Friday, 27 November 2020

Resistance is never futile

 Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation - 29th November 2020

Advent 1

Daniel 6.6-27


In the middle of the most recent lockdown,

            media headlines were reporting the news

            that a group of church leaders were taking the government to court.

 I’ll let the Guardian take up the story:

More than 100 Christian leaders have launched a legal challenge against the ban on communal worship in England under lockdown restrictions.

They claim worship has been “criminalised” and the ban has “inflicted a terrible human cost” on congregations for whom collective worship is a core element of their religious life.

The restrictions on public worship, they argue, breach article 9 of the European convention on human rights which protects the right to freedom of religion.

The claim for judicial review by 122 church leaders from different traditions is being supported by the Christian Legal Centre, an arm of the conservative evangelical organisation Christian Concern.[1]

Well, I perhaps ought to admit that I often find Christian Concern quite useful

            because if I haven’t quite worked out what I think about something,

I can take a look at whether they’ve said anything about it,

            and if they have, I can be fairly sure that I’ll think the opposite!

 

Whilst, at a superficial level, it might be tempting

            to draw an analogy between Daniel’s defiance of King Darius

            and the wilful breaking of lockdown rules by some church leaders,

I think this is to trivialise the question that the story raises for us,

            which is the deep and profound question of religious liberty.

 

The guidance related to Article 9 of the European convention on human rights

            is a long and detailed document.

I looked it up, and it runs to 98 pages,

            with a huge level of nuance and case law.[2]

 

But the headline paragraph, the ‘article’ itself,

            is fairly short, so let’s hear it now:

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Well, I think that put’s Christian Concern back in its box,

            given that we’re in the middle of a pandemic!

 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m as frustrated as the next person by some of the rules:

            for example I simply can’t work out why a choir are allowed

                        to sing in our church on a weekday evening without masks,

            but we’re not allowed to sing there on a Sunday even with masks!

 

However, this isn’t religious persecution;

            it is, I suspect, mere incompetence on the part of the rule-makers.

 

And we’ll be back in our building soon enough,

            thanks to the vaccine,

and when we are, no-one will be taking our names to intimidate us,

            or threatening us as we make our way to worship.

 

But until then we’ll continue to meet for worship online,

            living and speaking the values and convictions of our faith

            without let or hindrance.

 

So what, I wonder, are we to make of that Sunday School favourite,

            the story of Daniel in the lion’s den?

 

Well, as always, it’s worth setting the context,

            and I’m grateful to John for giving us a short introduction as part of the reading.

 

To recap, then: Last week we were with the story of Jeremiah,

            with Israel on the cusp of occupation and exile,

            and the Davidic monarchy under threat.

 

In our reading for today, we’ve moved on a few decades,

            and now we’re bang in the middle of the Babylonian exile.

 

The Temple has been destroyed,

            Jerusalem has been conquered,

and the Jews, or at least a significant number of them,

            have been taken from their homes into exile in Babylon.

 

This time of exile is crucial for the development of Judaism,

            and therefore for Christianity.

Because it’s during the exile that most of the Jewish scriptures are written down;

            it’s during this time of displacement

                        that much of what we call the Old Testament comes into being,

            as oral traditions are transcribed into written form.

 

It’s also the time when the Jews discover what it means

            to be Jewish without their land or temple as the focus of their faith.

 

And by the time we get to the time of Jesus,

            although there is a restored Jewish state and rebuilt temple,

            there are also Jewish communities

                        in most major towns and cities throughout the Roman Empire,

            as the people of Israel flourish even when distanced from their homeland.

 

But the story of Daniel wasn’t written down in exile,

            it is a story from much later in the Jewish story,

            finding its origins in the time of the Maccabean revolt in 165 BCE.

 

In this way, the book of Daniel

            is probably the most recent of the Old Testament books to be written.

To put it in context,

            this church is older

            than the number of years between Jesus and the book of Daniel.

 

It might be describing events from the sixth century BC,

            but it was written in the mid second century BC.

