Sunday, 18 December 2011

Bringing Heaven Down to Earth - Carols by Candle Light

Sunday, 18th December 6-30
Carols by Candle Light

Our carols were chosen and illustrated by Sue Cole and Shirley Fiddimore accompanied on the organ by Richard Sharpe.  The prayers were prepared by Janet Partington.  The sequence of readings follows recent preaching themes where we have been exploring the Prophets of the Old Testament through the eyes of Jesus.

67  Once in Royal David’s City  verses 1,2,4   UNANNOUNCED

Richard - Welcome


In very troubled times 8 centuries before Christ, four prophets drew word pictures of what it would take for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Those word pictures shaped all that Jesus stood for and all that Jesus did.

Those same word pictures shape all that we as Christians stand for and all we seek to do as we pray ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

One of those word pictures is in Isaiah 11:1-9

It  speaks of the strength that comes through wisdom, knowledge and skill, it comes through reverence for God.   It speaks of justice and integrity, of a justice that ensures the poor are treated fairly and the rights of the helpless are defended.  It speaks of the power that lies in the word rather than the sword.  And it is built on reconciliation and peace. 

Reading          Isaiah 11:1-9 - Peter

What the angel said to Mary in that sixth month in a town in Galilee called Nazareth suggests that the one she would bear would be shaped by that very picture Isaiah and the prophets that followed him had sketched.  The one named Jesus she would conceive and give birth to would be regarded as ‘great, and will bear the name of the kings of old, he will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever and ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Mary knew in her heart of hearts that all Jesus stood for would do justice by the hungry and by the oppressed.

He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
And lifted up the lowly
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.

Each verse of our next carol takes up one of those word pictures from the ancient prophets and uses it to speak of the Jesus who enters into the hell of this world to turn tyranny on its head.  O come, Emmanuel, true branch of Jesse, bright daybreak, key of David, great Lord of might.

Carol   66  O come, O come Emmanuel

This was no pie in the sky idealism.  It was into a brutal world of oppression that Jesus was born …

Reading:  Luke 2:1-7 - Marion

Maybe the next of our carols is not as sentimental as we might imagine.  Stay by my side until morning is nigh is plea that Christ Jesus stays with us through the hours of darkness until the dawn comes.

Carol 72 Away in a manger

It is through the hours of darkness that the prayer becomes real … Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask you to stay.

In our candle-lit service we have four Advent Candles to light.  When one of our members, Janet Partington, was asked to prepare Christmas prayers for other people it made her think …

Janet – Prayer 1

Janet:  As I was considering these prayers of concern it occurred to me that, so often, it can feel a bit ‘us-and-them’; as if praying for the needs of the world is somehow separate from myself, something from which I can be detached.

And it struck me that, while my prayers may be no less heartfelt for being something I do for (or to!) other people, for me there is something missing.

Because we are all part of the Community of Need.  We may be more, or less, aware of this at different times, but we are all, inescapably, ‘us’.

And so I invite you, as we make our prayers of intercession, to hold in yourminds the thought that we are all in need, and if any of the prayers speak to situations or experiences in your own lives, to take comfort and strength from the fact that, as you are pray8ng for others you are also praying for yourself and being prayed for in return.

Let us pray,

As we look forward to a time of feasting, we remember those for whom there is little or no food because crops have failed, disasters have destroyed harvests or there is simply not enough money to provide essential sustenance.

We remember those who seek to provide for this most basic of needs across our world.

And we remember those for whom eating and drinking can be fraught with practical difficulties, with unseen dangers or for whom consuming to excess is a way of hiding from problems too painful to face.

As we look to a time of cosy homes with family and friends, we remember those who have no home to call their own, who are forced to rely on the kindness of friends or strangers for shelter or to sleep rough.

We remember those whose homes lack basic amenities, and those whose comfortable homes are a cause for anxiety in this time of economic hardship.

We remember those who are alone in the world and those who feel isolated even while surrounded by loved ones.

We remember those for whom ‘home’ means unhappiness, stress or fear.

We remember those who seek to bring physical, mental and emotional comfort to others, both friend and stranger.

Loving Lord Jesus, we are one Community of Need:
In the need we share, we hold out these prayers to you.  Amen

Light the first candle

600 In the bleak mid winter  CP 1,2,4 - UNANNOUNCED

The angels take up another element in that picture of long ago – Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace …

Luke 2:8-20    Shirley

We take up that song of the angels, and echo the thoughts of that prayer,
They kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.

All glory be to God on high
And to the earth be peace -

94  While shepherds watched

Janet Prayer 2

Let us pray

As we look forward to a time of joyful activity, we remember those for whom activity is limited, who may feel left out, frustrated or depressed by their inability to join in.

We remember all those without jobs, or who are facing redundancy and may find their sense of self-worth and ability to contribute in a meaningful way as limited as their income.

We remember, too, those who are slowly being worn down by the demands of an increasingly pressurised workplace, those who worry that however much they do, it will  never be enough and those who are concerned about the impact of long hours and greater pressure on their health and relationships.

As we look forward to a time of wishing one another ‘good health’, we remember those for whom poor health, both long and short-term, makes life difficult.

We remember those for whom poor health brings stigma, incomprehension and prejudice, or feelings of anger, sadness or depression.

