Monday, 22 December 2014

A Sermon partly inspired by Peter Rollins

Peter Rollins, in his book Insurrection (2012), makes the point that Christian faith relies too much on the deus ex machina. Rather than taking pain and evil seriously, it robs them of reality by jumping too quickly to the happy ending. Believers do not allow themselves to feel the sense of abandonment expressed in the words of Jesus on the cross, because there is always the consoling thought that “it doesn’t really matter because he rose on the third day anyway”. Similarly, we do not take the problems of the world seriously because we believe either that this world is just a “vale of tears” we are passing through on the way to heaven, or that Christ will come one day “on the clouds of heaven” to do away with this world.

These beliefs, says Rollins, are unreal and ineffective, and it is partly because of them that organised Christianity in Western society is dying out. This kind of “faith” makes no real difference to anything, and where it exists it is marginal even to the lives of those who profess it. In order to practise real faith we have to feel the pain and tragedy of human life and the guilt in which we are all involved as part of society. He suggests that this kind of awareness should be built into the life of the Church so that worship becomes a truly honest and authentic experience. Our prayers and hymns should have more genuine lament and less easy confidence, and our preaching should address reality and not hold out the easy assurance that God puts it all right.

Some of the implications Rollins draws from this are very radical and uncomfortable, but, believing that he is making an important point, I bore this in mind in preparing my Christmas sermon this year. Here is a brief summary of it.

“The light shines in darkness”

I am always very moved by the story of the “Christmas truce” which happened 100 years ago. It is a hopeful story that reminds us that ordinary people want peace, and at the same time a tragic story, because after that one day they all went back to killing each other. If only they had stopped the war then! 16 million people would not have died, the Second World War (with its 60 million deaths) would not have happened, and the whole history of the 20th century would have been different. But that didn’t happen. The following Christmas there were strict orders not to fraternise with the enemy, and by the Christmas after that the fighting had become so bitter that there was not much inclination to a truce. The story is yet another reminder that Christmas makes very little difference to the real world.

As we are celebrating Christmas this year there is fighting in many places, including the land where the whole story began. Syrian children are starving in the cold. People in Pakistan are mourning the senseless murder of more than 130 children in a school. But then, doesn’t the Christmas story itself include a mass murder of children? Terrible things happened then, and they still do.

We often have some fun pointing out the totally unrealistic scenario in the first verse of “In the bleak midwinter”. Winter in the Bethlehem area is never as cold as that, and we don’t know that Jesus was born in the winter anyway. Nor, in spite of “Silent night” and the tradition of Midnight Mass, do we know that he was born in the middle of the night. But the story grips us at a deeper symbolic level. We celebrate the light and love of God coming into the world at its darkest and coldest. But in what sense did this light come?

At Christmas we sing about “peace on earth”. But where is this peace? Will it ever come? Today it seems as far away as ever. The prospects for the future are no better, what with the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the spectre of climate change. Some parts of the world may become uninhabitable in the next few decades. There will be more refugees than ever. There will be wars not just over oil but over more vital things: water, and space to live.

Will Jesus come to put it all right? Some people believe this whole world will suddenly end when Christ comes down on the clouds of heaven, and so until then we need not worry about what happens to this world. Some think Jesus came so that we would have the chance of going to heaven when we die. I think both those ideas are a cop-out. I believe in the much more difficult hope that the biblical prophets believed in: that God is at work in this world, and his will is done in the course of history. This belief calls for unreasonable faith in the face of real circumstances.

Did Jesus come to rescue us from war and suffering? Was there really “good news of great joy” for the shepherds of Bethlehem? Yes and no! No, in the sense that the hope of peace was not fulfilled at that time, nor has it been in the centuries that have followed. The Messianic age did not come. Israel was not set free. Jesus was rejected and crucified. Those who preached that he was alive were persecuted, and their successors went on to create a church that was just as corrupt and violent as anything that had gone before. So it looks as if the coming of Jesus, like the Christmas truce in 1914, was just a brief moment of hope that was soon extinguished.

Does that mean that the coming of Jesus did not save us? Does it mean we are on our own? In a sense yes. If there is to be “peace on earth” we are going to have to make it ourselves. The solution is not in a long ago event nor in an imagined future: it is in what we humans do here and now.

Part of the answer is in John’s Gospel. One of the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?  His answer was, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” John, in his first Epistle, says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us …”

Yes, God did come into the world, and he is still in the world – in us. Is our celebration of Christmas escapism? Is it fantasy? No, it is possibility.


