Christmas in May: Affirming Again the Reign of God
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, May 17, 2020
Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5; 9:2-7
One of the great words that has been used to describe the changes taking place in our world, has been “disruption”. In business, in academics, in many facets of life, it is in vogue to talk about disruption. From the way that everyone was acting and thinking, if you didn’t embrace disruption, then you were not part of the elite, the illuminati, those who are really looking to the future. It was de rigueur to talk constantly about disruption.
Well, I love a lecture I heard not long ago, in light of COVID-19 that said disruption has now been disrupted. In fact, all the talk of things that we wanted to do, and to disrupt the order, has now completely changed. Things that we hitherto thought were important and needed changing, are being changed in a whole new realm. It has in many ways, shattered the goals the disruption had in mind, and its impact has been on nation states, on the law, on life itself, and it has affected nearly everybody. We’re in a time then, where disruption itself is being disrupted.
There was a marvellous piece being written by Margaret MacMillan, who is here at the University of Toronto, after many years as a scholar at Oxford University. Margaret MacMillan wrote a piece for The Globe and Mail this last week, and in it she said the following – and I think it really is telling.
“We are experiencing our own great disruption. It is not world war or the Great Depression, although it could well become one. Will we in time ignore the present’s lessons and warnings, or will we reinforce, rebuild and reform our societies, from the local to the global, so that we are better prepared? It could go either way, and much will depend on the sort of leaders we get in the next years. It will also depend on the willingness to hold them to account. While we have to keep washing our hands, let’s only do so in a literal sense. If we are to build a better future, we, leaders and public both, must not be like Pontius Pilate and abdicate all responsibility.”
Margaret is profound. She sees that this disruption is coming in a big way, and that there are choices to be made as we face this disrupted world.
I’ve often asked myself over the last few days – and I'm sure you have done as well – is there anything in God’s Word that helps us have a sense of a vision in this time of disruption? Does God’s Word speak to us in our time and our place, to guide us? The answer, of course, is yes, because while this is a time of disruption, it is not unique in history. There have been disruptions that have shaken nations and the world many times. In today’s passages from the great prophet Isaiah, who was writing 2700 years ago to the southern kingdom of Judah. He was speaking to the people of Jerusalem. He was a prophet appointed by God to deliver the Word of God in his time: a time of immense disruption. There were problems within the nation and the clouds of war and empires gathering around the people of Israel and of Judah.
They had corruption amongst their leaders, inequity financially between the rich and the poor. It was a time, though, of unprecedented wealth, where many were loving their silver and their gold, their chariots and their horses, to quote Isaiah. The nation itself was sliding into an abyss of syncretism, forgetting its God and God’s sovereign lordship.
For example, he could see on the horizon the influence of the Philistines, with their notion of divination. He saw the problems that were coming from the Canaanites, and he was concerned that the people were turning away from God and to other things, despite all their wealth and affluence, and because of their injustice and their wrong thinking. God calls Isaiah and Isaiah is given a vision. One of the most powerful visions in history, rooted not only in the Jewish faith, but our Christian faith. It was a vision of both judgment and hope.
Isaiah was very clear. His vision was that the city of Zion, on which Jerusalem stood, would be a beacon for all the other places of the world. He compared Zion to other mountains and hills that were prominent amongst other cultures. The Ziggurats of Mesopotamia, these mountains and these hills, and these undulations that were often themselves sources of devotion, or where the idols were placed. The same thing came from Mount Zaphon, a place that was worshipped by the Canaanites. In the great Ugaritic traditions, this mountain took on a religious symbol of itself.
Isaiah says that above the Ziggurats, Mount Zaphon, and all the other hills, there is Mount Zion. Not that Mount Zion is to be worshipped, not that Mount Zion becomes the object of people’s affection, but because Mount Zion and Jerusalem is where the Word of God comes from. It is where the Word of God is proclaimed, it is where God is seen as sovereign above everything else. It was also a beautiful vision of peace, of shalom. He knew that there were tensions within Israel. One of the tensions was should the nation and its covenant be exclusive, and was the only thing of any importance the covenant, and therefore, the nation above things? Or, was the nation called by God to be a light to other nations? There was always this tension between nationalism and pan-nationalism.