 

And of course, it’s a fictional story.

            I hate to break it to you, but Daniel is a character, not a historical person.

 

Similar to the modern genre of historical novel,

            the context is historical, the exile happened,

            but the characters who inhabit the text are fictionalised.

 

So, why does the Book of Daniel exist,

            why was it written, and what’s it trying to say?

 

Well, the Maccabean revolt was a Jewish rebellion

            that took place between 167 and 160 BC

and it was an uprising against the Seleucid Empire

            which was one of the culturally Greek empires

            that came to the fore after the fall of Alexander the Great’s Greek empire.

 

The book of Maccabees in the Apocrypha is set in the time of the Maccabean revolt,

            and in addition to giving us the origins of the Jewish festival Hanukah

            it also tells us about a man called Mattathias

                        and his sons, Judas, Jonathan, and Simon.

 

The Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes captures Jerusalem,

            kills a lot of Jews, and removes the sacred objects from the temple.

He then passes laws to suppress the public observance of Jewish laws,

            and desecrates the temple by establishing pagan rituals in the holy of holies,

            including sacrificing an unclean animal on the altar.

He forbids the rite of circumcision,

            and makes it illegal on pain of death to possess the Jewish scriptures.

 

In the face of this persecution, Mattathias and his sons

            initiate an armed revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes,

            and despite heavy losses they have some success.

They re-take the temple, and re-consecrate it for Jewish worship,

            instituting the festival of Hanukah in celebration.

 

Eventually the brothers do a deal with the rising Roman empire,

            to secure support in ousting the Seleucids,

            and both Johnathan and Simon end up serving as high priest in the temple.

 

In Jewish folklore, this goes down as a major victory,

            as the faithful Jewish brothers overthrow a mighty Imperial enemy.

It also sets the scene for the Roman occupation of Israel,

            which of course is the context for the life of Jesus a century and a half later.

 

And it’s also the time when the story of Daniel is written,

            set, as we have heard, in former time

            when Israel was also under threat from an evil empire.

 

And, sure enough, the king in the story, King Darius of Persia,

            has passed his law requiring people to worship him,

            and him alone, on pain of death.

 

So… what is the faithful hero Daniel to do?

            Should he worship Darius, or remain faithful to his God?

            Should he fight and take up arms against the oppressive king?

            Or should he engage in nonviolent civil disobedience?

 

All these, of course, are the questions facing the Jews

            at the time of the Maccabean revolt,

and the story of Daniel explores what nonviolent resistance looks like,

            at a time when the populist solution to the Seleucids was arms revolt.

 

So Daniel quietly, faithfully, places his trust in God,

            and continues to worship according to his traditions

            in defiance of King Darius’s orders.

 

And when the soldiers turn up

            to take him to his place of execution

he isn’t waiting for them with a sword in his hand,

            but rather he goes quietly, faithfully, trusting in God.

 

And the outcome, as we all know,

            is that Daniel’s faithfulness is rewarded,

            the King converts, and decrees that everyone must now worship Daniel’s God.

And, for good measure, the lions still get their dinner

            as those who had conspired for Daniel’s death

            become the victims of their own dastardly plan.

 

And everyone lived happily ever after.

 

So - can you see what’s going on here?

            This story is proposing a nonviolent alternative

            to the armed resistance of Mattathias and his sons.

 

And what, you might well ask,

            has all this got to do with Advent?

 

Well, the clue is in the hymn we heard just now:

 

O come, O come, Immanuel,

and ransom captive Israel,

that mourns in lonely exile here

until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! rejoice! Immanuel

shall come to thee, O Israel!

 

Just as the time of the Maccabean revolt

            could be understood in terms of the Exile,

So too can the world that waits the coming of Christ

            be understood as a world of lonely exile.

 

Advent is the season of waiting for the coming of the Christ child,

            the moment when God is made known to humans.

 

And, in the gospel stories of the birth of Jesus

            there is, of course, a wicked king - Herod the Great,

            who had married the great-great-great Grand-daughter of Simon Maccabeus!