Friday, 23 May 2014

Why we don't read the Prophets

When I started my studies in preparation to be a minister, it suddenly hit me how little I knew of the Bible. In the process of study I learned quite a lot. Most people, even enthusiastic church-going Christians, do not get beyond that stage of ignorance. They are especially ignorant of the books of the prophets. What average church-goer could tell you anything about the content of Ezekiel, Micah or Zephaniah? The one that stands out as an exception is the Book of Jonah. Everybody knows something about him: he was swallowed by a whale.

This points to what is probably the main reason why most of us know so little about the prophets. Stories stick in our minds. We know something about Elijah and Elisha because there are stories of them performing miracles. We know parts of the Book of Daniel because we heard the stories when we were children: Daniel in the den of lions, the three men miraculously preserved in the fiery furnace, Belshaazar’s feast and the writing on the wall. Virtually all we remember about Isaiah is the story of his vision in the temple, when he heard the voice of God saying, “Whom shall we send, and who will go for us?” and responded with “Here am I: send me”. The prophetic books tend to be unknown and un-memorable because they don’t have stories.

Another reason is that when we try to read them we are put off by what seems a solemn, ranting and very negative tone. They seem to be talking about judgment all the time and saying mysterious, incomprehensible things about nations and tribes we have never heard of. It all sounds rather like the ravings of an esoteric and rather nutty religious cult, or a street preacher shouting religious clichés that passers-by ignore.

However, this feeling has a lot to do with the way most of us were taught to think about the Bible. We have been conditioned to think that because the Bible is “the Word of God” the prophets have a very serious message from  God for us that we must struggle to understand. When the prophetic books are read in  church it is usually in a monotone that makes them sound more obscure and tedious than they are. Those of us who are not fundamentalists have come to feel that the struggle is not worth it: the prophets were people with a negative, kill-joy message which is typically “Old Testament” and nothing to do with what we understand as Christianity.

It is sad that we have come to this conclusion. The prophets in fact were sensitive people who, if they had a message of doom, were no different from many people today who warn us about climate change, remind us of the injustice of the world, or predict the collapse of our society. They were not people who loved to condemn: they were responding to the issues of their time and trying to wake people up to what was happening. Their books don’t generally tell stories, but with a bit of imagination we can detect the story behind what they are saying, and then their words can come alive to us. The prophets were poets, and some of their poetry is sublime: it can stir and inspire us even if we cannot always understand it. There is no need for us to think we ought to accept it solemnly as a word from God, or feel guilty about not accepting it. Our watchword in reading the prophets should be, “Never mind the authority – feel the passion!”

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Relax and Enjoy!

The Christian faith began as a joyful message spread about by people whose lives had been changed by meeting Jesus of Nazareth. After he had been condemned and executed by crucifixion, these people had experiences that convinced them that he was alive and would never die. These experiences were of different kinds, as we can see hinted in the New Testament. They did not all understand resurrection in the same way, but it was real to them.

Out of these experiences came a variety of messages, all centred on Jesus. Some proclaimed that he was the promised Messiah, come to liberate the Jewish people. Others saw him as the expression of the true God in a human being with a universal relevance for the whole of humanity. Others again interpreted Jesus in terms of one or other of the various philosophies and spiritualities that were around in the cosmopolitan culture of that time. The one thing all these had in common was that Jesus was central to their thinking and to their lives.

Some of this variety can be seen in the writing of the New Testament. To the writer of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was the new Moses who went up a mountain to give a new Law which, unlike the old Law, was meant for the whole of humanity. To Luke the mission of Jesus was to bring God’s forgiveness to all kinds of people in word and in action. To Paul, the converted persecutor of Jesus’ followers, he was the great Reconciler who, by the very fact of his being condemned by both Jews and Romans, was the means by which all humanity can be reconciled to God and to each other. To the writer of John’s Gospel, Jesus was God’s Word in the flesh, come into the world to call people to a new dimension of life under the supreme rule of Love.

These different interpretations of the meaning of Jesus were all part of the rich variety of early Christianity. However, tensions soon began as some people became more and unhappy with what others were making of Jesus. This too is apparent within the New Testament. Paul, enthused by the new, inclusive human fellowship that was coming into being, was furious with those who wanted to fit all the followers of Jesus into a narrow Jewish mould. At the other extreme, he and others were dismayed by the various exotic cults that were emerging and presenting a complicated system of teachings further and further removed from the simplicity of Jesus. And so, inevitably, conflict arose as different groups began to claim that they alone stood for the true, authentic understanding of the meaning of Jesus. And with this conflict there emerged the issue of authority.

The Christian movement was born within Judaism, a religion that reveres its Holy Scriptures as God’s authoritative word. However, Judaism has always used the Scriptures creatively, feeling free to question them and to argue about how to work out their meaning in every new situation. From what we see in the Gospels, Jesus too was creative in his interpretation. He went so far as to say “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …”. He took stories from the Scriptures and gave them a new, sometimes quirky meaning. This was all part of the tradition of Jewish rabbinic discussion, and Jesus was into it as much as any other rabbi. Above all, whatever the Scriptures said he interpreted their essential message as radical, uncompromising love for God and neighbour.

