Sunday, December 07, 2008

Pure Evil?

Isaiah 40.1-11
Mark 1.1-8

Several things strike me immediately about the prophecy of Isaiah when I think about it in the light of recent events. First there is the trial of Karen Matthews, described by the policeman who led the investigation as 'pure evil'. She has become a hate figure not only for West Yorkshire Police, but for the people of Dewsbury and for the nation as a whole. And, certainly, her plot to kidnap her own daughter and collect a reward from the newspapers for Shannon's safe return was monstrously wicked, as well as monumentally stupid.

In the prophecy, Israel is compared to a prisoner who has also committed monstrous and monumentally stupid crimes. She has betrayed her God, acted unjustly towards the poor and oppressed, and shown arrogant complacency in imagining that, when her enemies invaded the land and besieged her capital city, nonetheless, God would save her from the consequences of her folly. God - and his Prophet - have every right therefore to point the finger at Israel and continue to condemn her, but instead God calls upon the Prophet to share words of comfort with her and speak tenderly to her.

Israel received a heavy sentence, double the usual tariff says the prophecy, but once she has served her time, her penalty will be treated as paid and the slate of her wrongdoings will be wiped clean, and they will be forgotten forever. In other words, even the nation of Israel - after a catalogue of awful crimes including child sacrifices and terrible mistreatment of the poor - will not be condemned as pure evil, and treated as though she were beyond all hope of redemption.

Israel won't be like the prisoner who is left standing penniless at the prison gates on the day of her release, clutching nothing but a battered suitcase in her hand, and with no option but to trek home as best she can. Instead, the Prophet is asked to imagine that the way home from imprisonment and exile will be smoothed out for her like a vast motorway being carved out of a barren range of rugged mountains and deep valleys, and this amazing act of generosity will - says the prophecy - reveal the true glory of God.

And then comes the second striking image, one which highlights the inconstancy and fickleness of human beings. 'All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field... The grass withers, the flower fades...' In other words wildflowers are here today, but gone tomorrow, and in just the same way human beings can shift their allegiances and change their opinions almost overnight and seemingly without warning.We can see this fickleness and changeability at work in the ups and downs of political fortune. Gordon Brown enjoyed a wonderful honeymoon in the opinion polls when he first took over as prime minister. His standing was so high that he almost called a general election. But, instead, he dithered and his reputation plummeted. For a time people said that they wanted a new broom in Number 10, a digital politician rather than an analogue one, as David Cameron put it. And then, suddenly, the pendulum swung back. Gordon Brown's reputation recovered again as he took decisive action to try to stem the worst effects of the Credit Crunch. In this latest twist to the political game of Snakes and Ladders, the electorate seems once more to prefer experience. Gordon Brown sought to capitalise on the current mood when he joked recently, 'Everyone knows that I'm all in favour of apprenticeships, but let me tell you this is no time for a novice.'Stephen Frear's wonderful film 'The Queen' tells the story of how the country turned briefly against the royal family after the death of the Princess of Wales, and people started calling for the abolition of the monarchy. The story ends two months later, with a meeting between the Queen and Prime Minister Tony Blair when the two discuss these recent events. The Queen observes sorrowfully that she has spent her whole life trying to serve the British people, and sometimes they seem to love her but - at other times - they turn against her. Then she looks shrewdly at Mr. Blair and warns him that the same thing will inevitably happen to him. And, of course, as the audience looks back at these events ten years later, we know how insightful this is.But people are fickle and changeable in their personal allegiances as well as in their politics. The other day I heard the shocking news that the couple who ran the young people's fellowship where my wife and I first met more than thirty years ago, have just separated after nearly forty years of marriage. He went on to become a minister, but has resigned from his appointment and gone off with another woman. If it can happen to a clergyman and his wife, after more than thirty-five years of marriage, surely it can happen to almost anyone!

Observers have condemned Karen Matthews because she had seven children by five different lovers, but if this makes her any worse than other people, then it is only a matter of degree. Plenty of human beings are as fickle and changeable as meadow grass when it comes to their relationships. And, of course, this is in stark contrast to the nature of God, whose 'word will stand forever'. God never lets Israel down, or betrays her, or abandons hope in her, or stops loving her, no matter how badly she might behave.

In the third picture painted by the prophecy, the prisoner is returning from exile, but she is not returning alone. God is coming with her. Not only does he prepare a smooth road for her to travel, but he bares his mighty arm to sweep aside all opposition. He will be a true and inspiring leader for the nation, gathering the lost and caring for them, and offering reward and recompense to those who have suffered.

He is, I suppose the ultimate Keynesian leader, that is to say - an interventionist like the famous economist John Maynard Keynes, who said that when things go wrong in the economy the government should put people to work building roads and hospitals instead of letting them lose their jobs and end up relying on welfare payments. Keynes was the polar opposite of the monetarist school of economics which inspired Mrs Thatcher, and which led a generation of later politicians to believe that the government should never intervene in troubled times. Thank goodness, then, that in the midst of our current crisis the pendulum has once again swung back to Old Testament Keynesianism. In the same spirit as Keynes, the Prophet is sent to call Jerusalem to go up to a high mountain and proclaim the news of the Lord's return, because God is going to intervene and put things right again.

Our Gospel reading picks up the same themes as the prophecy, but gives them a new gloss. Israel is still depicted as a sinner in need of punishment, but this time there is a way out. Her people need not suffer the harsh punishment of exile so long as they are prepared to confess their wrong-doing and be baptised, symbolising a new beginning, turning over the page of history to a new leaf.

John's was not the only fresh start available to the people of Israel. Another popular movement also offered baptism, and the chance to repent and start again. The Essenes, based in their desert retreat centre at Qumran near the shores of the Dead Sea, encouraged people to join them there and become part of a new nation of Israel, leaving behind the fickleness and falseness of the old Israel.

John's new start is different. He promises that a mighty leader is coming once again to put things right and, by implication, the leader he looks forward to would seem to be God, coming again to dwell with the people and baptise them with his Spirit. Of course Christians have no hesitation in identifying the new leader as Jesus, who claimed that he was so closely identified with God that there was a complete moral unity between the two of them. In other words, the things that Jesus said were - just like the prophecies of Isaiah - things that God was saying to the nation. And, more than that, the mighty acts of Jesus, whether they be be his acts of healing, or his cleansing of the Temple, or his death on the Cross, were also things that God was doing to save his people, just as he acted of old when he rescued the nation from exile and slavery.

Finally, Christians also have no hesitation in claiming, like the Essenes, to be creating a new nation of Israel. But whereas the Essene community at Qumran was a gathering together of a holy remnant of true and godly Jewish people, the Christian community was - after a certain amount of heated argument - opened up to everyone, worldwide, who wishes to lay claim to God's promises revealed in Jesus.

Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling have recently unveiled their package of measures to save the nation from its past mistakes. Only time will tell whether those measures will work. But Christmas unveils God's package of measures to save the entire human race from the consequences of all the folly, selfishness and disobedience which has piled up in human history. The package is about peace on Earth and goodwill, and it is embodied in the person of Jesus, who was born, and died, and was raised to life so that God might gather us in his arms, and carry us in his bosom, and gently lead us.

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