We remember all those who care for the physically, mentally emotionally or spiritually sick, providing support and practical help all year round.

And we remember those whose caring is wearing them out and damaging their own health and well-being.

Loving Lord Jesus, we are on Community of Need:
In the need we share, we hold out these prayers to you..  Amen.

Light the second candle

77  Angels from the realms of glory   - UNANNOUNCED

The world Jesus was born into was a world of brutal oppression.  There were so many echoes of the cruel world of Isaiah’s time.  Jesus shaped all he did according to those word pictures of Isaiah and his followers.  God’s rule is about justice, equity, commitment to the poor, peace, reconciliation.    He did not come to get us to heaven: he came to bring heaven down to earth.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 

This is something for all peoples.  So it is that ‘wise men from the east ‘seek in him the hope of nations;’  Is it had been in the time of Isaiah and his followers, so it was in Jesus’ day a threat to the powers that be.    Herod the Great thought nothing of killing members of his own family to get to power and three of his own sons when they aspired to rule in Jerusalem.  His reaction to the quest of the wise men at first seems alluring, but in reality is brutal in the extreme.

Matthew 2:1-11 – Mary Michael

This is not a cosy scene.  Make no mistake about it this is a world of sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying.

Carol:  We three kings

1     We three kings of Orient are;
       bearing gifts we traverse afar
       field and fountain, moor and mountain,
       following yonder star:
       O star of wonder, star of night,
       star with royal beauty bright,
       westward leading, still proceeding,
       guide us to thy perfect light.

2     Born a king on Bethlehem plain,
       gold I bring, to crown him again-
       King for ever, ceasing never,
       over us all to reign:

3     Frankincense to offer have I;
       incense owns a deity nigh:
       prayer and praising, gladly raising,
       worship him, God most high:

4     Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
       breathes a life of gathering gloom;
       sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
       sealed in the stone-cold tomb:

5     Glorious now, behold him arise,
       King and God, and sacrifice!
       heaven sings alleluia,
       alleluia the earth replies:

John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891)

Janet – Prayer 3

Let us pray.

As we look forward to a time of peace on earth, we remember those places in which peace is hard to find; where countries are at war; where personal relationships have broken down; where what I want is all-important and having is more important than being.

We remember the people for whom ‘peace’ means not rocking the boat, avoiding conflict for fear of retribution or not caring enough to get involved.

We remember those who make it their business to be peace-makers, whether mediating in the squabbles of children or getting involved on an international level.

Loving Lord Jesus, we are one Community of Need:
In the needs we share, we hold out these prayers to you.  Amen.

Light the third candle

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven

Ding dong merrily on high
In heaven the bells are ringing

E’en so here below, below
Let steeple  bells be swungen

Carol - Ding dong merrily on high

1   Ding! dong! merrily on high
     In heav'n the bells are ringing;
     Ding! dong! verily the sky
     Is riv'n with angel singing.
     Gloria! Hosanna in excelsis!
     Gloria! Hosanna in excelsis!

2   E'en so here below, below,
     Let steeple bells be swungen,
     And 'Io, io, io!'
     By priest and people sungen:

3   Pray you, dutifully prime
     Your matin chime, ye ringers!
     May you beautifully rime
     Your evetime song, ye singers!

George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848-1934)
7 7 7 7 and Refrain
Copied from HymnQuest 2011: CLUE Version
HymnQuest ID: 52188

Matthew 2:12-18        Sue Cole

When you see how much of the world’s conflict is centred on the Middle East and seems to find its focus here in Jerusalem and Bethlehem it’s enough to turn people away from religion.  It makes me want to do the opposite and ask what should religion truly be about. 

I notice that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all look to Isaiah and his followers and revere them as Prophets.  In each of those faiths are people working for that kind of justice, righteousness, commitment to the poor and peace and reconciliation. 

In very troubled times those  prophets drew word pictures of what it would take for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Those word pictures shaped all that Jesus stood for and all that Jesus did.

Those same word pictures shape all that we as Christians stand for and all we seek to do as we pray ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

I don’t believe being a Christian is about getting people to heaven – I believe it is about bringing heaven and that pattern of justice, righteousness, commitment to the poor down to earth.

I am no longer comfortable singing one of my favourite carols – O Little Town of Bethlehem – I cannot sing ‘how still we see thee lie’.  The churches and Christians we are in contact with there invite us to stand with them in that very task.  We are going to sing the version of that carol our own Graham Adams wrote after visiting Bethlehem while he was training for the ministry.  Graham is now a minister in inner city Manchester and with Sheryl his wife will be having an extra special Christmas this year with their baby daughter, Bethan.

Carol - O Troubled  Town of Bethlehem

1          O troubled town of Bethlehem,
with conflict still you lie.
Above your deep but restless sleep
indifferent stars go by;
yet in your dark streets may you find
resilient, endless light:
for hopes and fears of all the years
were borne in you one night.

2          For Mary's child was born, and cried,
unnerving powers-above,
whilst God of Life who bears our strife
encouraged hope and love.
O morning stars, now sniper-fire
obscures such hopeful births;
but mothers sing of everything-
their prayer still 'peace on earth'.