So how did Christianity come to be characterised by so much unloving dispute and so much insistence on fixed and unquestionable authority? The cause of this development probably has a lot to do with the culture of the Roman Empire. The Christians in Rome inevitably came to see themselves as the metropolitan church with some right to keep the rest in order. As the churches became more numerous and influential, and especially after Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, authority began to express itself in coercive ways. Church leaders were now able not only to tell people they were wrong but to punish them for it. And so began the unhappy history of inquisitions, witch-burnings, heresy trials, religious wars, persecution of Jews and Crusades against the Muslims.

Though in some cultures even today the social and political pressure to conform is still very strong, we can be thankful that most of Christendom has grown out of the practice of imposing “correct” beliefs by physical compulsion. However, we have not grown out of the idea that there are “correct” beliefs. Christians may not burn heretics any more, but they still disapprove of them, and sometimes threaten them with an even worse burning in hell.

This idea of “correct” belief has entered deeply into the consciousness even of the most open-minded of Christians. We approach the Bible with the assumption that it has an important message for us and that we ought to study it very carefully to make sure we get the “right” message. The Bible does indeed have an important message for humanity, but it is not the kind of message that can be delivered and understood in a straightforward way like factual information or practical instructions. The Bible is a great collection of literature that speaks with many voices. We can hear the message only by listening to all the voices and joining in their conversation.

Discussion of the authority and interpretation of the Bible among Christians has mostly been burdened with the wrong kind of seriousness. In our concern to get the “right” message we have argued endlessly about “hermeneutics”, literal versus figurative interpretation, typology, allegory, “progressive revelation”  and so on, as if it were a matter of life and death not to get it wrong. I believe the time has come for a more relaxed approach, the kind of approach we adopt towards other literature.

There is no doubt that most of the Bible is great literature, and as such is open to all kinds of observations, comparisons and reflections. In the world of literature we can echo the words of Ecclesiastes and take a step further by saying, “of the making of many books, and of books about books, there is no end.” Literary critics can find all kinds of things to say about the books they read, some helpful, some controversial, some superfluous, but there is never the suggestion that what the critic offers is the meaning of a play by Shakespeare, a sonnet by Keats or a novel by George Eliot. It is one of the many possible facets of its meaning. This does not mean that we need to go to the post-modernist extreme of saying that anything can mean anything: some interpretations are spot-on, some are far-fetched but interesting, and some are just incompatible with the spirit of the text. However, there is a vast range of interpretations that are quite acceptable, stimulate the imagination and enhance our enjoyment of literature.

To read the Bible in this way is a relatively new approach, but actually closer to the way Jesus read it than the kind of fundamentalist reading that has usually been predominant in the Church. As we learn to appreciate the profundity of some of the great myths, the joy of the story-tellers, the concerns of the controversialists, the wit of the wisdom writers, the warm devotion of the psalmists and the passion of the prophets, and to accept their differences, we will find that reading the Bible can actually be fun. And while we are having this fun, now and then I think God will sneak up behind us and whisper an authentic word into our ear that can make us say “Aha!” or “Wow!”, or perhaps even “Ouch!”

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Preface to 'Passion for the City'

Here is a first draft of the Preface to my projected book on Isaiah.
Jerome, the fourth century biblical scholar who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Latin, described Isaiah as “not so much a prophet as an evangelist”. He pointed out how that book contains “all the mysteries of the faith”: the promise of Immanuel, the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, his suffering, his death and his resurrection. He was probably using the word “evangelist” in the sense of a Gospel writer. A modern scholar, J F A Sawyer, wrote an account of the history of Christian interpretation of Isaiah with the title The Fifth Gospel (CUP 1986). This is quite an apt description. For most of us today it is impossible to read some parts of Isaiah without hearing the music of Handel’s Messiah in the back of our minds. Christmas and Easter services are replete with quotations from Isaiah, from “Unto us a child is born” to “He was despised and rejected of men”. Most people with a Christian background find it easy to assume that the Book of Isaiah is all about Jesus.

Isaiah gives us other favourite quotations too. The vision of universal peace, when “they shall turn their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks” comes from Isaiah 2. “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid … and a little child shall lead them” is from chapter 12, and “the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose” is from chapter 35. Even the phrase “a new heaven and a new earth”, familiar from the Book of Revelation, is actually a quotation from Isaiah 65:17. The hymn “Holy, holy, holy” is inspired by Isaiah’s vision of God in chapter 6. When we call someone “a voice crying in the wilderness” we are using a phrase from Mark's Gospel (1:3) that is first found in Isaiah 40:3. In fact,  it has been calculated that the New Testament either quotes or alludes to the Book of Isaiah about four hundred times.

