You shall go out with joy

Image copyright Stephen Craven 2018

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “You shall go out with joy”.  When I saw the title I thought I knew it, but this is not the popular 1980s chorus of the same title, rather  a more traditional style hymn based on the same passage in Isaiah 55:10-13.  The author is N.T. Wright, best known as a former Bishop of Durham and writer of Bible commentaries.  This is the first hymn I have come across attributed to him.

The structure is slightly unusual. Each of the four verses consists of six lines, the first four being taken from Isaiah’s prophecy, and the last two being statements of Christian faith related to Easter. 

The first two verses with their anthropomorphic image of the mountains and hills singing and the trees clapping (i.e. the whole creation praising God) are paired with statements that Jesus’ love has conquered death and that he lives to heal and save – a fact certainly worthy of praise.   The third takes the image of God’s word refreshing like rain or snow and (by way of the conventional title of Jesus as Word of God) links with the risen Word giving life to all. The last verse take the image of replacing briars and thorns with myrtle and cypress (attractive and sweet smelling trees) and concludes with Jesus’ titles of himself as the way, the truth and the life – an attractive and pleasing way of life no doubt, but the original context (as Wright must know) was in a call for people to turn to God for their sins to be pardoned.

With respect to the Bishop I am not convinced by these particular pairings, which seem rather contrived in the manner of “the holly and the ivy”. Whilst many passages in Isaiah are generally accepted as prophecies of the Messiah (Christ), the Isaiah passage is titled (in the New Revised Standard Version) as “An invitation to abundant life”, but is not one of the so-called Servant Songs. The couplets expressing Christian faith that conclude each verse are perfectly orthodox, but cannot be deduced directly or (as far as I can see) indirectly from the words that precede them.  It’s good poetry, and sound theology, but the two sets of statements don’t really belong together.

We shall draw water joyfully


Jesus and the Woman of Samaria,
painting by Henryk Siemiradzki

Today’s Easter song from Sing Praise is “We shall draw water joyfully”.  It’s one of those set for cantor and congregation, with the cantor’s line adapted slightly for each of the three acclamations. 

These three cantor’s acclamations are based on Isaiah chapter 12, and express firstly confidence in God’s salvation, secondly the thanks due to him for his ‘mighty deeds’ and thirdly a psalm of praise to the Lord as we make his works known.  Thanks and praise to God in response to his saving acts are a regular theme in the Hebrew scriptures and in Christian worship.

The chorus is to a tune that fits the words – fast, flowing and joyful as we sing “We shall draw water joyfully, singing joyfully, from the wellspring of salvation”. he chorus could just as easily be said to be based on Jesus’ own sayings about himself offering ‘living water’.  The ‘water’ here is metaphorical and represents both something that meets the needs of our physical life (which of course is utterly dependent on H2O) and also a spiritual refreshment contrasted with the insipid and sometimes dangerous forms of spiritual sustenance that this world offers us.

See, Christ was wounded for our sake

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “See, Christ was wounded for our sake” by the late Brian Foley.  It is the same sort of theme as yesterday’s, that Jesus’ sufferings were for our sake, and is also set to an old tune (this one, in fact, from the 15th century – the height of medieval Catholicism). The words are a modern paraphrase of an even older text – verses from Isaiah chapter 53, often interpreted as a God-given prophecy of the future Christ’s sufferings.

I was particularly struck by the third verse, which contrasts our own sheep-like behaviour (in the version familiar from Evensong, “we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep”) with Christ who went “as a sheep to the slaughter”, innocent and uncomplaining (whether sheep are actually so passive as supposed when about to be killed, is another question – I doubt it).

I also like the expression of the second verse: “Look on his face, come close to him; see, you will find no beauty there”.  It suggests the question “what do we mean by ‘beauty’?”  If we take it only to mean something aesthetically pleasing, sensually attractive, or conducive to peaceful thoughts, then clearly the sight of a man being tortured to death is nothing of the kind.  But it reminds me of another hymn that we’’ come to later in the year: “Beauty for brokenness, hope for despair”, which tells of the hope, the beauty even, that can be found where Christ’s love is actively shown by his followers in the lives of others.  And there is a kind of beauty in the death of Jesus, a moral beauty, summed up in his own words in John 15:12: “Greater love has no-one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”.  We may not see a smiling face or a peaceful scene when we ponder the cross, but we watch the beautiful love of God in action.

