God’s mercy remembered

April 15, 2018

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Preached by Canon Mark Collinson using Isiah 63:7-15 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 at Mattins on Sunday 15th April 2018, the Third Sunday of Easter.

One of the things that I find rather strange about cathedral services (and the same is true for church services) is the way work our way through the order of service – our script every Sunday! We say or sing such an assortment of readings and songs that were written in different languages and relate to five different millennia – and we assume that they all make sense without further explanation. What is happening in our service of worship today, as in any other day, is we are interweaving a series of historical stories and songs from the past into the narrative of our own lives.

It’s a bit like a novel I remember reading a long time ago by the Peruvian writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, called Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. In the novel the main character is a scriptwriter who writes and stars in soap operas for radio.

His scripts are so realistic and reflect his own life so much that by the end of the book his own life is completely interwoven with the scripts of the soap operas. The reader gets completely lost – because it is no longer possible to distinguish the scriptwriter’s own life from the stories he is creating. In the final chapter we find out that the main character is the author himself.

That’s something like what is happening to Christians when they gather for worship. We are interweaving the narrative of salvation history into our own lives, so that His story becomes our story, the story of God revealing himself to all of humanity.

So how might we make sense of the stories we’ve heard this morning?

Our Old Testament reading from the book of Isaiah, relates to around the 6th century before Christ.  Incidentally, I read recently that a seal has been found near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that dates to the time of King Hezekiah, and it has Isaiah’s name on it, providing, for the first time, a possible piece of archeological evidence that Isaiah was indeed a trusted prophet of the King.

The latter part of the book, the 63rd chapter, reflects a later period than Hezekiah, around 520 BC, a period after what is known as the exile. The exile occurred when the Babylonian Empire deported the ruling classes, the intellectuals and the wealthy.

This was interpreted as God’s punishment on Israel for not being faithful to God.

Isaiah 63 looks back to the times when God was merciful and the people of Israel were faithful:

v7 I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us.

Then the prophet remembers what it was like nearly 900 years previously, when God showed his faithfulness to Moses, who led the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.

‘They remembered the days of old,
of Moses his servant.’

God ‘is the one who put within them
his holy spirit,’ (Isaiah 63:11)

Those were the days when God was a Saviour to his people. So you see that in the Old Testament text, the prophet is calling his contempories to remember the past, to shape their lives by remembering the accounts of God’s faithfulness to their ancestors at the time of Moses.

Our New Testament reading does something similar. Corinthians is a letter written by the apostle Paul to Christians in the Greek city of Corinth about 2,000 years ago, in the first century. Paul is telling them about a story from a different culture and and a different time.

He also refers to the time of Moses who lived around 1,400 years before Christ.

So Paul does the same thing as we see happening in Isaiah 63: he wants his listeners,  who are from a completely different culture, in a different country, who speak a different language, to look back and have their lives shaped by this ancient story of the salvation of Moses. Paul says that the spiritual ancestors of the Greek speaking Corinthians, are the people of Israel, whom God saved from slavery in Egypt, and they too may shape their lives by the story of Moses.

But here’s the really fascinating bit: the impact of the resurrection of Jesus.

I imagine the first disciples two Sundays after seeing Jesus risen from the dead, are twisting their minds to understand what God is doing and what Jesus’ resurrection means. It’s as if the whole world has been turned upside down and they’re trying to make sense of it.

Paul is writing to Corinth having had at least 17 years of reflecting on the resurrection of Christ. And he says, ‘For they [the Israelites in the wilderness at the time of Moses] drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.’ (1 Cor 10:3). He sees how the story of the pre-incarnate Son of God, connects with the story of Moses. In the desert it wasn’t just God who was giving them the water of life, God was giving them the life of Christ.

These weeks of the Easter season is a period when we, in the third millennium after Christ, re-evaluate our lives in the light of the resurrection of Christ.

Like the first disciples who struggled to believe that they were seeing the risen Jesus in bodily form, we re-read the stories of God’s faithfulness to his people and we begin to see Christ’s presence being interwoven in our own lives.

I happen to be celebrating my 50th birthday today and it has been a joy to gather people this weekend from all the previous five decades of my life. It has been a weekend of sober reflection – of recognising the inevitability of being unable to deny that I am middle-aged!

But in every decade of my life I can perceive the hand and voice of God influencing, guiding, whispering and encouraging me to deny myself and to follow Christ. I can no longer tell my story without relating it to the story of Jesus Christ, who was born, lived, died and rose again 2,000 years ago. I’ve been learning my script in God’s story.

But going back 2,000 years ago to the resurrection, is not going back far enough. My own life, like every human life, goes back to the salvation that Moses brought, and before that to very creation itself, because every human being is made in the likeness of God, in likeness of Jesus Christ.

Being a Christian, and coming here to worship on a Sunday morning, we begin to realise, I hope, that we are not the main character in the story of our lives.

The main character is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who birthed us, who formed us and shaped us, who has been speaking to us since before we were born, and who reveals himself to us. He calls all humanity to find fulfilment in his story. Our lives are not about writing our own script, our own story; every Sunday morning in cathedral or church, we are learning the lines of God’s story and finding out where we play our part.