Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 15 December 2013 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 15 December 2013

Sermon preached by The Vicar Prebendary Alan Moses

Readings; Isaiah 5.8-30; Acts 13.13-41

One of the glories of Advent for me is reading through the prophet Isaiah in the daily office and at mass.  There are well-known passages which it is impossible to read without the music of Handel’s “Messiah” in one’s head: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.”

In fact, Isaiah has been likened to “a mighty oratorio whereby Israel sings its story of faith.”  Like any oratorio, it includes interaction among different voices.

Today, we have had at the Eucharist, the lyric celebration of the restoration of Israel, humankind and of all creation in Isaiah 35.

This evening, we hear a very different note: the prophetic voice of judgement.

The book, made up of material from several hands over a period of years, tells the story of Israel’s life against the horizon of international politics: the Assyrian invasions which destroyed the northern kingdom; the Babylonian which would conquer Jerusalem and send the people into exile; and the return from that exile under the Persians. 

But it is more than a political chronicle. What makes it distinctive is the focus on God as the primary player in the life of Judah and the surrounding world.  It holds together the realities of public history in the ancient world and the reality of God seen as impinging directly on that history.

The convergence of history and theology results in what we call prophecy: a re-imagining of the processes of history in the light of the purposes of God. The decisions of kings and emperors are not the first or last word. What is ultimate God’s resolve and capacity to do something utterly new in processes that appear to be settled and autonomous.

All this is focussed on the destiny and suffering of Jerusalem: seen as the centre of God’s attention; the world’s best hope for well-being; and yet the place of the deepest disobedience and resistance to God’s will. Jerusalem is the epitome of God’s creation: owing its life to God, yet determined to have a life other than the one God would give.

Our passage this evening follows directly on from God’s love song for his vineyard Israel. It announces judgement in a series of woes.  Each is introduced by a term that suggests the grief of death – rendered in our version as “Ah.”  In others it is translated as, “Woe.”  It anticipates mourning for those who are sure to die for their unacceptable behaviour. 

The first woe is addressed to the rich and powerful, the aggressive and greedy, who will come to grief because of their appropriation of the houses and fields of their more vulnerable neighbours. This was a widespread economic trend in 8th century Judah. Big landowners bought up and crowded out small farmers, destroying the neighbourly fabric of the community. To the prophets, this was a grave violation of God’s will expressed in the law and especially the tenth commandment with its warning against covetousness. The land belonged to God. Israel only held in it trust for the benefit of all.

This prophetic critique is not limited to Judah in the 8th century before Christ – it sounds remarkably relevant to our age when the increasing divisions between rich and poor also threaten the fabric of society; when a class of the almost unimaginably wealthy seem to owe little loyalty to community or nation, to any interest higher than their own.

God’s response to this betrayal of neighbourliness is twofold. 

 “Large and beautiful houses,” the outward and visible signs of this rapacious economic policy, will be left desolate – in the wake of invading armies. A land ravaged by war will no longer produce. The great landowners who had intended to become rich and prosperous at the expense of their neighbours, will learn that their own actions and policies would leave them with diminished crops. Prophetic faith makes a direct ethical link: exploitation of neighbours leads to diminished productivity.

The second woe concerns strong drink:

“Ah, you who rise early in the morning in pursuit of strong drink, who linger in the evening to be inflamed by wine, whose feasts consist of lyre and harp, tambourine and flute and wine, but who do regard the deeds of the Lord or see the work of his hands!”

This is not just a puritan temperance rant, though a parish which has its own bar cannot take lightly the effects of alcoholism on individuals and on society: lives destroyed, families blighted, a health service buckling under the strain of alcohol-induced illness.

But the real concern here is the self-indulgence and self-absorption which alcohol symbolizes.  The accumulation of land, produce and wealth encourages inordinate self-indulgence and self-regard. Wealth foolishly-gotten and foolishly-used desensitizes. The woe warns those who become insensitive to the workings of God in their midst. As the self-indulgent disregard God, so they likewise disregard their neighbour. They see and care only for themselves.

“But the Lord of hosts is exalted by justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy by righteousness.”

God is exalted by the practice of justice and righteousness (see vs 7). That is the only way to “magnify” God, as the Magnificat we have sung at this service should remind us.

The consequence is again a direct inversion of the sin.  Self-indulgent feasts are followed by hunger and thirst.  This is the intention of God.  Such destructive acts and politics cannot be undertaken without accountability. There are ethical requirements writ large and indelibly into the processes of society and they have consequences.