Countries today face the same issue. Empires have always faced that challenge. Do they look inward and only protect themselves, or do they look to their contribution to the wider world, and making the world better, with kind of a pan-nationalism, or an internationalism? Isaiah was very clearly on the side of the second. In fact, Israel is to be an example to the rest of the world. Israel’s God is a God of peace, not a God of war. A God who will turn swords into ploughshares, turn the things of war into things of peace and construction. He’s probably echoing (who knows who came first) Micah, Chapter 4 or was it Joel, Chapter 3, but similar sentiments are expressed in the great tradition of Isaiah, that God will turn symbols of war into acts of peace and construction. That was his vision, and that the whole world would come to Zion, and would see the sovereignty of God.
It was also a vision of order. There was a certain degree of chaos in the world at that time. The chaos of the emerging power of the Philistines. The continued pull of the views of the Canaanite faith. Isaiah knew that chaos could cause division, and division could cause disharmony, and disharmony could cause wars. For Isaiah, God was the one who, out of this chaos, brought a sense of order and judged the nations; stood above the nations as the Sovereign Lord and God. “Oh, house of Jacob, oh, people of Jacob, let us,” he says, “walk in the light of the Lord.” Let us not have this disorder, rather, let us have that sense of the presence of God above all things.
Wow, is that a word for us today. This world is chaotic. I read a piece in the newspaper a couple of weeks ago by a very good person who writes on office space, changes, and disruption. His name is Zweig, and he says, “You know, the workplace is going to change dramatically in the months and the years ahead. The way that we operate, the way that we worship, the places that we go, how we interact, these are going to change, not just now, but they're going to change for times to come. This is a time of major disruption in everything.”
I think that we’re like the people of Israel in the time of Isaiah. We can either decide that we’re going to go backwards to the way that things were before this disruption took place, or we can move forward and have a vision of what the world could look like that would be better, which is exactly Margaret MacMillan was talking about.
After all, the world before COVID-19 was not a perfect place. The planet certainly was in distress, people were accumulating great debt, we were talking in almost frivolous terms about human life. There was inequity between the rich and the poor, millions of migrants moving throughout the world, some of whom being transported for the profit of the corrupt. Nations were arguing with nations as nationalisms arose. There was hatred of minorities in certain countries, and the scapegoating of people. Let’s not kid ourselves; while there was a great deal of affluence in many ways, there were also many problems, and it is not as if the world pre-COVID-19 was a perfect world.
The question now is, “What kind of world should we have?” And this requires a degree of vision, but also an order to things, and a recognition that there is a God. For a large part of our society, people were turning away from this notion of the sovereignty of God. They were turning away from formal religious observances of all kinds. You could see the signs of it all around. But when you have chaos and no sense that there is a divine order in the universe, and that there is something greater than ourselves, then that chaos can cause a sense of hopelessness. I think that is precisely what was going on in the time of Isaiah, and Isaiah said, “No, house of Jacob, you’ll turn to the will of God, to the will of the Lord.
There was another aspect to his vision, and it was a vision of God’s concrete presence among us, that God was present. The problem is that the people, to a large extent, had been looking down at their own circumstances, and had forgotten to look up, hence his reference to Zion, causing the people to look to God and to God’s Holy Word, that God’s Word and God’s law was there for us. But people were looking down, and when they were looking down, they weren't following in an appropriate way. They’d become disobedient.
