The Greatest Gift that we are Offered

January 20, 2019

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Preached by Ordinand Matthew Renshaw, using Isaiah 49:1-7 and Acts 16:11-15 at Evensong on Sunday 20th January 2019, the Third of Epiphany.

There’s an adage – directed to those of us who find ourselves standing in pulpits – that says “no one ever came to church to learn about the Jebusites…”

It’s acknowledging that scripture has a specific setting in time and place – relating to specific people.  But as the inspired word of God, we need to be open to how it might speak to us today.

Some passages speak very clearly – others not so.

Perhaps we can test that by seeing if I can keep you awake form the next few minutes!

What are we to make of the first passage we heard read – from Isaiah?

Let’s be very honest. Isaiah is a difficult book to make sense of. It spans a time period of over 200 years. It’s not written chronologically. It regularly jumps around between times and locations. It is not always easy to be sure who is speaking or who is being spoken of.

So making sense of it as written can be hard enough, but does it speak to us today – in our own lives, in times of good, and times of bad?

You’ve probably guessed that I am going to suggest that it does. In fact I think it offers us the greatest gift that scripture, that God, can give us.

Let me take us away from the ancient era to the present with a couple of snapshots of modern life – you will no doubt have your own experiences and examples that come to mind.

In the mid part of last year a dear friend of mine gave birth to a baby girl. She had longed for a child for many years, though had been unable to find the right person with whom to settle down. She was ever aware of the so called biological clock ticking away. Then she did meet someone, and became a mother. Not long after that she celebrated her 40th birthday – never expecting that that milestone should be met in such circumstance, with such positivity and blessing.

A few weeks later her own mother died. Completely unexpectedly. And with no warning she found herself at the lowest point in her life.

A year or two ago I was walking in the New forest with a friend. He and his wife used to go to church. Now his wife goes on her own.

“Why did you stop going to church?” I asked him

He replied “the world just seems to make more sense without God”

 

I have often returned to that comment – and thought about what it might mean. What does life look like without God? If one has been a regular church goer and been exposed to the Christian faith, how does one come to that conclusion?

The answer I came to was that of suffering.

The issue of suffering seems easier to accept in the absence of a loving God.

The questions and mysteries of why we suffer can just be accepted or ignored. One less thing to worry about…

And I can see that that is an attraction.

My first friend will no doubt always have questions about how life can be so wonderful, and then suddenly so cruel. If we resolve that there is no God –  then perhaps some of those questions more quickly fade away.

But so too does hope.

To remove God removes hope – and to leave anyone without hope is perhaps the cruellest act of all.

I would suggest that it isn’t suffering that speaks of a non-existent God, rather it is hope that speaks of the reality of God – for hope is the greatest gift that we are offered.

And that’s the very thing that Isaiah would have us know in this passage.

OK, three sentences by way of “the story so far” – and the Jebusites don’t get a mention. But the Israelites do.

  1. Israel is God’s chosen nation – the people to whom he has made himself known, and led to the promised land.
  2. They rebelled, they didn’t keep their side of the covenant and so were exiled – driven out of their lands and forced to live under an oppressive regime.
  3. God has mercy on them and lets them come back – the nation Israel is to be restored.

That’s where we are with our passage from this afternoon. That’s where we join the action as it were.

Hope is suddenly given to those who were hopeless.

The text speaks specifically of one whom God has set apart for the special purpose of restoring the Israelites. A servant of the Lord – whom God had chosen even before his birth.

And not only that, this person is given such authority and power that he will not only restore Israel as God’s people, but he will be a light to the nations – to reveal God to those of every nation.

Now perhaps, in true prophetic fashion, I think I might know what you are thinking, as we hear this 2500 years later, in Winchester. How does this relate to me?

Sometimes taking scripture out of its original historical context is hard – and attempts to do so can be clumsy and unhelpful, almost dishonest or contrived.

But very much in true prophetic fashion – Isaiah foresees this and manages it ingeniously.

Scattered somewhat randomly within the middle chapters of Isaiah there are 4 particular passages.  We heard the 2nd of them today. They speak of a servant of God who must suffer – but he remains anonymous.

Would the original audience have immediately been able to work out the identity of this so called servant? Probably not. It may well speak of the political leader that would allow the Israelites to return – but why so secret?

Is Isaiah being purposefully vague? Never intending the identity to be revealed? Perhaps the prophet himself is unaware about whom he speaks.

It’s this anonymity, this enigma,that keeps the passage alive today. Because we don’t know for sure who the main character is, we can’t be sure the story is even over.

What’s extraordinary is the one who perfectly fits the description through all 4 passages is Jesus of Nazareth. And yet this is written 500 years before Jesus is born.

That the glory of God was revealed through the Israelites, the Jewish people, and subsequently extends to all people is demonstrated in the passage from Acts. When, in Phillipi, which today would be mainland Greece, Lydia hears the Good News of God as revealed through Jesus – she is baptised. She thus becomes the first European to be converted to the Christian faith.

It is through the life, suffering and death, and resurrection of Christ that we find ourselves in the midst of this story.

And so we are shown the hope that is in Christ. It’s not to ignore the fact that life can be hard. Not to pretend that there isn’t suffering, but to bestow on us the greatest gift of hope.

The three kings gave him gold, frankincense and myrrh – he gives us hope.

Hope – that the promises of God, in Christ Jesus, offer us glory beyond all comparison and imagination.

And it is that gift of hope that St Paul draws upon as he says

“ I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”