Fire, brothers, fire!

December 11, 2016

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Preached by Cannon Mark Collinson, using Isaiah 5.8-end, Acts 13.13-41 and Psalm 14 at Mattins on Sunday 11th December 2016, the Third Sunday of Advent.

I wonder if you’ve encountered the market stall, on the other side of the Slipe next to the Nativity stall: it’s run by Churches Together in Winchester, and I spent one Saturday morning manning it with a few friends. I was amazed how much fun it was. The idea is that you ask people, ‘If you were king or queen for a day, what law would you pass?’ The person then writes their law on a piece of gold, silver or bronze colour parchment, and can sit on the throne, put on a crown, and proclaim their law to the assembled company.

Children, of course, loved to get a selfie of themselves on the throne with a crown and I suspect it was a child who wanted to pass a law which gave a ‘free puppy for everyone at Christmas’. But what struck me was people’s awareness of homeless people, hungry people that rely on foodbanks, and wage inequality. There was a palpable concern about the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

The people Isaiah was writing for in our Old Testament reading over 2700 years ago faced the same problem. The moral questions humanity faces appear to be common across cultures and across the generations. Isaiah warns against those who stack up wealth.

‘Woe,’ he says, ‘to you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no-one but you and you are left to live alone in the land.’ (Isaiah 5:8)Ironic, isn’t it, that if you are so successful that you mop up your neighbour’s land, and the land next to that, that you end up lonely – the only person living on your grand estate.

As I was writing this sermon the news broke about Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox agreeing to buy out Sky TV for £18.5bn. Isn’t that a similar principle? The top dog just gets bigger and bigger, and before we know it, there is a monopoly provider of entertainment and media. Monopoly power means you control the market and the rich get richer. Now none of us are Rupert Murdoch, but our culture makes us acquisitive (not inquisitive, acquisitive). We hunger for more, and that’s what greed is.

But it’s not only greed that the prophet exposes. He warns against debauchery, too much alcohol, that sense of living for the next drink: ‘Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks’ (Isiaah 5:22).

And he warns against arrogance, especially the kind that denies the authority of God and thinks ‘I know better than God.’ ‘Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight’ (Isaiah 5:21).

The problem when we ignore God is that culture loses its moral anchor. The prophet’s warning against ‘perversion’ is what happens when we can’t see the wood for the trees:

‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,

who put darkness for light and light for darkness,

who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.’ (Isaiah 5:20)

Finally the prophet Isaiah warns against injustice: Woe to those who acquit the guilty for a bribe and deny justice to the innocent; which is why we must pray for our government, our parliamentarians, our law-makers and our judiciary. They together with ‘the will of the people’ are currently pitched in battle in the Supreme Court.

The popularist perception of the case is that the will of people is being pitched against 11 privileged pillars of society rather than a test of clarifying what the law is. The questions over what a red, white and blue Brexit actually looks like matters in order for us to determine what a better future for Britain may look like. I dare Isaiah would venture to say that a better future is one that addresses the income gap.

The problem according to Isaiah, is ‘the people have rejected the law of the Lord Almighty and spurned the word of the Holy One of Israel’ (v24). Indeed, he is right: there was a self-correcting mechanism built into the Jewish Torah which prevented people gaining too much wealth. The land was owned by God, and every family was a tenant. If a family grew poor and were unable to pay their debts and passed on their land to their creditor, after 50 years, the year of Jubilee, the law required that the land be passed back to the original tenant family. All leases reverted back to the original family after 50 years. However there is no evidence of this law ever being followed. The rich simply got richer and the poor got poorer. The arrogance of the rich grew and they played fast and loose with justice. My, hasn’t the moral compass of humanity progressed over the last 2,700 years!

Economists today recognise that the gap between the rich and poor in our society has been widening, particularly over the past two decades. Only this past week a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reckons 13.5 million people in this country (more than one in five people) live in poverty, and over half these are households where people have jobs.

No-one likes the prophet who calls the nation to recognise its greed, arrogance and injustice. But Isaiah spells out the consequences of greed, arrogance, debauchery, perversion and injustice. And, really you don’t want to know. I mean, it’s bad.

The future looks bleak if we fail to humble ourselves and seek God. Isaiah talks about dead bodies thrown out like refuse on the streets, a breakdown of law and order, Death expands its jaws, opening wide its mouth. We don’t have to look far back in history to remember the consequences of hatred, intolerance and extreme nationalism. I’m going to Auschwitz next month on a prayer retreat to remind myself of the horrors of war and anti-semitism. Even now just a few hours away by plane, we see Isaiah’s prophecy being played out in Syria.

It was a Jewish poet, Mordecai Gebirtig who wrote the following poem, before he was killed by a Nazi bullet in a Krakov ghetto:

Fire, brothers, fire!

Our poor town’s on fire…!

While you stand there looking on

With folded hand…

 Isaiah recognised that even though there was a law, which defines right from wrong, good from evil, light from darkness, you don’t necessarily have the will to live by the law. Often we just sit there, and let injustice happen.

Advent is traditionally a time of the Christian year when we are reminded of what it means to face judgement: to face the full weight of the law, which we would sometimes rather ignore. Law is given to make the world a better place, whether that means free puppies for everyone or reducing the gap between the rich and poor in our global economy. Having good laws doesn’t make it easy to follow them.

For that to happen, we need to be changed from the inside out. That’s why the answer to Advent is Christmas, and the celebration of the coming of our Lord Jesus.

By following Jesus, and making a relationship between us and the Father through him, his laws become internalised, so that we actually long to fulfil them. It’s what St Paul calls, writing these laws on our hearts.

So until Christmas, we continue to pray, to recognise our failure to live according to God’s laws, to be humbled and to wait. Wait for the coming of the Lord who now sits on the throne, and wears the crown. Jesus didn’t come to make a law or pass an edict. He came to fulfil it, because we never can.