The Ransomed Shall Return to Zion

December 16, 2018

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Isa 35, Luke 1.57-66, at Mattins on Sunday 16th December 2018, Advent 3.

There are perhaps two main contenders for what most binds us together as a nation. The first is the National Health Service, barely 100 years old but an organization that reassures us that we care for each other. The second is democracy: we believe in fair play and the rule of law. Our laws and law-making are an expression of fairness hard at work, in even the most difficult of cases.

And that’s why the circumstances in which we find ourselves at present, in which there seems no easy way of acting fairly, in which many feel themselves treated unfairly and locked in a system where tribal interests appear to be ripping apart the big tent of Parliament, where fair decisions should be being made, especially when times are tough … why in these circumstances, we find ourselves angry and depressed.

I must confess at the moment to being mesmerized by the news, to the minute analysis of the consequences of each and every word and action of the players on the Brexit stage; and so please excuse a sermon which is, above all, a memo to self, but which also turns to the prophet Isaiah for help.

It’s also a response to someone called Guy, who approached me after a college carol service with a very honest question: do you believe that this stuff is history – the Christmas story with its shepherds and angels and a little child who happens to be God?

The great thing about our first reading is that no-one could possibly worry that its first concern is historical: ‘the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom’. Pieces of land do not have feelings, except in poetry. Poetry is the enemy of flat literalism. And when people ask whether something is historical or not, they are often asking the question, did it literally happen; is it a blow-by-blow account of the facts?

Poetry does not deal with facts but with truth. ‘My love is like a red, red rose’ does not mean that that he or she blushes profusely in social situations. That may be factually accurate, but it is not really true. The truth is that my feelings for my beloved run deep and intense. They are the colour of passion and blood. They prick my sense and sensibility, so that I am driven by fierce yet delicate desire … and so on. That is the truth held in poetry.

No, wildernesses do not smile in general, but in the book of Isaiah they truly rejoice once God gets hold of them; and this is a poem about what happens when God acts to save his land and people. Analysis doesn’t always help us to feel the force of a poem, but let’s just notice one of two things about Chapter 35, our first lesson.

It starts off talking about wilderness, dry land and desert becoming under God’s hand glorious and abundant places like Lebanon, Carmel and Sharon; and then it turns to the people. They have weak hands, feeble knees and fearful hearts – a paralyzing combination.

We do not know why they were in this mess. Perhaps this poem was written when the Assyrians over-ran Israel, but it found its way into holy scripture and spoke afresh every time people sought a word from God against weak hands, feeble knees and fearful hearts.

And whenever they read it, they heard of a God coming in vengeance, coming to upset the established order, whose worst wrath was their best hope. God vengeance was far from sheer vindictiveness; it was rather a flood of justice overwhelming all aridity and dryness.

The following images of transformation are all intensely personal. Poetry doesn’t deal much in concepts, but in concrete particulars: ‘the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy’.

And hope springs further than that. A way forward is opened up beyond the humiliation of a small nation fighting against the odds to have its voice heard in the region, a nation that once claimed to be a united kingdom, when Israel and Judah were united by the great King David. Those glory days would return when a high and holy way would open out in the desert for God’s people to make their way back home:

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

How well Johannes Brahms understood this text when he made it the climax of Part II of his German Requiem. He begins Part II with futility – ‘all flesh is grass’ – and a call to patience for the Lord to tend his creation like a good gardener. The mighty chorus ending the section is introduced after a reminder, ‘But the word of the Lord endures forever’.

All this poetry is preparing us for one truth that God can act, and that God will act in and through the worst and most arid of times, to bring about deliverance. The poetry of God cuts through every circumstance, our own included.

Poetry enables us to confess both that our circumstances are probably worse than we can imagine – the United Kingdom is probably more divided and smaller in the eyes of its neighbours today than I would ever like to admit – but to imagine also that the deliverance that God alone can bring is greater.

The last thing you need is further analysis from me about where we go from our current impasse. A preacher’s job is simply to say that in these situations, in which we can’t see how God can tweak our best efforts, we can hope that God’s fierce anger will boil over at the very injustice of our plight. God is utterly for fairness. But his care is not for any particular political solution; his care is for reconciliation, for peace, for prosperity, for all; and he is furious at the fear that sets us against each other and leaves the poorest without hope of being ransomed, that is, being bought out and brought out of slavery.

This is a call to faith on God’s future. Zion is our home. And we have the New Testament to teach us how to return to Zion. It’s simple. We follow mercy, even when it interferes with our ideas of what the future should look like. We associate the future with self-preservation, with the preservation of our family, tribe and nation, but mercy is a far wider and wilder reality than that.

When Elizabeth gives birth to a son in her old age, the people see the mercy of God in action. And even Zechariah, who at first refused to believe in this mighty mercy, acknowledges that the child’s name should be John, not a family name at all. In other words, this son is destined for a greater purpose than preserving the family line; he is to usher in a new age of deliverance.

As Zechariah acknowledges God’s mercy, his mouth is opened in praise: ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them’.

Those weak hands, feeble knees and fearful hearts of ours need to hear this good news. God in his mercy will deliver us. Our endless attempts at analysis should give way to advent hope that every wilderness, dry land and desert can be glad and burst into song, because God is coming to save us:

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.