3          How silently, how violently,
your wondrous gift was given;
while God is grace for every race,
your streets with fear are riven.
As Jesus came amongst the poor
(confronting powers-that-be),
through risen will and faith he still
invites us 'Set them free.'

4          O daring child of Bethlehem,
empower us all, we pray,
to work for peace that wars may cease
and love be born today.
With all the nations' angels
proclaiming we shall tell:
'Heal Bethlehem, join "us" with "them"'-
Amen, Immanuel!

Graham Adams (born 1975)
© Graham Adams

Copied from HymnQuest 2011: CLUE Version
HymnQuest ID: 77760

Janet – Prayer 4

Let us pray.

As we look forward to a time of birth and giving, we remember those who are feeling the pain of death and loss.

We remember those for whom the taking away is a pain almost beyond bearing, and those for whom it is a relief; those for whom it has come suddenly and without warning, and those who have watched loved ones slip away over months and years.

We remember those for whom the bringing of new life into the world is an unimaginable joy, and those for whom it is a long, hard and dangerous process.

We remember those whose gifts of time, energy, skill and compassion help to bring us into this world and to ease our passage out of it.

We remember those for whom life will never be the same again.

Loving Lord Jesus, we are one Community of Need:
In the need we share we hold out these prayers to you.

Let’s say together the prayer Jesus taught us to pray

Our Father who art in heaven
Hallowed be Thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
For thine is the kingdom,
The power and the Glory
Forever and ever.

As we sing the next of our carols we shall make our offering for the work of the church here at Highbury.  Our Christmas Day collection next week will be for County Community Projects and its work throughout Gloucestershire as a key provider of much needed care services.

91        See him lying on a bed of straw [including the offering]

Along with many churches throughout the English speaking world we have marked this, the 400th anniversary year of the Authorised Version of the Bible, as the Year of the Bible.  Between writing these notes and the time of our service, our attention has been drawn to the address given by Prime Minister David Cameron in Oxford only a day or so ago to mark that anniversary.  He is to be commended for taking his stand on what he called ‘biblical principles’.  These are the ‘biblical principles’ that are at the heart of the Christmas story.  The commitment of the prophets to justice, righteousness and integrity, their commitment to the poor and to reconciliation and peace.  This is what Jesus took his stand on and lived his life for.  These are the principles we as Christians are not only committed to ourselves, but they are the principles to which we are to hold those who rule us to account.  Many a service of lessons and carols will finish with a reading from John chapter 1.  These wonderful words are all about heaven coming down to earth, about the Word made Flesh.

John 1:1-14  - Janet Partington.

59  Hark the herald angels sing - UNANNOUNCED

Words of Blessing

Sunday, 4 December 2011

In the face of despair ... hope - Jeremiah's Story

Some time over the last weekend in October Felicity and I drove along Shady Lane on the outskirts of Leicester.  It looked very different from the Shady Lane we remember of our youth.   I well remember learning with excitement when I was still at school that they were going to plant an Arboretum along the side of the already tree-lined Shady Lane.  I firmly expected to see something like the kind of Arboretums I would later love to visit – Westonbirt, Batsford, and best of all Walsall with its illuminations.  I can remember the disappointment I felt when all I could see was a couple of fields planted sparsely with feeble saplings.  Forty years on the Arboretum is more like the Arboretum of my original imagining, though it has some way to go yet.

To plant out an arboretum is to make a statement about a future you will not live to see.

Hold on to that picture for a while as we turn to the book of Jeremiah.  Not an inappropriate Prophet to turn to at the end of a week when we have learned of the extent of the economic collapse that is happening the world over and at the start of a week that could see seismic changes in the structures and future of Europe.  Not only is Jeremiah the Prophet of Gloom and Doom but he is more than any other the one to carry out what seemed like outrageous symbolic, prophetic actions – the kind of person to be initiating an encampment outside St Paul’s.

Jeremiah is an outsider, not part of the Jerusalem establishment.  Son of Hilkiah, he is ‘of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin.  That’s a reference back to 2 Kings 2:26-27: Anathoth was the place Solomon banished Abiathar the priest to right at the outset of his reign, as he severed links with Eli’s family.  Jeremiah the outsider speaks truth to power in one of the most dreadful periods of the history of Jerusalem and Judah – from the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah through all his successors, until the captivity of Jerusalem.  (Jeremiah 1:1-3)

The account of Jeremiah’s call and commission in chapter 1 is a wonderful account of call and vocation.  Called of God to be a prophetic voice Jeremiah is all too aware of his own inadequacy.

‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
8 Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.’
These are words to take to hear whenever it is that we feel impelled to speak out about our faith – when we are called to declare God’s word, we can sense here the promise of God – do not be afraid – I am with you.  Those are the words Jesus echoed to his disciples when he warned them they would be up against the powers that be – do not be afraid, I am with you.  This is the promise Jesus leaves his followers as he commands them to go into all the world with the message of Good News to share.  I am with you always to the end of the age.

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.
That’s a very significant quotation – it is what is said of Moses, and it is what is said in Numbers 22:38 of the prophet who would come.  Jeremiah stands in that line of Moses.

Then comes a commission which is the commission that comes straight from the pages of Deuteronomy, we have seen it time and again through the pages of the former prophets, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, we have seen it in the 8th century prophets Isaiah, with his threesome Amos, Micah and Hosea, we have seen it with Huldah, we have seen it with the threesome associated with Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Nahum and Zephaniah.

