Saturday, January 01, 2011

Staying Awake to Call Upon the Lord

Isaiah 62.6-12
Titus 2.11-14
Luke 2.1-14

In our reading from Isaiah the Prophet urges his audience to stay awake and call upon the Lord God to come to their rescue. They are to take no rest, and to give God no rest either, from their ceaseless prayers. And all with the aim of hastening the day, which God has promised to bring about, when oppression will be ended, when those who toil will reap the reward of their labours instead of seeing it all accrued by invading armies, or bankers, or international financiers, and when the exiles will return home.

Once again - as elsewhere in Isaiah - we are promised that, if the people get the road ready for the Lord’s return, sending out the snow ploughs and diggers to clear the rock falls and ice sheets from the highway - then he will come to rescue his people, bringing the exiles with him.

So here we are, once again giving it up for God in the middle of the night, taking no rest from our prayers, waiting for the Lord’s return. And we do still need his help, don’t we? This is the time of year when we get those retrospectives of all the memorable events which have taken place - the earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Pakistan, the tsunami in Indonesia, the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. There’s always so much bad news, and so little good news to set against it.

And yet the Letter to Titus offers us a quite different perspective from the prophecy of Isaiah. The write there is not looking forward to the Lord’s return. He’s celebrating something which is already here. He has fast forwarded from the middle of the night. For him it’s already morning. For, as he says, ‘The grace of God has already dawned upon the world with healing for all humankind.’

The outcome of this dawning is not quite what Isaiah expected. It’s not a new world where oppression and suffering have been banished. Instead, the grace of God has offered us a new way of being ourselves in the world. And the writer tells us that this new way of living requires discipline. It requires us to live a life marked by temperance, honest hard work and integrity - values which are quite at odds with the way Christmas tends to be celebrated now - for the writer is a bit of a party pooper. We have much to celebrate. God’s grace has dawned on us. And yet it’s still not time to break open the champagne. In fact, the dawn of God’s grace calls us not to relax but to work harder, to work alongside God to tackle the world’s problems head on.

And that’s because it is only the dawn of God’s grace. This is sunrise, not midday. Like the Prophet, we still have to look forward. This is still a time for hope. The happy fulfilment of God’s purposes, when the full splendour of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ will appear, lies in the future.

This is the only place where Jesus is called a great God. It sounds triumphalist. But what makes Jesus ‘great’ is his sacrifice - his self-offering - for us. So, in order to embrace his new dawn we have to commit ourselves to the same pattern of self-denial and commitment to God’s cause.

Finally, then, to the familiar words from Luke’s Gospel. The context is yet another attempt by politicians to sort out the problems of the world themselves, by taking a census to see what level of resources are required. But we know, of course, because we have been let into the secret by Luke, that the great emperor Augustus does not have the real solutions to the world’s problems, because political solutions are never quite what they seem. As they get to grips with one problem they have a nasty habit of creating a new one. Or else they never quite get to grips with the problem in the first place, and so it festers on, waiting for a new initiative. Or, worst of all, politicians are too impatient. They never give a remedy time to work before they start campaigning for an alternative.

Perhaps that’s why, in the Old Testament, God warned David against taking a census of his people. The real solutions to life’s problems lie less in strategic planning and more in winning over individual hearts and minds.

Like us, Jesus is a helpless cog in the political machine. Mary and Joseph have no choice but to play their part in Caesar’s plans. And so Jesus is born in Bethlehem, where only the shepherds witness the true significance of what is happening. Here - with the birth and death of Jesus - is the dawn of a radical new way of bringing about peace and good news on earth. Radical, but also gradual, as the writer of Titus has observed.

Actually, being a shepherd is a dying occupation in modern Bethlehem. Jewish settlements, over-grazing, the wall built by the Israeli army to separate Arab areas from Jewish ones, all these things have put paid to the shepherds’ traditional way of life. Only a few years ago a shepherd could set out from Bethlehem with a flock of three hundred sheep and lead them down to the Dead Sea and back again, looking for forage along the way. But now the angels would find themselves singing to empty fields.

So Bethlehem itself remains a microcosm of all that’s wrong in the world - the absence of peace and harmony - and a reminder of the call that we must accept from God, a personal commission to work for a fairer and more just world until the day finally comes when the full splendour of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ will appear.

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