Christians down through the ages have seen the Book of Isaiah as a rich storehouse of predictions of Jesus Christ. To us today, some of their interpretations seem a bit far-fetched. Not only that, but today we are not so convinced that we can “prove” that Jesus was the promised Messiah and the Son of God by pointing out how he fulfilled prophecies in the Old Testament. Many modern scholars are more inclined to believe the opposite: that some of the stories of Jesus in the New Testament were made up on the basis of these “prophecies”. There is certainly one glaring example of this in the way Nativity plays always show kings bringing gifts to the new-born Jesus, while the story in Matthew’s Gospel calls them “wise men”. This is most probably inspired by the saying “the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising” in Isaiah 60:3.

Our modern sense of history makes us look at the Bible in a different way. The idea that the Old Testament exists simply for the purpose of pointing forward to Jesus seems to treat the original writings and their authors unfairly. Apart from anything else it is rather insulting to the Jewish tradition that produced these books in the first place. Many generations of Jews have found inspiration in these writing without ever associating them with Jesus. It is also rather slighting to the original writers and preachers who had their own immediate concerns. Isaiah was not sitting down to write predictions of someone who would come into the world seven hundred years after his time. He was reacting to the situation of his own time, and the poetic richness of his words meant that people down through the generations could see new and deeper meaning in them, culminating (for Christians) in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

My aim in this book is to introduce readers who may not know the Bible very well, or may not have read it in this kind of way before, to the world that produced the Book of Isaiah: to see behind the words to the passions and dreams of the people who first spoke them and to understand them in terms of their own time. I want also to show the way in which many of those words have a sometimes startling relevance for our world today. Whatever different Christians may think of whether, or how, the Bible is “inspired”, my experience is that beyond any doubt it is able to inspire, and it would be a great pity for us to lose this because we are unable to identify with the traditional ways in which it has been interpreted.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Protest Singer

I am old enough to remember the emergence of the protest song in the 1960s. Before that, almost all popular songs were love songs, all with rhymes like “June” and “moon” and “love” and “dove”. I remember the sense of dislocation that came when singers playing the same kind of instruments and singing in the same style started singing songs that turned out to be about inequality, war, nuclear weapons and social change. A shock something like this could quite well have been experienced by the people who first heard the song in the fifth chapter of Isaiah:

“Let me sing for my beloved

My love-song concerning his vineyard”

“Love” and “vineyards” were often a good pairing of ideas, as we find in the Song of Solomon. This song seems to be sung by a woman. Perhaps it was Isaiah’s wife who sang it. She co-operated with him in giving symbolic names to their children, and she is referred to in one place (Isaiah 8:3) as “the prophetess”.

The song starts like a love song, but soon turns out to be something different. It tells of a man who put a lot of work into preparing and planting a vineyard, only to find that it produced useless fruit. He is therefore going to remove its hedge and not protect or cultivate it any more. The anger expressed in this destructive action, culminating in his commanding the clouds not to rain on it, keeps alive the sense of passion: disguised under the experience of an unlucky farmer, it seems to be the bitter song of a betrayed lover. The singer then goes on to show that the vineyard is a symbol of the people of Israel: this too is found elsewhere in the Bible (e.g. Psalm 80). God had gone to great trouble to cherish Israel, and is bitterly disappointed by the results. This is dramatically expressed in the juxtaposition of similar Hebrew words:

“he expected mishpat (justice)

but found mishpach (bloodshed);

tsedakah (righteousness)

But heard tse’aqah (a cry)!      

After this the prophet returns to the themes of wealth, pride and the resultant downfall. He  preaches against the greedy landowners who “join house to house” and “add field to field” – reminiscent of the land-grabbing agriculture that goes on today in some parts of the world. He then envisions “large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant”, and land that has lost its fertility. The suggestion of today’s exhaustion of the soil with artificial fertilisers and pesticides is almost uncanny. He then satirises the determined pleasure-seekers who live for wine and music and care nothing for God’s ways, who show their machismo by how much they can drink (5:22) while their corrupt dealings deprive innocent people of justice and let the guilty go free.

Monday, 17 February 2014

What is the Bible FOR?

Some thoughts from a talk I gave yesterday on that question:

The Bible:

·         is not a complete systematic statement of the Christian faith: the early Catholic Church, in its battle against various ‘heretical’ groups, had to maintain that it had original documents from the apostles, and that they had been constantly in use in every part of the Church from earliest times. The resulting list of approved Scriptures consisted of the Jewish Bible, which was already a ‘given’, and all the Christian writings that happened to be there and satisfied these criteria.

