Saturday, February 07, 2009

He who sits above the circle of the earth

Isaiah 40.21-31, 1 Corinthians 9.16-23, Mark 1.29-38

Have you ever been outside on a clear, cloudless night, somewhere in the countryside, far away from the glare of streetlights, and looked up at the stars and been filled with awe and wonder? In the town or the city we see only a fraction of the night sky, but far from the bright lights of the town we can suddenly see countless stars stretching deep into the mists of time, the faintest of them billions of light years away from the Earth. And when we see the stars in all their true glory we are carried back to the exhortation of the Prophet, who said: 'Lift up your eyes on high and see!'

The Prophet is breaking new ground in this passage. At the time of his prophecy, most people regarded Israel's God as just the greatest among a multitude of different and competing gods and spirits, but the Prophet considers Israel's God to be the only god, existing outside the boundaries of time and space, sitting, 'above the circle of the Earth'. From this vantage point, 'the Earth and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers' and one hundred years of history are like the blinking of an eye. But more than that, with a truly radical sense of awareness that wasn't to be widely shared until the modern scientific age, the Prophet recognises that God is not just the Creator of the earth and the heavens but of the countless star systems beyond. We sense, from the importance which he attaches to them, that he sees the stars as far more than twinkling fairy lights, or the shining souls of fallen heroes. Whatever those lights represent for the Prophet, they are all at least equal in importance to the Earth, and God has numbered and named not just the constellations but every single star.

Of course, on hearing these new ideas for the very first time, it would be easy to conclude - as some of his listeners were doing - that if God is so strong and mighty in power, and if even Earth's rulers are as nothing in comparison with God, then the ways of ordinary people must be completely hidden from God and disregarded by him. The Prophet has to explain, therefore, that - precisely because God is the everlasting Creator - there is no limit to what he can know and understand. His interest and concern can never be exhausted, And, therefore, even if we are like grasshoppers or mini-bugs in comparison to God, so long as we put our trust in him and allow him to renew our strength, we shall mount up with wings like eagles and join him in the heavenly realms, and be able to walk and not faint even when the tempest is blowing hard against us and is withering and carrying off princes and rulers as though they were mere stubble.

The relevance of this prophecy is as undiminished today, of course, as it was when it was first uttered two-and-a-half thousand years ago. Gordon Brown famously boasted that he had put an end to boom and bust, but scarcely had his economic policy taken root than it was blown away by the global Credit Crunch. Riding on the back of successful military interventions in the Balkans and Sierra Leone, Tony Blair believed that British and American troops would quickly subdue Iraq and silence the critics of the invasion, but scarcely was the policy of regime-change planted in the desert sand than it withered in the tempest of fanatical resistance. George W Bush spent most of his two terms of office insisting that there was no such thing as man-made global warming, but Hurricane Katrina and the sudden melting of the North Pole ice cap made his power and influence seem as nothing.

A great many people around the world, including many people of faith, are setting considerable store by the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States of America. I was invited onto the Sunday breakfast show on Radio Sheffield to discuss what people of different faiths are expecting President Obama to achieve and I went so far as to say that people are hoping his election might be a turning point in history. After all, the Book of Isaiah does say elsewhere that political leaders can be God's agents, bringing change and salvation to the world. But, today's passage also reminds us that it is God, not politicians, who gives power to the faint and strength to the powerless.

Quite rightly, the motto of the United States says, 'In God we trust.' Gordon Brown recently made a slip of the tongue and described himself as the man who had saved the world from economic crisis. Even he had to laugh about that mistake! For, as he knows better than most, politicians and world leaders can come to our rescue only in so far as God enables them. He is the one on whom we must rely.

This brings us to a part of today's Old Testament passage with which some modern Christians might feel uncomfortable, for the passage describes God blowing princes and rulers away as if they were mere pawns in some celestial game of chess. It's almost as if God becomes impatient when human leaders try to find their own solutions to the world's problems and bats them out of the way just as He apparently smote the builders of the Tower of Babel, who tried to make a name for themselves by building a tower which would reach the sky. Genesis says that God was dismayed by their enterprise and scattered them because otherwise the Tower of Babel would be only the beginning of what they would be able to do. If the project succeeded, nothing that they proposed to do together would any longer be impossible for them. Clearly, that idea of how God works in history is sub-Christian, and closer - in fact - to the modern atheists' picture of God than to the modern believers' view. God cannot be causing disaster and mayhem in the world's financial markets, and to the world's climate, just to keep human beings dependent on him and to prevent us from breaking free of his control, or as a punishment for our arrogance and hubris.

For much of Christian history people have conceived of God exactly like this. So, for example, the Black Death was widely understood to be a punishment for human wrong-doing. But, even two-and-half thousand years ago, a thinker as sophisticated as the Prophet who wrote this part of Isaiah is unlikely to have been imagining God changing history on a whim or just to put human beings in their place. It's more likely that the Prophet is contrasting the timelessness and robustness of God's plans with the fragility of human attempts to solve the world's problems.