Advent Faith

Advent faith Reading: Isaiah 40:27-31

Today is the third Sunday of Advent.  In the parish of Bramley we have a one-word theme each week during Advent. So far we have had HOPE and PEACE. This week’s word is FAITH.

What does that mean to you? People can sometimes be put off  getting involved with Christianity because we talk of faith, thinking that faith means already understanding the Bible, or believing certain things about God.  But all that can come later.  Faith, to begin with, simply means trusting God – just trusting that he exists, and that he cares.

Isaiah spoke to people who thought God was ignoring them in their problems.  No, he said, God understands everything. You just need to trust him, then you can be as strong and free as the eagle, in other words you will find the strength to cope with your problems and feel in control of your life, rather than being earthbound by your problems and other people’s expectations.

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Let’s look at a couple of pictures.  The first is a photograph of a bird – actually it’s a chough, a sort of large crow, not an eagle – but it is flying high above a lake.  My friends and I had spent hours climbing the mountain by our own effort, fighting against gravity, but here was this bird just soaring easily on the thermal currents.   I took this at a time when I had been a Christian for over ten years but was exploring options for ministry. This view from a mountain top spoke to me, of the way God might be freeing me from previous commitments to serve him.

 

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The second image is of a place some of you may know, the chapel at Scargill House. About five years after I had taken the first photo, praying in the silence of the chapel in the Yorkshire Dales, God gave me a picture in my mind, in which I was a baby bird, and God my mother. She was telling me it was time to fly the nest, not to be afraid but to trust her to know that now was the time to start flying. Within months of that I had given up my previous job, taken a big cut in income and started serving God in a new way in a new place. Since then I have worked for four different Christian organisations and trained as a Reader.

The point is that you don’t need the gifts of a prophet, the intellect of a bishop, or the wingspan of an eagle to start flying with God.  An amount of faith and trust as small as the tiny wings of a baby sparrow will do.  The question is, do you trust God when she says that she knows better than you do what you are capable of, and that you are now ready to fly with her?  It’s only the start of a lifetime’s journey, but it has to start with that simple act of faith.

The Bible in a Year – 13 May

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

13 May, Isaiah chapters 64-66

The final climax of Isaiah’s prophecies continues in the apocalyptic style that I described yesterday, describing events that could be related to the immediate rebuilding of Jerusalem, or to its second destruction in 70CE and the subsequent spreading of Christianity as the new worldwide religion, or to the future and final ingathering of all God’s people on the last day.

 

Some interpreters would also add the renewal of the nation of Israel from 1947 as part of this vision. There remains controversy within the Church as to whether that was a fulfilment of prophecy, part of God’s plan, or merely a political phenomenon of our time.  Was it part of God’s plan that there should be Jews living in Jerusalem in order that it can feature as the central location of his final act of redemption (whatever that might look like in practice)? Or is the worldwide church – messianic Jews as well as gentile Christians – the ‘new Israel’ with God’s presence in the risen Christ in all places, and Jerusalem no longer anywhere special except as a matter of historic interest? The site of the Temple, of course, is now a mosque, so God is still worshipped there but in a different way.

 

These are not easy questions, and Isaiah may have understood nothing of the circumstances of the 21st century. What we can say with certainty, though, is that these final chapters of the longest and most profound of the books of Biblical prophecy leave the reader in no doubt that what matters to God is not forms of worship or religious allegiance (66:1-4) but an openness to the work of God’s spirit in “making all things new”.  Since the first day of creation the Spirit has been working, creating, constantly and restlessly seeking to bring all things to perfection, and only those who are open to the Spirit of God will have a place in paradise.

The Bible in a Year – 11 May

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

11 May. Isaiah chapters 54-58

Once again we are presented with a full five chapters of Isaiah, when even a few verses from almost anywhere in them would be enough material for a reflection.

 

The broad brush approach is that in these chapters God promises to the small number of Israelites who would return to Jerusalem that although they may have felt like widows or childless women (i.e. lacking support and with no hope for the future), in fact in the fulness of time God would provide them with many descendants – not just in the literal sense, but as God’s promises of mercy and redemption would be extended from Israel to the rest of humanity.  The covenant first made with Noah (one family) and that with Abraham (likewise) would be renewed with this small band of people.  Every time God brings judgement, he leaves room for a small number of faithful people to be the seeds of new life, both physically and spiritually. It was only with the death and resurrection of Jesus that the promise could be fulfilled, but like so much of Isaiah there is a message both for the people of his own time and for future generations.

