Sunday, February 21, 1999

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday February 21, 1999
Text: Jeremiah 10: 17-22 and Isaiah 54: 1-8

I was thinking of the last time I went camping between the last year of High School and the beginning of University when I was given a summer job at a camp in New Brunswick. I was to be a camp councilor at a most glorious spot right on the coast of Grand Lake, New Brunswick, just a few miles from where I lived. A friend of mine and I went and perused the camp and decided, because it was miles from where we lived, that it would be a good idea if we could live on-site. It might be a prudent thing to do. So the two neophytes went out and purchased the most beautiful tent. It had lovely nylon ropes, padded floor, beds that you pumped up with air like soft mattresses. We thought we had the good life! We erected this tent in the most beautiful spot. Looking around we realized that nobody else had pitched their tent here; it must have been left by providence for just us. We pitched this tent just a few meters from a gorgeous brook which runs into the lake at the bottom of a beautiful hill with gorgeous trees. There we resided for five pleasant nights. Ah, the joy of going to bed listening to the babbling brook and the wind blowing serenely through the trees was enough to put any young man to sleep. The next night, however, there was a torrential downpour of rain. We went to bed once again in our exquisitely made tent and around 4:00 in the morning my alarm clock went off prematurely. It had shorted because it was now floating next to my head in a pool of water! I looked and realized that my bed was in suspension because it was floating two inches off the floor of our tent. Such was my experience of tenting and camping! So I am not one to dispense advice on such things except to tell you never to pitch a tent at the bottom of a hill and never next to a running brook!

I want to talk today and give a little advice about another such moment of camping and tenting from the Old Testament. It is the passage that we read from Isaiah where he gives two pieces of advice for his nation. He says, "You have now got to establish your tent and you want to broaden your sheets and lengthen your ropes and strengthen your stakes." Israel was at a crucial moment after just returning from exile. Isaiah said to the people "Now you have got to trust so much in God that you lengthen the ropes and expand your vision and strengthen your stakes in the ground to ensure that you are strong in your faith and commitment to God. If you do this, you will not go wrong."

Many times, in reading this great passage, my mind has gone to the state of the church as it exists today in our history. Many church members and Christians in the community feel a little like the people of Israel when they'd come back from the exile. Our numbers are smaller and dwindling; many congregations around us are having to amalgamate; there is a decrease in many members and churches within this nation. Just this last week I spoke with a friend, David Richardson of Africa Enterprise, and he said that the state of the Church in Canada is not that healthy. We have some significant challenges that lie before us. There are many people just like the people of Israel who are starting to question, "What must we do in the face of such decline? In the face of the fact that we are no longer as influential in state matters as we were, are we to simply stick our heads in the sands? What are we to do?"

Historically, when the Church has found itself like this it has made two great errors. The first error reminds me of the time when the Roman Empire fell in 410 and Alaric invaded. Many of the Christians in Rome wondered whether or not they should maintain their faith in the midst of the declining Roman Empire, for most of the Christians in that time had been formed within the confines of the Roman Empire. So they asked themselves, "Should we maintain our faith?"

As the Visigoths and Goths and others came in and took over the Roman Empire, Christianity had to decide what it would do and it turned into sort of a monasticism. It escaped for awhile to protect itself from the ensuing onslaught. It went into the monasteries of Ireland, Gaul and Europe to try and preserve the faith in the midst of this declining empire and the shatter and rubble that was all around it. But the danger with that would have been that had those early Christians simply stayed in those monasteries, had the monastic ideal of a retrenchment, an escape from the world lasted, then the gospel would never have been proclaimed. These monasteries became places where the gospel could be preserved for the sake of something that would come later. Had it stayed in that monastic idea it would have crumbled.

There are many Christians today who say, "Let's just create nice little spiritual communities in which to live. Let's just try and preserve ourselves amongst ourselves. Let's not engage the world anymore, let's simply be a little enclave, albeit a shrinking one."

The second great error that was made is one made in the 19th Century when the challenges of science and rationalism and technology beset the church. It decided in many ways not to retreat but to adapt. But it adapted at times by denying the very foundations of our faith. By trying to appease culture, we actually had nothing more to say to culture. In this retreat and form of preservation (which at its heart is very conservative), what it was trying to do was accommodate the spirit of the world in which it lived. The more it did this, the more it realized it was failing. Rather than engaging the world, rather than being accepted by the world, this adaptation caused the church to become even less relevant in the world in which it found itself. So it struggled with its identity and actually was crumbling as it was doing this. It never works and it never will! The word that we have been given is the word that is holy and glorious. It is rooted and grounded in the very nature of God and is to be proclaimed. It is to be lived, enacted! That is the role of the community of believers. That is exactly what Isaiah is saying to the people of Israel. He is saying, "Broaden your scope, put out your cords, strengthen your stakes even though you're in a world that may be hostile to what you say and believe."

