Notes from a sermon preached on 26th April 2009
Arriving at the service this morning was a strange experience. The first thing I saw was not the doormen who usually great me as I arrive, but blue and white tape announcing to the world that I was entering a crime scene. My first thought was that they’d caught up with me at last! Then I learnt that a young lad had a broken bottle shoved in his face at a 21st birthday party at the community service last night. The scene of crime officers were there this morning looking for any forensic evidence.
It was fascinating watching the effect of their presence on the congregation. It changed the dynamic of the start of the service dramatically. Folks didn’t seem to want to take to their seats, and were instead clustered together in the hall, near the doors, but with the doors between them and the police officers closed. Some were clearly nervous of them, others were fascinated, some tried to engage them in conversation and others still wished they weren’t there. Like it or not, we weren’t able to escape from the fact that they were there.
A… was leading the worship this morning, and she commented on this coming together of the world and the church, and this got me thinking. In many ways this episode was like a little snapshots of the way Christians see the world.
In many ways, this is the very question that today’s passage spends time looking at. How does God relate to the world, and how should we, his people see the world. There have been many answers to these questions. I wonder what yours would be?
Is the world something you’re part of? Want to embrace it? Want to avoid it? Is it important or unimportant to you? Are we more important to God than the world? Is the world neither of these, instead there, but of little impact upon your life?
Now forget what you’ve just answered, and ask yourself the question again. Maybe we think we know what the right answer is, but how do we actually act towards the world and relate to it? I wouldn’t be surprised that if we were honest with ourselves, that the theory and the reality don’t always match up.
This passage looks to the time when God’s People were exiled, defeated by the Assyrians and Babylonians, forcefully relocated from the Promised Land to alien homes, and the Temple where God dwelt and where they met with him destroyed. This is a dramatic clash between the world and God’s People. To God’s People it felt as if God had abandoned them to the world, or even that God had been defeated by the world – this was an era when the strength of a nations god was measured by who they conquered – if your nation beat another in battle, then your god was greater than theirs.
The World here is the enemy, a threat to God’s People and their ways, threatening to overcome them, to defile them, to destroy their faith and freedom to practise their religion. Some might see echoes of this in the confusing relationship between immigration, multiculturalism and the influx of other faiths today. As what is sometimes referred to as ‘Christian’ England is exposed to other ways of life, and the rise in secularism as well as other faiths (although I would argue that secularism is a faith in its own way). Sometimes it is portrayed as if these other faiths are eroding away our Christian identity challenging our faith. The World is a threat and we need to take care not to be defiled by it, or lured away by it from our walk with Christ.
The language of this passage in Isaiah supports this picture of the World as a threat. God refers to himself as their ‘Redeemer’ – one who will rescue his people (44:24), one who promises to bring them out of the world and bring them home – Jerusalem will be inhabited, the towns of Judah rebuilt and the Temple restored (44:26-28)
Remember that like now, then there were many god’s believed in, many ways of seeing the world, many competing truths. Over these, God asserts that he is in fact the only God. There is no other. He alone created the heavens and the earth. He alone is the source of power and authority. He alone knows what is true and wise. He alone knows what will be and is faithful to all his promises. There is no competitor, no rival to his position. He, and he alone, is God. Anything else set up as a god or authority apart from him is in fact an idol. Worth nothing. Lesser than him, and leaving their followers ignorant.
In the end, he announces, before him every knee will bow, and by him every tongue will swear.
God is King and he is Lord of All, of and over the World who stands against him.
But things are not as black or white as this might suggest.
God has made this promise to rescue his people from the World, but wait a minute, who is it that he uses to rescue them. Will he raise up a prophet like Moses? A Warrior like Samson? A King like David? No. Instead he uses Cyrus…
Cyrus is the King of the Persians. He is a foreigner who neither knows or cares about the Jew’s God. You can hear the protests can’t you! You can’t use him God. He’s not one of us. He’s your enemy, a foreigner. He’s of the World – a threat to us who will lead us astray. How can this be!
The Church is the carrier of God’s Word. We are the ones who know God, who have committed ourselves to him, who know his will and follow him. What does the Bible describe as standing against us? The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Apart from God we can do no good, the only way we can do good is through the renewal of our minds and lives by the Holy Spirit who transforms us to be like Christ.
To make it worse, Isaiah refers to Cyrus as God’s Shepherd. What do you think of when you hear that word? Maybe David, the Shepherd King? Maybe Psalm 23 where God is our shepherd? Maybe the priests who Zecharah calls shepherds – good an bad. With this sort of background, you can hear the fury of God’s People when they hear Isaiah using this name. Is this blasphemy? It’s certainly close. How dare Isaiah afford an unbelieving foreigner this status?
God’s reply is a strong one. Who are you to tell me who I can or cannot use! I am the one who made you – read 45:9-13. God can use whoever he wants to, and here he chooses Cyrus.
This has implications for us. Doing God’s will is not restricted to the Church. The World can work for God, know and complete his will, demonstrate his truth.
Have you ever wondered about why Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God rather than the Church. Are they the same thing? Passages like this make me believe that they are not. The Kingdom of God is wherever God’s will is being done – this could be by God’s People, but also by those who are outside God’s People, in other words the World. Wherever people stand up for injustice, that is God’s Kingdom at work. Wherever people show compassion – that is God’sKingdom. Wherever truth is held over dishonesty, that is God’s Kingdom.
This calls for humility from us.
It calls for humility from us in our theology – what we believe and say about God. Who are we to restrict what God can and cannot do.
It also calls for humility in our dealings with others outside the church. Doing good, and doing God’s will is not restricted to the Church, the World also have a part to play. Does this suggest that we should not be so quick to dismiss the world as our enemy, or unimportant. Perhaps there are times when it is right for us to seek partnership with the world in the business of the Kingdom. Should we be looking for others who are aiming for similar things in their work and supporting each other? Perhaps the Council might fit into this position – not always, but at times. Or maybe High Trees? Or the local school? Maybe local environmental groups? The list could cover many varied groups, businesses and individuals.
Maybe this passage calls us to watch our language (World vs Church) and to think in terms of conversation instead of confrontation.
It is interesting to note, though, that God says that he has called Cyrus to work for him, for the benefit of his People – 45:4. Does this suggest that the Church is superior or more important to God than the world?
When Jesus came striding onto the scene and Paul following in his footsteps, they caused the same sort of outrage that Isaiah was causing by sharing these words of God’s. By this time, the Jewish faith had accented the importance of God’s People over and above the World, that the World, the Gentiles were the enemy, to be looked down upon. They caused an outrage because they argued otherwise. We don’t hear the shock value behind John 3:16 because we have got so used to the words that we miss the implication. God so loved THE WORLD. Jesus and Paul in their own ways were reminding God’s People that they had been called not for their own benefit, but to bless the world – wasn’t that the Promise that all those many years ago God had made to Abraham? That through him all nations would be blessed?
This passage says the same thing. Yes it says that God will subdue the nations, that every knee will bow before him, but shortly before that it says in 45:22 ‘Turn to me and be saved all you ends of the world’. He may be King of and over the World. He may use the world to grow his Kingdom and serve the Church, but his ultimate purpose is to save and redeem the World.
The World is no perfect – then again nor are we. We are not called to stand against it, or see ourselves as superior to it, but in humility we are called to work with the World and for the World, to grow God’s Kingdom.