 

In and among these great promises, though, are some passages condemning the leaders of Israel for their idolatry and other sins. Isaiah saw that even with God’s promise of starting with a clean slate and the offer of forgiveness, it would not be long before people started to live in a selfish, greedy and godless way.  Such is fallen human nature. The true remnant were those who returned in humility, willing to live by the law of love and not just the ritual law.

 

Such is the overall message. But I also want to pick out one of the many sub-themes running through these chapters.  “everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” (55:1). “Is not this the fast that I choose: … to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?” (58:6,7)  “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness” (58:10).

We don’t need to interpret those verses as a parable or metaphor. They are a clear command: generosity, hospitality and sharing are at the heart of God’s kingdom.  It is no coincidence that one of the clearest signs of revival in a church today is when its members get involved in local food banks, “junk food” projects, or soup kitchens; or in the Fairtrade movement which seeks to ensure that people across the world who produce the food an other goods we consume are fairly treated, well paid and enabled to build up their own communities.  For food and hospitality are at the heart of what it is to be human, and what it is to belong to God. Be generous to those in need, and he will be generous to you.

 

The Bible in a Year – 10 May

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

10 May. Isaiah chapters 49-53

This is a lengthy passage of verse, beginning and ending with two of the “songs of the Servant”. These are usually identified as prophecies of Jesus Christ, and chapter 53 in particular is seen as describing his crucifixion, which Christians believe was a willing sacrifice by a sinless man, according to the will of God who lived in him, to settle with God the debt owed to him by all people for their sins.  There is far more in them than I can look at in detail now. Many books have been written and sermons preached to try and explain this – the commentary I am following devotes 21 pages to these chapters – but few as poetically as the “second Isaiah” (whoever that was) writing over five hundred years before the event.

 

Many of the phrases in these chapters have been used by composers over the years, from the sublime music of Handel in his “Messiah” (“he gave his back to the smiters”; “surely he has borne our griefs an carried our sorrows”; “all we like sheep have gone astray”), to contemporary songwriters (“how beautiful upon the mountains  are the feet of him who brings glad tidings”; “led like a lamb to the slaughter in silence and shame”; “the redeemed of the Lord shall return and come with singing unto Zion” [=Jerusalem]) – and many more.  For the promises here are not only the restoration of the tribe of Israel/Judah to the Holy Land for a second time, but of the reconciliation of all creation to God once and for all time.

 

In between these servant songs are words addressed, at least in part, to the people in captivity in Babylon. Did they rush back to Jerusalem at the first invitation of God? No, it seems they needed much encouragement.  To many of them who had been born there the “old country” held no attractions; like all refugees, they were crushed and in despair at ever being a free people or having their own home again; the journey seemed daunting, and much hard work would be needed to rebuild the ruins.  Despite those setbacks, it was their only hope.

 

But these passages contain many hints that it is not only the Jewish people who were being addressed, but the whole world.  People would flock to join them from all directions, and would together become witnesses to the Servant’s redeeming love. Together they would be a renewed Israel that would be a “light to the Gentiles” (a phrase repeated when Jesus was dedicated to God as a baby).  This is what we mean by the Church – all those who have been drawn from whatever held them captive, by the love of God shown in his suffering servant, to join his people in the new Jerusalem.

 

Like the captives here, people rarely walk into a church the first time they hear of Jesus and ask to be baptised and join the community of the redeemed. The Christian faith seems strange to those who were not brought up in it, it needs to be explained with many words of encouragement, and for many it is a journey of many years.  Yet we equally believe that Christ is the only way to God, and that those who make this journey to faith in Jesus will find themselves in the “new Jerusalem”, the Kingdom of

The Bible in a Year – 9 May

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

9 May. Isaiah chapters 45-48

These chapters reveal explicitly what has only been hinted at in the preceding ones: that God would use another foreign ruler, Cyrus, to do his bidding in releasing Israel from slavery.  He is called ‘anointed’ which is actually the word for ‘Messiah’, a title of many kings of Israel/Judah before it was applied supremely to Jesus.  This shows that God can in fact use anyone, even a pagan king, and not just those of “his religion”, to bring about his will.

 

This is an important point in the run-up to our parliamentary elections – you will find Christians who consider Conservatives “un-Christian” for their social policies, others who consider Labour “un-Christian” for their socialist roots, others who find the Liberal Democrats rather too liberal when it comes to matters of morality. But all the parties have some politicians who profess to be Christian and are upright in character, others who profess faith but whose faults are evident, and others who make no claims to faith.  Yet any of them could be used by God to bring about much needed changes in our society.  Deciding who to vote for is never a simple matter of “one is good and the others are all evil” and as usual the Archbishops and other faith leaders are calling most of all for people to use their right to vote and not neglect it.

