Both our readings today are born from pain seeking understanding.
That’s quite a phrase but, if you think about it, much in our lives is about pain seeking to understand. Why do bad things happen? Why doesn’t God step in? Why isn’t the world fairer? Both readings are trying to work these things through from the contexts of the writers and offer us some help now as we seek to understand the pain of the world and our lives.
Our passage from Isaiah 64 comes from after Judah has been conquered by Babylon but before the Exile ended and the Temple was rebuilt – in other words between 515 and 560 years before Jesus was born. The writer is still in shock from the defeat of the Jewish people by the Babylonians and their being taken off to Babylon in exile. Jerusalem – the supposed dwelling place of God on earth – was in ruins, the Temple – the only place Jews could offer sacrifices – lay in ruins and the people asked themselves why this happened. All through the long book of Isaiah the answer came back again and again – the people had turned away from God and so they were punished in the hope that they’d turn back to God. Instead of trusting in foreign alliances the people had to learn to trust in God. In today’s passage, however, the writer looks back to the past and reminds the people that God has acted unexpectedly in the past and that should give the people hope now.
That sounds strange but it’s a theme that comes up again and again in Scripture – remember what God has done before and trust that he hasn’t left us now. It’s the key to our reading from St Mark – a difficult reading at the best of times.
The passage from St Mark would have been heard by its earliest listeners as a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70; earlier in the chapter Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple. Following a revolt against Rome the Imperial armies invaded and destroyed Israel and Jerusalem. The Temple was left in ruins and, until 1948, there was no Jewish homeland. The people were scatted throughout what we now call Europe and put down roots living in what must have seemed like perpetual exile. So some think this passage foretells the future. Jesus speaking about the End and the destruction to come which was the fall of Jerusalem.
Yet whilst the ending of the Jewish national state was a cataclysmic event which traumatised so many in the Earliest Church the power of this passage wouldn’t have continued for the generations that followed if all it was about was an impending catastrophe that doesn’t affect us at all.
The passage is about more than the catastrophe of the End of Jerusalem but is, as our first hymn was, about the coming of Jesus at the End of Time – something we have been reflecting on over the last few weeks with readings from St Matthew’s Gospel.
The passage, however, is difficult. It is written in the same style as parts of the Book of Revelation and parts of the Book of Daniel. It uses rich poetic language, can be quite scary and often attracts very strange interpretations which some Christians have great fun with. However, to read this type of literature you have to understand the point – and it’s not dissimilar to the Isaiah passage. When the Biblical writers use this style they want to remind us that there is a rebellion against God, that this rebellion will get worse, the weak, poor and righteous will be oppressed but hang on, because God will come and put everything right. It’s the message Wesley tried to convey in our last hymn – there is much wrong in the world but don’t despair God is coming to sort it out.
We saw in last week’s reading about the final judgement that there will be a reckoning against those who have ignored the poor. In today’s passage it is clear that Jesus will return and put everything right – but first things might get worse!
Jesus uses imagery from the Book of Daniel when a different empire oppressed the Jews. That is a safe way of offering hope during Roman oppression. God delivered the people in the past and would do so again.
Jesus used the imagery of Daniel and recycled it to offer hope. It turns out that the Greeks weren’t the only empire that would oppress God’s people, other evil regimes rise up but there is hope. There will always be people and systems, ideas and politics that are against God – they don’t all say they are, of course. Militant atheism is just as dangerous as indifference. Rampant consumerism and the worship of capital oppresses the poor in democracies just as the despots do in dictatorships.
This leaves me with something of a dilemma. Of course, I believe that at the end of time Jesus will return. I grew up in a tradition where every week as we celebrated Holy Communion together we affirmed Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. I believe that, at the end, our world will be renewed, the dead will be raised and all will be put right.
But, I don’t want to wait until then for everything to turn out all right. It’s too easy for the despots and dictators to take their chances with a death bed conversion. We need to put things right now – or at least to start. We can’t say to the hungry that they need to wait for the righteous judge, we have to feed them now. Of course many escape justice – like the Yugoslav war criminal who killed himself last week rather than serve his sentence – and they need to know that there is a court they can’t escape.
So with Isaiah I want God to come and come quickly, to come and shake the earth to its foundations. But I need to learn from Jesus that these things can’t be hurried.
We look to the past to see what God has done. We look at the stories of old in the Bible and see that God has never deserted his people, has always given them the resources, strength, leadership and resources they need to fulfil their calling.
I am sure the people who built this church in the early 19th Century were full of fear and doubt. Maybe they felt they’d fall flat on their faces. Maybe they’d run out of money. Maybe people wouldn’t stay loyal to a new church. But God not only sustained them but blessed them with resources, people and a mission.
Many in the Christian Church now seem as if they are contemplating the End. If not the end of time and Jesus’ return but the of the Church. Congregations close and people become dispirited. But we know God has sustained us in the past, that God hasn’t brought us this far to leave us or forsake us and that, if we listen, God has a mission for us. The future is in God’s hands, the question is are we ready to respond to God’s prompting and follow him into our future?
Will you pray with me?
God of the past,
We thank you for you blessed and sustained
Those who have gone before us in this Church.
How you gave a vision to the people and how they responded to your call to worship you in spirit and in truth, to serve their community and to offer a different way of being church.
God of the present,
We thank you for your guidance in our life together now,
For the ways in which you bless us with so much more than we can ask or imagine.
Guide us as we seek to be your church in this place,
Welcoming all in your name,
Serving those you send to us.
God of the future,
We ask you to guide us and help us be attentive to your call,
So that future generations may find you here,
For we know you haven’t bought us this far to leave us nor forsake us,
But continue to bless us, dance with us when we rejoice and hold us when we weep.