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Friday, 24 January 2014

Lighten our darkness we beseech you

(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND: first cathedral to see the sun)

Readings:        Isaiah 9. 1-4
                        Psalm27.1, 4-9
                        1 Corinthians 1.10-18
                        Matthew 4. 12-23

 I am occasionally privileged to encounter those who have set about reading the bible systematically through all 66 (or more) books, and I have to say I must take my hat off to them. It a thing I have never achieved, nor am I likely to. It is not altogether something I would recommend. Probably most readers would be defeated by the Book of Numbers, which reads pretty much like foreign language yellow pages, or Leviticus, which probably falls in second place in the tediousness stakes. Some opinions of course will differ! But to read on is a marathon effort; even a cover-to-cover reading of the 27 books of the New Testament is a reasonably brave undertaking (that I haven’t achieved, either!).

Yet I wouldn’t style myself (somewhat ambitiously, but still) as a biblical theologian if I didn’t think the scriptures of our faith were not the primary, first-call hunting ground of all faith and doctrine. I happen to like Wordsworth, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot and J.K. Rowling (inter alia!) too, but, however profound some of my favourite authors, singer song-writers and other creative geniuses may be, they are not the repository of divinely-focussed wisdom, spiritually impregnated wisdom, that the weird and wonderful and sometimes tedious scriptures of our faith are.

If though you were to labour bravely on through the scriptures of our faith you would begin to find a clear sea-change if you survived Leviticus and Numbers. By the time you got to Joshua and Judges you would begin to find some ripping good yarns, if a little restrained compared to the exploits of Harry Potter. Ruth and Esther are magnificent high points by any standards, though we neglect them badly,  and from there on there’s some pretty nail-biting narratives, and some of the most powerful and evocative literature written in any language. When I was an atheist I treasured the Psalms not for their faith-stuff but, even in translation, for the sheer integrity of their self-expression; I thought it was misguided, then, but not now.

Isaiah is narrative and poetry at its best.  Written by two or three authors over a period of perhaps two and a half centuries, it is a writing that is unswerving in the belief that God is sovereign – “boss” we might say – that God is not to be mucked around with, and yet that God is compassionate in divine sternness, loving in divine rage, redemptive in divine punishment. It would be foolish to emphasize either part of those or more equations: compassion over sternness, love over rage, redemption over punishment or vice versa. We do so at the peril of re-creating God in the image of our own psychological needs – something we all naturally do to some extent, but probably should avoid turning into a programmatic aim!

The people of God were in anguish. I think we can safely assume, as Rowan Williams sternly reminded us, that “anguish” is considerably more discomforting than the mild side-lining and inconvenience being experienced by western Christians today. We need however look no further than the plight of Christians in Pakistan or than Pope Francis’ prayers and appointments of compassion for the peoples of such impoverished nations as Haiti and Burkina Faso, to know that anguish is still a part of the experience of the people of God – in this case the Christ-bearing people of God.

So if we were reading through the bible from cover to cover Isaiah’s words of hope would explode on our consciousness like a scene from Mad Max. Amid anguish, Isaiah dares to speak of hope. We possibly capture something of the mystery of Isaiah’s speech of light-in-darkness when we read it in traditional Nine Lesson and Carol services from the heart of a darkened church, but I doubt any of us can capture the sheer electrifying surprise of it. Some years ago I was lying in the middle of a 3000 acre Queensland paddock, having been thrown from my horse. My daughter rode off, summoned an ambulance, and came back to hold me for the thirty minutes it took for help to get there. Her return, and then later the arrival of the medical team, shattered the gloom of lying in deep pain, blood and flies, and it first whispered, and then as a back slab was attached and drugs administered, shouted a word of hope in the midst of that fairly minor experience of despair.  Isaiah dared to do so much more.

We have little time for a God of hope in the rosy circumstances of the western world. In the growing turmoil of WW2 subsequent martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer dared to observe “men turn to God when they are sore afraid …”, adding perhaps laconically “All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.” I’m not sure whether that is true seventy years after he wrote the words while awaiting execution in a Nazi gaol, but I suspect times of trial may cause a few more people than statistics suggest to cry out to the possibility of a God.

But Isaiah was daring not to believe just for a divinely executed exit strategy from tough times, but with his protégé Martin Luther or indeed the author of Psalm 46, dared to declare

Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

I do not want to be tested on my ability to hold to Isaiah’s promise of light in darkness should the goings of my own life get tough. Nevertheless the preservation of these words for nearly three millennia, and their entwining over and again, their plaiting together with more and more words of light in darkness and promise amidst despair, suggests that enough people have found in them not just discomfort-abating remedy but deep life-and-death-transforming hope where all else has failed, even when death is the seeming final word.

A challenge for us is that we are called to embody this hope in the lives of those around us, we are called to mission Christlike hope and justice and compassion in our quite cosy world. To be honest few of us will succeed terribly well. But we may, as we surrender ourselves over and again to the One we call Light-in-Darkness and Hope-in-Despair, we may participate in that great movement of God’s Spirit that will ultimately birth the New Heavens and New Earth of the vision of later chapters in Isaiah and of the Book of Revelation. It is to that task we are commissioned each time we pray and break bread together.

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