The pattern that emerges in these prophetic books is of judgement as the consequences of the Kings’ and the people’s abandonment of God is worked out, and of hope as the promise of renewal and restoration comes.

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.’ 1:10

There are all sorts of different strands running through the Book of Jeremia, and you glimpse them all in chapter 1.    Jeremiah gives an analysis of all that is wrong in the way the Kings and the people have disobeyed God and broken with God’s way for the world.  It is a devastating critique – an indictment of all that is wrong. 

Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem,
   look around and take note!
Search its squares and see
   if you can find one person
who acts justly
   and seeks truth—
so that I may pardon Jerusalem.* (5:1)

And Jeremiah is in no doubt – the Kings and the People will have to face the consequences as the world as they know it falls apart.  Jeremiah can read the signs of the times and knows that the devastation will come from the north

Thus says the Lord:
See, a people is coming from the land of the north,
   a great nation is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth.
23 They grasp the bow and the javelin,
   they are cruel and have no mercy,
   their sound is like the roaring sea;
they ride on horses,
   equipped like a warrior for battle,
   against you, O daughter Zion!  (6:22-23)

It is the Babylonian power that will be instrumental bringing to pass the devastation that is the consequence of all that has gone wrong for the people and particularly in the decisions their rulers have made.  The heading in the NRSV at chapter 6 says it all – Jeremiah is full of the imminence and horror of the invasion.

How do you cope in such a time of uncertainty?  How does Jeremiah cope?

You need to go beyond the gloom and doom of Jeremiah to the person of Jeremiah.   In a lot of the poetry he plumbs the depths of his own anxiety and his own feelings of helplessness.  Those feelings he articulates at the very outset are feeling that return to haunt him.  There are moments of hope when he goes down to the potters house and speaks of God as the potter who can re-mould the clay that has been initially spoiled. (18) There are moments of utter hopelessness as he takes a clay pot that has been fired and smashes it irretrievably. (19)

And it takes its toll on Jeremiah – that reaches its peak in disturbing, harrowing words in chapter 20 14 ff

Cursed be the day
   on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me,
   let it not be blessed!
15 Cursed be the man
   who brought the news to my father, saying,
‘A child is born to you, a son’,
   making him very glad.
16 Let that man be like the cities
   that the Lord overthrew without pity;
let him hear a cry in the morning
   and an alarm at noon,
17 because he did not kill me in the womb;
   so my mother would have been my grave,
   and her womb for ever great.
18 Why did I come forth from the womb
   to see toil and sorrow,
   and spend my days in shame?

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus is seen as another Jeremiah.  We sometimes miss the negative side of his preaching – he too gives an analysis of all that is wrong.  The poor, the hungry, those who weep, those who are hated because they follow Jesus may be blessed, but woe to those who are rich, those who are full now, those who are laughing now, those everyone speaks well of.  He takes his stand against the powers that be.  And it too takes his toll as in the Garden of Gethsemane he prays that the cup be taken from him, and on the cross cries out as if forsaken by God.

And yet Jeremiah holds on to that promise – do not be afraid.  I am with you.

And so through all the catastrophe there are grounds for hope – for something will be restored, re-constructed out of the ruins.

I want to home in on four strands that are to do with planting and re-building – with the hope beyond restoration …

Initially he lays down the challenge to rulers and people alike – change your ways and there’s still time to put things together again.  He shares the word of God that there is still hope … if only the people could come to their senses, if only the rulers could repent, he then speaks of a time when restoration will come – and he speaks of the rulers as shepherds – Jeremiah declares the word of God …

I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. 16. 17At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the Lord, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the Lord in Jerusalem, and they shall no longer stubbornly follow their own evil will. (3:15ff)18

What it takes are ‘shepherds after my own heart’ and then ‘all nations shall gather to Jerusalem’ which will  become a blessing to the nations.

It’s telling that in the nativity stories it is shepherds who hear the angels sing, and magi from the east who come.  Even more telling is the way Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God coming and of himself as ‘the Good Shepherd’.  In the Kingdom of god as it should be it takes ‘good shepherds’ – that’s hinted at in Isaiah of Babylon, it is here in Jeremiah, and we shall find ourselves coming back to it even more when we come to the Book of Ezekiel as the New Year dawns.

There’s a second, fascinating strand.  Just like the Book of Isaiah, so too the Book of Jeremiah seems to be made up of different strands.  Towads the end – chapters 37 to 44 are a harrowing narrative of the fall of Jerusalem.  Chapters 46 – 51 are an indictment of the surrounding nations which are shifted to the middle of chapter 25 in the Greek translation of Jeremiah.  In and around those chapters you get a glimpse of how the Prophet Jeremiah’s words were recorded.

In chapter 36 Jeremiah is commanded to write his prophecy in a scroll – so in 36:4 he dictates the scroll to Baruch.  Then the king burns the scroll – and so Jeremiah in defiance dictates another.  AS the book draws towards a close in the wake of the devastation of Jerusalem and exile the writing of the scroll and the reading of the scroll becomes all important.  When the return from exile comes it is Ezra, the Scribe and the reading of the scroll that becomes all important.