 

The remainder of this passage is a contrast between the Babylonians who relied on their religion (a mixture of idol-worship and astrology) to keep themselves as the dominant power in the region, and the remnant of Israel who appeared powerless and in captivity but who would in fact be freed by their invisible but all-powerful god to rebuild Jerusalem by the very “Messiah” who at the same time would destroy the Babylonians in the name of the God of Israel (or rather, of the whole earth).  Whoever is elected to govern our country should be humble enough, and a person of faith, to recognise that it is God who ultimately directs a nation’s fate, in accordance with the way that its people live and worship.  It may seem now that the Conservatives with their “strong and stable” leadership are here to stay, and maybe it is God’s will that they are in charge for the time being, but the time could suddenly come when that all changes.

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 8 May

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

8 May. Isaiah chapters 42-44

This section of Isaiah is particularly complicated, continually switching as it does from condemnation of Israel’s past sins, to encouragement for those now in exile, to predictions of the return to the promised land, and then the Servant Songs of which the first starts this passage (42:1-9). It may have been intended to refer to Cyrus, the Persian king who released the captives, but in that case why portray him in such meek terms (“ He will not cry or lift up his voice … a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench”) while at eh same time declaring his mission to bring justice, not just to Israel but the whole earth? For that reason, Christians have traditionally seen this as one of the genuine prophecies of the saving work of Jesus Christ.

 

Throughout these chapters God reminds his hearers of his own power and glory (the creator of all things, 42:5; the one who saves, comforts and protects (43:1-3); their father (43:6); the only real God (43:10-13); the King who brought his people out of Egypt (43:15-21); the one who forgives sins (43:25); the one who knows us before we are born (45:1-2); “the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts, the first and the last” (43:6, echoed by Jesus’ words in the book of Revelation). Yes, they would be rescued, but that rescue would only flourish into a revived nation of Israel if they never again forgot that they were God’s chosen people, and who it was that saved them.   In our own lives it is the same: there is always the promise of forgiveness, healing and restoration from whatever afflicts us, but it can only bear fruit if we honour the one who brings it about.

 

 

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 7 May

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

7 May. Isaiah chapters 36-41

To repeat the last paragraph of yesterday’s post: the commentary I am following suggests that the natural break in the book of Isaiah between the prophecies of exile and of return, usually understood as being between chapters 39 and 40, could equally well be between 33/34 or 35/36, depending how you look at it.  So today’s six chapters most likely cover that turning point.

 

Chapters 36 to 39 (apart from the “writing of King Hezekiah after he had recovered from his illness” in 38:9-20) are history rather than prophecy, and are a slightly abridged version of 2 Kings 18-20. So for comment on that, see my earlier blog post http://www.pilgrims.org.uk/the-bible-in-a-year-26-27-april/

 

Chapters 40 and 41 on the other hand are a return to prophesy, addressed to Israel as a whole. For all their sins and the punishment that God has brought by destroying their temple and their way of life, he will not destroy them completely.  As with Noah, as with the people of the Exodus, enough will survive to return and revive the worship of God in Jerusalem again.

 

This prophecy comes, however, not after the story of the exile to Babylon – we are not there yet – but after the first invasion of Judah by Sennacherib in 701BC. The final capture of Jerusalem was not to be for over a hundred years yet; Hezekiah would live longer but not see it, as Isaiah prophesied.

 

At one of the low points in my life, when I seemed to have lost the sense of God’s presence, he gave me a sign: that of the turning of the tide.  Those who watch the tide cannot easily tell the moment it is at its lowest point.  It is enough to know that, when things seem to have got as low as they can get, there will be a turning, an increase, a returning of the waters. And in God’s time things would, and did, get better.

 

If we maintain the metaphor of the turning tide, Chapter 40 is like the Severn Bore roaring upstream, leaving its watchers in no doubt what is on its way. Many of the words are familiar from the opening aria of Handel’s “Messiah”, as John the Baptist who came as a prophet to prepare the way for Jesus was understood to be fulfilling the role of “one in the desert calling, prepare the way of the Lord”.  It seems the terror to be wrought on the people of Judah was such that God had to promise them the happy ending even before the worst had come.