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Sunday 13th December – Advent 3

babylon

[opening text] “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 prisoner to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour…”

[Innoculation picture] My brothers and sisters, these words are said to us: this past week, starting with the inoculation in Coventry of 90 year old Maggie Kennan, a global pandemic that has had the world on its knees, is about to be rebuffed.

We stand at the turning of the tide: this is good news. Good news, to those who have lived in the shadow of death worrying about the elderly or the immuno-suppressed; good news to those who have agonised about whether they might transmit the virus to a vulnerable person; good news to those whose economic livelihoods are threatened by the social measures that we have had to take; good news to those whose mental wellbeing has been hit by isolation and fear; good news to those responsible for running public venues who have laboured long under the weight of responsibility of decision-making and risk-balancing. The Spirit of the Lord rests upon us this day with good news.

That ancient oracle which speaks afresh to us today, was first given to an anonymous prophet in the newly re-established state of Judea, whose words were later bound up into the scroll of the earlier Judean prophet Isaiah. Today scholars know the author of this oracle only as ‘Third Isaiah’.

[Stone sculpture 1] In 597 BC under King Nebuchadnezzar II, mighty Babylon’s reach across the fertile crescent had led to the crushing of the little state of Judah. It’s royal family and educated elite had been forcibly deported and resettled; the Temple was destroyed; the nation was wiped out. And for 40 years the exiles in Babylon clung to their traditions, weaving memories, scraps of court rolls and spoken stories together to create what we now call the Old Testament in order to continue their religion in exile, even though they were cut off from the social and physical supports of buildings and places from which their trust in Yahweh had previously been nourished.

[Stone sculpture 2] And suddenly, in the blink of an eye, that period of isolation and desolation came to an end. Cyrus the Great, the Persian king, swept into Babylon and overturned the Babylonian empire.

And then, remarkably, Cyrus instigated a new policy sending back the Judean deportees and allowing them a measure of self-governance. Clutching their newly forged Bible, the people walked back to Judah, to start again: to rebuild. A renewed identity was being forged out of the trauma of exile.

[Rubble] It seems that soon the initial excitement gave way to despair when, stood amidst the rubble, the returnees saw the task ahead of them. But into their midst came words of encouragement and guidance from a prophet whose name we do not know, the words we heard today: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news”.

[Covid sign] The geopolitical context and the timescales are certainly different; but we too know what it has been like to live in a form of captivity; exiled from our normal lives; cut off from family and friends; confused; sad; lost; angry; and tired.

But now things are changing. And like the returning Jews, we too have a second chance: “They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastation of many generations. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing.”

There are things we need to take stock of during our rebuilding. There are issues of justice to take note of as we begin to move into our new world. The disproportionate effect of this virus on those from ethnic mortalities is one.

[Journal webpage] In our country, 13% of the population is black or minority ethic, yet a recent national review has revealed that a third of those admitted to intensive care were not white; and black and Asian people have been found twice as likely to be infected as white people. A recent British Medical Journal article on the subject begins with this line: “Most of the increased risk of infection and death from covid-19 among people from ethnic minorities is explained by factors such as occupation, where people live, their household composition, and pre-existing health conditions”.[1] I suspect we can probably add occupation to that list, too.

[Parish photo] But we do not need a report to tell us this: none of these markers of our society’s disparities come as a surprise. The walk from the steel and glass office blocks in Reading’s two centre, or the one-bedroom lets for London commuters, to the cramped terraces of this parish takes just a few minutes.

Nor did we need the utter shambles of an expensive out-sourced test and trace scheme to remind us of the consequences of chronic disinvestment in public health. We should be rightly proud to be the first country to roll out a vaccine; we should be rightly proud that a decision has been made that the Oxford vaccine is going to be sold at cost to poorer nations in perpetuity.

[Graph] But we should be shamed by the fact that six times as many people have died in Britain than in Germany, even though Germany’s population is larger. That’s 60,000 as opposed to 10,000.

These statistics point to a deeper sickness in Britain than the virus, a sickness that needs addressing in our tax system, our attitudes to accommodation, our over-reliance on short-term private initiatives instead of long-term investment in public health. It also needs addressing to in our habits of national arrogance, complacency and superiority as when we laughed at the overreaction of Asian countries who told their citizens to wear masks; as in our folly in delaying closing borders, encouraging people to holiday abroad in the summer and subsidising people to eat out to help out.

Advent is the great time for stock-taking; for preparation; for soul-searching. The demands for a just society, and the good news that this is achievable is revisited to each generation.

[Jordan river] In Jesus’s time it was the task of John, who walked out of the city drawing people with him to the far bank of the River Jordan, in the direction of Babylon, and then told them to turn around, to face the river again and to cross it once more, entering the Land and starting afresh.

[Build back better] Today the voice calling us to turn around and start again takes many forms. If you have been stirred by what I have said, one start might be an online search for the organisation “Build Back Better” which represents a coalition of groups proposing a new way ahead. Its call for, amongst other things, a rethinking of our attitudes to food, healthcare, income, housing, and energy has been endorsed by Rowan Williams, among many others.[2] Those behind this organisation remind us not only of the urgency of the tasks ahead, but they also remind us of what we have already achieved by working together.

[Citizens UK] And there are local ways in which this voice is heard, too: like the newly launched Citizens UK forum that Oxford Diocese has granted seed-funding to and which aims to empower the voices of ordinary people in Reading to gain leverage on politicians for change here in our town.

[Final Bible quote] Ahead of us lies the new world; we have glimpsed it now. The end is in sight; we will need a little more courage and a little more patience for the coming months: but the end is coming. As that nameless prophet put it to those returning from exile “as the earth puts forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations”.

[1] https://www.bmj.com/content/371/bmj.m4099.

[2] https://www.buildbackbetteruk.org/