The part ‘the scribes’ play in the Gospel story is fascinating – by then they have become guardians of something almost set in stone and very much part of the powers that be – and Jesus stands over against the scribes.  But he is seen as ‘the Word of God’ incarnate – and the writing of the Gospels becomes important so that the words of Jesus are passed on.  In the face of the difficulties of our time we are to treasure the Gospels as we treasure our Scriptures.

In a moment or two we will use the words of Jesus that more than any other echo the hope or restoration and renewal  that is Jeremiah’s hope.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,* says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

The cup that we shall share is the new covenant in Christ’s blood – and this new covenant is deep within our hearts – Jesus is the fulfilment of all the law and the prophets – not replacing the covenants of old, but ushering in that new covenant – that brings us into the closest relationship possible with God – the relationship that is deep within our hearts.

The chapters around chapter 31 are sometimes known as the book of comfort.  Early on in chapter 31 is the desolation of the wailing at Ramah that is taken up by Matthew in chapter 2 almost as if he is saying the world Jesus is born into is just the same cruel world that Jeremiah experienced.  But immediately after that cry of despair comes a word of hope and renewal that is taken up in that talk of a new covenant written on the heart.

There was one more thing that Jeremiah did as a remarkable statement of hope.  And it comes in chapter 32.  By now the world he has known really is falling apart about his ears as the Babylonian power are erecting their siege engines and preparing to lay siege to Jerusalem itself.  Jeremiah in a remarkable act of defiance bought a field in his home town of Anathoth.  As Jerusalem was collapsing all around him, he bought a field.  He would never see the benefit of it – but he did it as a statement that the renewal, the restoration would come.

Which brings me back to planting trees.  Just when we were driving along Shady Lane past Leicester’s Arboretum Joan Scott’s family were celebrating what would have been Joan Scott’s 100th birthday.  On Tuesday afternoon I sat with them in Room 1 having a tea party recalling those 100 years as we had just planted a tree in the torrential rain in her memory.  None of us there will see that tree in its maturity – but maybe there’s a statement of hope in the future from someone whose story has spanned the last hundred years – and maybe that’s a statement of hope very much in the spirit of Jeremiah.

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.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Nahum, Zephaniah, Jesus and the end of the world as they knew it!

Newspapers make grim reading at the moment. The TV news makes grim watching. There are wars and rumours of wars, overwhelming natural disasters, and we seem to be seeing the financial system of the last twenty-five years collapsing about our ears.

It is strange to find ourselves in two of the grimmest of the books of the Old Testament and so drawn to one of the grimmest chapters in the New Testament.

I believe there are connections to be made … but not perhaps quite the connections you may well have heard some make.

Nahum and Zephaniah are with Habakkuk linked to Jeremiah. They speak truth to power with their prophetic message in and around the reign of Josiah and his successors. It is the time when the Assyrian empire has destroyed the northern kingdom, and the Babylonian empire is on the rise and threatening the southern kingdom. Josiah’s reforms instigated by the prophet Huldah are too little too late.

Corruption, violence, immorality is rife in Jerusalem and Judah.

And for Nahum and Zephaniah it feels as if the world as they know it is coming to an end. And their critique of the domestic situation, and their analysis of the world situation proves all too accurate.

The Babylonians are going to sweep down and all the people have held dear for half a millennium will be destroyed.

The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast;the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there. 15 That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish,a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom,a day of clouds and thick darkness, 16 a day of trumpet blast and battle cryagainst the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements.
17 I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the Lord,their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. 18 Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath;in the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed;for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.
Today we have been thinking of Stefan and Birgit and their work of mission in Brazil. They followed on the footsteps of Jurgen who had also studied at the University. He was fascinated in his studies with this kind of language.

It is quite wrong to say that these passages are talking about the end of the world. They are using ‘end-of-the-world-language’ in order to talk about the collapse of the world as they knew it.

We do the same – the whole world is collapsing about our ears. It isn’t – but it feels that way and it might just as well be happening. That’s how to understand these words.
Note the analysis – the people had attached all their confidence to silver and gold. Finances will get us out of this mess. No they won’t says Zephaniah. And Nahum is even more bleak. Later Zephaniah speaks scathingly of Jerusalem – as soiled, defiled, oppressing city that has listened to no voice of prophetic warning in the name of God, that has accepted no correction and failed to heed any of those prophetic voices declaring the word of God. It is a city that has not trusted in the Lord, and has not drawn near to God (Zephaniah 3.1) The officials within it are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves; they leave nothing until the morning.

What is even worse is that there are people claiming to be prophets, who are reckless fatifhless persons. And the religious, the priests charged with honouring God have brought dishonour to his name – its priest have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law.

Only God is righteous. Only God is just.

Zephaniah, Nahum, like Huldah before, like Habakkuk and Jeremiah now are looking to the specific collapse of the world as they knew it – the devastation of the south as the north had been destroyed – the devastation of the temple itself.

But it is not unadulterated gloom. Look again at these books, much more so Zephaniah than Nahum. And there is that wonderful rhythm we have come to expect in the prophets of the Old Testament.

Beyond the gloom there is yet hope.

When the cataclysm comes it will be the start of something new.

