Faith Beyond Judgement

November 10, 2019

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Isa 2.1-5 at Evening Prayer on Sunday 10th November 2019, the Third Sunday before Advent, Remembrance Sunday

There are lots of examples of anti-Semitism to pluck from the news, but I’d rather tell you about the time I was travelling on the Northern Line from Hendon Central to Edgware, where I went to church. It would have been around 1979. I was sitting on the tube reading my Bible and wearing a black Marks and Spencer’s raincoat. Just as I was stepping off the train, someone else in the carriage shouted after me, Yid!

At the time, I thought how stupid someone was not to realise that I was a Christian rather than a Jew, and how cowardly he was to do this as the tube doors shut between us. Now that I know that I am ethically Jewish through my mother, I feel the force of that incident differently, as a small but significant racial attack, which I’m glad to have suffered in solidarity with others.

What prompts a complete stranger on the train to abuse a Jew? One answer is the fear of difference. People marked out from the crowd by their distinctive behaviour and clothing, be they Jew, Muslim, or LGBT for that matter, seem to be ‘asking for trouble’. And this is ironic in a season when we are seeking ‘holiness’, the root meaning of which is to be set apart or to be separate.

There’s no doubt that standing apart from the crowd, attempting to live differently, can cause antagonism, but anti-Semitism carries particular layers of prejudice in addition to this. One is the hate brought upon the Jews by the Church naming them as Christ-killers, as those who wilfully rejected the gospel. The Nazis in the 20th Century saw them as contaminating the Aryan master-race.  The contemporary stigma from the left may be because Jews have been stereotyped in populist culture as a race that has exploited capitalism.

It would be fair to say that persecution of Jews is a perennial fact of history, whatever the various reasons given by their enemies and detractors, and this long line of bloodshed is one reason we have to be so careful about what we say about God’s chosen people today. And, in my view, this means never writing the Jewish people out of the script of what God intends for the whole world.

I’ll explain why not losing hope for Israel is a biblical position. The book of Isaiah, which we heard earlier, says two things about the fate of Jerusalem, its capital city and symbol of the nation. One is that Jerusalem is going to be punished for the sins of its people –  attacked and largely destroyed by its enemies; and the second is that this won’t be the end. God has a purpose for Jerusalem the other side of this devastating loss.

The passage we heard is about ‘the latter days’ after the punishment. It paints the picture of Jerusalem as an international centre a place where nations will come to be blessed by God, to be taught what it means to live according to God’s law, to discover God’s justice and peace. The quality of life lived in the new Jerusalem will be deeply converting: ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’

The Jews were used to God’s chastisement, but they dared to hope that the punishments they faced would in the end purify them, and that one day, in the latter days, they would return from exile to the Holy City, when their whole nation be restored beyond even its former glory.

This faith is both remarkable and realistic. What nation or kingdom on earth has ever marched smoothly from one degree of glory to another? Today we have remembered those who fought and died for a future they could not see. Those who died for the cause of peace in the Great War could never tell that 21 years later peace would be broken yet again. But they believed that, beyond the devastation they faced, there was hope. They fought and died believing that their sacrifice would not be in vain.

And the same applies to the history of the Church: if you visit our Kings and Scribes exhibition, you will find on the top floor a remarkable cleavage between right and left. The right-hand gallery tells of the glories of the Church in the 11th Century. In Winchester there was an awe-inspiring ecclesiastical complex of three foundations – Old Minister, New Minster and Nunnaminster – as well as Wolvesey Palace, the home of the bishop. In the left-hand gallery, however, you can see how all this was destroyed, dispersed and rebuilt by the invading Normans.

The conquered Saxons could not know that there was a future for the Church which surpassed anything that had gone before, and St Wulfstan, the Bishop of Worcester, could only lament the sins of his people, which had caused so great a loss.

Jewish prophets like Isaiah of Jerusalem anticipated the punishment that would befall their people, but they did not lose hope in a final and glorious future. God still had a plan for them, even if they had first to face his wrath.

How extraordinary it is to hear, with the shadows of national collapse closing in, Isaiah summoning the people to renewed obedience:

O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!

Perhaps there’s an allusion in the phrase ‘the light of the Lord’ to the memory of the wounded Jacob, having wrestled with God and having survived, journeying forward to face the light of a new dawn: as that story ends, ‘The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.’

As a Christian learning from the faith of Isaiah, I would like to propose this about God’s first people: even if the death of Jesus the Messiah was a judgement upon a portion of Israel – on the powerful, on those with vested interests especially – even if this were the severest of divine judgements, involving the destruction of Jerusalem and its rebuilt Temple (by the Romans this time) in AD70 – nonetheless, God’s promise to restore the Jews was never, and will never, be revoked.

What has changed, though, through Israel’s disobedience and by the mercy and grace of God, is that the promises which in former days belonged to Israel alone have now in the latter days been opened to include all Gentiles, so that now we, together, as beloved children of his covenant, await God’s coming kingdom and the full manifestation of his glory, the new Jerusalem.

This faith in a God who promises to renew and restore after judgement is exactly what we need to cope with times like these, when it’s tempting to pick on minorities who seem to threaten our personal or national identity; when it’s tempting to ignore the major threat to our existence worldwide – climate change – a judgement on our selfish use of the earth’s resources; when it’s tempting to believe that both Israel and the Church are too flawed to be of any further service to God.

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall. The joy of the citizens of East and West and the bewilderment of the guards who had used lethal force to keep people apart and maintain the status quo is a potent reminder that not all destruction is ultimately destructive. The presence of God transforms even the darkest of threats we face.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence? …
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you. [Ps 139]