And there is an evil empire,

            the Romans who are propping up the regime of Herod.

 

And the story of Daniel raises its questions for the life of Jesus,

            who comes as God-made-flesh

            to challenge all the powers and principalities of evil in the world.

 

We see it playing out in the stories of Jesus’ life,

            as those around him keep tending towards armed struggle against the oppressor,

and Jesus continually resists violence as the solution to the world’s problems,

            as he journeys towards his own place of violence on the cross.

 

And as we gather, today, on the first Sunday in Advent,

            this ancient story poses its challenge to us, too.

 

The image of exile is often used as a way of thinking

            about how Christians live in the world:

our home is the kingdom of heaven,

            but for now we are exiled to the kingdom of this world,

so how shall we live?

 

And the choice before us is the same as it was for Daniel,

            and it’s the same as it was for the Jews of the Maccabean period,

            and it’s the same as it was for those who lived alongside Jesus.

 

Will we seek, through our actions, to proactively assert our rights,

            to do battle with those who would oppose our faith traditions?

 

If so, we are closer to the Maccabeans than we might like to admit.

 

Or will we seek, as Daniel did,

            to bear faithful and steadfast witness to God,

            facing the consequences of our actions with peaceful courage if necessary?

 

We may not have anyone telling us that our faith is illegal,

            or forbidding us from worshipping our God.

And it seems to me that to try and cast the requirements of lockdown

            as if they were such a restriction

is, I think, a smokescreen for a kind of zealous assertivism

            that seeks to create a narrative of victimhood as a spur to antagonism.

 

However, there are powers at work in our world

            that seek to take for themselves that which should only be given to God.

 

The ideologies of consumerism and militarism

            are insidious, violent, and all-embracing;

and we are called to resist,

            to live out in our lives the fact that our allegiance is to another God.

And there will be a cost to this,

            going against the prevailing ideology of the world is not easy.

 

So as the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel nears,

            and our time of exile from our buildings draws to a close,

I wonder if we can hear, this Advent,

            the challenge to live in the hope

that the realities of our world as we experience it

            do not get to define the future.

 

Can we hear from Daniel, this Advent,

            the challenge to live with integrity in this moment,

            resisting the forces and demands that press compromise upon us?



[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/14/communal-worship-criminalised-under-lockdown-church-leaders-say

[2] https://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Guide_Art_9_ENG.pdf

Friday, 20 November 2020

The Burning Word of God

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation,

the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,

November 22nd 2020

Killing the Scholars and Burning the Books in 210–213 BC
Anonymous 18th century Chinese painted album leaf; Bibliothèque nationale Paris

Jeremiah 36.1-8, 21-23, 27-28; 31.31-34

Have you ever noticed

            that sometimes megalomaniac leaders

            just don’t know when to quit?

 

Can you imagine the kind of leader

            whose denial of the truth might lead them to extraordinary lengths

            to suppress those who try to speak truth to their power?

 

From controlling the media, to undermining fair elections,

            to silencing voices that challenge them,

these tactics are as old as the hills

            and as contemporary as today.

 

From King Jehoiakim of Judah,

            to the ideologies of Communism and Fascism during the twentieth century

            to the denial of the election result in Trump’s America,

            some leaders will do anything, literally anything, to hold on to power.

 

There’s a famous quote from a play written 1821,

            by the German writer Heinrich Heine,[1]

about the burning of the Quran during the Spanish Inquisition.

            Heine said, ‘Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.’[2]

 

Ironically, his own works were themselves a century later on the list of books

            destined for the Nazi book burning purges.

 

And, again and again, through human history,

            we have seen it to be true,

            on every side of the political and religious divide,

            that where freedom of expression is smothered,

                        and independence of thought is extinguished,

            so the destruction of persons inexorably follows.

 

Words become flesh,

            and both are burned.

 

From the Spanish Inquisition to IS militants,

            from Farenheit 451 to Orwell’s 1984,

book burning has functioned as a potent tool of suppression and control.

