Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Mountain of the Lord

Isaiah 35.1-10
We have a satnav, a satellite navigation system, and its very useful especially when you’re trying to find someone’s house in the dark. It will often take you almost to their door!

But there’s a widely reported problem with satnavs, which I can confirm is absolutely true. When you switch on the satnav you tend to switch your brain off, so that you no longer remember the way to where you’re going. In fact it’s easy, if you’re just concentrating on the satnav’s instructions, to go in completely the wrong direction. One night I ended up in Pontefract, instead of the nearby town of Featherstone, because the circuit directory had published the wrong postcode for Featherstone Methodist Church, but people have made much more serious errors than that.

Drivers supposedly obeying directions given by their satnavs have crashed into rivers, construction sites and roadside toilets. One young woman drove the wrong way down a motorway at 75 miles per hour, and an ambulance driver who was supposed to be taking a patient from one London hospital to another found himself in Greater Manchester before it dawned on him that he had taken a wrong turn.

An 80 year-old driver following his satnav drove onto a road that had been closed for repairs and hit a pile of sand. "I just thought my satnav knew a shortcut," he explained to baffled police. Another driver ended up in the river on a foggy day, have mistaking a ferry crossing for a road ridge.

Isaiah foresees a time when even satnavs will be foolproof. God will build a highway so easy to follow that no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray. And it’s important to note where this highway will be - not a ring road around a city, or a highway across a fertile plain or valley. No, this will be a highway across the wilderness.

On the face of it, this is a passage about wilderness and desert. It shows that desertification, the process whereby climate change and pressures from a growing human population put pressure on fragile ecosystems and turn marginal land into desert, is not a new phenomenon.

Today we’ve become more aware of desertification as the scale of the problem has grown. One of the most widely reported examples in the last century was the Dust Bowl created in the American states of Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas in 1934 when a combination of dry weather and high winds caused massive erosion of the soil in places where prairie grass or pasture land for animals had been ploughed up for intensive agriculture. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their livelihoods and huge clouds of soil blew across the landscape - even reaching the cities of Washington and New York before falling into the Atlantic Ocean.

Of course, less well reported is the present day desertification of sub-Saharan Africa, where the Sarah Desert is creeping slowly southwards because of climate change and the pressure from th sheer number of human beings and livestock trying to eke out a living on its margins. People in countries like Niger, Chad and the Sudan suffer from repeated famine and droughts as a result.

The original people of Israel were nomads too, wandering through the wilderness with their herds of sheep and goats. But in the Promised Land they encountered a settled population of farmers, tilling the soil. It was a land which, compared to the wilderness, seemed to be flowing with milk and honey.

As the Israelites began to mix with the local farmers, and their population grew, so pressure on the farming belt increased. A nomadic life cannot support a growing population and people who had once been shepherds were forced to try to cultivate more and more of the land, with very uncertain results.

Isaiah looks forward to a day when the wilderness and the dry land shall rejoice and blossom. There will be an abundance of wild flowers. And the wilderness will become as green and fertile as Israel’s neighbour Lebanon or as the mountains of Carmel and Sharon.

If you look at modern photographs of Mount Carmel it looks a bit arid and bare by English standards but, apparently, even today its slopes are covered in luxuriant vegetation - oak, pine, olive and laurel trees - and in ancient times vines were grown on terraces along its slopes and archaeologists have found the remains of the wine presses and olive presses used to crush the fruit. So we’re talking about a nice place to live and human beings have been drawn there since Neanderthal times. One day, says the Prophet, the wilderness shall be like Mount Carmel.

And then the mood of the prophecy changes. Up until now it could have been spoken by a politician or an economist, but the mention of Mount Carmel is a hinge or turning point because the Prophet is conscious, no doubt, of the religious significance of the mountain.

Since ancient times there had been an altar on Mount Carmel and - when the people of Israel moved into Palestine - Carmel became a spiritual battleground between two competing religions: the religion of Israel’s God, the Lord Almighty or Yahweh, and the religion of the indigenous people, the storm god Baal. It was here, on the headland at the end of the mountain range, overlooking the sea, that Elijah staged his famous contest with the 450 prophets of Baal. He challenged them to end a terrible drought by praying to their god for rain and then, when they had tried and failed, he repaired the altar - which had been torn down - and prayed to the Lord Almighty for help. God heard him, we are told, and sent a huge thunderstorm which not only burned up Elijah’s sacrifice but ended the drought, causing a torrential downpour. And while it rained, Elijah and the people murdered the prophets of Baal in the Valley of Jezreel below.