Therefore wait for me, says the Lord, for the day when I arise as a witness.
In the midst of the catastrophe …
9 At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech,that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord. 10 From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia* my suppliants, my scattered ones, shall bring my offering.

What will happen in that restored kingdom? The rich and mighty will be brought low, the humble poor will be lifted up.
11 On that day you shall not be put to shame because of all the deeds by which you have rebelled against me;for then I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones,and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain. 12 For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly.They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord— 13 the remnant of Israel;they shall do no wrong and utter no lies,nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths.Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.

This vision then gives rise to a song of joy.

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! 15 The Lord has taken away the judgements against you, he has turned away your enemies.The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. 16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. 17 The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory;he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you* in his love;he will exult over you with loud singing 18 as on a day of festival.*I will remove disaster from you,* so that you will not bear reproach for it. 19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time.And I will save the lame and gather the outcast,and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20 At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you;for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth,when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.

The analysis and critique proves justified for the nation collapses. But the hope is well-founded for in the fullness of time the people return from exile, the city is restored and the temple re-built.

But things unravel and fall apart again. As successive empires rise and fall – and the people are oppressed.

Until Jesus comes along – and his message is that the kingdom is at hand. Mary in the Magnificat sings that the rich and mighty will be brought down the humble poor lifted up. Jesus speaks of the kingdom being in their midst – and tells his followers not to fear.

But Jesus is living in troubled times.

He is scathing of the oppression he sees in Jerusalem. Only days before he has wept over the city as it could not see the things that make for peace. Only days before he had carried out a great prophetic action cleansing the temple – my house should be a house of prayer and you have made it a den of thieves.

And now In Mark 13 it is as he comes out of the temple that he talks to the disciples – look at this incredible building – there isn’t another like it for hundreds of miles in any direction, as Tom Wright points out in his excellent commentary, Mark for Everyone. Not one stone will be left here upon another.

Then comes a very specific question. When will this be? What are the signs that it will be accomplished.

What Jesus goes on to say then in the rest of Mark 13 is in direct response to this very specific question.

It’s not talking about the end of the world … it is talking about the end of the world as Jesus, his followers and all his contemporaries knew it.

He goes on to speak of the time when dreadful things will happen to the temple and once again be devastated as desolating sacriligeous things are done to it.

It will seem very much as if the whole world is coming to an end – it’s the same kind of language. It is the same kind of event.

And there is the same kind of rhythm.

Verse 8. This is but the birthpangs.

Everyone was very much closer to the pain of childbirth in Jesus’s day than in our society. Though many of those societies that have been in the news in the Children in Need appeal have child birth and its pain so much closer. But the birth pangs hearld something new.

And so too, while this event will happen, says Jesus we are to see it as the beginning of something new.

And the vindication of that will be seen as the Son of man comes to God in all his glory through resurrection and his ascension once more.

It may be necessary on that day to flee, says Jesus. Flee Jerusalem, don’t stay there when the Romans invade out of a false sense of loyalty to that location. Flee.

That Jesus is speaking of events that would happen, and actually did happen in AD 70 is demonstrated in verse 30 when he says that this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.

The whole world as we know it will collapse, but my words will not pass away.

And then watch and wait.

If Christ’s words do not pass away the task is to put those words into action.

I believe that when we read Nahum and Zephaniah and all those other prophets in this way, and when we read Jesus in Mark 13 in this way, it speaks massively into our society today.

Tom Wright says this:

It is vital to read this passage as containing Jesus’ prophecies fulfilled 40 years later, against the Temple. That is what Mark, at least, believes this whole chapter is about. But we should not suppose that there are therefore no messages for our own day nearly 2,000 years later. Where human societies and institutions set themselves up against the gospel and its standards, producing arrogant and dehumanizing structures, deep injustices and radical oppression, there may once more be a place for prophets to denounce and to warn …
We too can make the same critique, the same kind of analysis.

The prophetic critique that Jesus is very much a part of has no time for wealth as the key motivation for life; and it has all the time in the world for the poor, the disposed. It stands for justice.

Prophetic voices have spoken out. And been disregarded.

Maybe when we do read those newspapers, and switch on to the TV news and it feels as if the world is falling apart … it may be that the world we have come to know is falling apart. It may be that we are going to have to work through the consequences of the way we have sought to build our world as we see it falling apart.

But in all of that we have something to hold on to.

Can we hold on to the rhythm of those ancient prophetic books and hold on to a hope that out of all that collapses something new will come.

Can we see what’s happening as ‘birth-pangs’. Out of this will come something new?

What is our task?

To hold on to the values outlined by the Prophet – justice, humility, concern for the poor – this is what we are to live out.

Everything may fall apart but Christ’s words will not pass away.

So Feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and maybe in this Prisons week this as much as any of the others have a thought for the prisoner.

For as much as you do it the least of these members of my family, you do it to me.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Habakkuk - a fitting story for Remembrance Sunday

I only occasionally get to listen to Prime Minister’s Questions. If all you have heard of PMQ’s is what is on the News then you may not have appreciated how sobering it actually is.

The 30 minutes of questions at mid-day on a Wednesday begins with a recital of the names of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan in the previous week. Rarely does a week go by without a litany of names being read.

