notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Christ Church Norris Green 12/12/2004 (Advent 2 Holy Communion)
Isaiah 35.1-10, Matthew 11.3-11
Isaiah lived in a time very like our time, in a land very like ours today.
Israel in the time of Isaiah, was rich. Food and drink and clothes and all the trappings of a prosperous nation, were available to the people. The economy was booming. The nation was not at war at this time, and was spending a massive amount of its money on defence to ensure that it stayed that way.
In the temples and synagogues then, the people would have no problem giving thanks to God for all the things he had given them; because, as they saw it, he'd given them lots.
But Isaiah saw things differently.
Isaiah saw that the wealth of the rich people in the nation was made at the expense of the poor.
He saw that those who ran businesses cheated their competitors and their customers to make sure that their profits got bigger and bigger.
Isaiah saw that in Israel at the time some people's greed led to other people's hunger. He saw that the gap between the poor and the rich was growing ever bigger.
And he listened to hear what the the so-called holy men were saying about this. And they were saying nothing, because they, like everyone else in any position of power or authority, were part of the system too. If they spoke out about the holiness of God, God's demands on his people to live justly, these so-called holy men would have risked their comfortable positions in society. So they kept quiet.
But Isaiah looked at Israel. And Isaiah spoke.
Isaiah looked at Israel at the time and did not see a thriving place. He saw a desert. He did not see a strong people. He saw weakness. He did not see confidence in the land. He saw fear.
Isaiah looked at Israel at the time and saw blindness and deafness in the land. He saw a hidden people, trapped in their homes through lameness and poverty.
Isaiah looked at Israel at the time and realised that many of the people were dumb. Against the noise of commerce, the noise of industry, the noise of the arms manufacturers spending the people's taxes creating monstrous weapons, against the noise of politicians babbling and the whimperings of compromised priests, Isaiah realised that the people's voices couldn't be heard.
But Isaiah knew God. He knew God's priorities. He knew where God's heart lay.
And he knew therefore that God was listening to the heart-cries of the people suffering in this desert land. And so, rather than cry in despair - as some prophets and psalmists would do, and understandably so - Isaiah turned his eyes to this desert and IMAGINED WHAT GOD COULD DO WITH IT.
Isaiah believed that God could make things new. Even this land which looked so full but was in fact so empty, could be renewed by God.
Isaiah turned his eyes to this desert place and IMAGINED WHAT GOD COULD DO WITH IT:
The wilderness and the wasteland shall be glad,
And the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose;
It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice,
Even with joy and singing.
And hundreds of years later, John the Baptist did this too.
Inspired by the words of Isaiah, he gave people the chance to start again, to see a new world approaching:
A voice crying in the wilderness,
'Prepare the way for the Lord;
clear a straight path for him.'
And following on, Jesus was the one who fulfilled all the things that the prophets, Isaiah, and John had imagined. Some people wondered if Jesus was truly the one who would transform the world; even John the Baptist wondered. But Jesus was. He did it in his own particular way:
"Go and tell John what you hear and see," he told the doubters. "The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me."
Jesus did change the world forever. And that gives us permission to dream our own dreams about a better future.
Like Isaiah and John, we too can be people of imagination....
This has been the calling of believers throughout the ages. Even in our times people have looked at a desert and imagined what God could do with it.
A tiny Albanian nun, called by God to India, looked at the endless slums of Calcutta, saw the streets full of dying children and realised that no-one in authority was doing anything to help them.
Mother Teresa realised that here was a desert. But rather than turn away in despair, desensitise herself to the terrible suffering in front of her, she imagined what God could do there.
A French Roman Catholic, Jean Vanier, realised thirty years ago that in our supposedly enlightened times we still ignored, locked away, excluded, those in our societies who are mentally handicapped. His experience of mentally handicapped people was that they had much to offer the rest of us, particularly they could offer emotions and affection in a Western culture which tends to be cold and frigid and spiritually numb.
Jean Vanier realised that this situation was a desert of sorts. And HE IMAGINED WHAT GOD COULD DO WITH IT.