To some extent the Prophet continues his first theme, about turning the wilderness into fertile farmland. He wants this promise to strengthen the weak and to give courage to the fearful. But increasingly there are spiritual overtones to the prophecy.

In a chilling echo of the murder of the prophets of Baal he promises that God Almighty will come with vengeance and terrible recompense to sort out the enemies of Israel. But there’s also a lighter note - the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped, the lame shall leap like deer and the tongues of the speechless shall sing for joy. And, of course, waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert, and springs of water in the thirsty ground.

This will be a time of Jubilee, a time when - mirroring the reclamation of marginal land from the desert - wrongs shall be righted and oppressed and marginalised people shall be healed and set free. And yet the wilderness won’t disappear entirely, for the Prophet foresees a highway across it, along which God’s people - sent into exile far away - will be able to return in safety to the Promised Land. They won’t encounter their enemies there, nor any hungry wild animals.

As I explained last week, (and you can skip the passage in italics if you already know the story), I was talking to someone about this passage and they asked me if I knew about the lions in Doncaster. We don’t live very far from Doncaster, you see, and they thought we should know about the lions in case we were tempted to go there! They’d heard on the radio that a pride of Romanian lions had been brought to Doncaster Airport and set free to roam, and they imagined them prowling around the town.

This might explain why a colleague told me that, when she was drafted in to help staff the post office in Doncaster , to cover for staff absences during the recent heavy snow, there were almost no customers. Would you go into Doncaster if you thought you might encounter a cold and ravenous beast prowling round the streets?

Actually, of course, the lions are roaming free in the Yorkshire Wildlife Park and not in the town centre. But
even the highway across the wilderness will be purged off dangerous animals in Isaiah’s prophecy. The ransomed of the Lord - that is the rescued exiles - shall return to Mount Zion with singing, where they will obtain everlasting joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

So what’s the significance of this passage for Christians in Advent today? We shall have to listen to our gospel reading to find some clues.

Matthew 11.2-15
Jesus gives a typically indirect reply to John the Baptist, when he’s asked by John’s disciples if he is God’s anointed leader, the Messiah. He doesn’t say, ‘Yes! I’m the One!’ but he does quote from various Old Testament passages, including the one we read from Isaiah 35. ‘Are these promised things happening?’ he seems to ask. ‘And if they are, then what conclusions do you draw?’

And then he goes on to draw some conclusions of his own from the ministry of John the Baptist. Matthew has already described John as someone who lived in the wilderness, dressed in hairy robes and with a belt tied around his waist. That seems to be a direct reference to Elijah - who is described in much the same way in the Old Testament. Now Jesus makes explicit that John is indeed Elijah returned from heaven to help Israel in her hour of need.

But like all the other prophets before him, and in particular Elijah, John belongs to a time of struggle when people have tried to control religion and spirituality by force, with violence if necessary. Whereas - with the advent of Jesus’ ministry - things are going to change. There will be a new kind of religion and anyone who commits themselves to follow it will be greater than even the greatest adherents of the old time religion. ‘Let those who have ears, hear!’ Jesus adds.

Well, what do you hear Jesus saying? A vicar once preached a sermon about John the Baptist, calling him ‘the last great Jew’, and conveniently overlooking the fact that Jesus is Jewish, not to mention Peter, Paul, Mary and a host of others. I don’t think that’s the message.

The true message of these passages is, I think, that God’s time of Jubilee is coming, but it can’t be ushered in by force - as Elijah tried to do on Mount Carmel, because the only true way to set free the oppressed is to identify with them and become one of them, and overcome all that’s wrong in the world alongside them from the bottom up. That’s because any attempt to make things better by using power to achieve it is doomed to get corrupted, deflected or distorted, as those who believed in Tony Blair or Nick Clegg as people who could radically change the world of politics must now acknowledge.

Identifying with the oppressed is, of course, exactly what Jesus does when he dies on the Cross. The Book of Revelation also echoes Isaiah when it says that, because of Jesus’ death for us, ‘crying and pain will be no more’. So the effect of Jesus’ death is hugely powerful, but on the other hand we have to be patient as we wait to see the full impact of his death and - while we’re waiting - we have to use Jesus’ methods, not the methods of Elijah or the crusaders or Muslim terrorists, to try to bring closer the day when God’s reign of enduring peace and justice will finally be established on earth.

And perhaps the message for little congregations in inner city churches is to hang on in there if you can, and to continue witnessing by actions more than words - as Jesus did - to the healing and liberating power of God until the day comes when you shall obtain joy and gladness.

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