Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Book of Isaiah - Putting the World Together Again

Last Saturday we had Lake with us and it was fun joining the crowds under the careful direction of our Darryl and straining to see Father Christmas switching on the town’s Christmas lights. On Monday we made it to the Christmas Card shop and stocked up on Christmas cards. On Friday I took my eye off the ball and found myself trying to park near the Bath Road just as Father Christmas made his way through the shops – I got home and found myself bundling up the lovely Christmas cards Ruth Wyatt, one of our Hy-Tec leaders has designed.

And today is the start of Advent.

Christmas is coming!

Of all the books in the Old Testament we will be reading from as Christmas approaches the Book of Isaiah will figure very large indeed. Those wonderful words of Old Testament prophecy will ring out again … and as likely as not most carol services will include one or more readings from the Book of Isaiah.

I say the Book of Isaiah quite deliberately. Because there is something intriguing about the Book of Isaiah.

It was in the Year that King Uzziah died that Isaiah had his vision in the temple. He is rightly regarded as one of the great eighth century prophets speaking truth to power in Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. In amongst all he has to say he sets out a number of pictures of what it takes to be king and to rule in the way God intends. Those are the passages we will be reading from in the early chapters of Isaiah as they spell out what it takes to be king.

They have become from the earliest of days associated with Jesus. As he brought in the Kingdom of God he shaped his own leadership by these great passages – wonderful counsellor, prince of peace he had upon him the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might. With righteousness he is for the poor as he stands for justice and righteousness and the kind of reconciliation that enables the wolf to lie down with the lamb.

It is challenging to see how the words of the Prophet Isaiah challenge Uzziah and his succesors, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah … and in the fullness of time shape the ministry of Jesus as he ushers in the Kingdom of God.

But then something happens around chapter 36. A different kind of writing emerges – and in fact much of the next four chapters is taken almost word for word from II Kings.

The compiler of the book of Isaiah seems to have incorporated other material into the book to do with the Jerusalem 8th Century Prophet Isaiah.

But then after the end of chapter 39 there seems to be a gap. A big gap. It’s not long before there is mention of Cyrus – but he didn’t come to reign in the Persian Empire until a couple of centuries later. Look again at chapters 40 and following and there is a very different feel. Maybe the book has brought together someone in the school of Isaiah, maybe from Jerusalem … but who is writing in a very different context.

Now Jerusalem has been laid waste, the temple destroyed and the people carried off into exile. These words come from that world of defeat, suffering and pain. And yet it is not without hope.

There is an end in sight to the collapse.

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to herthat she has served her term, that her penalty is paid,that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
More than that – languishing in exile this prophet – call him the Babylonian Isaiah if you like sees that there is a way back, a route through the wilderness through the mountains.

A voice cries out:‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

The grass may wither but the word of the Lord endures for ever. And then the most wonderful image of all comes to mind …

Get up on the mountains, shout it out loud “Here is your God’

He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms,and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

The people did return from exile. But they were to remain in thrall to other powers, other empires. Mervyn Bragg’s wonderful programme In our Time on Monday morning covered the ground we are looking at in our Open the Book meetings and those few years when the Maccabean revolt established a kingdom by force of arms in Jerusalem – but only momentarily. The Roman power was even more oppressive … until what we mark in Advent began … and John the Baptist came as a voice in the wilderness – opening up a way back to God.

And then comes Jesus – his word is what abides for ever. The Good shepherd who cares so wonderfully for his sheep.

What is so powerful about the words in Isaiah 40 to 66 is that they come out of a period of utter devastation and they inject hope.

It’s so easy for Christmas to become the escape from the fears of the world and to lose its meaning. Whenever we are conscious of the frailty of the world, of the immensity of its troubles; whenever we are devastated by personal tragedy then in truth Christmas comes into its own.

Up until now pictures of God and what is God is doing have tended to be triumphalist – they have stressed the glory and the majesty of God. But it is now in the middle of catastrophe that another image of God emerges. It is the image of the Servant.

In four key passages sometimes known as the Servant Songs – Isaiah of Babylon speaks of the Servant. Is it a king he speaks of? Is it the nation itself who are to embody servanthood? Whatever it is these servant songs are key to understanding the nature of Jesus’ ministry. As Jesus is baptised there are echoes of the servant language of Isaiah of Babylon. As his ministry unfolds it has about it the features of the servant. He has come not to be served but to serve and at the Last Supper he washes the feet of his disciples in that biggest statement of all.

