The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evening Prayer      10th January 2021
Isaiah 42 & Ephesians 2
Andrew Penny

Two very different readings this evening, but both central to the Christian message. 

The Isaiah passage includes one of his enigmatic “Suffering Servant Songs” that we hear in Holy Week, because whoever Isaiah means by the Suffering Servant, the Gospel writers, at least, identify him with Christ, and notably Christ before his crucifixion and resurrection. 

Like the servant, Jesus announces a new order; what he calls “the Kingdom of Heaven” but that is not a phrase used by Isaiahit is however, I think the same as the “ new things, ready to burst into flower(or “burst forth” in RSV) which Isaiah prophesies. They are brought fruition by Jesus’ death and resurrection 

It is the creator of the world who Isaiah tells us is bringing this about, as of course, it could only be, but a creator who has taken the decisive step of coming into his creation. He has spoken through prophets before, but now he is becoming one of his creatures, the one whom he sent as guardian of his creationThe Servant will make justice shine in the nations, as the beginning of creation, light shone in the chaos, and as creation was necessarily universal so the new light will shine on all- not just on the chosen people. Equally, however, he will be fully human and therefore mortal, suffer and die as other creatures do. It’s not hard to see all this as a prediction of Jesus’ life and mission. 

 Indeed, these themes of renewal, involvement and universality are central to Christianity and they find passionate expression in Isaiah’s poetry. It is, I think, passages like this that Jesus and his successors were talking about when they say, as we do in the Creed, that his life, death and resurrection were “in fulfilment of the scriptures”  

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is equally seminal, but it occupies a quite different intellectual world. Although Paul is a, even thefounder of Christian thought and half a millennium closer to us than the Isaiah of the Suffering Servant, his world is for me more remote. It is the world of spiritual forces and a deep divide between the spiritual world and the physical, which boils down to a divide between good and evil, although there are plenty of malign spiritual forces; good and bad angels. Jesus achievement has been to overcome those negative and deadly forces; God has crossed the divide by grace. We are saved not by any effort of ours to release ourselves from mortality and sin but by God’s and Christ’s gratuitous intervention. But the distance, although crossed, remains and in a Romanesque church, for example, you will see the monstrous serpents and wild animals, representatives of those malign spiritual forces. They are still there on the capitals of the columns, but tamed or at least held back by Christ’s body, the church. 

This is not, however, our world; we observe it with interest, but we are not frightened by those monsters. We have been through humanism and the enlightenment and are rather more at peace with our world. We understand it better and while that understanding does not eliminate our wonder at creation, it does reduce our fear- to some extent, at least. It has also, of course,  increased our capacity to destroy nature.   To this extent, we are I think closer to Isaiah; we can see that the world has an order; that there is justice in creation, and that it’s a reflection or a type of social justice. We can understand the idea of God as creator and lawgiver, and if we are afraid of him, we have good grounds. We have offended against the order of creation and the just ordering of world society, but he has also given us the means to restore that order. 

These reflections do not contradict St Paul’s message; we are still beneficiaries of grace; our empowerment in sharing in Christ’s divinity is in accord with our place in creation, but not something we deserve (and not magically achieved). Even Paul, while rejecting the physical world as inherently sinful, still regards good works- which I think must mean attempts to improve the world, by kindness, fairness and generosity, as the consequences of grace. We have been made free, not to relax but to get on with the task of making the world as God means it to be. For Paul, there is an urgency in this, as he believes the second coming is imminent. We, two thousand years later, and still waiting, can let out our breath, and follow Isaiah’s more measured prophecy, shining quietly, avoiding noise and brilliance in favour of far reaching, universal penetration of love into the still dark places of the world.  Amen. 

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