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Sunday 19 January 2014

I will give you as a light to the nations

Isaiah 49. 1-7; Psalm 40. 1-11; John 1. 29-42

The call of God comes to those who have lost hope, and to those who have wasted their labour for nothing and for vanity.  So says the book of the prophet Isaiah.  In the 49th chapter Yahweh addresses the prophet, calling him personally to take up the lapsed vocation of the people of Israel as a whole, to be the servant of God and a light for the world.  As is so often the case with such a call, the prophet’s immediate response is to keenly feel his inadequacy for the task.  Like the rest of his people, the prophet languishes in Babylonian exile, beaten, disheartened and despairing.  Despairing not only because Jerusalem is no more, but more profoundly because of a growing conviction that it was Israel’s sin which had led to her downfall, that it was her inattention to the ways of God which finally felled her, like dry rot will fall even the most glorious of trees.  The prophet names the truth for what it is.  ‘All we have ever done,’ he says, ‘is work for vanity and nothingness’. 

Vanity and nothingness.  Now there’s two words which I reckon characterise our own age.  Vanity: a turning in on oneself, a forgetting of the other who is my neighbour, and therefore my responsibility.  Isaiah tells us that the leaders of Judah immediately prior to the Babylonian war were vain people, so focussed on accumulating wealth and prestige for themselves that they turned aside from their covenant responsibilities to care for the orphan, the widow, and the alien.  Our own government is abdicating its responsibilities in a startlingly similar vein.  ‘Do more with less,’ authorities tell our public hospitals, schools and welfare providers, at the same time cutting the tax bill of those who can most afford to share.  Where the God of Isaiah says, ‘This is the fasting I desire . . .  is it not to share your bread with the hungry and to welcome the homeless poor into your house’ (58. 7), our government consistently says: ‘Go away, you needy, you shall find no help or refuge here’. 

And what of the nothingness that characterizes our generation?  Nothingness, nihilism: a fascination with all that is without reality or substance.  One only needs to turn on the television for evidence.  The advertisers tell us that what really matters is style, fashion, texture.  Buy a bigger house, not because you need one, but because it is fashionable.  Buy a flashy car, not because you need one, but because your old one is no longer in style.  Buy the look and texture of a gym or surgically-sculpted body, not the character or struggles of a real person, a real soul, whose experiences are forever etched upon the surface of our bodies.  And what of those of us who cannot afford these constantly changing innovations?  Well, God help us, as they say.  God help us.  Ironically enough, it seems that it is only God who can help those of us consigned to the economic scrap-heaps.  Or those of us who wake up to the fact that that fashion is nothing: semblance without substance, surface without depth, texture without soul.

Only God can help those who come face to face with the nothingness of their lives, because God is one who from time immemorial chooses not the great, or the confident, or the smart or the fashionable, but the small one, the despairing one, the one who knows his or her life is refuse and rubbish.  Listen to what the prophet hears from God at the very moment of his despair, of his nothingness:
The Lord called me from before I was born . . .  he made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me, he made me a polished arrow which he hid away in his quiver.  ‘It is too small a thing that you should be my servant,’ says the Lord, ‘to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth’. 
Now, listen to me.  Because there is something really important in this for us all.  Are you a person who feels like most of what you do is vanity and nothingness?  Are you?  Are you one who feels defeated by life, but you go on because you don’t know what else to do?  Are you one who feels that despite the best of intentions in days gone by, intentions to love and serve God and God’s ways with all your heart and soul and strength, that somehow you got lost along the way?  The rot set in and now you don’t know what to do, or which way is up?  Hey!  I know the feeling, I really do know the feeling!  If that’s you, then listen, ‘cause there’s some good news here.  God chose you before you were born to be God’s servant.  Not just within the privacy of your own morality.  And not just in the church, the visible company of God’s people. But in the public world, the world of your labour and your government and your community.  The very world which seems so dark and gloomy these days.  God has called you to be a light for the nations.  You.  Not somebody else.  You.

You see this call of God is not only for apparently special people called prophets.  The people of faith have only ever decided who the prophets and saints are years and years after they did what they did.  Prophets tend not to think of themselves as prophets at the time when they get the call and do their stuff.  So if you think you’re not prophet material right now, look out, because that’s exactly what all the great prophets thought too.  And the call of God is especially not a call only for the Son of God, the Christ, whom the Gospel of John names as not just a light, but the light of the whole world, the one who has come to take away the sin of the world.  Why?  Because the New Testament makes it clear that when Jesus fills your life with light, then you are at that same moment called to do everything in your power to bring others into the orbit of Christ’s influence.  Just like Andrew, in the gospel reading, who sees the light in Jesus and then invites his brother, Simon, to meet him as well.

Of course, no such thing is possible unless one is first able to accept that great impossibility which all prophets face at the first:  the impossibility of God’s love and grace in choosing those whom the world calls foolish to shame those whom it calls wise.  In other words, becoming a light for the nations is only possible because of what we Christians call grace—the unmerited attention and favour, indeed the love, of God.  The impossible life of peace, joy, and a service centred in the neighbour, only becomes possible because God makes it possible.  The life of vanity and nothingness is left behind only because God says ‘yes’ to the visions God places in our hearts, ‘yes’ to who we are - not in ourselves - but in Christ.  

So there’s no point in making a project of one’s life, imagining that if we were only to become more dedicated, more intensely focussed on getting our acts together, that we would come up to scratch.  It’s never worked for me.  It’s only during those periods when I’ve actually taken my eyes off myself, the obsession with my own subjectivity and ‘success’, that I’ve ever really changed.  That’s why I could never be a Buddhist.  Paul Williams, a Buddhist and teacher of Buddhism at Bristol University for 30 years, recently became a Christian.  Why?  He says that in the end, Buddhism is about the self changing the self.  It is about the power of subjectivity.  But he could finally see no hope in that project, because the self seems condemned to futility, finally and ultimately incapable of reaching its own aspirations.  ‘I need,’ he says, ‘the grace of God in Christ’, that power from the outside, from God, which makes in me what I am unable to make for myself. 

The hope for me, and for us all, is in this gracious call and election by God, a call which comes freely, and at the precise moment of our deepest despair.  Now, it is quite possible that God has been calling to you lately.  Yes, you.  Calling you beyond your self and the anxieties which attend all that, calling you to lift your eyes and see the plans that God has in store for you.  In the gospel story, Jesus says to all who will listen, “Come and see, come and discover the way I live.”  In order to become who you are, in other words, you have to leave yourself behind and learn how to live like Christ.  So, if you have heard the call recently, I encourage you to stop running from God, to turn around, and to start listening to God.  “Come and see,” God says, “come and see how life may be different.” 

Obeying this call is not something you can do within the privacy of your own subjectivity and thinking.  Christianity is an irreducibly communal and material religion, which, in this instance, means that none of us can know Christ’s way of life apart from learning about these things from the church, and especially from its ministers and elders.   The church, you see, is the body of Christ; his Spirit is at work there to call and to baptise, to so immerse us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ so that we can die to ourselves and live for God.  In the end, then, there can be no getting around the church, for all its sin and failure.   So . . .  if the voice of God has seemed faint recently, maybe this is down to one thing:  you’ve been looking for God somewhere other than the church—its teaching, its symbolism, and its practices.  How will you learn to recognise God in all the business of life, unless you learn what God is like from the church?  When Christ says “come and see,” what he means is this:  “come to worship, come to bible-study, come to prayer, come to mission.  It is there that I live, so it is there that you will learn my ways and so become light for the world.”  This is the call.  How will you respond?

This homily was first preached at South Yarra Community Baptist Church in January 2005.