Worship was led by The Revd. Robert Beard who preached on the challenge of living as Christians in an unchristian society. The exiled Jews faced a similar challenge – how to maintain their identity in a society whose beliefs and practices were very different from their own. Isaiah’s message gives a vision of what it is to be God’s people living in hostile circumstances.
Rejoice and Sing 26 Father, we praise you
Rejoice and Sing 131 The voice of God goes out to all the world
Rejoice and Sing 191 Songs of thankfulness and praise
Rejoice and Sing 432 Now is eternal life
Isaiah chapter 42 verses 1 – 9
Acts chapter 10 verses 34 – 43
Matthew chapter 3 verses 13 – 17
Bruised Reeds and Dimly Burning Wicks
American Professor of Old Testament Studies Walter Brueggemann opens his book The Prophetic Imagination with a chapter entitled ‘The Alternative Community of Moses’ in which he writes,
The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or to act.
I suggest that when is true for the Church in the United States is even truer for the Church in the United Kingdom: Drawing roughly indicative figures from a variety of research sources suggests that some 37% of Americans attend Church at least once a month, while just 12% of Britons do so. Across Europe, Church attendance is highest in Poland and Ireland, and lowest in Norway and Denmark, while globally the country with the highest overall Church attendance by its Christians is Nigeria with 89%, and the lowest Russia with just 2%.
I wonder how many of this nation’s practising Christians took time to reflect during the Twelve Days of Christmas on the part played in our national, corporate and individual celebrations by the Christian story of Jesus’ birth. How many of them spent time at home talking about the meaning of the coming of the Christ-child? How many, on the other hand, left the religious and spiritual side of Christmas in Church? How far have we Christians allowed ourselves to be co-opted into the popular Christmas culture of Santa Claus and reindeer, presents and twinkling lights, Christmas pop chart hits and Christmas food? How many so-called Christmas cards or Christmas films make any reference at all to Christ? I was struck when I read recently in a report by the St Nicholas Society, that
To this very day St Nicholas [who was a fourth century Bishop of Myra in Turkey] arrives in Holland each November, dressed in a bishop’s vestments.
When did any of us last see Santa Claus dressed properly as a Bishop?
I can imagine Screwtape – the senior tempter created by C S Lewis – cackling with glee over the success of the scheme developed by the one he calls “Our Father Below” to nudge susceptible humans closer and closer towards the spellbinding secular trappings of Christmas, and further and further from the source of spiritual – and practical – enlightenment presented to us in the manger at Bethlehem.
Don’t get me wrong! This sermon isn’t intended to guilt-trip us into planning a more sombre and meditative Christmas for 2017. It really is hugely challenging to maintain a visibly Christian way of life, when we are surrounded by another way of life that is brighter, brasher and better marketed. In his book, Walter Brueggemann goes on to say that
Our consciousness has been claimed by false fields of perception and idolatrous systems of language and rhetoric.
Our situation, however, is nothing new. Following the Battle of Carchemish in 605 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem, a siege that resulted in an arrangement for regular tribute to be paid by King Jehoiakim. But in Nebuchadnezzar’s fourth year, Jehoiakim refused to pay up, and this led to another siege in Nebuchadnezzar’s seventh year, culminating in the death of Jehoiakim and the exile of his successor King Jeconiah with his whole court and many others. In Nebuchadnezzar’s eighteenth year, Jeconiah’s successor King Zedekiah and others were also exiled, and a further deportation occurred in Nebuchadnezzar’s twenty-third year.
In exile in Babylon, the Jewish religious leaders, in particular the prophet we now call Second Isaiah, found themselves struggling to equip their community with a theology that would enable it to maintain its cultural and religious identity, in the face a society whose beliefs and values and practices were very different from, and often hostile to, their own. As the people struggled with the challenge of living distinctively as Jews in a completely alien society, they must surely have been asking themselves, and their leaders, “What has happened to us?”, “Why has it happened to us?”, “What did we do wrong?”, “Will we survive?”, “What must we do?”. Living as exiles, and with the holy Temple – the very centre and focus of their faith – destroyed, their understanding of who they were, and maybe even whose they were, was brought into question, and an unsettling, painful question it was. Could they still live as God’s people? Indeed, were they still God’s people, or had God abandoned them? What the exiled Jews needed was someone who could imagine and visualise for them a new understanding of how to remain faithful to God even when they were living in a foreign land under foreign rule.
But it’s not easy to offer a vision of hope to people who have experienced great trauma. These days, we think little of travelling to foreign countries and engaging in various ways with foreign peoples and cultures. But we must imagine ourselves into the shoes of a people, many of whom knew of other nations only through the exotic tales told by passing merchants and travellers, and whose balance of mind might well have been tested to the very limit by their being forcibly uprooted from their homes and undergoing the culture shock of confrontation with the monumental wealth and power of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon.
Second Isaiah is convinced, however, that God has not abandoned the Jews and that they are still the Chosen People; but he also recognises that his audience is a battered and bruised people, and that the lamp of faith is burning low within them, so he opens his prophecy – a prophecy we may apply both to God’s people Israel, and also to the coming of the Messiah – very gently:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
And then the prophet reassures the people of who, and whose, they are:
I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
This prophetic message calls to us too. As the gulf between society’s values and the values which the Christian Church is called to uphold and promote grows ever wider, we too need to hear and capture the vision of what means to be God’s faithful people living in unfamiliar and sometimes hostile circumstances.
Many observers have commented on the recent rise of far-right political parties – including some who are proud to style themselves Nazis or neo-Nazis – and other extremist groups across Europe, America, Africa and the Middle East, and how easily some people seem to be seduced by, or simply succumb to, their messages of fear and hatred. And even without considering behaviours that attract the “extremist” label, we can see all around us evidence of people who publicly espouse values that fly in the face of the Christian Gospel of unconditional love for all: political infighting, hate crimes against people labelled “immigrants” or “scroungers”, the BHS pensions scandal, homeless people freezing to death, “false news” and “post-truth” – otherwise known as “lies”! – the murder of Jo Cox MP, the crisis in social care and A&E departments…
In so many ways, Christians seeking to hold fast to the example presented by Jesus find ourselves profoundly at odds with the society and culture we live in, controlled as it often seems to be by a small but super-rich minority of men and women who have few if any scruples regarding the means by which they become richer still, and who have the means to persuade large numbers of people to collude with them, even where this means working against those people’s own interests.
In 1932, Albert Einstein wrote to Sigmund Freud a letter in which he discussed the rise of Nazism:
How is it possible for this small clique to bend the will of the majority, who stand to lose and suffer by a state of war, to the service of their ambitions? (In speaking of the majority, I do not exclude soldiers of every rank who have chosen war as their profession, in the belief that they are serving to defend the highest interests of their race, and that attack is often the best method of defense.) An obvious answer to this question would seem to be that the minority, the ruling class at present, has the schools and press, usually the Church as well, under its thumb. This enables it to organize and sway the emotions of the masses, and make its tool of them.
Walter Brueggemann’s book speaks of the imagination of the prophets in their reshaping of the people of God as the people of God who are exiled and living under a largely hostile system, opposed to God’s values. This is something we in the Christian Church must also do, and do continually, especially when our social analysis lead us to the conclusion that popular – I might say “populist” – values have strayed far from the path of unconditional love for all.
Christmas is gone for another year, but as we continue to do our best to live as a Christians in an unchristian society, we may care to reflect on these words by Howard Thurman, African-American philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.