Evening Prayer 20th January 2021
The image of the city, specifically, Jerusalem, as the ideal pattern of the restored world, is not the only such image in the Old or New Testaments. There is also the image, powerful in Jesus’ preaching of a shepherd gathering his flock. This image, in Isaiah’s mouth, can transform itself into, a vision of a holy mountain, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, where the wolf shall live with the sheep and the leopard lie down with the kid: it must be everyone’s favourite reading in the Carol Service. It’s certainly mine.
The most common image however, that of a holy city, and in the prophets of the Exile, like Isaiah, a specific image of a rebuilt and repopulated Jerusalem, to which the exiled Israelites will return. It is a new version of the promised land, and like the promised land, in the mouth of visionaries like Isaiah, or the psalmist, the prophecy is more than a factual prediction, it takes on a nature which becomes other worldly; just as leopards do not go to bed with kids in the real world, nor is bronze a substitute for wood, or iron for stone, and the does the sun stand still in real cities.
There were, however, real practical reasons for using the city as model for an ideal world, both an ideal that was a realistic aspiration, and one that went beyond reality to an otherworldly realm. The idea of a city in the near eastern and Mediterranean world was closely linked to divinity; cities were founded by Gods or would be Gods like the successors to Alexander and Roman emperors. they were dominated by an imposing temple- a Ziggurat in Babylon, the Parthenon in Athens and, of course, the Temple in Jerusalem. In more human terms, cities were a model for the ordering of society; the well organised city was a microcosm of perhaps of creation itself. Cities were therefore an apt model for a divinely inspired society and the Kingdom of God, but one which was built with human work and ingenuity.
Religion played its part in this secular and pragmatic model, envisaging a restored world in urban terms, but Isaiah takes his vision from simple prediction or hope, to prophetic imagination; the city of Jerusalem restored with the wealth (and labour) of nations and their kings becomes a heavenly city, a new creation, where there is no longer a division between light and dark, as it was before the first day of Creation, indeed it has escaped from time altogether into the eternal.
This shift troubles me. We are told that when God created the world, at each stage he saw that what he had created was good. Imperfections entered the world, but they did so through man’s failings. This truth has perhaps never been more urgently apparent than now, as we face climatic catastrophe which is entirely of our own making. Nevertheless, we believe that the world is intrinsically good, and that as we have damaged it, so we can, if we will, repair it. It seems unhelpful then to imagine an impossibly perfect world, one beyond reality, and certainly beyond our making.
And yet, I admit that Isaiah’s imaginings are inspiring, in the same way that for the Christian, the resurrection inspires. Jesus was emphatic that his own life on earth witnessed the coming of the kingdom- the seminal quotation, read out in the Synagogue at Capernaum, “the bringing of good news to the oppressed, the binding up of the broken hearted, liberty to captives…”and so on, follows immediately after the passage of Isaiah that we heard this evening, and it’s clearly not about some other world; it’s about what was happening in Galilee circa 30 AD.
The new creation heralded in the resurrection garden, on the morning of the first day of the week is perhaps an inspiration Isaiah’s vision. To conquer death takes us beyond this world, where death is the essential concomitant of life and growth; things that don’t die are not alive. But the idea of a new, and in physical terms impossibly perfect creation, whether a city or a garden imbues our efforts to perfect this real world with a permanence and significance which goes beyond the tangible or perceivable, and that, I think, is why it is so inspiring. While we may wonder at this, its point, I believe, is to encourage us to act, and to do so with altruism and grace that go beyond the logic of the physical world, so that God’s will may be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Amen.