December 23, 2018

4th Sunday of Advent

Passage: Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45

Sermon preached by Rev Mary Kells at Sung Evensong  23 December 2018
Text: Isa 10.33-11.10

Who are ‘we’? Who is our enemy? And where is salvation to be found? These are important questions aren’t they, to do with identity, how to live our lives and wherein lies our hope. They were key in Isaiah’s time and they remain key to us today.
We can, I suggest, find the answer to these questions in Isaiah’s familiar but stirring text, nestling within the axis, the line, which takes us from judgement to salvation, and which is the organising principle of this section. What I am going to suggest is although judgement and salvation appear to be on opposite ends of the axis, they are actually found more closely together than we might think. And in the same way, we may find ‘we’ and our enemy are also closer than we might think.
So who is the implicit ‘we’ in the reading? It is the Children of Israel, the chosen people. And the enemy in focus here appears to be the Assyrians, those people with superior weapons and tactics who repeatedly attacked the people of Israel and indeed carried them off into captivity, a future event which this text perhaps speaks into.
But when we look at judgement, and specifically, who is being judged, we find this easy opposition of ‘we’ and enemy becomes questionable. So we hear that the tallest and most majestic trees are cut down, and the thickets will be hacked into with an axe (10.33-34) – the impressive and the lowly both are being felled, in other words, it’s a society-wide catastrophe, but who is suffering this judgment? Is it ‘us’? Or is it ‘our’ enemy? Is the felling something to be dreaded or welcomed?
One opinion is that the enemy of Israel, the Assyrians, are being judged and destroyed.
But perhaps it is Israel itself who is being cut down, this very carrying off making the Assyrians the instrument of God’s judgement on the people of Israel? Is the enemy more of an enemy within, the apostasy of the people of Israel? Is it their own behavior which is the enemy of the flourishing for which they long and which provokes such almighty judgement?
So looking at judgement, we find that we and our enemy may be more closely inter-linked than we might first think.
So let’s move now to salvation. In the midst of judgement and catastrophe, Isaiah tells us, a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse. (11.1) The reference to Jesse shows that what is being referred to here is the Davidic dynasty, the descendants of King David, whose rule was expected to be over endless generations, indeed forever.
And right at the heart of this image, what we find is the catastrophe itself – a shoot cannot appear unless the tree has already been cut down and all that is left is a stump. Isaiah is envisaging a time in the future when the Davidic dynasty will be hacked down. Even if the earlier verses do refer to judgement on the Assyrians, here the people of Israel will themselves have suffered catastrophe. But emerging from this very catastrophe is Isaiah’s beautiful, lyrical vision of hope and salvation. So let’s look some more at this salvation.
In verses 1-5, there is the reign of righteousness, and justice for the oppressed, “the poor”, “the meek” (11.4), but this still implies that there are poor and suffering people, that there is unrighteousness and injustice which needs to be overturned.
Then in verses 6-9 we have an ideal scenario, perhaps a progression from the preceding verses, or perhaps a description of the Kingdom of Heaven itself, where the wolf shall live with the lamb (11.6) and the lion will eat straw with the ox, will come and have dinner with the ox, rather than have the ox for dinner. (11.7)
And in verse 10 we learn that the salvation is for all people, not just the children of Israel, that ‘we’ is extended to include the nations, who previously were much more likely to be in the enemy camp, but who are now drawn in. So the easy opposition of ‘we’ and enemy, brought into question when we looked at judgement, is once again brought into question when we look at salvation.
And who is to bring salvation? Who is the Saviour? In this passage it is the King, the shoot, the descendant of the great and glorious King David. Although the monarchy has collapsed and was indeed, as the Bible clearly spells out, always flawed, hope continues to be poured into it as capable of bringing about this glorious visionary future.
So let’s move our focus to today. Who is ‘we’ and who is our enemy? And where do we pour our longing for salvation today? What earthly vessel do we place all our hopes in, to save us from catastrophe?
In answering these questions I find myself thinking of our current Brexit negotiations. Do we blame Europe for carrying us into captivity when we might do better to look at our own flaws? Have we perhaps made ‘Europe’ our enemy to explain the state of judgement we find ourselves in? Or perhaps we blame those who decided to leave the European Union for bringing about catastrophe?
Who does our ‘we’ include? Our family? Our nation? The European Union? The world? The salvation of God is universal, available to all. Do we live up to that Kingdom vision?
And do we put our faith for salvation in an earthly vessel that is as flawed as the Kings of the Hebrew Scriptures? Remaining with Brexit, do we believe that Britain will be great again either because we leave, or through the act of remaining in Europe?
The thing is, a King did come, the Messiah, the Saviour, but he was not at all how the people of Israel envisaged. There was a bit of a fanfare-of-trumpets with the angels appearing to the shepherds, and the celestial excitement of a bright star which the magi followed, but actually, the Saviour came powerless, vulnerable, and saved us not through conquering, but through dying. There was a monumental overturning of expectations.
Whence comes salvation? I suggest that one of the key points to take from this reading is the closeness of salvation to catastrophe, and this too is an overturning of expectation. Salvation, I suggest to you, is not defined by the overturning of catastrophe, but rather, is it not birthed by catastrophe? Our God is coming with judgement, coming with judgement to save us. Instead of thinking we are saved because our enemy is judged, what would it be like to find salvation in the very act of God bringing judgement to us, facing us with our wrong-thinking, over-turning that which limits us, liberating us from our sins by first revealing them..?
Those dark nights of the soul, those overturning of all our earthly hopes, aren’t they when the Saviour of the world really draws near?
So what can we do to be saved? We can take those small steps of justice described in verses 1-5, the description of the reign of the coming King, we can join in with God’s agenda of justice, opening our arms to today’s poor and oppressed, expanding our ‘we’ and being ready to see the enemy as something within ourselves as much as it is in others; and we can also, and this is perhaps the most difficult, be open to the overturning of all we think we know and want, for that is truly the experience of the coming of God.
Our God is coming with judgement, coming with judgement to save us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.