Ours is a troubling world with its violence and the seemingly unstoppable spiral descent into whatever the financial crisis has in store for us.

One of the most perturbing of all questions is the heartfelt cry – why do those bent on evil, violence and destruction seem to get away with it and all too often it is the innocent who suffer.

For someone of faith that despairing cry can sometimes lead to the loss of faith and the biggest of questions. On the eve of our Olympic Year at Sunday Special and in this morning’s remembrance service we told the story of Eric Liddell, the Olympic Champion who refused to run on Sunday whose story was told in Chariots of Fire. I grew up with his story way before the release of Chariots of Fire because Eric Liddell was a missionary with the London Missionary Society in China and his story was one of those great missionary stories I grew up with.

Though he took the opportunity to send his wife and daughter to Canada as the Japanese invaded China, he determined to stay with the people he felt part of. He was interned in a prison camp and died of a brain tumour shortly before the end of the war. I played a clip from an interview with a couple of the people who were in that prison camp with him.

Eric Liddell had done so much to keep the youngsters going. More than that he had been an inspiration in the prayers he circulated round the camp.

One, Steve Metcalfe spoke of the despair he felt momentarily when he was a pall bearer at Eric Liddell’s funeral. “What’s life all about?” was the cry from the heart he made.

Habakkuk is one of the most powerful books in the Book of the Twelve. As remembrance Sunday comes to an end once again with the country at war albeit faraway in Afghanistan. A contemporary of Jeremiah Habakkuk is in Jerusalem as the Babylonian power are unleashing their untold violence at the very gates of the city. It is a terrifying time.

As the book opens Habakkuk has sunk into the pits of despair.

1The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
The Prophet’s Complaint

2 O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgement comes forth perverted.
One response to such a crisis is to try to get your mind round what’s happening. Habakkuk, Nahum and Zephaniah are the three minor prophets that can be linked with Jeremiah to this period from the end of Josiah’s reign to the collapse of the Southern Kingdom. All four have worked out a way of seeking an understanding of what’s going on. Interestingly, they seem to take their cue from Huldah.

The voice of God breaks in on Habakkuk …

5 Look at the nations, and see!
Be astonished! Be astounded!
For a work is being done in your days
that you would not believe if you were told.

Habakkuk is not only in sensing that somewhere or other, though he cannot at the time make it out God’s hand is still in what’s going on. It’s very easy to read the thoughts of these prophets as if they simply see God as a capricious God who sends the Babylonians as a way of bringing judgement on the people.

I think there’s something deeper going on as we shall see in a moment. What these prophets recognise is that what’s happening in the rise of violence, the collapse of the kingdom to the invading Babylonian power is the consequence of all that they have got wrong at the hands of a succession of Kings who have so let the people down and let God down. When you read ‘judgement’ think ‘consequence’.

The consequence as Habakkuk 1 unfolds is full of untold violence.

6 For I am rousing the Chaldeans,
that fierce and impetuous nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth
to seize dwellings not their own.
7 Dread and fearsome are they;
their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.
8 Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more menacing than wolves at dusk;
their horses charge.
Their horsemen come from far away;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
9 They all come for violence,
with faces pressing forward;
they gather captives like sand.

Such a view is hard to take. And Habakkuk finds it hard to take. And so he rails once more at a God who allows evil to prevail – he simply cannot understand what is going on.

He asks of God the biggest question of all. Why? And it is a question that has no easy answers.

12 Are you not from of old,
O LORD my God, my Holy One?
You shall not die.
O LORD, you have marked them for judgement;
and you, O Rock, have established them for punishment.
13 Your eyes are too pure to behold evil,
and you cannot look on wrongdoing;
why do you look on the treacherous,
and are silent when the wicked swallow
those more righteous than they?

What on earth can Habakkuk do?

Perhaps better is to ask what in heaven’s name can Habakkuk do.

Then comes a most remarkable picture. He goes off to a place where he can be quiet amidst all the tumult, to a place where he can listen to God.

He turns to prayer.

2I will stand at my watch-post,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.

Habakkuk turns to prayer.

Out of the maelstrom of that prison camp prayer emerged for Eric Liddell as something that was of the essence. His day started in prayer and finished with prayer. He wrote a manual of prayer that helped so many in that camp – he spoke of ‘communicating with God’ “We communicate with God through prayer and Bible study. The best way is to decide upon a definite time, preferably in the early morning, and keep it sacred. Build the habits of y our life around that period. Do not allow it to be crowded out by other things.”

The practice of prayer.

Find a watch-tower. Station yourself on the rampart. Keep watch to see what he will say to you.

Notice Habakkuk’s prayer is not filled with words. It is filled with the silence of listening – he longs to see what God will say, how he will answer his complaint.

And the response comes …

2 Then the LORD answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.

The vision of hope. That’s what’s to hold on to. A vision then that can be applied to daily living – and every part of life. A vision that may feel a long time in the coming, but come it will. And what is the vision?

Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.

It is about justice and righteousness – the justice and the righteousness that are released by faith, that trusting in God come what may, that faith that for Eric Liddell found its wonderful focus in Jesus Christ.

Steve Marriot after asking that question ‘what’s it all for’ thought again about an occasion when Eric Liddell had been devastated by the sheer horrors of that rat-infested prison camp with its open sewers and the treatment of the people by the Japanese guards.

