Sermon delivered by the Rev’d Sydney Maitland
One of the things I learned on a sailing course was about weather patterns and forecasting. Among these were the early signs of rain: it could be that the outlines of the horizon or of the hills that block the view of the horizon become sharp and the atmosphere is very clear. Here a violent downpour may come in a few hours.
It could also be the reverse: that the clear summer day becomes hazy and a layer of fine cloud develops at high altitude, and this thickens up, becomes apparent at ever-lower altitudes and then moves from fine drizzle to wall-to-wall rain.
In either case, the signs are there to be seen and to be responded to: if we are willing to see the signs of the times and of the weather.
In Isaiah, there are the early statements of his prophecies, pointing out sinful ways and calling for repentance. Here, there is the vision of a godly society, faithfully living and worshipping the Lord who had rescued them from slavery and brought them into the Promised Land. Here the message is to see the evils of their society and to turn away from them: and this in itself demands a new kind of vision. It is a vision of a society as it could be and in this Isaiah encourages the people to see what may yet be obtained: if they will change their ways and look at their lives with a different kind of perspective.
The point in this is that there are indeed other options apart from the rat race and that they do indeed have the opportunity to change. It is an opportunity for a new kind of fellowship with one another and with God, who is not impressed by blind observances which shield gross lifestyles and attitudes.
So Isaiah offers not so much condemnation as hope. If the people are willing then God will indeed take them in hand and will teach them anew.
They will learn again what it is to live in His justice and under His mercy. They will learn again what it is to love their fellow-members of the chosen People of God, and they will find that there is a new kind of prosperity just waiting for them.
If they will turn in faith and faithfulness to their God then He will lead them and will teach them. He will forgive them their sins and He will give them a new start: if only they would hear His word and see the signs of the times.
In the letter to the Hebrews, whose author is not wholly proven, there is again an appeal to faith.
Again it is an appeal to look forward beyond their circumstances and their immediate surroundings and into a new kind of perspective. Again it is to look for the priorities of God and not to be distracted or discouraged by their own issues and problems and the things that would set them back.
Again it is to hold to the word of the promise that they have already received, and to take their hope and courage from that word. Faith was that inner conviction of the truth of the message of salvation and of new life in Jesus Christ.
They need no longer be bound by condemnation and by guilt, by memories of things long past yet which in the power of the word of Jesus Christ could be stripped of their power over the people.
Faith was a complete and unshakeable conviction that the promises of God are secure, and will not be moved: if only they would continue in them, in the face of persecution and of personal reverses.
Faith was the same that Isaiah had pointed to: that God would separate them from their sins and the things that held them back, and He would indeed lead them and guide them into the fullest measure of His purposes for them.
In the Gospel, Jesus also appeals for that determination to hold to Him for the long haul. The promise of God was indeed secure and He would indeed grant them the reality of the Kingdom. They would find it as they dedicated their lives and hopes and possessions to Him for the more they dedicated to Him then the more they were allowing Him to move in their lives.
The Kingdom of God was capable of being realized, heart by heart, home by home and church by church.
Rather, Jesus urged them to hold to His promises come what may, in the midst of all trials and reverses and indeed temptations. No sorrow could overcome His love and no disappointment could undo His word.
The victory of the cross was to be there for all time, and it was available to all who looked to it and who trusted in it. Indeed it was to be there for the darkest of times when the church began to lose its appeal and its authority, when it became a figure for mocking and for abuse. When people would be only too ready to hear and to believe the worst about it: that was the time when Jesus says that we must be at the most alert and attentive.
In this sense the promise of Isaiah is there for each of us who will hear it:
Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as snow; though they are as crimson, they shall be as wool.
Equally, it is as urgent now as it was for the writer to the Hebrews:
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the substance of things not seen.
Jesus reinforces it as He says:
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom.