Today, continuing in our season of Advent, as we prepare for Christ’s birth at Christmas, the spotlight is on two prophets – Isaiah and John the Baptist.
It’s over 4 months since I last preached here and I felt a bit rusty as I was preparing for today! Most of you will have gathered that I had a wonderful time in Sweden, staying in our link diocese of Växjö, and learning Swedish. I was treated to months of being immersed in what the Swedes call ‘the nature’ – in this case forests of ancient beech and oak, and a huge lake, and learning in a residential school run by the church with a strong ethos of inclusion and community building. All the regular students, except me, were young adults, most of them studying art or music, whilst the ones in my class came from countries like Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, Chechnya, and we were all learning Swedish. It was a rich learning experience and one on which I’ll be drawing for years to come. And I was able to see our daughter Anna and grandson Zac, and drink Swedish coffee which is very good!
I wonder how you felt when you got up on Friday morning to the news of the election results; Elated? Resigned? Doomladen? Hopeful? Prophets like Isaiah and John Baptist were very alert to their political context and I’d like us to get a sense of that.
Divide congregation into 2 halves – one shouting Doom! Doom! and the other ‘The desert shall rejoice and blossom!’
Those 2 themes run through all the prophets. They hear both. They speak from both. They struggle at times to hold both together. We’ve been following Isaiah through the lectionary in our weekday readings and can see how he oscillates between the two. He’s alert to political realities – foreign powers expanding, moving towards his country. He foresees the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians – a desert – (Doom! doom!) whilst also anticipating a future where once again they will flourish (the desert shall rejoice and blossom’).
The Israelites in Isaiah’s time dealt with the looming crisis in a number of ways. I just want to consider 3 of them. They’re fairly universal, I think:
Mime Block ears and close eyes
They refused to look at what was happening
Mime Phoning Egypt. ‘Hi Pharoah, I know you enslaved us in the past, but we didn’t really mind, and now we want to go back
They went back to some bad places, old habits, seeking help in the wrong places
Mime Drinking from a beer bottle
They escaped into drink, partying and a fantasy world of pleasure-loving gods and goddesses
So let’s look at how Isaiah deals with these responses.
Refusing to look at the difficult stuff.
Like all the prophets he wants us to really look at what’s happening around us and see it clearly. This past year, globally, we’ve all been urged to do that in relation to climate change. In some parts of the world our deserts are expanding rather than turning into pools of water. More and more we are being told we can no longer turn a blind eye to the signal that floods, drought, forest fires, and plastic-congested seas are sending out about the health of our planet. Our eyes and ears need to be open. We need to be courageous enough to look at what is happening, globally, locally and also personally.
Going back to old places/habits
Isaiah challenges their interpretation of the past, of their history. Did they enjoy slavery? Who actually helped them? God or Pharoah? Who had the real power? God or Pharoah? (See Isaiah chap 30) What we draw from our past influences how we live in the present. Most of the students in my class in Sweden had experienced trauma of some kind. Several had been victims. Adjusting to a new life where there was freedom was a relief, and also a challenge. When things are difficult, which they often are, trying to start afresh, to feel at home in a culture different from your own, it’s tempting to feel that the place where you were a victim might be better – you know what to expect; it’s familiar. Slavery in Egypt can seem more attractive than the long journey through the desert to the promised land.
Distancing ourselves whether through drinking or fantasy worlds of one kind or another.
Here Isaiah is particularly astute. He’s saying there are good dreams and bad dreams, or, we might say, there is fantasy or there is vision. Vision comes from what we know about God from Scripture, his dealings with us and others. Isaiah draws the vision in the wonderful word pictures we hear in our reading today. The desert shall rejoice and blossom, no more fear, the end of sorrowing and sighing, everlasting joy….Who wouldn’t want to be part of that vision?
Fast forwarding to John B; he too had been saying ‘doom, doom!’ but also, like Isaiah, sharing a vision, this time of the one who was to come, the Messiah. Now John is in prison, his own personal desert, and he’s doubting the vision. Can Jesus really be the One? He seems an unlikely Champion. And here we see another strategy for confronting a desert moment – asking a question. I love John’s directness. He doesn’t mess about. ‘If you are the one, tell me!’ Jesus answers in language John will understand, language from Isaiah, language of a prophet. Look at what you are seeing and hearing. What does it tell you?
If I’d been in prison I’d probably have sent Jesus a message along the lines of ‘Get me out of here!’ On the whole we’d rather escape from desert times, and certainly our scriptures hold plenty of encouragement to cry out to God, to ask for help in times of trouble. Isaiah urged his people to do that rather than turn to more dubious sources of help. However, in both Isaiah’s time and John B’s time it turned out that the means by which the desert was going to rejoice and blossom was different from what people might have been asking for. For Isaiah it was Cyrus the Persian, another empire builder who would be God’s means of restoring to Israel much of what they had lost. For John it turned out that his prison cell was the place of revelation. The message Jesus sent would have been irrefutable evidence that he was indeed the one. It’s worth noting what the marks of a vision from God is like, as opposed to an escapist fantasy – human wellbeing, both physical and mental, a flourishing natural order, adequate water, fertile land, and good news for the poor. Those are good filters for viewing our own political context.
Octavia hill, housing pioneer and later founder of the National trust, was a woman of faith who did just that. For a time Richard and I worked in an office near London Bridge opposite a Victorian building inscribed with words from Isaiah, from the King James version of the bible. It read ‘the desert shall blossom as the rose’. One of Octavia Hill’s model housing estates was just around the corner and the words from Isaiah’s vision expressed her response to the doom and gloom of overcrowded tenements, back to backs with a few communal taps and little or no privacy that was accepted as the natural form of housing for ordinary working people. Octavia Hill saw a housing desert, if you like, really saw it, and as a woman of faith set out to do something about it. The words from Isaiah spoke to her and someone, perhaps her, I don’t know, inscribed them on that building that we saw every day, encouraging us to hold on to the expectation that deserts really can change into places of hope. Octavia Hill designed her estates around green squares where children could play and tenants could meet and hang their washing. Where there had been just earth or coke paths between the houses now there was green – a literal fulfilment of Isaiah’s vision.
And now we have Greta Thunberg from Sweden who sees both the beauty of the earth and its impending doom, really sees it, if action isn’t taken soon enough. She has had her own desert places, not finding school easy (she has Asbergers), being so miserable for a time that she couldn’t face going to school and yet it was in school that she was first confronted with climate issues.
So let’s face just one of those personal, local or global deserts that may be pressing in on us, looking at it, listening to it, whilst holding on to the promise that the desert will rejoice and blossom. And I’d like to suggest that, like John B, we ask Jesus a question as we do so, but a different one from him. Ask, ‘what are you inviting me to be or to do here?’ And expect some surprises! Christine Bainbridge 15 December 2019