Offering Hope

One of the principles that was drilled into me when I was training was that you don’t try to preach on all three of the passages that are read out in the service each week. ‘Concentrate on one’, was the message, because they don’t necessary fit together seamlessly, nor tell a single story. Passages of scripture are not like tiles that you select from a box in order to decorate your kitchen. Each one is part of Holy Writ, yes; and has something to say to God’s people in every age. But each book of the Bible has a context. The writer wrote to a particular readership at a particular time, when people faced particular circumstances. You can’t just cobble three random passages together without doing a great violence. A text without a context is a pretext, we were taught.
But I started to look at our Bible readings this morning, knowing that a certain vote would take place on Tuesday; and that by Tuesday night, the country would likely face the biggest political crisis since the outbreak of World War Two. Would any of our Bible readings this morning even matter? Is relevance the purpose of worship anyway? Yes, it would doubtless be fascinating to explore the varieties of spiritual gifts expressed in the life of the early church, or the marriage customs of first century Palestine. But people might have other things on their mind, such as whether or not we should begin to stockpile food and medicines.
We heard words of encouragement from Isaiah. Words of enlightenment from St Paul. Words of proclamation from St John. And the context of each of these passages is quite interesting, given what has been happening this week. Might God have anything to say to us for today, as we read these ancient words?
Isaiah’s people have been deported from their homeland to far away Iraq. By the rivers of Babylon they have sat down and wept, for seventy years, now. Hardly anyone even remembers Jerusalem, and the good old days. But there comes a new king, and a new promise of resettlement. They may return to Jerusalem, and make it theirs once more! They may rebuild the ancient walls! And they will strive together towards a new national identity! The promise is inspirational, compelling, thrilling.
Perhaps, then, they were expecting it all to be simple and straightforward, returning to Israel after an absence of seventy years. The family homes would be just as they’d been left; the farms tended by tenants, who would simply move out the day before the jews return to take them over. They would simply be able to turn back the clock. But the reality turns out to be fraught with difficulties and opposition. This chapter of the Book of Isaiah is written to a forlorn, dispirited nation. It just hasn’t turned out the way they thought they’d been promised.
St Paul writes to the excitable young Christians of Corinth. A while ago, he lived amongst them, probably for around eighteen months. They have embraced the faith that he preached. Their worship is vibrant. The Holy Spirit is here in their midst. But it isn’t all harmony and light. Which of these gifts of the Holy Spirit that they are experiencing is the most important? Whose voice should be heard? Whose lead should be followed? St Paul writes to a church on the brink of division and fracture.
Many years later, St John dictates his gospel, of Jesus, the light coming into the darkness of the world. John has had decades in which to reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry, so he chooses very carefully the stories that he tells. But how best to begin? Not in Jerusalem, the seat of worship and of power, as we might expect. The first of Jesus’ sign that John records takes place at a simple country wedding. But in the lives of the couple who wed, this is a critical day. Without Jesus’ help, it could end in a disaster.
Even listening to all this, you might not be able to take your mind off the political machinations of the past week. If you are interested in such things, you will have been avidly following the events unfolding in Westminster. If you are not, and you’ve spent the week trying to avoid the news broadcasts, then the last thing you want on a Sunday morning is a sermon about Brexit.
But it is a bit of a crisis, whether or not we concern ourselves with the detail. Our relationship with neighbouring countries is about to change radically, but after two years of negotiations, we have no idea how, nor what the change will mean for us.
We could wring our hands. We could attribute blame – there are many possible targets for our accusations. We could proclaim loudly, to whomever will listen, that quite clearly, the way I see things is the only way forward; and if everyone else would just shut up and listen, there might yet be a way out of this mess.
Or: we could try to offer hope. Because offering hope is what God’s people do. Into the disappointment of his people’s return from their exile, the prophet offers a vision of God far greater than have yet been able to see. The hope of a God who delights in his people, and longs for them to shine as a light to all the nations of the earth.
Into the impending divisions of the Church in Corinth, Paul pours the oil of reconciliation. He points the Corinthians to the unity they have in their faith. The diversity that they see is an expression of richness, not division. The Holy Spirit is making all kinds of things possible through the new faith that they share. And he is about to hold before them a still more excellent way, as he sets down the great hymn of love that we know as 1 Corinthians 13. Faith and love remain, he will tell them, and with them, hope.
And into the darkness of a broken world, St John shines the hope of the light of Christ, who offers the wine of abundant life. There is a limit to what we can know of a God who is far off. There is a limit to what he can understand of what it is like to be us; to live with the limitations that we live with, the temptations that we face, the failures that drag us down. Jesus comes, to live this life that we do, but also to transform it.
Hope is on offer in each of our readings this morning. Hope for the forlorn, that God is bigger than they imagine. Hope for the divided, that tolerance, reconciliation and love are still possible, and valuable. Hope for those who cannot see any way forward, that God knows understands what this is like.
We too can offer hope. Not the hope that the Brexit crisis can be simply solved. But hope that we can retain our humanity while we live and work through it.