Sermon: Visions and realities
Preached on 18th January 2009
by The Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown
Isaiah 60:9-end; Psalm 96; Hebrews 6:17-7:10
The second half of Isaiah is one of the most lyrical and hopeful parts of the bible. Why then have I been so disturbed over the last couple of weeks when reflecting on today's passage with its glorious vision of hope and restoration of the people of God? The simple answer is that I cannot get out of my mind the pictures of Gaza that seem to negate everything Isaiah proclaims. Does that leave me with a choice of telling you either that Isaiah is either simply wrong or the bible is irrelevant in the twenty first century?
Before I answer that, it will help to understand more about Isaiah's context. The book of Isaiah is the longest of the prophets but does not have a single author. The Isaiah of the title is responsible for the first thirty nine chapters, which date from the seventh century BC and contain a mixture of oracles of judgement against God's people and on the nations oppressing them in the years before their conquest by the Babylonians, history and prophecy. Things change at chapter 40 when a new voice enters, that of an unknown person scholars call ‘Second Isaiah' from the sixth century when the judgements in First Isaiah have largely been fulfilled, Jerusalem has been razed to the ground and its people exiled to Babylon. This new prophet speaks poetic words of salvation to the exiles in the midst of their hour of doom when any future has to be by an act of God's salvation because it is too late to avert disaster. Second Isaiah is himself succeeded, at chapter 56, by Third Isaiah who lives even later, after Cyrus the Persian leader had conquered the Babylonians and allowed some of the previously conquered nations to return to their homelands in 538BC. Despite its three voices, the book of Isaiah has a profound unity and integrity because an unknown editor has shown how Second and Third Isaiah pick up, develop and interpret themes in First Isaiah.
What we heard this morning emerged from the ruins of Jerusalem, the beloved city which the returned exiles now faced the daunting task of rebuilding, and - given events in the news - it is but one chapter in the ongoing terrible saga of international relations in the Middle East over the last two and a half thousand years, except that today the ruins lie in another city, Gaza, as they did in Lebanon a couple of years ago, and the damage has been done by rather than to Israel. I'm not going to draw political conclusions; our theological task is to wrestle with the situation from a perspective of faith in God who brings salvation.
If we put ourselves in the rubble of Isaiah's Jerusalem - visualise Gaza if that helps - Isaiah's words sound like a dream. ‘Foreigners shall build up your walls, your gates will always be open, nations shall bring you their wealth, violence shall no more be heard in your land'. In practice, the people had years of hard work in front of them to do the physical rebuilding and history in the centuries since Isaiah's vision tells us that the peace of Jerusalem has not been fulfilled permanently. But to look for a literal, line by line achievement of what Isaiah spoke about is to misunderstand Isaiah and the nature of prophecy. Prophecy in the bible is not so much seeing into the future and spelling out how it will be as it is looking at the present from God's perspective and speaking God's words into the present situation. God, through Isaiah, holds out a future and a hope for these returned exiles who had dreamed for so long of rebuilding their city and are now standing looking at the scale of the task, perhaps tempted to abandon hope. Is it worth it? Yes, says God through Isaiah: listen! there is a future and a hope for you. You have been forsaken and hated but I will make you a joy from age to age; I will be your everlasting light, your people shall possess the land for ever.
Isaiah was not the only messenger to the people after the exile. Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi were around, as were Ezra and Nehemiah who later oversaw much of the hard work. Their books tell us that the people failed to live up to the vision held out before them, they lost heart and some gave up altogether, they got their priorities wrong and abandoned their trust in God. But even though Isaiah's message was not fulfilled in its immediate context, we cannot write it off as fanciful. Remember that they lacked leaders so Isaiah's message was perhaps the only unifying force in their devastated lives. Imagine the situation without his vision - the people could very easily have given up at the first hurdle and scraped by on a subsistence basis until someone else conquered them. Elsewhere the bible reminds us that, ‘where there is no vision, the people perish' (Proverbs 29:18): it was true in Europe after the war when people returned from concentration camps to find their towns destroyed and, but for things like the Marshall plan, could have succumbed to despair; it was true in Isaiah's day - his vision of God's restoration of the people was literally life-changing.