I want to look in this first Sunday of Lent, at what Isaiah was getting at when he said to extend your ropes and strengthen your stakes. The first was the extending or lengthening of your ropes. As I said, Israel had come through a very dark and difficult time. It had been saved from its persecution under the Babylonians by no one less than a Persian called Cyrus. He had come to the aid of God's people and saved them from the power of the Babylonians. It wasn't even their mighty kings or their mighty judges who had saved them. In fact God had used a man like Cyrus the Persian to come and liberate God's own people and they found that humiliating. They also found it humiliating that when they came back to Jerusalem after the exile, they were fewer in number. As they looked around they saw that they were a weakened and defeated people who for over 100 years had been living elsewhere and under the power of oppression and they were tired. They realized that most of the people of Israel were still in Babylon and not in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was no longer the great thriving City of David. It was no longer the glorious centrepiece of the worship of God.

Isaiah writes to them and gives them an expansive vision. He says, "I know that you're downhearted, I know you're frustrated, but maintain your faith in God for God will be faithful unto you. Lengthen your ropes; don't diminish it, spread out in the land that God has given you and that is a trusting thing to do. Do not in any way retreat now that God has brought you home, just because your numbers have diminished and you are tired and full of anxiety and fear."

This is in contrast to the passage that I read from Jeremiah. Jeremiah was writing before the exile. He was warning the people saying that if you are not faithful to God you will be destroyed, your house, your tent, will be destroyed and your ropes will be cut. Now, over one hundred years later, Isaiah is saying the exact opposite to what Jeremiah had said, "Now you've come back, renew your faith, God has been faithful to you. Look what God has done!" He used two great metaphors: the barren woman who cannot have a child and the metaphor of the tent. The barren woman I think, is a reference to Sarah and her barrenness before she gave birth. This is a sign that even though times are difficult and it might appear that you cannot have children and that you cannot move on in life here, nevertheless, there is the providence of God if you'll only believe.

But the tent, that is a powerful image. You will have a place to live if you will extend your ropes. I think that the challenges that lie before the Christian community in this day and age are very similar to the challenges that were there for the people of Israel in their time. I think we have enormous opportunities and that we need to lengthen our ropes and expand our vision of what God is going to do in our midst.

I went to hear a speaker in Ottawa at the Ottawa Harvard Club (William Noak) who has written a book called Bold New World. He talked about the fact that the world in which we live is rapidly changing. He made a number of statements. He said that we are living, because of technology, in a world that is a placeless society. Where you live will have little or no bearing on how you work or the exchange of goods or ideas in the millennium to which we're coming. Everything is constantly changing. He said that in a placeless society people will be able to sit in their homes, do their work and do their shopping. (Just this last week I almost ordered a series of groceries from a store in Melbourne, Australia on the Internet. I had the nerve to ask for a little Canadian back-bacon but they weren't prepared to give me that. I got an e-mail back from them saying "That's nice, Sir, but we haven't found a way to deliver in Toronto, Ontario, but when we do, we'll let you know.") That is the sort of world in which we're living. It's amazing! The opportunities that are out there! There are also challenges. He writes:

"We're all confronted with the same avalanche of innovation resulting from the electronic revolution. Simultaneously, advances in transportation have created a high-speed conveyor belt propelling people and freight around the world at ever accelerating speeds. The convergence of these two vast bodies of technology, communication and transportation, make the age of everything, everywhere possible. We are in a society that spent its childhood in a highly parochial world determined by place. We enter our awkward adolescence in the twenty-first century as the old structures become cumbersome. Near is no longer closer than far. Distance is less relevant. Our social institutions, families, churches, schools, factories, cities even countries are slowly breaking loose from their mooring rooted in the primacy of place." (p.54)

He predicts that, in this placeless society, men and women are going to need communities that might be smaller, but are stronger for them, because shifting foundations are taking place both in moral and religious life and in every other feature. In these shifting sands on which the tent of the Church is to be built, there is a need, he argues, (and he is not a Christian) for a need for solid, strong, spiritual communities for people in which to live.

