August 25, 2019
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Roly Riem, using Isiah 30:8-21 at Mattins on Sunday 25th August 2019, the 10th after Trinity.
Perhaps you know the saying: there are three sorts of people in the world, those who can count and those who can’t! Here’s another: there are two sorts of people in the world, those who trust in God and those who don’t. Though trust may exist by degrees in practice, often the prophets, like the prophet Isaiah in our first reading, present a straight choice between trusting and not trusting in the living God.
Trusting in God is a choice. We can’t hide behind what we regard as normal or a supposed consensus when it comes to relating to God; and this is because the God of the prophets and of Jesus Christ lays claim on us, to call us home from the estrangement caused by our wrong choices, to bring us back into the heart of his plans to bless humanity and all creation.
And trust is a choice we need to make together for it to be a blessing. We know all too well from the current political debate that without togetherness, the future fragments. For a good and happy life to be possible, it has to be shared – so people’s minds need changing as well as our own.
The prophet Isaiah’s call to trust, then, was addressed to his whole people, the nation of Israel, because in his mind the alternative was sudden and certain disaster. Without a change of mind, the nation was like a buckling wall in danger of imminent collapse.
Isaiah’s message comes as a great challenge to our culture, because for us choices are for individuals to make and choosing God is anyway strange. The majority live outside any story that tells them what God is like, and at best he seems distant and uninterested in us.
In my holidays I visited a museum where there had been polling people of all ages about their big questions – not just polling them, but putting them up on the foyer wall. By far the greatest number were about the environment. There were – perhaps from the younger constituency – a fair number of questions about poo. And in popularity, somewhere between poo and aliens, came questions about God, with ‘who made God?’ being top of the pops.
The question about God catching my eye, though, was ‘does God hate me?’
That is the fear. And it’s one that can stem from fear of the unknown, of authority figures, and from the experience of suffering – all manner of things. Faith is a decision based on other data – the glory and delicate balance of creation, the sense of our own dependence and interdependence, the existence of conscience and reason – and, above all, a sense of calling, the sense we have of being only one side of a conversation, with a capacity to listen, receive and respond to a Reality beyond ourselves.
Prophets like Isaiah remind us of the conversation we can have and tell us of the Reality we can relate to.
The Lord waits to be gracious to you;
Therefore he will rise up to show mercy on you.
God doesn’t hate us; he is gracious and merciful, and he wishes to deliver us from our troubles. But, in general, God does not do quick fixes. God does not flick his magic wand and make things better without our faithful co-operation. Grace and mercy work through us over time.
Even in the short passage we heard earlier, you do not hear Isaiah saying, believe in God and everything will be wonderful. Rather, we hear him warning his nation against relying on oppression and deceit to force their advantage. They are to stop being rebellious and faithless and listen instead to God, listen to their calling to be his people.
And the result of this will not be instant gratification but the restoration of a conversation and relationship: Isaiah proclaims, ‘God will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry, when he hears it, he will answer you’. And this changes things, decisively, even if circumstances remain dire, because now there is collaboration and relationship with God, the Lord of all life:
Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’
It is this relationship, based on an active trust in God, that will bring deliverance – no quick fixes, but a sure way: this is the faith that the Church holds and holds out to society.
Now some may say, if we are going to face adversity and affliction anyway, what’s the point of believing rather than not believing? The point is that were living by different rules. We’re not playing the game of chiselling small, short-term advantages for ourselves out of the cliff-edge of chaos; we are responding instead to a God who’s bringing order out of chaos, as he has been from the beginning and as he will be till his kingdom finally comes.
Isaiah is quite clear: if you want a god to bolster your own values and plans, choose an idol, but it can’t save you. To be in the hands of the living God is less comfortable, but ultimately more comforting, as he will guide and teach you in the way you should go.
Those who trust in God live by different rules. They live to see God’s name honoured and his kingdom come. And they relate to this God intimately, as their heavenly Father. They long to see God’s will done – here on earth, not only in heaven. They are content to live with enough bread for the day. They do not see themselves as always in the right, but are prepared to admit their failings, and to be forgiving of the shortcomings of others. They rely on God to deliver them from every trail and temptation on the way.
Living at this level of trust is difficult, so whenever we pray we need to rehearse these priorities and aims before God and each other; and we need to live out what we believe, so that we can discover that trust is rewarded in practice. That was the message of our second reading: sow sparingly and you will reap sparingly; sow bountifully and you will reap bountifully – you will have a taste of what it is like to live in God’s economy, and you’ll know what it’s like to be in the middle of a deep and abundant conversation with God, who is both sower and reaper.
Trusting in God means living by different rules, praying frequently and living generously being just two of them. And I believe that in these times, when we are less sure than ever as to how to live together as a united kingdom, these rules of faith are worth proclaiming from the housetops.
There is a way to a happy life, and the heart of it is to respond to a holy calling, to be God’s own people, citizens of a heavenly kingdom and agents of his will on earth. This is not a way of quick-fixes or cheap comforts, but it is a way of profound satisfaction and joy:
For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel:
In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.
As we turn to God now in prayer, let us do so in the trust that he loves us and that in his love he profoundly wishes and wills to save us.