Evensong 15th September 2019
Lord, to whom can we go?
As daylight fades, in the space of stillness which is given to us between the busy-ness of one week and the next, as we step aside for one quiet hour from all those troubling conflicts and stresses in the worlds of politics and work and family, we are invited to immerse ourselves in two remarkable passages of Scripture. Our Old Testament reading lifts our eyes to a distant horizon of hope, where all shall be well in the city of God, that new Jerusalem, where our impassioned prayers for peace and justice have been triumphantly realised. And our New Testament reading takes us deep into the mind of Christ, as the beloved disciple, drawing on his memories of the feeding of the five thousand on the sunlit hills above the Sea of Galilee, and a lifetime of reflection on Jesus’ teaching about the bread of life, invites us to explore the profound mystery of the Eucharist, what it means to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Word that was made flesh.
Isaiah, the first of the prophets whose work was gathered together in the book which bears his name, was active from about 742 BC, for he tells us that he was called in the year that King Uzziah died, until about the end of the long reign of King Hezekiah in 687 BC. In his time the northern kingdom of Israel, governed by a succession of ill-starred kings, most of whose short reigns ended in assassination, was overrun by the Assyrians. Meanwhile the kings of Judah sought protection in an alliance with Assyria, but this turned them into a vassal state, and when they began looking instead to Egypt for protection, the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, who had meanwhile conquered the Assyrians, lost patience with their Jewish subjects, marched against Jerusalem, and left it in ruins. These events occurred in the early years of the sixth century BC, and led to successive waves of deportation, the great national trauma of the exile. By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept (Psalm 137).
It was only under the more liberal policy of the Persians, who conquered Babylon in the middle years of the sixth century, that groups of Jewish exiles were gradually allowed to return to Jerusalem, and this was the period associated with the prophet known as the second Isaiah. Chapters 40-55, composed in Babylon around 540 BC, give expression to the hopes of the exiles (Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, says your God: Isaiah 40). They also include the famous poems of the Suffering Servant, a poetic representation of the suffering of the whole people, which Jesus seems to have understood as pointing forward to his own destiny. The remaining chapters, including chapter 60 which we read tonight, were composed later still, around 500 BC, back home in Palestine, where Jerusalem was still in ruins, and conditions remained very hard for the returning exiles.
So we have a book in three parts, illuminating more than 200 years of Israel’s history – from the first Isaiah we have prophecies of warning as first Israel and then Judah, weakened by faithless leaders, crumble and fall to the invading armies of Assyria and Babylon; from the second Isaiah we have prophecies of comfort and hope for an exiled people experiencing misery, loss and suffering; and finally, from a third hand within the same tradition, we have prophecies of faith and hope as the work of renewal and reconstruction back home in Jerusalem turns out to be painfully difficult in a time of continuing hardship and disillusionment. There were many other prophets in this time - Amos, Hosea and Micah railing against the corruption of the decaying kingdoms, Jeremiah warning of the fall of Jerusalem, Ezekiel keeping the flame of hope alive in the early years of exile, Haggai and Zechariah encouraging the exiles upon their return. But Isaiah gives us the broad sweep of prophecy against which to set these more time-specific messages.
What binds the whole book together is the persistent focus on God as the Holy One of Israel, whose righteousness and sense of justice are deeply engaged in all the calamitous events which overtake Israel and Judah at this low point in their national fortunes. Isaiah is made aware of the awe-inspiring holiness of God from the first moment he is called to be a prophet. In his terrifying vision, the seraphs around the throne sing: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the door posts shake, and the house is filled with smoke (Isaiah 6.3-4). The expression, Holy One of Israel, Isaiah’s characteristic circumlocution for the name of the God who cannot be named, occurs some 25 times throughout the book. In Isaiah we are continually in the presence of an awe-inspiring holy God, who directs the destiny of his people, who is complicit in their punishment when they abandon him, who suffers with them in exile until, finally, he directs Cyrus the Persian (described as ‘my servant’) to allow them to return, albeit in more humble circumstances.
If you feel, as I do, that to-day our nation is at risk of losing its way, abandoning many of the principles of decency, integrity, public service and responsibility for which we used to be respected and even admired, we can perhaps find some comfort in a book of prophetic insight which insists that God is able to direct the destiny of his people, and bring us safe home, despite all the failures of our leaders and the calamities which we bring upon ourselves when we lose sight of our true identity and destiny.
Perhaps our Gospel reading can suggest how we might learn to work with the grain of God’s will rather than simply lamenting the course of events. Just as the book of Isaiah bears witness to the faith and worship of a whole community of faith which, over a period of some two hundred years, found expression through the voices of at least two great prophets, so too the gospel of John reflects the wisdom of the community of faith which was inspired by St John. Writing towards the end of the first century of the Christian era, it is unlikely that the apostle could have written the gospel himself. Quite apart from his advanced age, he could hardly have had the face to refer to himself as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, but it is not so improbable that the community gathered around him in his old age might have urged him to share his memories and his profound insights with succeeding generations of believers in the form of an all-encompassing gospel narrative.
Set within the context of his startlingly original Hellenistic insight that Jesus was God’s logos, the Word, the expression in human form of the very nature of God, John’s gospel tells us so many stories that only an eyewitness or a very close companion could possibly have known, and even if the long discourses are unlikely to be a verbatim record of what Jesus actually said, I believe we can trust St John, as one of my commentaries says, to give us, after long years of reflection under the guidance of the Spirit of truth, a faithful account of what he had come to understand Jesus meant (John 16.12-13).
Jesus’ teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood was at first sight deeply offensive, especially to a Jewish audience taught to drain the blood from any meat precisely because the life is in the blood, but Peter’s intuitive response is not troubled by such considerations. Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. Clearly Jesus is a prophet sent from God. But Peter goes on to take a massive further step. He adds this declaration: We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God. It is unlikely to be coincidental that these are almost exactly the words used for God by Isaiah. Peter has grasped intuitively that Jesus, the man he knows as friend and teacher, is no other than Isaiah’s awesome Holy One of Israel.
Like St John, we should expect to take a whole lifetime, and then some, to reach an understanding of what Jesus meant, not merely in the remembered words that have come down to us, but in and through his life and death. It is not something we can do on our own, but as we follow his command to eat the bread and drink the wine of our communion with him, and in community with one another, like Peter we are drawn into an ever deeper understanding of what it means to encounter in Jesus the Holy One of God.