Michael Ignatieff in his book Blood and Belonging, a book that I've recently reread, especially in light of the problems in Kosovo and the Kurdish uprising, talks about how with the decline of the cold war people are trying to find their roots. They're finding their roots in nationalism and their own cultural identity. He said that the danger with this happening is that people will fragment into smaller and smaller groups and there will be a lack of cohesion in the world. He isn't saying that we have to go back to the Cold War but he is saying that this fragmentation of the placeless society is causing people to look and yearn for a sense of identity in the shifting sands of the world.

The point I want to make is that these shifting sands of identity, that very sense of placelessness, of not belonging, that sense of isolation even from the technology in which we live, is not that far removed from what Isaiah was experiencing in his day and age. The themes are different but the concepts are still the same. Namely, that people need to find a home in which they belong. They need to find a place where they have some foundations in their lives. If the church does not expand its ropes, if the church does not embrace the world with the power of the gospel, then we leave the world poorer for not having a place in which to stand.

We need to lengthen our ropes but we also need to strengthen our stakes, to strengthen our faith, to have a greater sense of resolve. Some years ago, a friend and I went to a very posh hotel in Cape Town, South Africa. He and I had just gone dancing in a nightclub and we thought we would go to a hotel on the waterfront called Sea Point, a very posh hotel. He said, "Look, my father's company is offering a raffle tonight and if we go in and buy a ticket we just might get the great prize." I said, "I'm up for that! I'll gamble now that I've danced, so let's go!" We walked into the hotel and we saw the fancy ballroom and well-dressed people. There were two men standing guard in their uniform tunics and we said that we would like to go in. The men looked at us and said, "Are you sure?" My friend said, "Oh yes, my father is running this whole thing." So the guard said, "In that case come in then but whatever you do when you sit at the back don't say a word. Unless you're really interested in something don't put up your hand or someone will think you're going to buy it." So we scratched out heads thinking this was a strange sort of raffle but we will go in. We sat down and a man got up and had a huge tray covered with gems and jewels and diamonds. The man up front said, "I will have anyone willing to start the bidding at 50." A hand went up, then another for 100, then 200, then 300 and 400 and 500. We thought, "Good Lord! 500 dollars!" Finally one man put up his hand and said, "800." Everyone clapped and applauded. The man said, "For the man in the back $800,000. You have just purchased these magnificent diamonds!" My friend looked at me and said, "Andrew, if you move even an eyelid, I'll kill you!" Never have two such young men been so paralyzed. We had walked into Anglo-America's Corporations and de Beers' Diamonds joint-selling of diamonds from the South African mines - in the room opposite they were selling a wonderful hamper on which you could buy a ticket. We were in the wrong room.

Afterwards I went and looked and inspected these diamonds; they were the most gorgeous things I'd ever seen. Some of them were uncut and looked cloudy and some were already cut. It was an awesome sight.

The Prophet Isaiah said, "If you will strengthen you stakes and lengthen your ropes I tell you that Jerusalem is going to be like that. The walls will be made of turquoise and the floor of sapphires and the battlements will be like rubies. Great and glorious things await those who are faithful to God if you will put down your stakes and strengthen them in me." Many times, as I've read that passage from Isaiah 54 of the beauty and glory of Jerusalem, my mind has turned to that. He also gives them practical advice. "If you want to strengthen your stakes, if you want to do good things for me then you must teach your children well. If you're going to strengthen your stakes they must be based on something. They must be based on truth, on the words of love and grace." But so often we're very cavalier and casual about our teaching ministry within the church. That is why I'm so delighted here at Timothy Eaton that people are coming to Bible Studies and appreciating what John Harries is doing with the young people. So often that gets lost. We're like parents that I read of a child who came home with a report card. She was comparing it with a friend. This girl had four 'F's in her four courses and the friend said to her, "Didn't your parents have anything to say about this?" She said, "No, they were too busy arguing as to which side of the family I resembled the most." We're often doing petty things ourselves and not strengthening our stakes in teaching and in admonition and love.

The final thing is that if you want to strengthen your stakes you strengthen them in righteousness and justice. God says to Isaiah "When you're coming back, for all that you have suffered under the Exile it must be rooted in the just and the right and the holy. You must have equity amongst your people. You must have fairness in the way that you deal with one another. You must have compassion on your people. They've come through a difficult time, but to maintain the faith you must treat them gently and carefully." The strengthening of the stakes is not in some hard, cold dogmatism. The strengthening of the stakes is in righteousness and love and justice. If we as Christians will do that (I'm not saying we will have the triumphalism of the old Christendom), we will bear faith and witness in a world that has shifting sands that need strong tents. Let us therefore have the vision of Isaiah. Amen.