 

And one of the earliest examples is found in the Old Testament,

            in our reading today from the book of Jeremiah,

where the King Jehoiakim of Judah sought to silence the words of the prophet.

 

The background here is that we are in the late 7th century,

            some hundred years further on from last week’s reading

            from the opening of the book of Isaiah.

 

Jeremiah’s ministry spans the fall of the southern kingdom of Judah

            to the Babylonians, and the beginning of the time of exile in Babylon.

 

It also sees the ending of the Davidic monarchy

            as the descendants of the great King David

            degenerate into hypocrisy and corruption.

 

So Jeremiah spends most of his early ministry

            proclaiming God’s judgement against the king and the Temple,

            accusing the temple of being a ‘Den of Thieves’ (7.11)

            a critique later revisited, of course, by Jesus himself.

 

Perhaps understandably, Jeremiah made himself rather unpopular with the King,

            and by the time we get to our reading for today,

                        he’d been excluded from the Temple and the Palace altogether.

 

His time as a special advisor to the King had come to ae end,

            and he’d been fired and given his marching orders.

 

The King doesn’t want to hear what Jeremiah has to say.

 

But never one to give up, Jeremiah writes it all down,

            and sends it with Baruch to be read to the King.

 

And as the King hears again the subversive critique from Jeremiah,

            he takes a knife, cuts the text up, and burns it in the fire.

 

It is a vivid example of the kind of opposition

            that those who critique social evils can usually expect to face.

 

Those who take a stand with Jeremiah,

            in naming evil and calling it out,

can expect those who do not want to hear that message

            to cut them dead and burn their words.

 

And this is true today,

            just as much as it was true in the 7th century BCE

 

Just think of the way those who would speak inconvenient truths in our world are treated,

            from the shameful belittling of Greta Thunberg in the British media

                        for her message of climate crisis,

            to accusations of bullying against our political leaders;

                        those who would speak truth are gagged and bound.

 

Of course, the truth cannot be silenced forever,

            and Jeremiah’s words have endured

            long after Jehoiakim’s power had faded.

 

Another, more recent, example of the burning of scripture

            comes from here in London, just under 500 years ago…

 

One of my great treasures is a photograph of the front page of John’s Gospel,

            taken from the first edition of William Tyndale’s New Testament.

It was given to me by my College Principal, a certain Brian Haymes,

            when I completed my studies at Bristol Baptist College.

 

Tyndale was the first person to translate the Bible into English

            from the original languages,

and he is the person Melvyn Bragg once called,

            ‘The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England’

 

There are only three copies remaining of Tyndale’s first edition of the Bible in English,

            because they were seized as they entered the country in 1526,

                        and burned in bonfires in London,

            overseen by Cardinal Wolsey and Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of London.

 

In scenes which could come straight from Wolf Hall,

            six thousand of his New Testaments were burned

                        on the steps of Old St Paul’s Cathedral,

            despite Anne Boelyn and Thomas Cromwell’s efforts

                        to reconcile Tyndale to the King.

 

One of the three surviving copies ended up in the library at Bristol Baptist College,

            but is now in the possession of the British Library,

            who have it on permanent display just up the road from Bloomsbury at St Pancras.

 

When he heard that his Bibles has been burned,

            Tyndale famously remarked ‘no doubt they will burn me too, if it be God’s will.’

And sure enough, a few years later,

            he was caught, and burned at the stake.

 

You see, books are more than words:

            they are ideas made flesh,

            they create worlds,

and they invite us to enter into the worlds they create,

            and to start living those worlds into reality.

 

Books are dangerous,

            words are inflammatory,

and ideas are incendiary.

 

A similar story could be told about Martin Luther,

            whose writings were condemned by the Pope in 1520,

            and ordered to be burned.

Luther famously himself burned a copy of the Papal Bull Exsurge DomineI

            at the Elster Gate in Wittenberg

            almost exactly 500 years ago (10 December).

