The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      14th January 2018
What will be - Isaiah 60
Jeremy Fletcher

Just sometimes, when travelling, you encounter a place where everything is fabulous. The weather, the view, the geography, the culture, the people – all are just what you would wish. It’s more than the photo you might share in Instagram, but it’s the way people are, the way food and art and culture and relationship all combine. Place is far more than geography. It is all of existence. Isaiah 60 says that Jerusalem in the 530s and 520s BC is like that. The exiles have returned from Babylon. There is a new Jerusalem, and it’s glorious. 

The chapter has begun with words quoted endlessly in this season of Epiphany. “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you”. Tonight’s first reading gives a picture of what this is to be like, and fleshes it out. The “ships of Tarshish” shall come. (v. 9). It’s a long way away from Southern Spain, even if the Mediterranean was a kind of motorway. The people of Israel did not like the sea, and a land based people would be mightily impressed when ships came such a distance bringing exotic things. 

The city’s “gates shall always be open” (v. 11). Not only will there be such a constant flow of people and goods in and out that it won’t be worth closing the gates, but also there will be no fear of being attacked. There will be peace, and welcome, and inclusion, and trade. Never-ending streams of people, in a city which never sleeps. The first time I stayed in central London I was amazed by the hum. Jerusalem will be a city which buzzes constantly with life. 

There will be visits by the powerful and “kings [will be] led in procession” (v 11). Of course, not all visits by the powerful are that welcome, but in another London experience I was greatly impressed in November 1995 to have seen Her Majesty the Queen one day and the President of the United States two days later. The importance of a place is measured by the status of those who come. At least President Trump only described Nine Elms as an ‘off location’ and not anything worse. 

“The descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you” (v. 14). Though it may be tempting to take revenge and make people grovel, an indication of the new glory of Jerusalem is that the oppressors will come because they recognise that this city is the place where true power lies, and they will contribute to its new life. 

Even the raw materials and the stuff of living will be better, and a step up from what they have known (v. 17). Bronze becomes gold, iron becomes silver. And, in a poetic and imaginative vision, this will transcend normal life. Though now you rely on the sun and moon, they will be dimmed because of the sense of life and light in the gathering and in the city. (v. 19). There will be no darkness (v. 20), because God is the true glory. 

It may be that you discovered a perfect place on holiday only to have that vision punctured by ‘real life’ creeping back in. The vision of Isaiah 60 is all the more amazing because, at the time of its writing, it has not yet come about. It is spoken to and by a people who are re-inhabiting a broken city with a ruined temple, allowed back by a benevolent power, and to a territory far smaller than the one they lost. They have no track record of conquering and they have not done this by themselves. They are, in one sense, even weaker than they were seventy years before, and the glorious promises made about their return (see Isaiah 40 – 55) are not borne out by what they encounter when they get there. The holiday brochure’s fabulous hotel is, in fact, a building site. 

But this makes the vision, and the nation’s renewal, all the more powerful. If the temple is rebuilt it can only be because of the power of God. If the nation is reborn it can only be God’s work. For the prophets of the school of Isaiah this is a statement of faith, of certainty in the face of the physical evidence. It is a call to see the kingdom of God even when the visible reality is the ‘day of small things’ (as Zechariah, another prophet, put it).

The accusation could be made that this is dreamy wishful thinking. Not so. The prophets look at the rubble of the old, battered city, and recognise that just being back there is a miracle, that God has not abandoned them, and that in the previous seventy years of exile they have rediscovered what it is to be the people of God. With new found hope in who God is and what God does they see God at work, and hold on to what will be, not what is. As one commentator puts it, the new Jerusalem is not a one-off act of salvation but a future state of being. 

Isaiah 60 is a statement of the power of God, to be worked out and glimpsed and reached for. It is a challenge never to lose the hope that what we have will change the world. It is a reimagining of the world, a drawing of it, as God sees it, and it is an empowering of God’s people to get on with it now. Whatever the state of the world, of us, of our church, God is great. 

When we worship it is a new vision of the Kingdom of heaven whose heel we grasp. It is the world as it will be which we proclaim. It is the world done right we enact. With a clear vision of life as it is, we state that, in Christ, by the Spirit, to the glory of the father, life as it will be is what we will live, what we will glimpse, and what we will proclaim. And then, like the returned exiles, we will build, brick by brick and stone by stone.

Isaiah writes: I am the Lord. At the proper time it will be accomplished. (60. 22)

Thanks be to God.

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