·         is not the source of Christian faith: the gospel of Jesus Christ was preached by word of mouth before there was a New Testament.

·         is not a clear, consistent statement of doctrines and moral commandments, the so-called ‘Maker’s instructions’ for human life: it is a collection of writings of various types, each to be interpreted according to the type it belongs to. A story is not a rule. A hymn is not a doctrinal statement. A parable is not history.

·         is not a book designed to be read devotionally: some parts of it are profound and inspiring, but many other parts had a very down-earth practical purpose at the time they were written. So don’t worry if the genealogies in Chronicles don’t turn you on!

The Bible:

·         is back-up material used in the preaching of the Christian message. This is where some modern movements, e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses and some extreme fundamentalists, are mistaken. They see the Bible as a book sent by God for our instruction, which the majority of Christians have interpreted in the wrong way. But the Bible was never meant to be independent of Christian belief: it grew out of the faith and life of the Christian Church, and that is the context in which it is to be understood.

·         is a check to keep us generally on the right lines: not infallible, but worthy of respect because it is the oldest witness to the events.

·         is the Church’s ‘family album’: as with all families, there are some members we don’t like, some we rarely see, some we make allowances for, and some who are very precious to us, but they are all family. So, if we are Christians, every part of the Bible is somehow ours.

·         is a collection of testimonies: many different people telling us about their experience of God, every one worth listening to even if we wouldn’t talk about God in the way they do.

·         is a source of never-ending fresh inspiration. The joke is that the Bible was shaped by the established authorities to keep things in order, but in preserving these documents close to the original sources they preserved some of the original radical vision. For example, white slave masters taught their black slaves to read the Bible so that they would become well-behaved and obedient Christians, but it back-fired on them, because the slaves read about Moses and ‘Let my people go!’ Some people think the Bible is a load of old, unnecessary baggage. But watch out – there’s some high explosive in that baggage!


Thursday, 6 February 2014

A Utopian Vision


 Isaiah 2:1-4

The second chapter of Isaiah begins with one of those passages that have become part of the language and culture of Western society. Preachers and politicians echo its phrases even if sometimes they have no idea of where they come from:
“and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruninghooks:
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.”

Here too, however, the focus is on Jerusalem. Isaiah’s dream is that the Temple mount, “the mountain of the LORD’s house”, will be exalted so that it becomes (figuratively, we assume) the highest in the world. All the nations will stream to it, acknowledging the God of Israel and ready to learn his ways. In this way God will become the judge and arbiter among the nations and there will be universal peace.
This Jewish vision of one God teaching the world how to live was inherited by Christianity, and the churches especially of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw their role as evangelizing the rest of the world. As missionaries spread over the world under the protection of the European empires, they saw themselves as exporting not only the Christian faith but also a whole European way of life. They were educating and civilizing the rest of the world as well as evangelizing it.

Perhaps the high point of this movement was the great International Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910. As happens with many human enterprises, its chief effect was different from its original aim. In one sense it was a new beginning, but rather than the beginning of a new missionary advance it was the beginning, for Protestants at least, of the ecumenical movement that has so changed the face of the Christian churches. As far as world mission is concerned, however, 1910 now looks like the beginning of the end. The slogan that rallied all the missionary societies and inspired them to work together was “the evangelization of the world in this generation”. Today that looks like a very dated and unrealistic dream.
Four years after this conference Europe, the “Christian” continent, was engulfed in a disastrous war that left many people disillusioned with traditional beliefs and values and paved the way for a much more questioning, sceptical and secular society. During that war came also the Russian revolution that spread militant atheistic Communism over a wide area of Europe and Asia and eventually led among other things to the complete closure of China to Christian missionaries. Later in the twentieth century came the breaking up of the great world empires. Countries to which European missionaries had enjoyed free access became independent and able to refuse entry to them. Many of these former colonies reasserted their own cultural and religious heritage. Islam, in particular, is now a force to be reckoned with in the political, social and religious scene. Economic developments have led to massive immigration into Western European countries, so that today Western Christians can no longer think of people of other faiths as faraway “heathen” waiting to hear the gospel, but as neighbours on the same street and colleagues in the same workplace. Even many people whose cultural heritage is Christian, including some active members of churches, now hold to an eclectic spirituality that mixes Christianity with elements of Buddhism and Hinduism. We now live in a market-place of faiths and world views in which “winning the world for Christ” seems not only unrealistic but arrogant.

