Sermon on Isaiah 60.1-14

Isaiah 60.1-14
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2 For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
3 Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

4 Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
5 Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
6 A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
7 All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you,
the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you;
they shall be acceptable on my altar,
and I will glorify my glorious house.

8 Who are these that fly like a cloud,
and like doves to their windows?
9 For the coastlands shall wait for me,
the ships of Tarshish first,
to bring your children from far away,
their silver and gold with them,
for the name of the Lord your God,
and for the Holy One of Israel,
because he has glorified you.
10 Foreigners shall build up your walls,
and their kings shall minister to you;
for in my wrath I struck you down,
but in my favour I have had mercy on you.
11 Your gates shall always be open;
day and night they shall not be shut,
so that nations shall bring you their wealth,
with their kings led in procession.
12 For the nation and kingdom
that will not serve you shall perish;
those nations shall be utterly laid waste.
13 The glory of Lebanon shall come to you,
the cypress, the plane, and the pine,
to beautify the place of my sanctuary;
and I will glorify where my feet rest.
14 The descendants of those who oppressed you
shall come bending low to you,
and all who despised you
shall bow down at your feet;
they shall call you the City of the Lord,
the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

As we prepare to launch our mission community, we’re spending some focussed time on what mission means. We’re trying to reimagine mission – what might it look like for us in our time and our context?
This morning we thought about the primary importance of abiding in Jesus and having his life in us. If we don’t start with that, we are not really Christ’s body and we really have nothing to offer the world. Our reading then was John 15: “I am the vine and you are the branches.” “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” And in our second reading tonight we read of the church at Sardis that had become dead because it was no longer abiding in Jesus. And there are times when the Church of England has felt a bit like that.
But it is not like that. The life of Jesus is at work in the Church of England. The challenge for us is to abide more deeply in it and for that to so affect the world around us that it brings life to many in our communities.
This, after all, was the great vision for what the Messiah would bring. And we have had a glorious vision of it set before our eyes this evening through the prophet Isaiah. “Arise, shine, for your light has come.”
And what does that light bring? Well in fact, what he’s talking about is God’s judgment on the world. That’s the light that has come. And no sooner do I say that than I become immediately conscious that for many people talking of God’s judgment on the world sounds more like bad news than good news. Such bad news perhaps that we’d rather not talk about it. And perhaps the Church has been guilty of speaking about God’s judgment in rather negative terms, as fire and brimstone and as condemnation. But that’s not how Isaiah puts it. Isaiah portrays it as something deeply joyful, a great relief because it is vindication for those who have been faithful to God and his ways.
In fact, in this chapter, Isaiah goes carefully through Israel’s recent history and turns it all on its head as God comes to vindicate her against everyone who slandered her, who oppressed her and who tried to annihilate her.
The background to this chapter is that, after years of Israel becoming a vassal nation, having to pay tribute to greater powers to maintain her existence, she was invaded and sent into exile by the Babylonians. And by Isaiah 60, the Babylonians have been defeated and they have come home, but they are still far from being restored. They are at home, but their problems have not gone away. There is a sense in which they are still in exile, but at home – a feeling that perhaps resonates with the current state of the Church in Britain. We are at home, but increasingly exiled from our society.
And Isaiah’s promise of judgment steps into that world as a huge relief, as a ray of hope.
Instead of being taken into exile, the kings of the earth will come to you, bearing gold and frankincense. Instead of you having to rebuild your walls after a succession of invading armies, “Foreigners shall build up your walls”. Instead of paying tribute to stronger nations, “the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste.”
It is a complete reversal of Israel’s fortunes: “The descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.”
The Judgment of God is good news. It is good news to the poor, release to the captives, freedom to the oppressed.
And as we reimagine mission, looking to become a dynamic mission community, I offer us two thoughts from this passage to through into our thinking and wrestling:
Firstly, we can hold this hope before us to turn around the narrative of decline and failure. We know the problems of the church. They are daily before us. We are more like the people of Israel after the exile than the people Isaiah describes. But God is still in charge. We are vindicated by God if we remain faithful to him. Our faith is not in vain. Everything we stand for in Jesus will be recognised one day by all, our light will shine and the glory of the Lord will rise upon us. We are people of hope. And we can see God at work in all the times when we are oppressed, slandered or downtrodden. Those are not our future. They are not even our present. Our true lives are hidden in Christ, the risen Christ, the triumphant Christ, the Christ who is the light of the world and the sole arbiter of truth. We are not defeated, but vindicated. So let us lay aside the despair as lie and live as people of hope.
Secondly, let us seek out those for whom this might also come as good news. In our Tuesday morning ministry team meetings, one of the points of revelation that came to us is that the Gospel rarely thrives in times of prosperity. So let us seek out instead the poor and needy. Let us seek out the points in people’s lives where they are poor even if they appear rich. There are many in this world who, as the introduction to the Carol Service says ‘by virtue of their adversity long especially for the coming of his kingdom.’ God’s judgment is not good news to the powerful, the comfortable or the self-satisfied. In fact, they’re the ones to whom it is going to come as a bit of a shock! But there are many long for release, for hope, for light. Let us seek them out and bring them the good news of God’s deliverance, of God’s judgment, of God’s vindication. And let the living Christ turn their lives around too, so that they might become, with us, sharers in hope.
Lowther (joint) 29 April 2018