 

A Bishop burned Bibles for being in the wrong language,

            a Pope burned the writings of a reformer for challenging his authority

            the reformer burned the writings of the pope for trying to silence him.

Catholics burned the Koran for being the wrong religion

            Nazis burned books that threatened their ideology.

            Jehoiakim burned the words of the prophet because he didn’t want to hear them,

and still today people systematically silence

            those who speak truth to power.

 

And into a world of such silencing,

            we need to hear once again the stories of the word-made-flesh.

 

When God speaks words of salvation and restoration,

            he speaks them in the person of Jesus,

and the written records of those stories of Jesus

            make these words real to us in our world also.

 

Today is the feast of Christ the King,

            the final Sunday of the Christian year,

and it is the day when we celebrate the Lordship of Jesus,

            whose authority transcends any earthly claim to power.

 

Kings, popes, reformers, emperors, presidents, and dictators

            must all, in the end, come to recognise

that their power is at best derivative of the ultimate power

            that is vested solely in Jesus Christ.

 

Symon Hill, who has worshipped with us sometimes at Bloomsbury,

            tells the story of the origin of groups such as the Baptists.

He says,

 

For politically progressive Christians in the 17th century,

            support for King Jesus meant opposition to the kings of this world.

'No king but Jesus!' shouted a good many parliamentary soldiers

            as they marched into battle.

They were not the only ones.

A century before, the Anabaptist leader Thomas Müntzer

            told an aristocrat that he had no right

            to be 'a prince over the people whom God redeemed with his dear blood'.

 But the tradition goes back much further:

            to the days when early Christians were persecuted

            for refusing to recognise Caesar as Lord.

Only Christ is Lord, they said.[3]

 

This, of course, was the insight of Tyndale,

            and the reason he wanted the Bible in English

            was because he believed that the words of Jesus had the power

                        to take on fresh life, in new languages, in new cultures, in new ways,

            not restricted to Latin, or Greek, or Hebrew,

                        but rendered in English, so that everyone might hear them,

                        from the scholar to the plough boy in the field.

 

The kingship of Jesus stands over and against all attempts

            to silence or suppress the word of God.

 

And no amount of burning or cutting

            can in the end silence the truth of the gospel

that God is for all,

            and in all, and through all, in Christ Jesus.

 



[1] Almansor

[2] Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen

[3] https://thirdway.hymnsam.co.uk/editions/julaug-2012/features/why-monarchy-matters.aspx 

Friday, 13 November 2020

Here am I, send me!

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation,

the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,

November 15th 2020

Image: Mark Newton. Used under creative commons. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Isaiah 6.1-8

A few years ago now,

            Liz and I went to visit the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust

                        at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire,

and whilst we were there we came across a sculpture by Kathleen Scott,

            which had originally been made as a war memorial

                        for her son’s school at the end of the 1914-18 world war.

 

The sculpture is of a young boy,

            standing on tiptoe with his arm raised, as if volunteering,

            and the text at the base of the sculpture reads:

                        ‘Here am I, send me’.

 

The implication is clear, he is volunteering to go to war.

            Underneath the text is a list of thirty eight names,

            recording those from The Downs School who died in the first world war.

 

Whilst the sculpture brilliantly captures the tragedy of war,

            evoking the innocence of childhood

                        on the verge of abruptly giving way

                        to the irrevocable tragedy of the trenches,

as a piece of biblical exegesis

            I think it is somewhat wide of the mark.

 

The quote itself actually comes from the book of Isaiah,

            where the prophet hears the voice of the Lord saying

                        ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’,

                        and responds, ‘Here am I, send me!’.

 

And to take these words of the commissioning of the prophet Isaiah,

            and use them in the context of sending young men

                        in their tens of thousands

                        to their horrific deaths in the trenches,

            is, I think, to take them a long way from their original context;

and I baulk at the implication

            that those who go to fight for their country

            do so in response to God’s summons and call,

                        – not for King and Country, but for God

            and that they are therefore fighting on God’s behalf.

