2nd Sunday of Advent, December 7 2014
Isaiah 40.1-11, Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3.8-15a, Mark 1.1-8
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
In 1943 Denis Fahey, an Irish priest, published The Kingship of Christ and Organized Naturalism. This neatly divided the world into two antagonistic camps. On the one side were God and his angels, Jesus, Mary and the saints, and the holy Catholic church; on the other side were the devil and his angels, Protestants, Jews, freemasons and communists. This was an extreme and somewhat bizarre version of a truth universally acknowledged by Irish Catholics before the second Vatican council. The world was divided into Catholics and the rest – indeed, if we were honest, into Irish Catholics and the rest.
Vatican II took this Irish truth and blew it into smithereens. Nostra Aetate told us that with other Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and people of no faith whatever, we had more in common than divided us. For me, Nostra Aetate was a Damascus road experience. I took the text with both hands and ran with it, and never looked back. This is, I guess, why I am standing here today.
Every religious tradition is profoundly ambiguous. It can turn us in on ourselves or it can turn us outward towards our neighbour. To be turned in on ourselves – incurvatus in se – is, of course, how Martin Luther famously defines sin. But where sin abounds, grace much more abounds.
In the sixth century before the birth of Jesus Christ, the Babylonian empire destroyed the first temple in Jerusalem and led the leading families of Judah into exile. Some decades later, Cyrus the Persian gave them permission to go home, and in successive waves some of them did that. In the tiny Persian province of Yehud – just a small part of what we call the Holy Land – they built the second temple, began to finalize what we call the Old Testament but for them was simply the Bible, and emphasized those things that distinguished them from the others around them, most notably circumcision.
The famous passage from the book of Isaiah we read together dates from the time of exile and looks forward to the one true God acting on behalf on his people. But the reality of the restoration did not live up to the prospectus. The people of Judah did not become free, masters in their own land: Persia was a kinder, gentler overlord than Babylon, but Persia was an overlord nonetheless.
Fast forward to the second century before Christ, and the Jews now had a new overlord, the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes. In a bid to enlist Judea as a buffer state against Egypt, he took over the second temple and desecrated it, substituting worship of himself for worship of the one true God.
Judas Maccabaeus and his companions organized a revolt that drove him out. Three years to the day after the temple was desecrated, Judas cleansed and reconsecrated it. The Maccabean revolt was celebrated in Judea in the same way as the exodus and other great events in the history of the people. To the Jewish calendar it added a new festival – Hanukkah, the festival of lights, which will begin in 10 days time.
In subsequent years, the heirs of the Maccabean revolutionaries ruled as priest-kings. But the new Hasmonean regime was deeply ambiguous, and anyway it fell to the Romans in the year 63 before our common era.
When the Jews of the second temple read Isaiah 40, or when they sang Psalm 85, they could see both prophecy and psalm as fulfilled in some measure in the return from exile and the restoration of God’s people; but it seemed to them that they must also look for a fulfilment still to come.
Moreover, this fulfilment their scriptures understood to be not for them alone, but for all peoples.
Genesis 12 says that God chose Abraham and his family to be a blessing for all the families of the earth; and Genesis 18 spells this out. “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen 18.18-19).
In the same way, Exodus 19 says that if the people obey God’s voice and keep God’s covenant, they shall be for him a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. And the book of Isaiah pictures the nations of the world streaming to Zion and its temple so that they may learn God’s ways and walk in God’s paths.
When this happens, then will be fulfilled the words of our psalm:
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
But human beings do not easily walk in God’s ways. Easily we serve our own interests, or what we foolishly take to be our own interests. As Martin Luther says, we are so deeply turned in on ourselves that we bend the best gifts of God towards our own enjoyment and wickedly seek all things – even God – for our own sake.
If God’s plan is to succeed, it needs a human being who is not incurvatus in se, someone who is like the servant depicted in the book of Isaiah:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations…
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
It needs someone who can bring the living to life.
Second Peter encourages us to lead holy and godly lives. Strive, says the letter, to be found by God at peace.
In this land, at this time, that may seem like a waste of breath.
But just occasionally, we hear a story to give us hope. One such story was reported yesterday by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
On Wednesday afternoon last week, a Palestinian teenager stabbed two Israeli men in a supermarket in the West Bank and was in turn shot in the legs by an off-duty Israeli security guard.
One of the first to rush to the aid of the wounded was another Palestinian: Mahmoud Abu Khdeir, who was working in the supermarket and whose teenage cousin Mohammed Abu Khdeir this summer was burnt alive in the Jerusalem forest by Jewish extremists, apparently in retaliation for the killing of three kidnapped Israeli teens.
“That’s how I was taught to behave by my family,” Abu Khdeir said. “When someone is wounded, you help them. It doesn’t matter where they’re from.”
“When I see something like this, I have to help. It’s a matter of education: I believe that tomorrow the wounded man will see someone else and go help him.”
“I hope that one day the situation will change and we will no longer have incidents such as this. But force brings more force, and peace brings peace.”
It is, perhaps, not quite as simple as that. To bring peace requires that we acknowledge everything that is wrong with this society and covenant together to correct these wrongs, that we recognize when we are pursuing a strategy that leads only to death and destruction and turn back before it is too late.
But to cast aside the blinkers that allow us to see the other only as our enemy and recognize instead our shared humanity, to replace the spiral of murder by a spiral of peace: that is already a start.
Denis Fahey, The Kingship of Christ and Organized Naturalism (Wexford: Forum Press, 1943)
JTA, “Cousin of murdered Palestinian teen helped supermarket terror victims”, December 6 2014
Nostra Aetate. Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. Vatican II, 1965