. He read the verse, love your enemies do good to them that hate you. He said, I’ve started praying for the Japanese and he challenged us to do the same. And I did do that. It changed my attitude to them as being creatures of God and was what remained in my mind.

Steve Marriott often thought about those words and for him they transformed his life – after the war he went on to Japan and became a missionary there.

This is the kind of path we are invited to follow in the vision of Habakkuk as the righteous live by faith. That’s what’s to hold on to.

How different from those who would cling to wealth and the arrogance of power. These words are so timely speaking into this current situation of ours as well …

5 Moreover, wealth is treacherous;
the arrogant do not endure.
They open their throats wide as Sheol;
like Death they never have enough.
They gather all nations for themselves,
and collect all peoples as their own.

What then follows is a remarkable analysis of all that has been wrong in the kingdom of Judah as a consequence of which all has happened as it has. It is an indictment of injustice, the mindless accrual of wealth. It is intensely political analysis that in its indictment of the rush for wealth, the quest for power at the expense of the poor is writing for today.

‘Alas for you who heap up what is not your own!’
How long will you load yourselves with goods taken in pledge?
7 Will not your own creditors suddenly rise,
and those who make you tremble wake up?
Then you will be booty for them.
8 Because you have plundered many nations,
all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you—
because of human bloodshed, and violence to the earth,
to cities and all who live in them.

9 ‘Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses,
setting your nest on high
to be safe from the reach of harm!’
10 You have devised shame for your house
by cutting off many peoples;
you have forfeited your life.
11 The very stones will cry out from the wall,
and the plaster will respond from the woodwork.

12 ‘Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed,
and found a city on iniquity!’
13 Is it not from the LORD of hosts
that peoples labour only to feed the flames,
and nations weary themselves for nothing?

15 ‘Alas for you who make your neighbours drink,
pouring out your wrath until they are drunk,
in order to gaze on their nakedness!’
16 You will be sated with contempt instead of glory.
Drink, you yourself, and stagger!
The cup in the LORD’s right hand
will come around to you,
and shame will come upon your glory!
17 For the violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you;
the destruction of the animals will terrify you—
because of human bloodshed and violence to the earth,
to cities and all who live in them.

18 What use is an idol
once its maker has shaped it—
a cast image, a teacher of lies?
For its maker trusts in what has been made,
though the product is only an idol that cannot speak!
19 Alas for you who say to the wood, ‘Wake up!’
to silent stone, ‘Rouse yourself!’
Can it teach?
See, it is plated with gold and silver,
and there is no breath in it at all.
But in the face of all this Habakkuk senses the greatness of God …

20 But the LORD is in his holy temple;
let all the earth keep silence before him!

He has confidence
14 But the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD,
as the waters cover the sea.
And so he turns once more to prayer.

Chapter 3 is a prayer of the prophet Habakkuk according to Shigionoth. It is one of those Psalms that is not included in the Book of Psalms.

And that prayer gives Habakkuk the confidence to rest in God and as it were put himself and everything into God’s hands. But it’s a scary feeling. For he knows the inevitability of all that will happen.

16 I hear, and I tremble within;
my lips quiver at the sound.
Rottenness enters into my bones,
and my steps tremble beneath me.
I wait quietly for the day of calamity
to come upon the people who attack us.

Just as Habakkuk finds solace in a psalm, so too Eric Liddell found great comfort in hymns. One in particular was a favourite of his giving him confidence at those moments when circumstances seemed only to invite despair.

Be still my soul, the Lord is on your side,
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change he faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; thy best, thy heavenly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

What makes Habakkuk such a powerful book is precisely what makes it so moving to hear on Remembrance Sunday the testimony of one imprisoned in a Japanese prison camp. Here in Habakkuk and in the story of Eric Liddell we find “a message of profound hope in a circumstance of profound despair.

Nowhere is that hope more powerfully expressed than in the climax to that Psalm that makes up chapter 3 of Habakkuk. Unless of course you think of those wonderful words of Paul at the end of Romans 8 when he tells us he is persuaded that there is nothing in life or in death, in the present or the future, in height or in depth, nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

That is exactly the thought shared by Habakkuk.

In the face of a world that at times seems to be falling apart in 2011 these are words for us to hold on to as well.

17 Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
19 GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

Those words were an inspiration for William Cowper, close friend of John Newton. He suffered the most awful periods of depression and found solace in these words of Habakkuk in a remarkable hymn that is so real. Go up on the watch tower and the hope, the faith does not always come. The light won’t always be there. But it will be sometimes. And that ‘sometimes is all important to William Cowper.

1 Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in his wings:
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.

2 In holy contemplation,
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God's salvation,
And find it ever new.
Set free from present sorrow,
We cheerfully can say,
Now let the unknown morrow
Bring with it what it may:

3 It can bring with it nothing
But he will bear us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing
Will clothe his people too:
Beneath the spreading heavens
No creature but is fed;
And he who feeds the ravens
Will give his children bread.

4 Though vine nor fig-tree neither
Their wonted fruit should bear,
Though all the field should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there,
Yet, God the same abiding,
His praise shall tune my voice;
For, while in him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.

William Cowper (1731-1800)