Preached at St Giles, Aintree
Let’s start with a bit of literary criticism.
This means looking at the text of the Bible and trying to work out what we can about the world it was written in. Trying to work out who the author was and what he – or indeed she – cared about. Trying to work out what the narrative is all about, where God is in it, so that we can use it to understand our own narrative, and where God is in the world today.
The book of the prophet Isaiah is a fascinating one for literary criticism. On the surface, it looks like one long book – 66 chapters long. It might seem like a unity.
But, when you look closely, you realise that it cannot possibly have been written by one person, unless that person lived for around three hundred years. It is, very plainly, written in three parts, at three different times, in at least two different places.
The first part of Isaiah – Proto-Isaiah, as he is known – wrote in Jerusalem in the eighth century BC. His was a nation of some power, though less than it once had. There is the threat from the Assyrian empire to the north, and he pronounces God’s judgement against the sins of his people, calling on them to repent.
The second part of the book – Deutero-Isaiah – was written a couple of hundred years later, this time a long way from Jerusalem. It was written in the Exile in Babylon. This was a time when Israel’s future seemed bleak. What future could there possibly be? It begins with the famous cry:
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid. (Isa. 40.1f., NRSV)
This part of the book is a promise of a return. Even when all seems impossible, we are told about the overwhelming, universal power of God. It isn’t just in this place, or in that place: God created everything, and God’s power is everywhere. God will bring the chosen people home to Jerusalem in great triumph.
And then we have the third part. This is the most confusing and uncertain part. These final twelve chapters of the book – known as Trito-Isaiah – are from an uncertain and confusing world. They have returned from the Exile: the people are back in Jerusalem. On the one level, the promise of Deutero-Isaiah seems to be fulfilled. And yet they live in a world of poverty, where they are a vassal kingdom. If there is a temple – and it is a little unclear – it is a pale shadow of the great Temple of old.
They may have come home, but their return is not the glorious triumph that they had sought. God, it seemed, had let them down.
And this is the context for our first reading today. It is a prophet speaking into a dark, confused world, where God’s power seemed to be less than had been promised. This is a world of darkness and doubt, where what had been was so much better than what now remained. The past may have been glorious, but only a memory of it remained.
And in this prophecy, God speaks in the midst of this fear and doubt and uncertainty.
‘Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her. Rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her.’ (Isa. 66.10, NRSV)
‘Stop mourning,’ God says. ‘Stop thinking that this present age is sad and without hope. Rejoice.’
Rejoice, not because you had an enormous earthly triumph, but because God continues to love you. First the prophet speaks about Jerusalem as a mother: ‘you may nurse and be satisfied at her consoling breast.’ Jerusalem may have been desolate and barren, but she will again be full of life. She will be filled with youth again. This is not a lesser age. This, though all seems dark and hopeless, is a new age of God’s love and glory, and they are not less than they were before.
We get that beautiful domestic image of Jerusalem as a mother, dandling her children on her knees.
For Christians, biblical imagery of Jerusalem is often applied to the Church. So we also inherit this image of the Church as the caring, loving mother, who carefully looks after her children. So it ought to be…
And we go on to hear of God spoken of as a mother. If we are used to exclusively masculine language for speaking about God, it’s time we changed that. Trito-Isaiah wrote approximately 2550 years ago. It’s time we caught up.
God is the mother who comforts her children when they are in pain and darkness. When the world seems scary and confusing, we are promised that, with God taking care of us, we will flourish like the grass.
This is a statement of enormous power. In the midst of darkness, in the midst of doubt and uncertainty and fear, God speaks of the tenderness of divine love, and of its enduring power. God’s chosen people will not be abandoned. The age to come will be greater than anything that came before.
Trito-Isaiah’s prophecy has its power because of what went before. Deutero-Isaiah’s promise seemed to have failed. Trito-Isaiah says that, even when God’s love seems to have failed, it has not. It will not.
Often I hear people speaking about the Church as if her best days were gone. As if the past ages were glorious, and we are now in a present that is a lesser age. This is, of course, blasphemy. To say that God’s hand has lost its power, or that God’s heart has lost its love… As my favourite hymn says,
Crowns and thrones may perish, Kingdoms rise and wane, But the Church of Jesus Constant will remain; Gates of hell can never ‘Gainst that Church prevail; We have Christ’s own promise, And that cannot fail.
God’s love will not let us down, even when all seems dark.
And this week it has seemed very dark indeed. I don’t know how many of you will have been reading about or following the Independent Inquery into Child Sexual Abuse. This week, the spotlight has fallen again on the Church of England. It has not been pleasant reading, and yet it has been necessary reading.
This week we have heard time and time again of the failure of our Church to deal with genuine evil, the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults perpetuated at the hands of her priests and bishops. We have heard again and again of the Church’s institutional desire to protect its reputation, rather than to act with the love and care and truth that is her calling. We have heard of priests, bishops and archbishops who declined to support – or even speak to – those who had been subjected to appalling acts of abuse.
We have heard the Bishop of Chester managing to argue that a priest found guilty of the possession of 8,000 indecent images of children should not be prohibited from ministry for the rest of his life.
The Church may have dropped in numbers. The Church’s voice may be a lesser one in the nation. The Church may have all kinds of financial and personnel problems.
But nothing is more terrible than the Church enabling, colluding in, and carrying out this kind of evil.
I don’t think there is anything in the whole history of the Church of England, over its nearly 1500 years, that is more shameful, more terrible, more sinful.
These are dark days. I am ashamed of my Church. What once seemed beautiful, glorious, radiant beyond all else in the world, seems base, sullied, wicked.
And yet we have a promise, and a promise that cannot fail. God’s love will not forsake us. Our church can be remade, and speak truth and justice and righteousness again. It will take a long time. It will take hard work. And it will take the all-powerful, never-ending grace of God. But God’s love will not abandon us and our Church can once again be what she is called to be: the body of Christ, acting in the world.
Though our Church has gone far from God, yet God has not gone far from us. God does not forsake us, even when hope seems lost. This is our hope.
‘The hand of the Lord is with his servants,’ Isaiah tell us, even when that seemed impossible. May the hand of the Lord be with the Church in this age, that the Church may flourish like the grass and our hearts may once again rejoice.
I will conclude with prayers that are being prayed by survivors, their supporters, and churches across the country, as we pray for new hope and life.
Holy God, teach us to thirst for righteousness and justice in your Church.
Merciful God, we cry to you. We lament the safeguarding failings of your Church.
Gracious God, help us to hear the voices of victims and survivors of abuse and re-abuse and to make the profound changes needed in your Church.
Compassionate God, help us to repair broken lives, so that those our Church has harmed may no longer just survive, but thrive.
Amen. Prayers during IICSA, Diocese of Rochester