Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Advent III
December 15, 2010, 10:27 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , , ,

Evensong Sermon, All Saints, Clifton. 12th December 2010.

Isaiah 5.8-30; Acts 13.13-41

Two rather long lessons, and neither particularly Advent-y:  what can we make of them, with Christmas less than two weeks away?

Isaiah is very much the Advent prophet. The first reading follows on the famous passage about the vineyard, which our Lord himself followed in some of his own parables. It ends, “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry!”

The prophet then goes on, this evening, to enumerate the injustices committed among his people. Joining house to house, adding field to field- this refers to the rich and powerful using their economic power to dispossess the poor of their smallholdings to enlarge their own estates. There was great social inequality in the time of Isaiah, contrary to the teaching of the Law that all Israelites were equal in God’s sight, all brothers. In a great diatribe Isaiah prophesies punishment for those who oppress their fellows. Woe to the feasters! Woe to the deceivers! Woe to those who call evil good and good evil! God’s judgement will take the form of invasion by the terrible Assyrian army, ruthless conquerors.

Move on, for a moment, to St Paul’s speech to the congregation in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch. We are in Paul’s first missionary journey. St Luke has no doubt tailored the speech to fit his own purposes, his own summary of the Gospel. He starts with a retrospect of Israel’s history- the Exodus from Egypt, the settlement in Canaan, the establishment of the monarchy under David. He then jumps nearly a thousand years, to John the Baptist preaching repentance. Like Isaiah, John had forcefully rebuked the rich and powerful, who saw no need for repentance.

John had prepared the way for Jesus, who was sent by God as Saviour. It is worth pausing a moment to reflect on that title: Saviour, soter, salvator. Who needs saving? Clearly, those who are in danger. What danger? In this context, surely the disaster that impends through ignoring the justice that God demands. Isaiah, John and Paul all imply that what God wants of humanity most of all is a “just society”, one in which human beings treat one another according to their human dignity (which, of course, comes from all being made in the image of God). It is impossible to be in a right relationship with God, unless one is concerned to be in a right relationship with one’s fellow man.

Jesus came to fulfil God’s promise of salvation; but the high and mighty utterly failed to see this, and rejected him, handing him over to a ruthless power for execution. Yet even by doing this, they fulfilled the prophecies, allowing God to show his power by raising Christ from the dead and establishing him as Lord. Salvation now comes simply from recognising this, and putting one’s faith in Jesus as Lord.

Many Christian writers have seen human history in terms of two “cities”, the City of this World and the City of God. Some have seen Christian life as a pilgrimage from one to the other. If we take this picture, we can see that it fits the Bible message. Isaiah contrasted the society he lived in, with its terrible injustices, with the ideal kingdom God wanted. He also warned that God would overthrow the worldly city, and set up that kingdom, with an ideal King- one who would be a faithful steward of God. The same message was echoed by the other prophets, right down to John.

The difference in the New Testament is that the King is proclaimed as already here, and identified as Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, but was raised from the dead on the third day, and who now reigns in glory. The kingdom is not simply one that is to come, it is in principle already established.

Only faith can accept this, because (to be brutally honest) the world looks much as it always has done. The events of the last century, and the prospects for the current one, do not give grounds for hope. The Christian message is indeed that faith and hope are supernatural qualities, spiritual gifts from God, not accessible to purely human effort. And yet human beings can feel the need for faith, the need for hope. Without them there is only despair.

Advent is pre-eminently the season of expectation, of looking forward in hope. Three years ago Pope Benedict published an Encyclical Letter on hope. He said that human beings go through life with many hopes, big and little, but there is a greater hope that we all need, even if we do not understand what it is. It is fulfilled only in the God who reveals himself to us as Jesus Christ. And he went on to say that the first essential setting for learning hope is prayer. “When no-one listens to me,” he wrote, “God listens to me. When I can no longer talk to anyone or call upon anyone, I can always talk to God. When there is no longer anyone to help me deal with a need or expectation that goes beyond the human capacity for hope, he can help me.” The well-loved hymn puts it exactly: “When other helpers fail, and comforts flee, help of the helpless, Lord, abide with me.”

Jesus is the Saviour. He is the Saviour because he is the Word of God. In his most recent letter, called Verbum Domini or “The Word of the Lord”, the Pope says that this very title reminds us that God is in conversation with us. Conversation is a two-way process. God speaks, and we listen: but we in our turn should speak to God. God is not just telling us things, he is inviting us to a living relationship with him, and he makes this possible by expressing himself, and by coming to us, as one of us, in a human life both like and unlike ours, in Jesus of Nazareth.

The ideal society that God wants is not something we can build up from below, by our purely human efforts. It is the gift of God, given in the form of the Spirit that changes us and perfects us, making us Christ-like. The prophet denounced the injustice and sin of his contemporaries. Paul proclaimed that only the power of Jesus can eradicate that sin from human hearts. The Advent prayer is that he should come quickly, and that prayer is already being answered wherever and whenever human hearts are open to him.


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