In nature I observed years ago something similar to this understanding. I used to watch, every now and again, rare to see, impalas, those wonderful creatures found in Southern Africa. I remember watching an impala jump, and it was incredible how high and how fast and how far they could go. It was almost scary to watch – nothing leaps like an impala. I later found out from people who work in zoos, that while impalas can jump ten feet high, and some thirty feet in distance in one bound, if you put them in a confined space, you only need about a three-foot fence. The reason is that an impala will only jump so far as it can see where its feet are going to land. If it can't see where its feet are going to land, it will not jump: An impala looks down too much, not up.
This is the problem of the people of Israel in Isaiah’s time. He saw that God was doing something great and while he believes that all the nations would ultimately, and should ultimately be accountable to God, God’s righteousness and God’s justice, he knew that God brought hope to the world.
I love a quote that I read not long ago, from Martin Luther King: “We may not be able to understand the finite problems that are around us, but we must never lose the infinite hope that comes from God.” He was writing at a time of great disruption in the United States in race relations in the 1960s. We must not lose the hope of God.
That is why Isaiah, Chapter 9 is so powerful. I have entitled this sermon, “Christmas in May” and when I was writing it on Monday, snow was falling and landing on the balcony. I thought, “Oh yeah, this is Christmas in May here in Toronto!” But it’s not about the weather, it’s about the message of Christmas, and how Christmas is embodied in this great prophet Isaiah. He talks about one who is coming, who will be the wonderful Counsellor. The One who will be the Sovereign of the world. In this magnificent passage, which was captured so brilliantly by Handel in his Messiah – and some of you would have been to Lori and Elaine’s lectures on The Messiah, you would have come across this magnificent Isaiah being repeated.
Now, in the time it might have been a reference in the mind of the prophet Hezekiah, or the birth of a new king in 732. There are many theories about what Isaiah had in mind, but there is no question it was one of something coming; someone coming in the future who would establish the reign of God on Earth, who would fulfil the promise held out for Judah and for Jerusalem. When Jesus of Nazareth appeared, everyone’s mind turned to Isaiah. This was it! This was what they’d hoped for. This wasn’t an act of an idea, this was a concrete presence; God with us, Immanuel. They believed this was the fulfilment of all that Isaiah had promised. This was his vision.
I think it behoves us, as followers of Jesus Christ, to once again turn our eyes and hearts and minds to Him. I'm hearing from many of you about the struggles and challenges you're having, and my heart goes out to you. There is someone in this chaos that we should look to, whose example, whose teaching, whose death and resurrection can become the cornerstone of a better life and a better world. I believe that the love and the forgiveness, the patience and the self-sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth is our rock in the midst of the chaos.
When people talk about turning to others as scapegoats for their problems – something I mentioned in my video on Wednesday – or when they talk about the possibility that empires might crumble and economies may rise and fall, there is this still Lord, Jesus, who calls us and His Word is strong. I'm sure Isaiah would say, “Amen.” While we might not always see with our own eyes, the power of His influence is very much there and it is real.
Like a lot of you, I’ve had time recently to watch some movies that I normally wouldn’t. I saw a movie by Roman Polanski in 2002 called The Pianist. It’s a remarkable true story of a famous Polish-Jewish pianist. He was interned and arrested by the Nazis, and members of his family were killed. There is an incredible moment when he escapes from the grip of the Nazis and none other than a Wehrmacht officer saves him. He recognises, this is the great pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman and vows to look after him. In the movie there’s a moment where he goes up into an attic and is told by the Wehrmacht officer to remain very quiet. “You're like Daniel in the lion’s den here.” Across the road was a police station and a bar, and there were Nazi officers there. He said, “you must remain quiet.”
The pianist sits down and there’s a piano there. He looks at the piano and takes the green felt off the keys. In the movie, you hear him start to play Chopin, but as you look carefully, his fingers never actually touch the keys. There is no music being played. Szpilman is hearing it in his head. He’s feeling it in his heart. The music is there, even though others can't hear it.
I thought to myself, “Oh my Lord, isn't that what our faith is like?” The music is still there. Our Lord and our God is still there, and Christmas in May reminds all of us of that truth. May it be part of you and our world as well. Amen.