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.

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?


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