The old Testament reading in the evening lectionary is the story of Solomon’s encounter with the Queen of Sheba. You can read it for yourselves in 1 Kings chapter 10, but it’s not a passage which lends itself to preaching because there’s not very much to remark upon so we haven’t read it tonight.
The most notable thing in the passage is that the Queen of Sheba asks Solomon enigmatic questions. In the Qur’an Solomon persuades her to adopt the worship of the one true God, but in the Bible she merely praises God and the way that God has blessed Solomon’s reign. Apart from that the passage seems to be telling us that Solomon’s wealth, although it was amazing, was as nothing compared to his wisdom. In that sense, 1 Kings chapter 10 echoes this morning’s reading from Isaiah 55. Wisdom is free. There is no need to spend lots of money trying to find it and anyone who tries to buy wisdom and God’s favour is on a fool’s errand.
And so we turn, instead, to the psalms and to Psalm 80 with its repeated refrain, ‘Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.’ The psalm begins by celebrating God’s leadership. He has been a good shepherd to the tribes of Israel in times past, but now - in the words of Roy Orbison - God has ‘left Israel standing all alone, alone and crying.’ No wonder Israel’s enemies laugh her to scorn.
The Psalmist then evokes one of the Bible’s favourite images for Israel - the vineyard planted by God in Palestine. The Psalmist reminds us how God drove out the people and animals which had occupied the land before, patiently cleared the ground of weeds and stones, built a wall around it and then planted the vines, which flourished and grew so tall and strong that soon even mountains were in the vineyard’s shade, and it stretched from the Jordan River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, or perhaps from the source of the River in the north to the Dead Sea, where it finally empties, in the South. But then, inexplicably, God broke down the walls he had so painstakingly built and allowed outsiders to come in and steal the fruit. Worse still, wild boar from the forest were able to uproot the vines and wild animals came and ate them up. Finally, what the animals didn’t eat, and the thieves didn’t steal, was set on fire and destroyed by Israel’s enemies. The psalm creates a picture of utter devastation, from which God appears to have averted his eyes.
No wonder, then, that the Psalmist concludes it is time now for God to send Israel a new leader, a Messiah, someone he has chosen and marked for greatness and who knows his will. But at this point the Psalmist suddenly admits - almost in passing - that what has gone wrong in the past is not really God’s fault after all. Israel has provoked God into abandoning her. She has turned away from him, much as the people in the market place - in this morning’s reading from Isaiah chapter 55 - had been spending their money at the wrong stalls, buying the wrong kind of food and drink.
Now, however says the Psalmist, the people of Israel have learnt their lesson, they will never turn away from God again; although, the Psalmist’s tone isn’t as contrite as perhaps it ought to be. At the very end of the psalm he tries to strike a bargain with God. ‘Give us life and we will call upon your name.’ Surely this offer is back to front? Shouldn’t Israel call on God’s name in the hope that he will restore her life?
All we can suppose is that the nation has endured so much suffering that this degree of faith and trust is no longer possible. God will have to act first. He will have to send his Messiah to save her before she will be able to summon enough faith to respond. And, of course, isn’t that exactly what did happen with Jesus. God sent him to a world which was living in a spiritual darkness so deep that its people did not even recognise him, although the world owed its very being to him. He came to God’s own people, and they would not accept him. ‘But to all who did accept him, to those who put their trust in him, the Messiah gave the right to become children of God.’
In the background to all of our lectionary readings today has been the famous story of the feeding of the five thousand. We have heard - in the prophecy from Isaiah chapter 55 - how God wants to give us free food and drink, but it’s no ordinary food, it’s the spiritual sustenance of a new covenant with him, mediated by a new Messiah. John’s Gospel, more emphatically even than Matthew’s Gospel, wants its readers to understand that the feeding miracle is also a spiritual story, a story about the Eucharist, a story of holy communion with God through Jesus.
In tonight’s reading Jesus has left the place where the miracle happened, but the crowd has pursued him, hungry for more signs and wonders. To Jesus’ disappointment, however, it is the wondrous nature of the miracle which has them in its thrall. They have come to him hoping to be offered more of his wonderful free bread. What they have failed to understand is the significance of the miracle. It isn’t about giving people an endless supply of free food - otherwise we would be able to solve the food crisis in the Horn of Africa just by offering up prayers for another miracle. Instead, the feeding of the five thousand is a sign that Jesus is able to offer the bread which lasts for ever , the food of eternal life.
Actually, I’m particularly interested in this idea because I make my own bread. I think it tastes much better than anything you can buy in the shops. And, despite the fact that it contains no preservatives, my bread also lasts much longer than shop bought bread. It doesn’t go stale as quickly and it hardly ever gets mouldy. But the bread which Jesus offers is better even than this. It is the true bread from heaven, which brings life to the world. Whoever eats it will never be hungry again.
This is better not only than my homemade bread, but even than the manna which God sent from heaven when the people of Israel were wandering in the Wilderness. The manna lasted only for a few hours. It couldn’t be stored. But holy communion is a gift for life. It is a sign that Jesus will always be with his Church.
Going back to the psalm just for a moment, perhaps there are times when we feel like the Psalmist. We feel that the Church needs to be restored, that her defences have been broken down, that God is no longer watching over us and he doesn’t care about our plight. A wave of secularism washes over us, and over the people around us, and we feel as though our Christian heritage is being uprooted, and trodden underfoot, and pillaged.
Worse than that, people with very different aims and ideals from Christianity have nonetheless claimed our heritage for their own. The mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik wrote in his manifesto, ‘If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian. Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian.’
Breivik’s warped view of the Christian moral platform means that, as Christians, we now find ourselves in the same uncomfortable place as Muslims found themselves in after 9/11, 7/7 and the Madrid bombings - seeking to disassociate ourselves from people who claim to stand under the banner of our faith when we can see clearly - even if the media cannot - that they are not real believers at all. Breivik is not, as first reported, a Christian fundamentalist; he is someone who, in the words of the Psalmist, was passing along the way when he plucked its fruit.
Like the enemies who had attacked Israel, destroyed her independence and scattered her people, Breivik burned with fire and cut down the stock which God had planted. The modern state of Norway has a history of peacefulness which owes a great deal to its Christian heritage, and we might feel that we wish to join the Psalmist in calling on God to rebuke Breivik and people like him with his stern countenance, so that they might perish.
But the one at God’s right hand, the Messiah whom God made strong for himself, does not cause his enemies to perish. He only asks that we might believe he has not abandoned us. The cross reminds us that he himself faced opposition, misunderstanding, prejudice and ignorance, and overcame them by standing firm against them in love.
We must continue patiently rebuilding the broken down walls of the vineyard, replanting the vines and clearing the ground, and restoring God’s reign as far as we are able. For God’s face does shine upon us. He is working to restore the world. He has not turned his back on us and he intends to give us life when we call on his name. When we gather at the Lord’s table he comes again to feed us with the bread from heaven, the bread of life, which is his presence with us to strengthen and encourage us, now and always.