Look at the servant songs and they give a shape to the kind of ministry Jesus follows and what he wants his followers to take on.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights;I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4
That’s what so much of Jesus’ healing ministry is about. That’s what so much of Jesus’ teaching ministry is about.

He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Jesus brings about the very relationship with God that these servant songs are about – it is something new and yet it is age old – it is a covenant relationship. But it extends the covenant beyond the people of God to be all inclusive of the Gentiles as well …

I have given you as a covenant to the people,* a light to the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind,to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. 8
Out of the awfulness of the exile comes the realisation that what it takes to be King in the Kingdom of God is a servant spirit that is inclusive of all people and reaches out to those most in need.

As Jesus’ ministry opens it is no coincidence that it is to this part of the book of Isaiah that he turns as in that Synagogue in Nazareth he is presented with the scroll of the Book of Isaiah and reads from what we think of as chapter 61.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted,to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,

This is the shape that Jesus’ ministry takes – for in him the prophets find their fulfilment. But this is the shape that our church life should take – this is the agenda if you like for our response to a troubled world.

There are wonderful words of hope in this part of Isaiah and we will latch on to them at Christmas – for it is in Christ that this whole strand of thinking comes to fulfilment …

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

There is a vision as Isaiah draws to a close. As I arrived in Cheltenham more than 20 years ago a little book had been published by someone called Raymond Fung. It was called the Isaiah Vision. It has underpinned a lot of the thinking that has been behind my ministry here these last 20 years.

It looks to Isaiah 65 – where Isaiah of Babylon sets out a vision for what the new world will be like as people return from exile. It is the vision that shapes the ministry of Jesus and us who are part of the Kingdom of God he has ushered in. If the world as we know it has fallen apart, we can look to something new coming out of its ruins.

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating;for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. 19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people;no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. 20 No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. 21 They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22 They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat;for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 23 They shall not labour in vain, or bear children for calamity;*for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. 24 Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. 25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust!They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,

If that is the shape of the new world – that’s what should shape the things we strive for …

The alleviation of pain
The care of children
The care of elderly people
Reconciliation and Peace

That’s our agenda as Christmas approaches. That’s how we should be speaking out. That’s what we should be working for. That’s why we are supporting CCP. In three quite specific ways in our December Communion collections and in our Christmas Day collection.

The Food Share Programme – putting together food parcels for young people. In Cheltenham rents are higher than mortgages. Say as a young couple you have a small flat at a very high rent and you have a job that pays the minimum wage. You will be very hard pressed to pay the rent. If you lose the job you can reckon on a six week gap with absolutely no inclome before any benefits will arrive. What do you do to fill that gap? Where do you get your money?

That is one of the major holes in our society that CCP’s food share programme is seeking to fill. It beggars belief that in the 21st Century many people in our town are dependent on food parcels but they are. That’s why we want to have an extra push on our contributions of food. Include tinned, storeable food in your purchases – put it in the box. Let’s try to empty it more than once in the run-up to Christmas. But even then there is not enough food. That’s why there needs to be a financial pot as well to provide food – and so a large part of our Christmas Day collection will go to the food share programme. And another part – to support the education centre that Mary speaks of so eloquently in her magazine article.

How do you make sense of God in the suffering world we see all too much of?
It wasn’t just as a servant that Jesus came. It was as a suffering servant. It is telling that it is now in the middle of the catastrophe of the fall of Jerusalem and the exile that it is Isaiah of Babylon in these chapters of the Book of Isaiah who comes up with that image of King not as all mighty but as the suffering servant. Is it speaking a would-be King? Is it speaking of the nation that takes on suffering?

Jesus shaped his ministry by the insights of Isaiah of Babylon and knew that he would have to suffer many things, be handed over crucified – for he more than any other was indeed the suffering servant.

Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 2 For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground;he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering* and acquainted with infirmity;and as one from whom others hide their faces* he was despised, and we held him of no account.
4 Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases;yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities;upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way,and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future?For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. 9 They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb* with the rich,*although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.*When you make his life an offering for sin,* he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. 11 Out of his anguish he shall see light;*he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one,* my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors;yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

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