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)

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Huldah's untold story

I was sceptical.

It looked like a footprint … but come on!

It was the day when we were going to walk down from the Mount of Olives on the road Jesus followed that first Palm Sunday.

The coach had dropped us off by a holy site, a place of Christian pilgrimage since the 4th Century. There it is! Our guide pointed it out to us. The massive rock with a a footprint. This, we were assured was the footprint left by Jesus when he used this mounting block to get on to the donkey.

As I said, I was sceptical.

What fascinated me more was the associations this holy site had for those ancient pilgrims. They had decided this must be the tomb of one of the greatest of all the Old Testament prophets.

It was said to be the tomb of The prophet Huldah.

Huldah, I hear you, say … who was that.

You won’t find Huldah among the book of the twelve.

But Huldah was of great significance for the Jewish people … and still is.

We made our way down from that spot on a route that Jesus must have followed. And there at one moment we rounded a bend and before us lay the old city of Jerusalem. It was Jesus’ first site of that city and of the temple itself. And when he saw it, he wept. Would that you had known the things that make for peace, he lamented, but you did not.

We made our way into Jerusalem … and to a museum under the walls of the temple mount..

And there we sat on steps that the archaeologists had discovered going up to the wall that dated right back to the time of Herod.

This time, when we were told that these must have been steps that Jesus would have walked up there could be no doubt.

And there was something special I felt as I sat there.

At the top of the steps was the base of the incredible wall that Herod the Great had built as the Plaza on which the Temple once stood. There were two small doorways, now of course blocked up.

We were taken to a visitor centre in the museum, and our guide, Hannah, took us through a computer generated slide show showing how in the days of Jesus these steps were the main entrance to the temple. The two doors would were tiny. Going through them you would then be confronted with a long flight of steps going up on to the temple mount. It would have been dark.

The size of the temple mount is something like six times the pitch area of Wembley Stadium. So imagine that you are climbing the steps from the bowels of something six times the size of Wembley – up through the players tunnel. Climbing to the top of the steps it’s getting lighter and at the very top of the flight of stairs you emerge into the courtyards of the temple – and there in front of, towering above you is the lavish, shining like gold, newly re-built temple Herod the Great had created.

Wonderful – and in honour of Huldah’s significance as one of the greatest of the Prophets, those two gates we have just come through are known as the Huldah gates. Doubly appropriate because in Hebrew the word Hulda means mouse or mole – and those tunnels were just like mole’s tunnels!

So who is this Huldah?

The great eighth century prophets – Amos, Hosea, Micah and greatest of them all, Isaiah finished their time of prophecy in the reign of Hezekiah. They each speak powerfully of the call for righteousness and justice. And each bemoans the failures of the kings of Israel in the north and of Judah in the south. Isaiah gave wonderful word pictures of what a king should be like who was anointed of God – and of the passion he would have for justice and righteousness and peace.

But tragically, it was not to be.

At Hezekiah’s death he was succeeded by his son Manasseh.

Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign; he reigned for fifty-five years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Hephzibah. He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, following the abominable practices of the nations that the LORD drove out before the people of Israel. For he rebuilt the high places that his father Hezekiah had destroyed; he erected altars for Baal, made a sacred pole, as King Ahab of Israel had done, worshipped all the host of heaven, and served them. He built altars in the house of the LORD, of which the LORD had said, ‘In Jerusalem I will put my name.’ He built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the LORD. He made his son pass through fire; he practised soothsaying and augury, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger.

This was awful. And there was 55 years of Manasseh’s reign.

His son was no better. Amon ‘did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as his father had done.

This was one of the lowest points for the southern kingdom of Judah.

All the hopes that had been attached to those great eighth century prophets were dashed. Everything had been lost. What made matters even worse was that the temple had been allowed to go to rack and ruin. And all the carefully preserved documents and tablets with the books of the law on them had been damaged or even lost.

The servants had had enough. And a people’s rebellion overthrew the king. 2 Kings 21:23 – it was the servants of Amon who conspired against him, and killed the king in his house.

But the people of the land – a richly fascinating phrase were wary of those servants and concerned lest they should take power themselves and so destroy the dynasty of David.

So it was that the people of the land killed all those who had conspired against King Amon, and the people of the land made his son JNosiah king in place of him.

There was just one hitch.

Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign.

The people of the land saw to it that things now changed.

Josiah grew up to know the evils of his father and grandfather … it was as if he took seriously the model of kingship that had been outlined by Isaiah and those other 8th Century prophets. So it was that he ‘did what was right in the sight of the Lord and walked in the way of h is father David; he did not turn aside to the right or the left.

The prophetic historians in II Kings 22 take up the story in the eighteenth year of the King Josiah.

Carpenters and builders and masons had been organised by Shaphan the Secretary of State in consultation with Hilkiah the High Priest and had set about reparing the damaged and desolate temple. It took quite a lot of money – and Shaphan organised the taxation that was required.