Probably the nearest we have today to the ideal of the whole world uniting around one “teaching” is the concept of human rights as expressed in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Convention, the International Criminal Court and so on. Whatever people’s creed or culture, there is a feeling that there are certain basic humanitarian principles on which everyone agrees. These principles are of course very far from being universally recognised in practice, though the fact that they are adopted in theory is felt to be a step in the right direction.
Today, however, even this consensus is being questioned, Stephen Hopgood* argues that the ideology behind “human rights” is a Western liberal perception of human life and society that does not necessarily fit every culture. He calls it “a secular bourgeois ideology, a kind of religionless Protestantism”, that is becoming increasingly irrelevant in today’s world of varied cultures and in the light of the resurgence of religion as a strong force and often divisive force.

World peace today can only be achieved by the much more difficult and complex path of people of different faiths and cultures striving for justice in their own terms and at the same time learning to understand, respect and compromise with each other. And yet, however we expect it to be achieved, and however long we expect it to take, there is something in those words of Isaiah that keeps us hoping.

* The Endtimes of Human Rights, Cornell University Press 2013; see also his article in New Internationalist, November 2013, pp 38-39

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Passion for the City: A Celebration of the Book of Isaiah

Here is a draft of the Introduction to a book I am planning. I would welcome any comment on it.

An Angry Young Man

Two thousand seven hundred years ago a young man belonging to the upper class of Jerusalem society is angry about the state of the city. Its situation is desperate: the land has been almost entirely taken over by the ever-expanding Assyrian empire, and the ancient nation of Israel is now reduced virtually to the capital city. This is a nation that believes itself to be God’s chosen people, the descendants of Abraham to whom God had said “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). These are the children of the people God rescued from slavery in Egypt to mould them into “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6). That people is now humiliated and its very existence threatened. But this young man sees beyond the political situation: he sees that the people are no longer what they were meant to be, no longer “holy” and no longer in any fit state to be a blessing to the rest of the world. Their rulers are corrupt, and the whole society is riddled with bribery, injustice and oppression. The poor are being ruthlessly exploited by those with wealth and power.
No one can accuse them of not being religious. People flock to the Temple to pray and offer sacrifices. They scrupulously observe all the ritual and turn out in great numbers for the festivals. But they have forgotten that their God is a God of justice and compassion, and that without these things worship is meaningless. And so in practice they have turned their backs on God and despised him.

How little has changed! Religious people are so often ready to blame national decline or misfortune on the decline in church-going, the neglect of the Sabbath, the retreat of religion from public life or challenges to traditional sexual morality. They love to quote the saying “righteousness exalteth a nation” (Proverbs 14:34). But what they forget is that the real meaning of “righteousness” is justice.
So the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah is an angry outburst. The prophet feels God calling on heaven and earth to listen to his complaint:

“I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”

The nation has forsaken its God and become estranged from him. It is like someone wounded, sick from head to toe, bleeding and uncared for. The land of Judah has been devastated. Its cities have been burned, and Jerusalem alone, the sanctuary of Zion, God’s beloved “daughter”, is left standing like a shed in a garden of cucumbers.

If it were not for the survival of Jerusalem and its few inhabitants the scene would resemble the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, those legendary cities near the Dead Sea that had been destroyed by a cataclysm in the distant past, a proverbial example of God’s punishment for wickedness. Indeed, says Isaiah, this “holy” city is in fact no better than those:

“Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom!
 Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!”
God does not appreciate their conspicuous practice of religion:

 “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts …
Trample my courts no more …”
Offerings, incense, the observing of special days and seasons – nothing escapes God’s scorn, says Isaiah. They have all become a burden that God is weary of bearing. Even prayer is futile:

“When you stretch out your hands
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers
I will not listen …”
Why? Because those hands stretched out in prayer are stained with blood. Before God will listen to their prayers the people must change their ways:

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean …”
This of course would be an expected ritual preparation for worship, such as is customary in most religions. But Isaiah means more than just the washing of the body:

“remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.”
It is paradoxical that this book that presents us with so many hopeful visions of Jerusalem should start by identifying it with Sodom and Gomorrah. It is even stranger that these words should come not from a social drop-out but from a man of some status who is probably even a priest himself, tied into the whole system of worship and sacrifice against which he is ranting. Here is real radicalism.

Jesus was not the first to challenge the Temple and the whole way of life that revolved around it. It was in the spirit of the ancient prophets that he constantly put ethical behaviour, compassion for one’s fellow human beings, at the heart of devotion to God, taking priority over prayers and sacrifices:
“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)

In the prophet’s eyes the “faithful city” has become “a whore”.  Instead of justice there is murder. Leaders are corrupt, easily bribed, “companions of thieves”, and it is the orphans and the widows who suffer. But the sermon (if we can call it that) ends on a positive note. God will certainly “pour out his wrath”, but only to cleanse and refine, and then he will restore the life of the city so that it will once again be “the city of righteousness, the faithful city”.
In this first chapter, then, the theme of the whole book of Isaiah is set out as at the beginning of a symphony. It is God’s vision and passion for Jerusalem, the stark contrast between the ideal and the reality, and the dream of a Jerusalem that will be what God truly wants it to be.

