Menu Close
27th November 2022

We shall Rebuild

Passage: Isaiah 40; 1-11, 28-31


What does a man of God say to people whose world has fallen apart? The Old Testament scholar, Gerhard Von Rad wrote that, “when an individual is confronted with the might of an empire, he or she can see nothing beyond it and is faced with the problem of reconciling that empire’s war potential with God’s omnipotence.”
What do we say to the people of Ukraine? What do we say to the people of Israel/Palestine? What do we say in the face of a cancer or dementia diagnosis? What do we say to someone losing their home or their job? When an individual is confronted with the might of an empire- not necessarily a political empire but any power threatening to destroy your life- what do we say as people of God?

This was the challenge facing many of the Old Testament prophets, as their nation was invaded by enemy forces. It is the kind of challenge which has faced every faith community ever since- where is God when human lives are being destroyed by mighty and destructive forces?
The prophet Jeremiah warned against offering false promises on God’s behalf. He said that it is wrong, very wrong to say “peace, peace” when there is no peace. It is wrong to promise that nothing bad can ever happen to those who believe in God. It is irresponsible to lull people into a false state of security. OK, he is right, but what do you say?

I chose that reading from Isaiah today because, although Isaiah was certainly looking at the real world of enemy occupation, he was also being shown a bigger picture. A voice is challenging him to stop for a moment, reflect and say what he actually sees when he looks at the world. I picked out four things Isaiah might have seen perhaps for the first time: One- all flesh is as grass. Cheerful. Think about death why don’t you… But this is not just about our physical mortality. We know our bodies have a limited lifespan. Isaiah is also being shown that the systems we create during our limited lifespan: the great empires, the political structures, the all-powerful leaders, also have only a limited timescale. They do not last for ever. They are the creation of one or two generations of humanity, and, because they are physical and they are flawed, they will pass away, as opposed to God who is eternal.

Two- because our systems are short-term, you cannot go back to the past to put everything right. “Redemption” from whatever is threatening you now will only come through what God can do in the future. Look forward, not back.
Three, we have this kind of inbuilt sense of guilt and punishment. You know how it works: when you are suffering, you look for someone to blame-either yourself or a medical professional or a government. But although guilt should be faced, lessons learned, wrongdoing put right; carrying guilt, anger, or revenge right through your life will ultimately destroy you. We know that too. Therefore, there must be forgiveness. There must be a power to declare “sin is forgiven” if you are ever to move forward.
And four- Isaiah was told to tell his people to prepare the way for God. And the way that God was coming was through the desert: that very place of darkness and desolation where Isaiah’s people were now stranded. “Make God a highway. Open the road for Him to come to you right here, right now.” In other words, you do not have to wait for a better road in a better place to see the glory of God.

I chose the title “we shall rebuild” from the rallying call when Coventry Cathedral was destroyed. And it was rebuilt. But it was not the same building, nor did it have the same ethos. It was created through prayer for forgiveness and a subsequent hope for peace and reconciliation. The glory of God was revealed in the charred rubble as the new vision for the building and its ministry came into being. What Isaiah saw all those centuries ago, was powerful truth.

One of my favourite characters in CS Lewis’ Narnia stories is Puddleglum the marshwiggle. He is your archetypal “glass half-empty” gloomy pessimist. (Apparently, he was inspired by Lewis’ gardener, nicknamed John Grumblie.) But despite his continual pointing out of the misery in the current situation and the greater disasters looming on the horizon, Puddleglum has enough hope to accept a dangerous quest and, when that quest hangs on a knife-edge, he is the hero. He, two children and the long-lost Prince of Narnia are being spellbound by a witch who is convincing them that the land of Narnia does not exist, that there is no world beyond the dark underground empire over which she rules. Intoxicating incense is burning on her fire, dulling their minds. They are ready to give up and remain under her spell and in her kingdom of darkness for the rest of their lives.
Then Puddleglum stamps out her fire with his bare feet and declares that, even if Narnia does not exist and that Aslan, the god of Narnia is a figment of their imagination, he is not prepared to accept the alternative she is offering. He will continue to live according to belief in Aslan and in line with the ideals of Narnia, even if he does not have much life left to live.
His declaration awakens the children and the prince and between them they manage to destroy the witch and her kingdom of darkness.

Living in hope is not about being naïve and insisting that everything is OK really, when it is not. Living in hope must begin by looking at life as it is, facing even the grimmest reality because otherwise your hope will be based on lies. But living in hope means also being ready to see the bigger picture. The destructive” empires” which threaten us right now, whether they be ruthless invasions, refugee crises, serious illness, economic recession, are not the whole story. Faith does not offer us a hiding place away from grim realities; it offers us a different way of seeing them and gives us the confidence to say “I don’t like the alternative which is on offer: a world created by greed and hatred and destruction. And even if a secular society is trying hard to convince us that there is no God and that religion is for fools, faith remains a better option than despair. “

For it happens then that, when you find hope through faith, your life begins to change. You start to light small candles in the darkness. Candles of kindness, of speaking out for what is right, of looking for simple ways to create joy, of giving to someone in need, of making it your business to pray, regularly, hopefully, sincerely so that a way is opened in your life, no matter how dark it is right now, for God to come to you.

And then it happens that, as more and more small candles are lighted against the darkness, the darkness is overcome.

St Paul was writing to Christians living in Rome of all places. Rome, at the heart of the all-powerful Roman Empire, which did not look kindly on any faith offering an alternative god to the emperor. Paul is not making false promises of safety and security. What he is promising is that, so long as Christians remain faithful to God and to Jesus Christ, they cannot be totally destroyed. Nothing can prevent them from living in love and respect. Nothing can extinguish the candles of faith, compassion, respect which they light and live by in the name of Jesus Christ. And even the most adamant of secularists has to admit that, whilst the Roman Empire did eventually crumble and fall, the ideals and principles of Christianity were to shape subsequent governments in the western world. Yes, a lot went wrong and became corrupt, but the principles of justice for all, respect for all, care for all go back to those candles of faith lighted by Christian men and women against the ruthlessness of the Roman Empire.

For the sake of the world, the church and our own lives, we cannot abandon hope. Brutal empires of all kinds will rise and fall but the mindsets of greed, hatred, irresponsibility and power-hunger which created them will continue to be reborn and will always need to be confronted by people of faith lighting candles against the darkness, saying, “I beg to differ.”
Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
May it be so it our lives, in our church and in the world. Amen.