Readings Isaiah 43.14-44.5, John 5.30-47
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
An item on the radio made me pause: Black-led Pentecostal churches are concerned about the number of young men converting to Islam, and the difficulty some pastors have defending Christian beliefs like the Trinity in the face of well-informed Muslim critique. It led me to ask myself, ‘How well would I do in such a case?’ and to be reminded of how you need to think your way through faith.
That’s why a big part of the training of readers and priests is devoted to the critical study of the Bible. Biblical criticism can arouse suspicion as a conspiracy of the clever to undermine the faith of ordinary believers, but this is largely rubbish. Critical study of the Bible seeks to answer the questions that anyone reading the Bible would come up with: why are there two contrasting stories of the creation in Genesis? why two different accounts of how Judas died? Issues like these are the stuff of what biblical critics tackle.
Take the book of Isaiah. It looks at first like a single book, but read it carefully, and questions arise. The first forty chapters seem set around the late-700s-to-early-600s-BC, when the kingdom of Judah is threatened by regional superpower Assyria. They mention the prophet Isaiah by name and give a haunting account of his calling. Chapters 40-55 (including tonight’s reading) look much more as if they are set in the mid-500s or later, when the people are in exile in Babylon. Now it is possible that God inspired Isaiah to make these prophecies up to two hundred years before, but it is odd that these chapters never mention Isaiah by name, and never mention the kings ruling in Jerusalem or the worship in the temple which was so crucial in Isaiah’s calling to be a prophet. Puzzling.
It’s been suggested that these later parts of the book were by someone else, making or compiling prophecies in the tradition of Isaiah. You can’t prove it, but most people who study Isaiah say this makes the most sense of what we read. On this theory, tonight’s reading from chapters 43 & 44 come from the one we call Second Isaiah (or, if you want to impress your friends, Deutero-Isaiah). It starts with God’s promise to free his people from Babylon, but immediately back comes the complaint that the people have failed in their calling to be God’s servant; then the hopefulness returns: ‘Do not fear,’ says God, ‘I will pour my blessing on your offspring, like pouring water on a thirsty land.’
The idea of the servant is a key thought in Second Isaiah: Israel as a whole is called to be God’s servant, but fails; then in other passages it seems that the prophet has in mind a small group of people, or even a single person, taking the mantle of servanthood which should have been worn by the whole nation, saying Yes to God – and suffering for it. The first Christians look at Jesus – what he did and suffered – and say, He is the one, Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, who alone says Yes to God without any shadow of turning. And so the calling of a whole nation, first proclaimed by Moses, to do and to suffer for God in the world, does come to rest on one pair of shoulders. That is also how we can read tonight’s passage in John. Jesus says to ‘the Jews’, ‘You search the scriptures, but they testify to me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life’.
John has got a reputation for anti-semitism, not an issue to dodge when today is Racial Justice Sunday. There is no doubt that this passage – ‘I will not accuse you, your accuser is Moses on whom you set your hope’ – and others in John do not read well against the background of the medieval pogroms that will be recounted in Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews tonight, let alone the industrialised slaughter of the twentieth century. But here again the critics can help.
Key questions in studying a gospel are these: Who was it written for? What sort of people were the first to hear it? Now there is evidence all over John’s gospel that it was written by a Jew and for Jews, Jewish Christians forced out by the majority who did not accept that Jesus was the Messiah. It is a sad irony that a book that has been read in a way to fuel hatred of Christians towards Jews probably began as a piece of protest literature for one Jewish group among others. A case of don’t blame the Bible, blame the idiots who read it.
If we’re right, these texts are good ones to read at the moment, because they are written for people who are struggling. Money is one of our struggles. Our Diocese of Southwark needs to save the cost of thirty vicars’ posts by 2017, and our vacant half-time Team Vicar post is under scrutiny. If we are to do something creative in response to losing that funding, that will cost us money, on top of the near quarter of a million pounds we contribute to the Diocese – rightly, as we are an affluent parish.
And money is not the only struggle. There was the honest analysis of the Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking to the Evangelical Alliance, that most young Britons – even some Evangelical Christian ones – regard the church’s official position on same-sex relationships as wicked, of a piece with racism ‘and other horrors’.
Now it’s not all bad. Our three churches are places where I hope you do feel welcome if you are in a same-sex relationship; and the group of us at the Greenbelt Festival at the end of August found signs there of the people of God as joyful, imaginative and plentiful – nearly twenty thousand crammed on to Cheltenham Racecourse. Even so, we do struggle at times. So what might God have in these readings for struggling believers?
The Hebrew prophets often talk about the people ignoring God because they are too busy having a good time, but not First and Second Isaiah. At first, the people are scared because they are surrounded by a superpower that they cannot repel. Then, in exile, they are still scared: uprooted, without status, depending for their existence on others more powerful than they are. These chapters tell tales of how an atmosphere of anxiety can cut you off from God, not because God stops caring, but because fear spreads through you like a virus, leaving no room for a sense of God. We had a clergy morning away this week, and one of us talked about the danger of thinking too much and praying to little. That’s how it can be if you are struggling with something.
Isaiah suggests a cure: to see ourselves afresh within the infinity of God. God is the fountain from which all existence springs; God is the goal to which all existence moves; and if this God pays attention to you and me, then there is nothing that we cannot face. This is acted out in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but for our prophet that lies in the unimaginable future. That does not render his words obsolete, though, because quite often you cannot imagine how the resurrection life we say we believe in when we recite the Creed is going to occur in this place, with this problem, or this person. Tonight the prophet cuts through the murmurs of anxiety with a voice like a captain to a panicking crew:
Now hear this. Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you. Do not fear, O Jacob my servant. For I will pour water on the thirsty land; I will pour my spirit on your descendants, and they shall spring up like a green tamarisk, like willows by flowing streams. Isaiah 44.1-4
Conversion to Islam http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23753325
The Story of the Jews http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03b4q95/
Diocese of Southwark http://www.southwark.anglican.org/downloads/resources/Strategy-for-Ministry.pdf
Archbishop of Canterbury http://www.eauk.org/church/stories/address-by-the-archbishop-of-canterbury.cfm
Andrew Brown: Justin Welby gets real on homophobia http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2013/aug/28/
Greenbelt Festival http://www.greenbelt.org.uk/