Sermon given at Matins on the Fourth Sunday of Advent: Sunday 20 December 2009
20 December 2009 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon in Residence
Readings: Isaiah 32:1-8; Revelation 22:6-end
Through the Sundays leading up to Christmas, the first reading at Morning Prayer has been taken from the Book of Isaiah. These passages have been chosen to announce Advent themes, themes to do with the coming of God to his people. Nothing is known about Isaiah except what we can learn from his writings. He was called to be a prophet in the year 742 BC, when he had a vision of God’s glory in the Temple. It was in the Temple that he heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ (Is 6:8) His response was to say, ‘Here am I: send me.’ What the Lord then said to him must have been a terrible shock:
‘Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’ (Is 6:9-11)
The message of Isaiah is going to harden people against him and against what he says. It will ‘stop their ears’ and ‘shut their eyes’. They won’t want to hear a word of it. As a prophet he is going to fail.
It seems this is exactly what happened. The reading we heard this morning comes from later in Isaiah’s lifetime. He describes how:
fools speak folly,
and their minds plot iniquity:
to practise ungodliness,
to utter error concerning the LORD,
to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied,
and to deprive the thirsty of drink. (Is 32:6)
Isaiah responds to this situation by thinking along the same lines as the psalmist, who later wrote:
Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’
They are corrupt, they commit abominable acts;
there is no one who does good. (Ps 53: 1)
For both the psalmist and the prophet, the ultimate folly is to say there is no God; there is no accountability to God so exploitation will go unpunished. In Isaiah’s terms, ‘fools speak folly’: they ‘utter error concerning the Lord’, something which must have been unutterably painful to one who had seen a vision of the Lord in the Temple, who had glimpsed the seraphim calling ‘Holy, holy, holy’, and who had responded in an agony of unworthiness, only to be told he was to be the bearer of God’s unwelcome message to his people. Now he is confronted by fools who leave the craving – probably the spiritual craving – of the hungry unsatisfied and the thirsty – probably the spiritual thirsty– without drink.
This is the background to the passage we heard this morning. In the foreground is probably a great ‘IF’. The passage is usually translated in the way we heard this morning: as a prophecy about the coming of a future king – but it could just as well be interpreted as conditional, as a vision of the opposite of what is going on in Isaiah’s day: if there were a king who reigned in righteousness and princes who ruled with justice,
Then the eyes of those who have sight [would] not be closed,
and the ears of those who have hearing [would] listen.
The minds of the rash [would] have good judgement,
and the tongues of stammerers [would] speak readily and distinctly.
A fool [would] no longer be called noble,
nor a villain be said to be honourable. (cf. Is 32:3-5)
This is Isaiah’s vision of a transformed society under a godly king, something he knows he will never see. He dreams of a society in which people do not act like the three foolish monkeys, ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’ – with their hands in their ears, over their eyes and over their lips. He dreams of a society in which the minds of the rash are educated and encouraged in good judgment and those with good judgment have the confidence to speak out publicly. Above all, he dreams of a society without that inversion of values where a fool is called noble and a villain regarded as honourable.
As Christians, we would say Isaiah’s dream of a king who ‘reigns in righteousness’ became a reality in a way he could never have expected. Jesus was crucified under a sign written in the three great languages of his day so that nobody could miss it: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’. This message of a ‘crucified king,’ says Paul, is ‘foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’. In a corrupt and foolish society, the wisdom of God will be dismissed as foolishness, and those who believe as fools. Paul goes on, in words that at Christmas-time ring out loud and clear:
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. ’ (1 Cor 1:28-31)
Boasting is what fools do; the wise go quiet and listen to God – as Isaiah did in the Temple.
There is a further quirk of the translation that we heard which needs to be noted. In the New Revised Standard Version, Isaiah comments that:
.The villainies of villains are evil; …
But those who are noble plan noble things,
and by noble things they stand.
The use of the words ‘villain’ and ‘noble ‘is unfortunate, for the English word ‘villain’ was simply the word in Norman French for a poor man, and the word ‘noble’ for a rich man. In the King James translation of the Bible, published in 1611, the words used here are ‘churl’ and ‘liberal’. This is not much better, because ‘churl’ is the Anglo-Saxon for ‘poor man’ and ‘liberal’ comes from the Latin word for a free (or wealthy) man. Fossilised in these words is a little bit of social history: the idea that you can’t trust a poor man because he’ll cheat you if he can, but you can trust a rich man because he wants to be seen to be generous and kind.
This sort of thinking was common in Jesus’ day, but Jesus turned upside down. When he kept company with villains and churls like tax gatherers and other sinners, the scribes and the Pharisees complained loudly. Jesus answered: ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ (Mark 2:17). When he hung on a cross, publicly named as King of the Jews, we are told that one of the criminals crucified alongside him said, ‘‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’, to which Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Lk 23:43) It was a condemned criminal who became the first of the nobility of the Kingdom of Christ, the first of this world’s fools to recognise in Jesus the righteous king of Isaiah’s prophetic dream.