But we only heard a small part of God's overall word to the people which was not just of blessing but of the accompanying responsibility to live justly in God's way. How else could they be a blessing to the nations? In the case of justice for the poor and oppressed, care for the orphan, widow and foreigner, their law told them they were to be generous and compassionate in their care and provision. In the light of contemporary events, whatever the political rationale, theologically we have to say that Israel did not shape up then and does not shape up now. But Israel's struggle has always been to trust God enough to let theology determine their military action.
Isaiah and other prophets of this post-exilic period held out the vision that God's restoration of Jerusalem and blessing of the people was not at the expense of other nations, not for Israel's sake alone but for the blessing of all nations. This was a hard message for the people who had dreamed of revenge against their enemies when in exile, but they had to learn that God's intention was to bring universal blessing not further suffering through them; that God's economy is always about abundance and there is no zero sum economy of blessing - more for you does not mean less for me, but more for all of us. This was no new message: way back in Genesis God had promised Abraham that he would become a great nation and all the nations would be blessed in him. Much of the Old Testament is the story of the building of that nation and its persistent failure to live up to its calling, culminating in God handing it over to exile. With the return from exile there was a new beginning and the original vision came to the fore again: God's chosen nation would be the means of blessing to all the earth, exemplified in Isaiah's radical picture of Jerusalem with the gates always open, day and night, something unheard of in a culture where every settlement locked its gates at night for security.
So, to revisit my first question, is my choice this morning limited to telling you either that Isaiah is simply wrong or that the bible is irrelevant for us today? No. Isaiah was very right - there was a future and a hope for the people if they would listen to the other prophets and not succumb to despair but get on with the hard slog of shifting rocks and building a city. A vision is fine, but if we believe in it we then have to get on with it, lump of stone by lump of heavy stone. God doesn't do that part of the work for us. Isaiah's vision is relevant for us as we are horrified at the devastation done to Gaza, as it was to Lebanon in 2006, and as it is in Zimbabwe, in the Sudan, in the Congo, and so many other sorry parts of God's world. Isaiah is not our blueprint but the voice of assurance that God's purposes of good for the world cannot be destroyed by human violence. It takes an act of the imagination to see Gaza and Lebanon rebuilt and at peace with Israel and Isaiah challenges us to use our imaginations. Without confidence in God, where is our hope and purpose for international politics and world development?
On Tuesday the world receives a new president of the United States of America. I have just read Barack Obama's book, ‘The Audacity of Hope' which is a breath of fresh air about politics in the US and, like millions of others, I look forward to his presidency and the changes it foreshadows. But I can't help thinking that Tuesday marks the end of a period of naïve optimism around the world. The expectations on Obama are totally unrealistic; he is not God's Messiah and before long he will make a mistake which will dent the world's dreams. When that happens, can we learn from Isaiah to be faithful and trust God's purposes to bring new life and hope when things go horrifically wrong in human history?
In coming to a close I take you to the letter to the Hebrews with its rather odd reference to Melchizedek. It's a typical rabbinic line of argument that sounds convoluted to our ears, so don't worry if you didn't get it. In a nutshell, the author is arguing for the supremacy of Christ's priesthood over that in the Old Testament. It includes a phrase you might have missed, that ‘we who have taken refuge might be encouraged to seize the hope set before us'. ‘We who have this hope' - we already have it, by virtue of being baptised Christians. Unlike the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, who put in half an hour's practice a day to enable her to believe six impossible things before breakfast, we don't have to work at believing Isaiah's vision because in Christ it is a hope which is set before us and we can simply receive it, including Isaiah's visions of a world restored and at peace which has always been God's good purpose.
So in these days of political change and military turmoil in the world, in Christ we can seize the hope which God holds out to us, as once to the returned exiles. We can seize it through regular prayer for peace in the world. Pray with the newspaper or the remote control in your hands; pray in hope when you are troubled by pictures from Gaza or Zimbabwe; pray in hope when you watch the inauguration. And, just as the people had to lump stones to bring God's blessing into being, take action to implement God's promises. It would be good if, by this time next week, we had all sent some money to an organisation like Christian Aid to continue the rebuilding of devastated cities.
Since we have taken refuge in God, let us seize the hope that is set before us.