September 1, 2019
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Mark Collinson, using Isiah 33.13-22 and John 3.22-36 at Mattins on Sunday 1st September 2019, the 11th after Trinity.
As time marches on inexorably towards the 31st October, the temperature ramped up this week with the announcement that the government is going to prorogue Parliament for five weeks. This step outsmarted the opposition parties who had been meeting to work out how to block a no deal Brexit, and now it looks like they won’t have time to do so.
The Pro-Brexit referendum cries of ‘take back control’ and ‘restore democracy to the British Parliament’ are now being thrown back in their faces by demonstrators on the streets.
Meanwhile Michael Gove’s department is serupticiously preparing the UK for a no deal Brexit, which, if you didn’t know means turning the road between here and Alresford into a lorry park for trucks that are waiting to cross the Channel.
At the same time on the global stage, democracy is under threat in Kashmir, Hong Kong, as well as our own troubled shores. The alliances of world power are shifting. Will we continue to be aligned with our closest neighbours, or will we become a vassal state of America, or even find new markets in BRIC: Brazil, Russia, India or China?
In these troubled times, the Old Testament reading may have something to offer us.
The reading of Isaiah 33 is located, most probably just before the exile of Judah in the late sixth century BCE. Assyria has attacked and taken the fortified cities of Judah (2 Kings 18:13-18). Many voices at King Hezekiah’s court are saying that an alliance with Egypt is the way forward. Hezekiah opts to pay tribute to Assyria (The cost of his Withdrawal Agreement was 300 talents of sliver and thirty talents of gold – what, is that roughly £39bn in today’s currency?) in order to get out of Assyria’s clutches. Sennacherib of Assyria takes the money, but subsequently doesn’t back off. He appears to stand ready for war.
So what is King Hezekiah meant to do? Does he allow Assyria to besiege the city and see his people starved of trade, food and medicines? He can’t fight – his army is too small. Does he grandstand against his enemies?
Will pure Churchillian rhetoric get him out of this mess? What does he do?
Hezekiah leads his people to repentance as they recognise their own sinfulness in the face of God’s holiness. Everyone recognises that they need to throw themselves on God’s mercy.
So the reading says, ‘The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless.’ (Isaiah 33:14)
The consequence of repentance is humility and a change of character:
‘Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly,
who despise the gain of oppression,
who wave away a bribe instead of accepting it,
who stop their ears from hearing of bloodshed
and shut their eyes from looking on evil.’
Isaiah calls on all the people of Jerusalem to walk not just with personal holiness but to call for social holiness – to create a good society, a moral nation. Stopping your ears from hearing bloodshed and shutting your eyes from looking on evil doesn’t mean ignoring what’s going wrong in society: it means not being complicit in allowing it to happen.
On this day the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of war in Poland we must remember our history and not rewrite it. Most of the church in pre-war Germany was complicit in allowing extreme right wing politicians take control of the country and remove people’s rights. Only a few, such as the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, took a stand.
This week’s smooth talking of ‘Everything is perfectly in order’ is not calming the fear that gets people out on the streets calling for democratic representation through Parliament. As things stand, on the 1st November, UK citizens will lose significant rights under a no deal Brexit and nobody actually seems bothered about it (that is, the freedom of movement).
It is bewildering for us to know whether No Deal will indeed bring the levels of hardship that are difficult for us to comprehend. We really are in the realms of not knowing what the future will bring. We are not just talking about bread and water (as it does in Isaiah 33:16) but about the availability of medicines, jobs and fuel. The temptation is to think that by backing the right party, or the right leader, or aligning ourselves with the right trading block will bring us salvation that only God can give.
Our reading from Isaiah today ends with the affirmation that the citizens of Judah accept God as their king:
22 For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler,
the Lord is our king; he will save us. (Isaiah 33:22).
In Isaiah the political reality of a city under siege is merged with the spiritual reality of whether people’s hearts are under God’s sovereignty. The catastrophe of war is conflated with the calamity of tortured souls who can find no rest without God.
As we turn to the New Testament reading, we hear another story, which is essentially about purity. It says, “Now a discussion arose about purification between John’s disciples and a Jew’ (John 3:25). This discussion would be about whether purity, or ritual holiness can be achieved only in the Temple (when sacrifices are made for forgiveness of sin) or whether John’s baptism, or indeed the baptism that Jesus was offering, are also effective for the forgiveness of sin.
John the Baptist does not attempt to hang on to his fame or popularity. He knows disciples are switching from following him to following Jesus. This, he thinks, is a good thing. Far from being worried about losing power and defending himself, John says, “He must increase and I must decrease’ (John 3:30). That’s because John knows that Jesus is the fulfilment of the kingship that Isaiah spoke of. The Father has placed all things into the hands of the Son. “Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true. 34 He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” (John 3:33-36)
If you want certainty, if you want peace, if you want security, then it is found believing in the Son of God.
Personal holiness and the morality of a nation are closely linked together. You can’t have one without the other. We need political leaders who demonstrate a commitment to truth, personal integrity, and humility. King Hezekiah led his people in an act of national repentance. That was the first step in regaining the characteristics of virtue, not just for himself, but for his nation.
Judah as a nation faced humiliation and shame until they found their identity in God. I wonder if the United Kingdom will face the same.