Prophecy can sound so strange: Isaiah hearing God is told to preach his heart out, exhorting Israel to listen and keep looking but they will take no notice and to preach so that the people’s minds become dull and they stop their ears and shut their eyes. Jesus uses this prophecy to speak of his own teaching as a preparation for the destruction of his body. In history, destruction came to Israel as Isaiah preached and the prophecy speaks of a green shoot sprouting from the hewn stump. From the destruction of the cross, victory was won as Jesus rose from the dead. What is this prophecy saying to us now?
To me it speaks of the unrelenting love of God and the fact that our response matters. Just as when a kindness is done to us we might receive it as patronising or as it was intended, affirming, we gather what we plant. Our attitude can cause death where life was intended.
It also, for me, illustrates that God speaks to the heart; the same words can bring joy or despair. The turning away of historical Israel from the ever-present word of God meant that they could not receive the unrelenting call of God to justice and mercy. Justice was served through their destruction, but God’s voice continued to call for mercy. In Jesus this word became flesh, and all was made well.
One of us this morning spoke of a time this week when she was walking out with a colleague and the clouds parted and revealed a beautiful sky. Her colleague looked up and said it was almost biblical. This totally unexpected comment was followed by a moment when the billowing clouds formed two straight lines and made a cross. The lady gasped and exclaimed how beautiful it was. Our friend was astonished and silenced and wonders where all this is leading in how she now relates to her colleague!
Constantine in ancient history witnessed a similar phenomenon before a battle and his heart said to follow the one whose symbol it represented. He was victorious in battle and Christianity enjoyed a period of peace, but “pagan” Christianity began: the message of peace through Christ becoming a battle cry used to bring the peace of the empire. One of our number had been translating an article on the True Cross that week, said to have been found by Constantine and his mother who added it to the relics that ensured the success of the Roman Emperor. What would Jesus say!
The message of the cross in the sky in Hertfordshire I hope has a deeper and more compelling significance.
The aroma of the Spirit in us will bring out the true significance of the message of the crucified Christ and our hearts will direct us to choose life. We can say with Paul that with the grace of Christ we are who we are and expect the word of the cross to be winsome. When Peter say the catch of fish Jesus had brought to him his reaction was not wow, but he recognised the holiness of God and asked Jesus to leave him as he was a sinful man. Jesus gave him a job instead and it wasn’t to be a relic hunter and carry a nail in his helmet and shield.
So much of what the church is today is not in accordance with scripture, and the way we behave conceals the message of the transforming work of the cross and God’s unrelenting reaching out to us in love. We need to be those who call out to God to be saved, not asking him to put a stamp of approval on our traditions and works and expect him to bring in the catch.
We heard a story of one of our friends going in to sing at a category A prison church. She felt welcomed and blessed. As she left, she noticed at the back of the chapel was a food bank point. The prisoners earn a little over £12 a week and yet their heart is to provide for the needy outside their prison gates. Some of them will never live again outside those gates, they have done dreadful things, but they feel compelled to share what they have of Christ for the good of others. Truly the Spirit is at work!
‘God of the day and of the night, in me there is darkness, but with you there is light. I am alone, but you will not leave me. I am weak, but you will come to my help. I am restless, but you are my peace. I am in haste, but you are the God of infinite patience. I am confused and lost, but you are eternal wisdom and you direct my path; now and forever. Amen.’
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from https://www.biblesociety.org.uk/explore-the-bible/daily-reflection/prayer-alone/)
FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY
Year C, Revised Common Lectionary
Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13)
…The holy seed is its stump.
…The LORD will fulfil his purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
…For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received:
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures
… by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain…
…But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken…
We meet at the chapel on a Wednesday evening at 8pm until 8-40pm for a period of prayer including 20 minutes silent prayer.