The Authors

The Book of Isaiah is mostly anonymous. It is a compilation of writings accumulated over several centuries. The only author whose name we know lived in Jerusalem about seven hundred years before Christ, but it is hard to say how much of the book originates with him. The book begins with a title:
“The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah”

In chapter 6 there is an account of a vision in the Temple that looks likely to be a description of how Isaiah first experienced the call to be a prophet. It took place “in the year that King Uzziah died”. This was about 740 BC. Chapters 36-37 give an account (also found in the Second Book of Kings) of an attack on Jerusalem by the Assyrian King Sennacherib during the reign of Hezekiah, and the part that Isaiah played in that situation. This, as we know from the Assyrian records, was 701 BC. This means that Isaiah was preaching for about forty years, so we may probably assume that he was quite a young man when he began. The story in chapter 6 of his experiencing his call to be a prophet through a vision in the Temple may mean that he was a priest.
Isaiah’s lifetime was dominated by the threat from the Assyrians. This empire, based in what is now northern Iraq, was at its peak at that time, and was the biggest empire the Near East had yet seen. The original nation of Israel had, since the death of Solomon in about 922 BC, been divided into two kingdoms: the northern kingdom that had its capital in Samaria and retained the name “Israel”, and the southern kingdom called Judah with its capital in Jerusalem. It was during Isaiah’s lifetime, in 721 BC, that the Assyrians brought the kingdom of Israel to an end. They not only incorporated it into their empire, but they destroyed it as a nation, deporting many of its citizens and bringing in settlers from elsewhere, so that the whole area came to be known as “Galilee of the nations” (Isaiah 9:1). Judah survived on that occasion, though it seems that for a time at least the Assyrians were in possession of virtually the whole country, leaving the city of Jerusalem standing alone “like a shelter in a cucumber field” (Isaiah 1:8). The Assyrian threat eventually died away and the kingdom of Judah survived for another century or so, by which time the Assyrian empire had fallen and it was Babylon that dealt the fatal blow.

It is difficult to tell how much of the Book of Isaiah originates with Isaiah himself, but certainly from chapter 40 onwards we are in a completely different period of history. The Assyrians are no longer in the picture, and even Babylon is being taken over by the Medes (who later became the Persian empire). Cyrus the Mede is actually mentioned by name (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1). The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC and had deported most of its leading citizens to Babylon. Isaiah 40-55 comes from a time about fifty years after this, when Cyrus had given permission for Jews to return to Jerusalem, rebuild it, and reinstate their religion and way of life. This part of the book is largely a celebration of this good news by a prophet who seems to be based in Babylon.
From chapter 56 onwards the situation has changed again. The prophet now seems to be based in Judah and concerned with problems arising a generation or so after the return of the exiles.

Why is the preaching of at least three different prophets gathered together in one book under the name of Isaiah? The different parts of the book are in different styles and reflect different historical circumstances. However, in their different ways they share something of the spirit of the original Isaiah. Isaiah seems to have had disciples who noted his words and preserved them for posterity. At one point (Isaiah 8:16) these words are attributed to him:
“Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.”

It may be that this circle of disciples continued in existence for a long time, forming a community of people who treasured and repeated the words of the prophet. As time went on, their relevance would be seen in new situations, and people would preach and write in the name of Isaiah, saying what they believed Isaiah would say in their time. And so, over a period of centuries, there was added to the original core a series of layers that became the Book of Isaiah as we now have it.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem!

The one thing that seems to link the different parts of the book together is the city of Jerusalem. The original Isaiah challenged it, spoke very scathingly about as we have already seen, but was consumed with love for the city and a conviction that it had a special place in God’s purpose. This vision of Jerusalem, which started with the legendary days of David and Solomon but perhaps really got off the ground with Isaiah, has persisted down through the centuries. As the Jewish people were dispersed among the other nations. Jerusalem became the place to which they made pilgrimage and towards which they prayed. Jesus came there for the culmination of his ministry. The Gospels tell of his “triumphal entry” on the back of a donkey, and Luke (19:41) tells how he paused when the city came into view and wept over it because of the opportunity it was missing. Luke also (13:34) quotes Jesus, very much in the spirit of Isaiah, saying:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those that are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

It was in Jerusalem that Jesus was condemned to death, and from Jerusalem that the Christian gospel was spread out to the rest of the world. Six centuries later, Jerusalem acquired sacred associations with the prophet Mohammed and his followers, and so it is to this day a holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims.
For Christians there is also the symbolic Jerusalem, derived mostly from the New Testament book of Revelation. Under its alternative names of Jerusalem, Salem and Zion it is a symbol of the Church:

“Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God.”
 It is a symbol of heaven:

“Jerusalem the golden,
With milk and honey blessed,
Beneath thy contemplation
Sink heart and voice oppressed.
I know not, ah, I know not
What joys await us there,
What radiance of glory,
What bliss beyond compare.”
It is also a symbol of the ideal world. The Book of Revelation (21:2) talks of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven so that God’s dwelling will be with humanity. On the last night of the Proms in London thousands of patriotic voices lustily sing the words of the visionary poet William Blake about building “Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land”.