And so, the prophet imagines Jerusalem swallowed up by Sheol, the abode of the dead, and wiped out of the history. All this will come upon Jerusalem because it thinks itself autonomous from God.

Even the image of pastureland – usually a sign of a well-ordered society – becomes a sign of disaster: “then the lambs shall graze as in their pasture, fatlings and kids shall feed among the ruins.” Jerusalem is turned over to sheep. Busy and prosperous streets are given back to nature. The bustle of city life is silenced.

The behaviour of Jerusalem is contrasted with its pious words, its apparent desire to know God’s intentions:

“Let him make haste, let him speed his work that we may see it, let the plan of the Holy One of Israel hasten to fulfilment, that we may know it!” 

The prophet exposes the hypocrisy and self-deception in the contradiction between deed and word. Jerusalem comes with pious words but in reality is dragging the load of its sins. Judah is so shameless as to be unaware that it will receive only judgement from God. It assumes that what “the Holy One of Israel” gives will be welcome and protection, when in fact he will make haste and speed to punish. This woe is for a community so pre-occupied with itself as to be completely unaware of the peril it is in before God. 

Jerusalem’s self-indulgence has robbed it of its power of discernment and discrimination. It can see no further than its own short term benefit.  It calls “evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.”  This is the world of propaganda and disinformation and “newspeak;” of euphemism in public discourse that disguises what is in fact reality. It is the world of advertising which persuades us that this or that product will make us happy and fulfilled. It is that self-deception, when we refuse to believe the truth which is before our eyes because it is too uncomfortable.

A further woe warns against an autonomy, where wisdom and technical knowledge are exercised independently of any larger reference point; without reference to the requirements of God’s covenant.  Such moral autonomy is sure to bring social disaster, even though the wise and shrewd always imagine themselves to be immune from threat.

Finally, we return to the self-indulgence of drinking (vs.22-23). Again, the issue is not so much alcohol, but the consequences of self-indulgence: the distortion of public order, the collapse of an equitable judicial system.  For a price courts will rule for those who exploit others. The innocent – the vulnerable, weak, – have no chance of fair judgement. The disappearance of a reliable judiciary assures the complete collapse of viable human community.

The effect of these woes is cumulative. The poem represents a society that has lost its centre, its reference, its focus, its purpose, and its chance for well-being. So the woes are followed by two prophetic “therefores”, voicing God’s negative resolve.  In the first (24), the indictment is that Israel has rejected God’s law or instruction as the norm and guide for social order. This rejection is tantamount to rejecting God, for God is never available in the Old Testament apart from his Law. The consequence of such rejection is described as fire, rot, dust. 

The second “therefore” becomes more explicit. Now God will intervene actively with anger and outstretched arm, that is, with direct, forcible engagement.

Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people, and he stretched out his hand against them and struck them…For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still.  The negative force of God is so strong that it evokes images of death, the tramp of marching armies, relentless, terrible and irresistible.

“And if one looks to the land – only darkness and distress, and the light grows dark with clouds.”

A people who see nothing exceptional in what they are doing, are told what the consequences will be: exile, deportation, displacement. Those who feel most secure, will be displaced and disrupted.  All classes of society will meet disaster when the elemental infrastructure of society fails. In the world of God’s governance, such destructive acts and politics cannot be undertaken without accountability.

So there we have one of the voices in the oratorio which is the book of Isaiah, a voice of judgement.  If it was the only voice, the message would be one only of warning and doom.  But it is not the only voice and we must listen to it alongside the others, if Isaiah is to be the “Fifth Gospel” as it is sometimes called.

It has been given this name, in part because it is seen as foreshadowing, pointing forward to Jesus.  and because it is the scripture which Jesus refers to most often and which seems to form his self-understanding of his role and relationship with the Father.  It is a gospel too, because it holds out to Israel not just warning and judgement but the hope of restoration through God’s action. Without God’s powerful word and presence, both creation and a disabled humanity are lost and without hope; condemned to death and decay.  But God’s intention is to save. He will come in power, both to work for good and to eliminate threat.

So in Chapter 35, we read of a great reversal. The wilderness road to exile becomes the Holy Way on which God’s people may travel safely as they return rejoicing to the holy city. This great pilgrimage involves not just human beings, but animals and plants. All creation, human and non-human, is gathered together in rejoicing at what God has done.

Isaiah’s visionary poem is fulfilled in Jesus Christ whom Paul preaches after the reading of the law and the prophets in the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia, (Acts 13); the Christ who came to lead us, the poor lost children of Eden, from our exile to our true home with God.