Then it was that Hilkiah reported a discovery to Shaphan the secrtary of state when he said, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.”

What was that ‘book of the Law’ that had been discovered. It’s fasincating that many commentators suggest that it was the book of Deuteronomy. Remember that the book of Deuteronomy is made up of speeches made by Moses as he stands on the threshold of the Promised land and amounts as the title suggests to a second reading of the Law. It contained that basic chioice – choose good and not evil, choose life and not death. And it was in Deuteronomy that the basic principle had been identified that is shot through Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, those former prophets – obey God and things will go well, disobey God and all will fall apart and go from bad to worse.

I want to read on in the story … because it is one of the most powerful and remarkable of all the stories in the Old Testament. And it is a story that has not been told.

Then Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, ‘Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of the workers who have oversight of the house of the LORD.’ Shaphan the secretary informed the king, ‘The priest Hilkiah has given me a book.’ Shaphan then read it aloud to the king.
When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes. Then the king commanded the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Achbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary, and the king’s servant Asaiah, saying, ‘Go, inquire of the LORD for me, for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.’
This is a key moment that goes to the heart of what these prophetic historians are all about. Josiah recognises that the book of the Law offers a framework for himself as king and for the ordering of the kingdom and the people. He sees the awfulness of the situation as he reads the book of the law …. And he can tell that it is the neglect of this law, and the loss of this book that has caused so much to go wrong.

As Christians who seek to be true to the Scriptures we need to value the importance of a framework of law for the living of our lives and the shaping of life together. One small reflection that I will come back to in the next couple of weeks. I don’t know what I would have done had I been in the shoes of the staff of St Paul’s. One person who has come out of that whole period well is the Archbishop of Canterbury. His writings since the summer – in the Financial Times this week – have been spot on. It is no coincidence that the occupation of the square in front of St Paul’s has come on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Big Bang – the wholesale dismantling of all the banking regulations that you and I grew up with. The collapse of the financial system, is the collapse of a system that was put in place only 25 years ago. We cannot simply go back to the previous system, the Bretton Woods system but what is desperately needed is a new approach to the financial system f the world. It would be no bad thing to start such a re-structuring with what Rowan Williams has been advocating, a Robin Hood Tax.

The insight of these prophetic historiand is that we need such structures.

Notice how he calls into his presence all the chief leaders of the land – in the priesthood and in the court.

They are to go and enquire of the Lord.

But how are they to do that?

If the king wants to know what God’s word is in a particular situation, who does the king turn to?

Remember Josiah is one who has heeded the counsel of the likes of Isaiah, Amos, Hosea and Micah – he has modelled his kingship on the principles of justice they have enunciated. There is only one person they can go to.

It has to be a Prophet.

So the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah [that’s to say, all the great and the good from the court of the King and from the Temple itself] went to [wait for it!] the prophet Huldah? Not quite the NRSV spells it out. They went to] the prophetess Huldah the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe;

I love that roll reversal. Shallum the husband is the keeper of the wardrobe. Huldah the wife is the prophetess!

she resided in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter, where they consulted her. She declared to them, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says the LORD,

I love those words! What Huldah goes on to say are words of stern warning … that wonderful though the reforms of Josiah are, it’s too little, too late, and the people will face the consequences of the wrong-doing of the kings. Huldah’s words of prophecy set a theme that we will see over the next few weeks taken up by Jeremiah and the three minor prophets associated with him – Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephania.

But for today, I simply want to stay with those words.

They should be writ large against the backdrop of all the debates over the place of women in church.

It is simply not biblical to say that women cannot speak the word of God to men.

Tell the man who sent you, Thus says the Lord.

Christmas is coming, the carols the Thames Head singers will be singing in our carol service on 10th December have already been chosen and the readings will soon be there! Among the Christmas readings we will hear tell of the presentation of Jesus in the temple and of Simeon’s response as he shared the song that has come to be known as the Nunc Dimittis – lettest thou thy servant depart in peace. Alongside Simeon was a Prophet Anna, the daughter of Phanuel. A widow of 84, she never left the temple but worshpped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment when the baby Jesus had been taken by Simeon into his arms she came and began to praise God.

But that’s not the significance of the story of Anna. Not only did she praise God but she began to o speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jersualem.

The first person to declare that Jesus was the one who would come to set the people of Jersualem free was a woman.

Jesus himself had time for women, honoured the women in his midst and as we heard in that story of the Syro-phoenician woman listened and heeded the words of wisdom spoken to him by a woman.

Never mind the stone and the footprint. I am glad I visited a place associated with Huldah. Never mind the steps to the temple where Jesus actually walked. I am pleased to have sat by the Huldah gates.

We cannot read the Prophets without honouring Huldah – and her message as we shall see is one taken up by Jeremiah and the others. We too need to recognise the folly of the last 25 years experiment with a no-holds barred de-regulated financial system that has been demonstrated to be rotten to the core and we need a just framework for the financial world as for every other part of society’s life together.