Meanwhile the actual city of Jerusalem continues to exist on this earth. The Jews were driven out of it when they rebelled against the Roman Empire in the second century AD. In the Middle Ages Europe sent out a succession of Crusades to drive the Muslims out of it and claim it for Christianity. Today it is a tragically divided city where Jews, Muslims and different kinds of Christians argue and fight over their territories, and the capital of a state whose policies and whose very existence excite passionate and often violent disagreement. Jerusalem today is no happier than it was in Isaiah’s time. It is still a microcosm of the divisions, the suffering and the mess of humanity. And yet it is still the stuff of dreams and utopian visions.
The vision of the Book of Isaiah still has its relevance for Jerusalem. The people of three faiths still regard it as a very special city, but Isaiah reminds us that God’s central concern is for justice, and only through justice will Jerusalem ever prosper. At the same time Jerusalem can serve as a symbol of every human society, and perhaps especially of cities. The world’s population today is becoming increasingly urban. There are cities whose population is on a scale that was unheard of even fifty years ago. A city is a world concentrated in a small area. Most big cities today are extremely diverse and cosmopolitan. People are drawn to cities because they are exciting, full of culture, variety and the opportunity to advance one’s career and make money. Every city has its pride and its distinctive profile. Many have an icon that is immediately recognisable all over the world: Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Cristo Redentor, the Harbour Bridge ….  and so on. But at the same time the worst of human misery is seen in cities: shanty towns with open sewers, people scavenging on rubbish dumps, “cardboard cities”, sweat shops, lonely people paying an extortionate rent to live in desolate bedsitters, and some committing the final act of despair by jumping off a bridge. A city stands for everything that is miserable, joyful, ugly, beautiful, desperate, hopeful, hellish and heavenly in the human world. So Isaiah, as an important part of the Scripture of Jews and Christians and of the world’s literary heritage, is not just about Jerusalem: it is about a divine passion for the city.   

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

What Does 'Fishers of Men' Mean?

Many of us as children learned the chorus "I will make you fishers of men".  As we sang it, the movements we made were of angling with a rod and line. But of course, in its context among the fishermen of Galilee it didn’t mean that at all. They went out on the sea fishing with nets, gathering in scores or even hundreds of fish at a time.

And this is what Jesus was talking about – not making one convert at a time by holding out the bait and patiently waiting for something to bite, but pulling them in en masse!

If Jesus invited the fishermen of Galilee to become fishers of people, how would they have understood that invitation? They would surely have heard it through its associations in the Hebrew Scriptures. But the interesting thing is that “fishing” in the Scriptures is almost always an image of aggression, misfortune and punishment.

Ecclesiastes 9,12 says: "For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity when it suddenly falls upon them."

In the Psalms, the oppressor is often represented as laying a net to trap the innocent.

The nearest Old Test­ament reference to "fishers of men" is in Jeremiah 16,16:

"I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord,  and they shall catch them... For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their iniquity concealed from my sight."

This casting out of the net to bring in the fish for judgment was one the signs of the “end time”, the coming of the kingdom of God. So if the disciples understood Jesus’ invitation at all, they probably thought they were being called to be God's instruments of the final judgement.

But what did Jesus go on to do? His ministry was all about reaching out to the outcasts of society and gathering them in. He told the story of a host sending his servants out into the highways and byways to invite the poor and the disabled to his feast.  He befriended Zacchaeus, a despised tax collector, and said “he too is a son of Abraham”. His healing of lepers meant that they were brought back into the community.

He admired the faith of a Roman army officer, and said that many would come from east and west to join the feast of the kingdom. John tells the story of a miraculous catch of fish Jesus caused after his resurrection. The number 153 probably represented all the nations of the world.

So it looks as if Jesus took this scriptural image of the fishing net and turned it on its head, making it not the inescapability of judgment and wrath but the inescapability of acceptance and inclusion.
If we are to take this "fishing" as a model for evangelism, it surely means that, rather than angling a  few people out of this world into a minority "kingdom" we should be reaching out to all and sundry and saying "God says you belong!"