So he founded a community called L'Arche, where mentally handicapped people share a common life with others, and where it is the others who often learn the most about life in that setting. From tiny beginnings in a French village L'Arche is now an international community, with homes everywhere, including one in Liverpool.
We can probably think of other people closer to home who perhaps in smaller ways have imagined how Jesus can make a difference, turning desert situations into times of rejoicing and blossoming and abundance.
And we can be people of imagination....
Imagine what God can do in the world:
Imagine a world where the people of Iraq will be together in peace;
Where the people of the North will share their wealth with the people of the South;
Where the oppressed people of Bethlehem will be left alone by their oppressors;
Where no more clouds will hang over Bhopal or Chernobyl - or Runcorn - because the people have learned to care about creation.
Imagine what God can do in OUR lives:
If we are in debt then we will be free;
If we are in pain then we will be healed;
If we are lonely then we will find company;
If we have lost our direction then we will receive guidance.
Imagine what God can do in church:
Imagine church which is not grey but full of colour and life;
Imagine church which isn't obsessed with itself but looks out to the people around it and engages with them and meets their needs;
Imagine church where caring and sharing are not just good ideas but ways of life.
This is God's way.
And that's a word for us as we look at the place where we live, where we try to see Jesus coming today, but where the land is still parched, where it still seems like a wilderness, where lives are still broken and the good news still unspoken. Jesus says: be faithful, wait, and don't fear: there is more, and better, to come.
And so Jesus confirms that John's original vision wasn't faulty, and encourages him to hold onto it. And so Jesus asks us to be people with such vision, too, to look out for him coming not completely, but in all sorts of different ways, gradually bringing new life and new joy to the places we live.
Isaiah and John spoke about a highway, the Way of Holiness, a road along which God and his people will travel celebrating God's great work of renewal, restoration, resurrection. It's a road we can travel every day, as we go up and down our own streets with this advent vision in mind - God is with us, Christ is coming to this place.
I close with a vision of the city, written initially by a friend of mine about his home town Glasgow, but here altered to provide, I hope, an image of Liverpool in the spirit of Isaiah, in the spirit of John:
I saw a vision:
it was last Thursday at eleven o'clock in the morning.
I was standing at the top of Brownlow Hill, looking down over the city
and the cold, blue autumn sky broke open over my head
and the Spirit of God breathed on my eyes and my eyes were opened:
I saw Liverpool, the holy city, coming down out of heaven
shining like a rare jewel, sparkling like clear water in the eye of the sun
and all the sickness was gone from the city
and there were no more suburbs and estates
no difference between Grassendale and Granby
I saw the Mersey running with the water of life,
as bright as crystal,
as clear as glass
the children of Liverpool swimming in it
And the Spirit showed me the tree of life
growing in Sefton Park
I looked out and there were no more homeless people
there were no women working the streets
there were no more junkies up the closes
HIV and AIDS were things of the past
there were no more racist attacks
no more attacks on gay people
no more rapists
no more stabbings
no more Protestants and Catholics
no more IRA graffiti, no more Orange marches
because there was no more hate
and I saw women walking safe at nights
and the men were full of passion and gentleness
and none of the children were ever abused
because the people's sex was full of justice and joy.
I saw an old woman throw back her head
and laugh like a young girl
and when the sky closed back her laughter rang in my head
for days and days
and would not go away.
This is what I saw, looking across to the Liver Buildings,
looking up from the city of death
and I knew then that there would be a day of resurrection
and I believe that there will be a day of resurrection.
(Adapted from 'The Prophet's Speech',
in 'Words From The Late Late Service', Glasgow 1993)
1. This sermon is a combination of an 2001 talk at Holy Trinity Wavertree and a 1997 talk at St Gabriel's Toxteth, on the same texts.
2. Liverpool Hope is adapted from 'The Prophet's Speech', in Words From The Late Late Service, Glasgow 1993. Also used in a Blue Coat School talk, on 19 November 2003.