And it's likely that the Prophet has in mind the way in which the wickedness and self-centredness of human beings almost inevitably gets the better of us and thwarts our attempts to build a better world. So, for example, the industrial revolution has vastly improved the quality of life for many millions of people over the last two hundred years, but now the pollution it has caused threatens to extinguish all those gains. And the cheap loans which the banking system made available in recent years enabled many people to buy their own home or to start or expand a business venture, but the greed and folly of the bankers also meant that they didn't know when to stop lending, until disaster struck. As Robert Burns almost said, 'The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,' but conversely, the Prophet reminds us that 'the Lord is the everlasting God. Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.'

There's another sense, however, in which the prophecy might seem to fall short of Christian thinking. Isaiah conceives of a God who is above human history and yet intimately concerned with it, who at one and the same time sees us as grasshoppers and yet longs to give us the power and strength to soar on eagle's wings so that we can share his perspective on the world. His vision of God is the antithesis of the vision of Harry Lime in Graham Greene's novel "The Third Man".

Lime is sitting at the top of the big wheel in the amusement park in the centre of Vienna, looking down at the scurrying crowds with his good friend Holly Martins. Martins asks Lime whether he has ever seen the victims of the black market antibiotics which Lime peddles to the Viennese for a living. 'Victims? Don't be melodramatic,' says Lime. 'Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax - the only way you can save money nowadays.'

Of course, Lime's callous attitude to the dots moving about in the streets of Vienna is that they don't really matter, whereas the Prophet says that - although we do look like dots, or grasshoppers, from God's point of view - he still cares about us very much, and that's because God's nature is to care passionately about everything he has made.

However, the reason why Holly Martins comes to care about the dots is that eventually, to secure his cooperation, Major Calloway, the military policeman investigating Harry Lime, takes Martins to the children's hospital and shows him the patients crippled by meningitis after taking Lime's black market penicillin. Because he has seen close up the suffering that black market racketeering has caused, Martins can no longer disregard the victims and hands Lime over to the authorities.

The Prophet simply asks us to trust that our ways and our right are not disregarded by God. But the Christian faith goes further. The Gospel assures us that God does not disregard us because - in Jesus' death on the Cross - he has come face to face with and shared in our suffering. Jesus - and therefore God himself as well - has become one of the grasshoppers, one of the dots, moving across the face of the Earth. In other words, the ultimate good news is not that God is in his heaven and all's right with the world. The ultimate good news is that God is one of us.

St Paul develops this idea in an interesting direction by looking at its implications for his own life. If the Gospel tells us that God, in Jesus, is one of us, then his task too - as a servant of Jesus - must be to get alongside the people he meets so that they may one day understand the eternal truth that God is also alongside them in Jesus. So, when he is with Jewish people he becomes like a Jew himself and keeps the Jewish food and purification laws in order to win their trust and help them to discover the much more important truth that God is with them. When he is with Gentile people, who do not obey the Jewish law, he too lives outside the law in order to get alongside them also.

Then he adds something rather more daring to the mix! 'To the weak.' he says, 'I become weak, so that I might win the weak.' I think he only means here that, when he is living among people who are willing to eat meat that has been offered as a sacrifice to idols, he too is prepared to eat the same meat. That, in itself, would have been a shocking idea to some Jewish Christians. But clearly, the concept of becoming weak to win the weak could be taken to much greater extremes, and some of Paul's followers did take it much further than he was prepared to do. When they were living among people who were not concerned about sexual immorality, they too were prepared to turn a blind eye towards it. Among those who ate and drank too much, they too were prepared to eat and drink more than they normally would, simply in order to get alongside people and win them for Jesus.

Throughout his ministry Paul repeatedly expresses his own concerns about those followers of his teaching whom he thinks have gone too far in getting alongside the weak. And the issue has not gone away, has it? In our modern, pluralistic society, Christians still struggle to know how far we should go in setting ourselves apart from, or being different from, other people in order to set an example to them, or in becoming like them in order to win them for Jesus.

This applies whether we're talking about our attitudes to people's sexual and relationship choices, or our attitude towards sharing with people of other faiths, or our willingness to join our friends and neighbours for a drink in the local pub. While there are limits, of course, generally speaking, we have to be prepared to be like Jesus, who came alongside us and emptied himself so that he might be found in human form. We mustn't take a pharisaic, holier than thou attitude to other people. We must seek to be their friends and to get alongside them wherever possible, to understand and encourage them, strengthening them so that they may be able to mount up with wings like eagles to a new level of human being.

I have heard feminists complain that Simon's mother-in-law was expected to serve food to Jesus and his disciples straight after being ill with a fever. But I think that is to miss the point. The calling of every Christian, like the calling of St Paul, is always to serve. An obligation is laid on us to proclaim the gospel, and that is its own reward. And, after all, in doing this we are only following the example of Jesus himself, for proclaiming the message and healing the sick is what he came to do. So let us wait on the Lord to renew our strength. Amen.

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