 

Last Sunday we celebrated the Two Minute silence at the start of our worship,

            and on Wednesday, many will have observed it again,

            as part of the commemorations of Remembrance Day.

 

And there’s something I need to make very clear at this point.

            I have nothing but respect for the courage shown and cost paid

                        by those who have given their lives fighting for their country,

            and I treasure the story of my own grandfather

                        who died in the second world war

                        whilst guarding the transatlantic convoys.

 

But when texts like, ‘Here am I, send me’

            are used to add divine justification

to the sending of men and women either to their own deaths

                        or to inflict death on others,

            then I think we have something of a problem.

 

Scripture has all too often been used

            to justify the moral or ethical position of those in power,

to sweeten the bitter pill

            that the population are then asked to swallow,

or to defend the status quo

            against those radical voices who might question the necessity

            of whatever course of action is being proposed in the first place.

 

The propaganda machine which appropriates biblical passages such as this,

            is an essential part of the functioning of the state,

and it seeks by any means necessary

            to bring as many people as possible

            into line with the proposed course of action.

 

And our passage for this morning from Isaiah is not the only text used in this way,

            just think of Jesus’ prophetic words about the cross:

‘No one has greater love than this,

            to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’.

 

This saying, usually in its King James and very masculine form of

            ‘Greater love hath no man than this,

            that a man lay down his life for his friends’

appears on war memorials the length and breadth of the country,

            with the names of those who have perished listed beneath it,

and again the implication is clear:

            the sacrifice of life given

                        by those who have died fighting for their country,

            is a sacrifice to be compared with nothing less

                        than the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

 

Again, the death and destruction and desolation of warfare

            is sanitised by the comforting thought

            that those who have fought and died

                        have done so at the instigation of Jesus

            and in fulfilment of nothing less than his personal command.

 

Sometimes, as Christians, we are too easily manipulated

            into thinking that ‘our people’ are God’s people,

            and that what ‘our’ people do

                        is what God wants them to do.

 

Tom Wright puts it rather well. He says,

 

‘The easy identification of ‘our’ side with God’s side has been a major problem ever since Christianity became the official religion of the Roman state in the fourth century. Ironically, as Western Europe has become less and less Christian in terms of its practice, its leaders seem to have made this identification more and more, so that both sides in the major world wars of the twentieth century were staffed… by Christian chaplains praying for victory.’ (John for Everyone, Part 2, p. 73)

 

So this morning, as we engage with the call of Isaiah,

            I wonder what we can discover about the nature of God,

            and about what it is that God calls us to.

 

The golden rule for avoiding misuse of biblical texts

            is to begin by putting them in context.

 

It’s been said before, and I’ll say it again,

            that a text without a context is a con.

 

So we need to know that the part of Isaiah we’re reading today,

            was written in the latter part of the eight century BC.

 

For many decades there had been a period of relative peace for Israel,

            why had split some centuries earlier

            into a Northern Kingdom and a Southern Kingdom.

 

But by the mid 8th Century it was clear that the Assyrians were on the rise,

            and by the time of Isaiah the Southern Kingdom ,based in Jerusalem,

                        had become a vassal state of Assyria;

            while the Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BCE

 

We’re still more than a century before the Babylonians destroy the Southern Kingdom

            taking the people of Jerusalem into exile in Babylon,

and although the later parts of the book of Isaiah cover that period,

            we need to remember that this early story of the call of Isaiah,

            is taking place in the midst of the political turmoil

                        caused by the threat of the Assyrians.

 

This text from Isaiah is one of the earliest examples

            of the genre of Jewish apocalyptic literature.

 

We meet this in other Old Testament texts such as Ezekiel and Daniel,

            and of course in New Testament texts like Mark 13 or the Book of Revelation.

 

And the thing to understand about apocalyptic material

            is that it is always a vision that unveils the deeper spiritual reality

            that lies behind the observable reality.

 

When the ancient Israelites pictured God,

            they imagined him seated on a throne in heaven,

            surrounded by seraphim and cherubim

            holding court over the affairs of the earth.

