hope to exceed the archetypal and wan Church of England Sermon preached by Alan Bennet in the 1960’s! So I won’t compete, but I will use the very same reading as the basis for what I want to say today.

Just over 100 years ago, Parliament gave approval for women over 30 to vote. The right to vote was also extended to working class men; in what was known as the Representation of the People Act. Until then, only wealthy male landowners and the aristocracy were entitled to democracy. No offence is meant, but I suspect not many of us here today would have had the right to vote at that time. I’m not going to speak about politics this evening, though there is plenty to speak about, but I am going to speak about who gets to be heard in our world: who has rights and who doesn’t; and contrast that with the subversive-ness of the Gospel, which undermines our human conventions, expectations and norms, and enables us to question in the light of Christ, who gets given rights and power, and who doesn’t.

At the time of Isaac, Rebekah, Esau and Jacob, the order of the world was mainly governed by predictable people holding power and authority. Within families and tribes, the first born son was always the privileged, rightful heir, the person on whom the future was built.  Younger sons and daughters did not even figure, however much wisdom they had, and were cut off from the natural legacies of power passed on from one generation to another. In the book of Genesis, we see Jacob, the youngest son, and not by much because he was a twin, grasping at the heel of his older brother Esau, even in the womb, to try and subvert the expected privileges of power in his world which would be bestowed upon the first born male. Later in life, as we hear tell this evening: Jacob deceives his own father to take the birth right of Esau, gain his Father’s blessing and so ultimately fulfil God’s plan.

When reading this story before, I have always felt naturally sympathetic to poor Esau, robbed of what was ‘rightfully’ his, but I’ve been trying to fathom why God chose to work through Jacob, the young pretender. Was I missing something and looking at this story with the eyes of predictable privilege?

The story of Jacob is, in some ways, a story which repeats itself over and over again throughout the scriptures if we are prepared to look beyond the usual pattern of disseminated powers and patriarchies. It seems God’s will and God’s way often take a different course, choosing the unexpected or atypical, the weak, the small, the ignored, the youngest, the poor, the women, the children, the outcast, the foreigner and the widow, in fact, all those who have traditionally had no voice in society, and certainly no rights.

St Paul offers: God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Corinthians). The last will be first and the first will be last, we hear Jesus teach. Look for divine subversion and it can be found throughout the scriptures, and throughout the life and teaching of Christ, if we have eyes to see and can perhaps learn to see beyond our own privilege.

Moses is abandoned and then rescued from the bulrushes and goes on to lead his people; David, the youngest son of Jesse is chosen as the one to be anointed. Mary, an unmarried teenager is chosen by God to be the mother of his Son. Matthew the Tax Collector is called to be a disciple, these are just a few examples of unpredictable outcomes, by human standards.

The Gospel of Mark recounts that Jesus the Carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses, Judas and Simon is the Messiah of God and of course he is rejected by his own community because he does not conform to what they were expecting a Messiah to be. In his own humanity, Christ subverts the prejudices of humanity itself and points us to our better nature.  Christ then tells us stories of prodigal sons, widow’s mites, banquets to which those on the streets are invited, children who inherit the Kingdom of heaven, untouchables who are healed, sinners who are forgiven and restored.

In Hebrew, the name Jacob can mean “to supplant, circumvent, assail, overreach”. What if the person of Jacob, represents all those who long to be heard and recognised and given a voice? What if he represents those who strive to over-reach the stereotypes and restrictions laid upon them by the privileged of their society? What if Jacob represents all those who struggle to supplant and circumvent the oppressive power structures of their world, and assail every form of injustice?

Perhaps we can all be more attentive and alert to our human proclivity to revert to the predictable patterns of power: in the church, in our communities and in our world. Let us observe who holds the power, who speaks, and whose voice is erased or ignored.  Let us observe who sits in the seats of honour, who is always at the table, who is always given a platform or indeed a pulpit and what happens to those who ask the difficult questions, or try to give voice to the voiceless or try to shake up the way the world works? Who gets the rights and who doesn’t?

The work of the gospel will continue until these imbalances are reconciled, and Mary sings so beautifully and so clearly in the words of the Magnificat of a God who will scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, put down the mighty from their seat, exalt the humble and meek, fill the hungry with good things and send the rich empty away. For many in our world today, the words of Mary and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, might well herald an uncomfortable reckoning.

We should not be surprised that all of this is a struggle, there is always a wrestling between powers and for power, but as Christians we are children of this subversive God and called to recognise the unjust structures in our world which need divine disruption and challenge. Jacob goes on to wrestle with an angel, until he is given a new name ‘Israel’ which means- the one who struggles and contends, the one who wrestles for recognition and so becomes a light for all people and bring salvation to the ends of the earth.

As we observe all these things and as we meditate on who holds power in our world this week, whether dictated by birth, gender, class, wealth, race, sexuality or education, perhaps we might pray for a little divine subversion to gently disrupt and deceive our human systems of power and privilege, and have faith that it will, according to the promises of Christ and just as it has always done if we have eyes to see.

To the glory of the one and only living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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