Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Sermon for the 25th Sunday of Pentecost

In the midst of doing all those Internet quizzes, I did actually write a sermon for last Sunday. For anyone who is interested, here ’tis.

  

Isaiah 65:17-25

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, everything God made was very good. And yet, despite the goodness of God’s creation, we see a world around us in distress. Where there should be peace, we see violence. Where there should be joy, we see sorrow. Women die in childbirth; children die of preventable diseases; men and women die of hunger and violence. This is not the way the world should be, we know this. We know it because the story of the creation has given us a vision of how God wants the world to be. We know it because throughout the centuries the prophets cried out for justice, telling the people what God wants for us. We know it because in Jesus Christ God came and lived among us and showed us what a Godly life looks like. Today’s reading from Isaiah is just one of the many biblical descriptions of God’s intention for creation.

Over the past couple of months the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures have been leading us through the story of the Babylonian Exile, from the prophetic warnings, through lament at the destruction of Jerusalem, to Jeremiah’s advice to the exiles on how to live in Babylon, to the hope of return. Now the return has happened, the promise has been fulfilled.

Today’s reading comes from the author known as Third Isaiah, and it’s written after the exile had ended, when many of the exiles had returned to Jerusalem. The exile was over, and yet the expectations of Second Isaiah had not been fulfilled. There had been tremendous hope in the prophecies of Second Isaiah that the return from exile would be a second Exodus. This hadn’t happened. Life was difficult. The Temple had been destroyed and twenty years after the end of the exile it still hadn’t been rebuilt. When it was eventually rebuilt, it was no longer the glorious Temple of Solomon, and the very act of rebuilding it had caused conflict between different groups. There was no new and glorious kingdom. In the midst of this despair another prophet arose writing in the tradition of Isaiah. While First Isaiah had warned of the destruction to come, and Second Isaiah had offered the people hope in their exile, now Third Isaiah offers them hope in the disappointment of their return, the hope of a new creation.

In the Hebrew Scriptures it is only in the writings of Third Isaiah that we find the description “new heavens and a new earth”. They are to be created by Yahweh, the only one who can create anything. Second Isaiah had talked from exile about creation and about newness, and Third Isaiah is drawing on his predecessor. But Third Isaiah is also looking back to Genesis, echoing the story told there about the hope for creation and the dashing of those hopes.

The creation is meant to be good. The first creation story describes the way in which the creation is meant to be – every part of it good. And yet there is so much evil in the world. As Paul describes it, the whole creation is groaning until now (Romans 8:22). And so to explain this one of the writers of Genesis told a story of how the goodness of the creation had been tarnished by the self-will of humanity, exercising the freedom to reject God. Bit by bit Third Isaiah tells of the hope that the new creation will overcome all the evils of the violation of that first creation.

The story in Genesis tells us that because of their sin, the man and the woman exiled themselves from God, hiding in the garden. “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” (Genesis 3:8-9) One of the results of sin is separation from God. And this separation, Third Isaiah promises us, will be overcome in the new creation: “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.”

In the creation story in Genesis God curses Adam: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3: 17-19). Now Third Isaiah tells us of God’s blessing: “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”

The creation story tells us that God said to Eve: “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.” (Genesis 3: 16) Third Isaiah writes: “They shall not labour in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well.” The only curse that is not going to be overcome, says Third Isaiah, is the curse on the serpent. In Genesis, “The Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.’”( Genesis 3:14) Third Isaiah agrees: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent – its food shall be dust!” But with the exception of the poor serpent, still condemned to eat dust, everything that went wrong at creation will be restored when God creates the new heavens and the new earth for which all creation longs.

The hope that Third Isaiah offers the exiles who have returned is of a new world of justice and peace: “No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.”

There is always a danger when such hope is offered. It’s the danger that, knowing God’s will for creation and trusting in God, we forget that we have a role to play in bringing about this new creation, too. We can sit and wait and dream, hoping that God will make everything all right. But to do that is to deny our own responsibility, our calling to be people of God, followers of Jesus Christ.

The other way of responding to such hope is with prayer and action, knowing that peace and justice and truth will prevail, because that is God’s eternal purpose.  We’re called to maintain justice and do what is right because we have the confidence of knowing that salvation will come and creation will be delivered. In our hope and faith that God will not leave the world as it is, we’re able to light candles in the present darkness, knowing that the darkness will not overcome them, and that soon there will be light. “The people who walked in deep darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2) In the next few weeks we will celebrate our particular Christian understanding of the coming of that light.

We do need to recognise that the hope offered by today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is in contrast to the reading from the Gospel. Today’s Gospel reading is an apocalyptic passage speaking of the coming of the kingdom of God, but describing in depressing terms all that will be suffered before the final redemption of God’s people. We need to remember that from the times of the New Testament onwards, there have always been Christians who have suffered such horrors. Today in parts of Africa and Asia there are Christians who continue to suffer while holding onto hope for redemption.

What reading these passages from Luke and Isaiah reminds us is that the dismal reality of the world described in today’s Gospel reading is not the full story. The two readings counterbalance each other. While the Gospel seeks to strengthen the faithful as we deal with the horrors and pain of the world, the Isaiah reading reassures us that neither our nightly news nor the struggles of the day are the measure of all things. In the time in which we live, death and suffering seem to be all conquering. In God’s measure of things, joy, delight, and life will prevail. The suffering and death are real. We can’t deny that, and part of the message of the Gospel is to underline this. On the other hand, the joy and delight are real too. It is Isaiah’s message that the faithful should hold firmly to that belief in the face of all else. We need both readings to receive God’s full message. But today, the last Sunday in ordinary time, as we look forward to celebrating the Feast of Christ the King next week, and then to entering Advent and a time of preparation, we know that Isaiah’s hope will prevail. Ultimately, “they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

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November 20, 2007 - Posted by | Ministry

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