 

In other words, they imagined that God

            looked like a heavenly version of an earthly king,

                        surrounded by courtiers and attendants,

            ready to dispense justice and fight for his people if needed.

 

The Israelites also had a firm belief that God was holy:

            so holy that his glory could not be seen by sinful human eyes.

 

So within the apocalyptic tradition,

            there emerged stories of visions of heaven

where the person receiving the vision

            was shown round by a kind of heavenly tour guide,

            who could mediate between them and God.

 

But with Isaiah it’s different -

            he’s not shown round by anyone;

rather he just suddenly finds himself in the heavenly throne room,

            unexpectedly face to face with God.

 

And it’s immediately clear that God’s just as holy as ever,

            with the creatures around the throne singing their ‘holy, holy, holy’ song

            to make the point that God’s holiness is not in any way in doubt.

 

So how, wonders Isaiah, can it be

            that he, a man of unclean lips,

            can be looking directly at God?

 

And the first thing Isaiah has to learn

            is that despite him seeing himself as unclean,

            God sees him as clean.

 

His personal sense of unrighteousness,

            does not extend to God’s opinion of him.

 

And I wonder, how many of us need to hear that too?

 

How often do we cast judgment on ourselves,

            ruling ourselves out of God’s presence or favour,

when in fact God is longing for us to see ourselves as heaven sees us,

            and to realise that we are, in God’s eyes,

            entirely worthy of love and acceptance.

 

But Isaiah’s call is not simply to be in God’s presence,

            it is a call to prophecy, to speak for God,

            and for this he needs a commissioning act.

 

In a liturgical act that echoes the mouth purification rituals

            of other ancient Mesapotamian religions,

Isaiah’s mouth is touched with a burning coal

            from the brazier before God’s throne,

            on which the incense burns.

 

In the book of Revelation, the incense from the altar

            is the prayers of the faithful rising before God,

and it may be that something similar is intended here,

            as Isaiah is commissioned to speak and pray.

 

And the people to whom he is called to speak

            are a nation who will have to learn lessons about righteousness the hard way.

 

If Isaiah thought he was unclean, but God called him clean,

            Israel has it the other way around:

They believe they are righteous,

            but they are actually under judgment and on their way to exile.

 

And the book of Isaiah will track their journey through judgment and exile,

            to forgiveness and restoration,

and along the way they will discover that the nature of God

            is to draw alongside those who suffer.

 

And I find myself wondering how often do religious institutions in our world

            believe that they are righteous,

            when actually they stand under judgement.

 

I’m thinking, for example of those national churches through the twentieth century

            that supported oppressive regimes such as communism or fascism.

 

Or, more recently, what about the evangelical church’s zeal for Trump.

            Or, even closer to home, our own religious obsessions in this country

                        with moral superiority and judgment on sin,

            rather than loving inclusion and forgiveness.

 

Too often the churches of our nation spend more time proclaiming people unclean,

            than they do helping people discover deeper spiritual reality

            that they are acceptable to and loved by God.

 

Similarly, I might mention the frequent justification churches offer for war,

            such as just war theory,

and I might conclude that whilst one can always make a case

            for staying the hand of an aggressor,

there are nonetheless far, far too many examples of Christian collusion with violence,

            which brings me back to the examples of biblical exegesis

            with which we started.

 

Isaiah’s call is two-fold,

            firstly it is a call to enter the presence of God

                        and discover something about how God sees him;

            and secondly it is a call to speak that truth

                        to proclaim God’s word to his time, his place, and his people.

 

And I wonder if we can share Isaiah’s calling:

            can we discover for ourselves something new this morning

                        about how the God of holiness and love sees us?

And can we hear the call to action,

            not to take up arms against God’s enemies,

but to be those who faithfully proclaim God’s love

            especially to those who are themselves currently unable

                        to perceive the awesome truth

            that God is for us, that God loves us,

                        and that God has blotted our sins away

                        and released us from our guilt?