SERMON PREACHED AT St LUKE'S, OAMARU
EPIPHANY (January 5th) 2020
Isaiah 60: 1-6
Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3: 1-12
Matthew 2: 1-12
It may be hard for us to imagine the circumstances faced by the Hebrew people when Isaiah – possibly the third prophet to use the name – spoke of radiance and glory and light descending on his people. He spoke of his people experiencing a fate different to the surrounding peoples. He spoke of his peoples becoming a beacon to surrounding, stumbling peoples. “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
The early Christians soon saw this to have been fulfilled in the coming of the Christ, the whole kit and caboodle of the birth, life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. They came, subversively, to call Jesus “Lord,” in a land where only Caesar should be called Lord. This was dangerous.
It’s hard for us to understand how dangerous this was. By the time the New Testament texts were being written it was increasingly perilous to name Jesus as Lord. Caesar was Lord. The Christians dared to speak of a Lord when only Caesar was Lord; they dared to speak of his birth and subsequent miraculous life-events as moments thwarting the machinations of Herod. And Herod was the chosen extension of Caesar’s might, doing Caesar’s divine will.
In the same way it had been dangerous, in the time of our last of the Isaiahs, to speak of hope, at least as a faith-based option. Years ago Tina Turner sang, lustily, “What’s love got to do with it?” It was a dark if up-tempo song that some of us will remember. She didn’t write it, but it was so fitted to the bitter darkness of her abused life that it became the title of a biographical film about her. She dared to sing of love when she had known abuse (the abuse she sang about in that other song of hers, “Private Dancer.” It’s worth googling. It’s chilling. It’s a study in daring).
The Isaiahs dared to speak of hope – what’s hope got to do with it? – when hope for various reasons seemed to be irrelevant. They were not popular.
Part of the reason the Isaiahs call to hope was unpopular was because of their specific, challenging, active understanding of hope. While our passages today tend at first sight to reflect a “passive,” “stand and receive” image of hope, the overall flavour of the prophets’ vision was active.
In our Isaiah passage there is much memorable imagery of standing and receiving; “they come to you …your sons shall come … your daughters shall be carried … the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you …” But the passage, in literary terms is governed by a different type of verb, an active verb. “Arise! Shine!” I have vivid memories from my boarding school days of the bells that rang to awaken us from slumber. I have fonder memories from other contexts when a kinder voice would interrupt my dreams with the very words of Isaiah: “Arise! Shine!” Both the school bell and the half-remembered childhood voices were calls to action. Slumber time is over. Action time is here.
The prophets and the New Testament writers alike were daring to dream a reality different to that which they saw around them. The followers of Jesus were not seeing the corrupt empire of the Caesars crumbling or defeated. Not in political or military terms. But they dared to act as if they were. They could not even see Jesus anymore, and most, perhaps all who heard Matthew’s story, never had. They experienced his presence powerfully, though, and because they experienced his presence in fellowship and in bread and wine, and in the journeying together through the Hebrew Scriptures, they knew their reality was stronger than the realities they saw around them. In believing they were empowered by Jesus’ unseen presence.
They were either mad or inspired, of course. And the word “inspired” means “breathed on” or perhaps more accurately, “breathed into.” “Breathe on me breath of God,” we used to sing; Edwin Hatch’s hymn makes it clear that he, too, meant “breathe into.” Breathe into me by your wind, your “pneuma” or Spirit. Breathe into me the awareness of a reality greater than that which I see around me. Inspire me to live by that reality instead of by the gloom that infiltrates, swamps even, my news feeds every day.
In the 1997 Robert Begnini film Life is Beautiful, an Italian Jewish father saves his son’s life, though not his own. He does so by inventing a game in which the son is challenged to believe in a different reality. It is a reality in which life is indeed beautiful, unlike the harsh reality of their real life in a concentration camp. The details are unimportant. The Jewish heritage of hope though is critical. Dare we believe in a cosmos where there is a God who will make our hearts “thrill and rejoice,” or in which “our sons shall come from far away, our daughters shall be carried” to us? Dare we believe in a cosmos when all who we have loved and sometimes lost are with us once again, and the new heavens and new earth shine with the radiant glory of God, and darkness and corruption is overthrown?
All of this imagery can be no more than an empty fairy tale, though, if we remain, to return to the language of grammar, passive. If we sit cosily in our safe and happy spaces believing God will soon enough beam us up, and therefore care nothing for a corrupt and crumbling world around us, then we are not only, in Paul’s world, “more to be pitied” but more to be despised than all people. The God-child to whom the wise men paid obeisance was no passive but an active word and voice of God, pricking the conscience of a nation-people.
I happen to be reading Nelson Mandela’s potent 1990s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. As he recalls his decades on Robben Island it is very clear that he steered himself and others through the hellish years not by passive acceptance of the evil status quo but by active means. He dared, like the father and child in Life is Beautiful, dared, like the prophets Isaiah, dared like the psalmist, dared like the gospel-writer Matthew, to dream of and strive for a different reality. He dared to dream of and enact a reality in which the light does shine, in which wise leaders do find and proclaim Jesus, in which justice (for all the downtrodden and victimised peoples and species) does roll down like thunder, and in which human beings to learn to love and live, seeing the image of God in one another.
These traditional readings of Epiphany are readings of comfort, readings of mystery, readings of challenge. They dare us not to despair, dare us not to limit the possibilities of God to the mere realities we see around us. They challenge us to lift our vision to a greater God and a greater reality, and to proclaim that God by action (and if necessary by words), to proclaim God in the world God that calls us to live in. The biblical writings are, (unless we tame them to nothingness), daring and subversive. They declare a lordship different to that commonly proclaimed by the Caesars of any age. They challenge us to be active, not passive, to hope not despair, and then like the wise leaders, to go on into the world having been changed a little, having been prepared and on- or in-breathed by God’s Spirit to work to re-engender that same change in those we encounter. By being breathed on bu God's dangerous Spirit we too may bring gold and frankincense, and proclaim the praise of the Lord who is so much greater than Herod or even Caesar.