Advent 2 - a Call for Justice

A sermon preached by Fr James Heard at St George's Campden Hill on 8 December 2013

Last week we started our journey through Advent – a journey we are all invited to join, a life-long journey from darkness to light. Our first candle on the Advent wreath represents the patriarchs. This week it’s the prophets. And today’s passage is from the prophet Isaiah who presents a vision which has two parts: the first is a re-imagination of kingship and the second is about a ‘peaceable kingdom’ with the picture of animals that are usually natural enemies sitting together peacefully together.

First kingship. The context is the dead end that the Jewish community had arrived at – described as the ‘stump of Jesse’ – the image is of the impossibility of anything new coming from a terminated stump. Into this scene Isaiah offers hope; a sprout issuing new life. We are told that the generative, irresistible, energising ‘Spirit of the Lord’ will raise up a new sort of ruler, a different sort of kingship. Where there was no hope and no possibilities, the ‘spirit’ generates new historical possibilities where none was available.

The marks of this new king are these: ‘wonderful counsellor’, ‘prince of peace’, words put to inspiring music in Handel’s Messiah. The primary function of this coming king is to judge, to sort out conflicting interests and claims. ‘The poetry here taps into a deep and primal conviction, known throughout the ancient Near East generally and in Israel, that the royal government is The Equaliser, to intervene in behalf of the poor and vulnerable (widows and orphans) who are unable to supply their own social leverage’ (Brueggemann, Isaiah, 100). And in rather strong poetic language, the king comes to ‘smite’ and to ‘slay’ the wicked: in other words, to put a stop to those who prey upon, exploit and abuse the meek, vulnerable and poor.

What was being said had radical political implications. This was not about a private spirituality, what they might do once a week at Temple/ synagogue. This is what many of the OT prophets were passionate about, and it got many of them killed in the process. These are words that the rich powerful rulers didn’t want to hear. It got John the Baptist, who we’ve heard about today, put to death. Like the prophets before him, his message was too strong.

This revolutionary message is a reminder that Jesus cannot be reduced to a private salvation and what we do here on Sundays. It’s a reminder that Jesus was received, celebrated and eventually crucified precisely for his embodiment and practice of social possibility. A new sociability that included all – white, black, coloured (in the terms of Apartheid Africa). This is the prophetic stance that Nelson Mandela lived for – living most of his life in solitude in a cell. The trust is uncomfortable – and power wants to lock it up. We remember him and his family today.

Any practice of public power must attend to issues of economic justice for the vulnerable. And we should remind our politicians – of all persuasions – that their role is not simply to create free space for the working of the market, but to remember and maintain economic viability for all members of society. I’m not suggesting this is straightforward, or even that one political party necessarily does this better than another. I’m sure Mr Cameron/ Mr Osborne and Mr Miliband and Mr Balls (and others) will have a difference of opinion on how best this is achieved. But it’s the challenge and vision that we must hold our politicians to account.

It’s clear from this passage that the ‘spirit of the lord’ is in the business of making systemic reparations for the poor and marginalised. If there was a campaigning slogan for this it would be: ‘righteousness, justice’ for all.

What are the sorts of challenges we face today? Because this vision can’t be something that is unreal, something we might dream about at church on Sundays. Where does our faith connect with the real world, with real problems and real oppression? What are some of the issues in this part of London? We heard some of them at our deanery synod this week. 

There is, of course, the serious issue of affordable housing. Kensington & Chelsea, and Westminster has one of the highest sex industry in the whole of the country – with women trafficked not so far from here. Rahab is a charity in Earls Court that works alongside the police in providing support and a way out. It’s difficult to believe but in Kensington there is now a need for food banks – one being run at St Luke’s Radcliffe Square. We have challenged our energy by regularly supporting the homeless through the Upper Room and Broadway. As a deanery we are in touch with Credit Union, who are working at helping people in debt with crippling interest rates. Perhaps we might consider as a church making links here.

This all ties in with the first part of Isaiah’s vision – caring for the oppressed, the weak and vulnerable. Its about a new kingship and kingdom that would do exactly this.

The second part of our passage from Isaiah, from verse six, makes a big jump to a cosmic scale… the anticipation of a totally transformed creation. It includes a revision of animal-human relationships. Of wolf living with lamb, leopard with goat, of the lion becoming vegan.

It’s an extraordinary vision. Very difficult to know exactly how to make sense of it. Is a lion really a lion without doing the sort of things that lions have done in our ‘red in tooth and claw’ evolution world in which we have lived for millions of years? ‘Aggression and domination belong to the animal world, and it was ever thus….However, this poem is about the impossible possibility of the new creation! (Brueggemann, 103)

It’s a vision of the new creation, when death shall be no more (Rev 21.4)… it will bring to an end the devouring competition and the old practice of the big ones eating the little ones.

In such a kingdom and with such a ruler, whose slogan is ‘righteousness’ – or right relationships – children will play at the snake’s hole. The rightly governed world of God’s kingdom will be one where the powerful do not dominate the weak, where violence will be absorbed and vanquished by love, a life that will include no more threat to the poor, the meek, the children, the lamb or the kid. The new world will be a safe place for the vulnerable.

Isaiah’s poem then symbolically mentions Jerusalem but envisions the whole earth… all of creation will be filled with the knowledge of Yahweh. The poem is about deep, radical, limitless transformation in which we – like lion, wolf, and leopard – will have no hunger for injury, no need to devour, no yearning for brutal control, no passion for domination.

This is the vision that Isaiah held out to his people... and it is a challenge to us today. It’s a transformation that we are invited to contemplate and start enacting now, this Advent. It is both a gift and then a vocation. It is of course not possible – except that the sprout comes from the stump by the spirit! It is the Spirit who gives life where was is not – it is the Spirit who transforms.
Holland Park Benefice