Arise! Shine! Our Light has come!

Posted 18/06/2019 11:53am in
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Arise!  Shine out!  Your light has come...


Those words come from chapter 60 of the book of Isaiah and they are addressed to the people of Israel.  They had been under the yoke of the Babylonians and a generation of them had suffered exile along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Babylon.  Now God was calling them home.  The Persian king Cyrus had ascended the throne and he implemented a more benign form of rule than the Babylonians he had defeated,releasing exiles and encouraging peoples to restore their own religious beliefs and practices.  The light had come for the Jews and they had been given the opportunity of a new beginning.


The positive and upbeat messages in Isaiah come from the third part of his prophesy but if we go to opening of the "Book" we find a very different message.  In the very first chapter the prophet proclaims God's description of the Chosen People (Judah)...A sinful nation, a people weighed down with guilt, a breed of wrong-doers, perverted sons and daughters;  They have abandoned Yahweh, despised the Holy One of Israel, they have turned away from him.  The judgment goes on for the rest of the first part of Isaiah.  It makes for sombre reading, but the message is clear.  The people have wandered far from the covenant they had made with God and were now reaping the whirlwind.  God did not need to punish them for their sins, as their sins were bringing down their own destruction on the people. This harsh passage was most likely written during one of the two sieges carried out against the Holy City and rather than rally around the Hebrews and save them from their fate, God declares...Take your wrong-doing out of my sight.!


Why is this dominating my thinking at the present time?  It is because it is so easy to see much of what played out in 6th century B.C. reflected in our Church today.  While it is true that we have been poorly led by so many of our priests and bishops, God does not accept that as an excuse.  As they will need to answer for their actions and for their lack of action, so too will every baptised Christian be called upon to acknowledge our own failures of discipleship.


You will lie dead around the idols you have made!


Another great prophet was Ezekiel son of Buzi. While the chronology of the prophesy is at times difficult to establish, we are told he was actually in Babylon when he received his vision from God.  It does not make for good reading but one of the great judgments God makes in chapter 6 is something along these lines...


11 Thus says Yahweh God: Clap your hands and stamp your foot, and say, Alas for all the vile abominations of the house of Israel! For they shall fall by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence. 12 Those far off shall die of pestilence; those nearby shall fall by the sword; and any who are left and are spared shall die of famine. Thus I will spend my fury upon them. 13 And you shall know that I am Yahweh, when their slain lie among their idols around their altars, on every high hill, on all the mountain tops, under every green tree, and under every leafy oak, wherever they offered pleasing odour to all their idols. 14 I will stretch out my hand against them, and make the land desolate and waste, throughout all their settlements, from the wilderness to Riblah.  Then they shall know that I am Yahweh.


This goes to the core message of the prophet.  The people are undergoing terrible sufferings.  It is not because God is punishing them but because they have made unfaithful choices in the way they live.  They have chosen a path in life that will inevitably lead them to their present situation.  Israel had been consecrated to God, a nation set aside in order that all nations and peoples could come to know God.  They had chosen an alternative pathway.


These children of God had been seduced and conned by the idols of the land around them.  They claim to love Yahweh and pointed to the sacrifices and offerings continuing in the Temple, the prayers said, and the psalms sung every day to the honour of God.  They claimed they had not turned from God.  All they had done was add a few extra gods, created a pantheon over which Yahweh the God of Israel ruled.  This made them as a nation more acceptable to the gods of Canaan and they were better able to navigate the politics and social mores of their neighbours.  Why should they have only one God if their more adventurous neighbours have many more interesting gods?  If they did not stick their heads up over the parapet or draw attention to themselves by their ancient and strange ways, they might just survive in their contemporary world.  They were difficult times so what could be wrong with accommodating these alternative expressions of faith and life? 


For the prophets -  all of the prophets - Israel had dug her own hole and fell in it themselves.  They had no one to blame apart from their own failures, weaknesses and an unwillingness to put their obligations to God first and foremost in their lives.


When that times comes, I will be their God and they will be my people


It is impossible to speak of the prophets of Israel without including the passionate and troubled Jeremiah.  The language he uses is colourful, precise and scary as hell, but it is also abundantly clear.  He takes no prisoners and puts the will of God above everything else.  However, as it is with the other prophets, he sees a life beyond the exile.  While the people may have abandoned Yahweh, God does not abandon them.  The promises already made endure to the End even in the face of human sin.  Isaiah spoke of the Light coming to the people in exile. Jeremiah's resounding declaration thumping through the darkness of suffering speaks of a new covenant.  In one of my favourite biblical texts he speaks of a new future...


The days are surely coming, says Yahweh, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt - a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says Yahweh. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says Yahweh: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, 'Know Yahweh, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says Yahweh; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.


In other words, there is hope.  A time will come when the people will listen to God's messengers and return to faithfulness.  When they make that return, only then will know what it means to have Yahweh as their God.  Blessings and abundance depend on making the Sinai covenant a way of life.  This is a truly significant point.  God has a will for His people and a Way they are to follow if they are to collaborate in what God is doing in creation.  They cannot go their own way and blessings go only to the faithful.  God will be faithful but will Israel?


Now the angel of Yahweh went up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said, 'I brought you up from Egypt, and brought you into the land that I had promised to your ancestors. I said, "I will never break my covenant with you. For your part, do not make a covenant with the inhabitants of this land; tear down their altars." But you have not obeyed my command. See what you have done! So now I say, I will not drive them out before you; but they shall become adversaries to you, and their gods shall be a snare to you.' 


There could have been no doubt about this relationship with God.  On the occasions of their entry into Canaan this relationship between promise and faithfulness is made clear:

After the death of Moses the servant of Yahweh, the Lord spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses' assistant, saying, 'My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites. Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I promised to Moses. From the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west shall be your territory. No one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous; for you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful. I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for Yahweh your God is with you wherever you go.' (Joshua 1)


Write to the angel of the church in Pergamum and say, "Here is the message of the one who has the sharp, double-edged sword (2:12-17)


The Book of Revelations opens with seven letters to the seven church, with the number seven being a clue that what is said here is meant for all of the Church, for believers and faith communities of every place and every time.  Thus, we come to the point behind this short essay.  I believe we Australian Anglicans find ourselves very much on the receiving end of these seven letters.    All of us - individual believers and faith communities of every size and shape - stand under the same judgment poured out on Israel and Judah by Yahweh and proclaimed by the prophets.  Our demise in the world coincides with out inability and unwillingness to remain faithful to the revelations God has made to us.  We have gone along the ways of the world rather than follow the Way of God and look at the results!


Instead of talking about Israel in the reflections above, write down the word Anglican - or our own parish community, diocesan synod, bishop's meeting or parish council and those prophesies will make much more sense to us.  If not, then we are no different to people who found themselves on the banks of the Tyris during the exile in Babylon.  We have been seduced by the people of the land despite the warnings from God.  They Hebrew people would not listen to Samuel when he tried to tell them they had a special vocation to be a voice of God in the world.  They were not called by Yahweh to just another nation.  They were the means by which all of the peoples on earth were to find blessings (the promise to Abraham).  Note the form in which the Hebrew people made their demand of God:


19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, 'No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20 so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.' 


There we are.  We have achieved our goals and we have become like the other nations.  Instead of standing up loud and proud we have compromised the Gospel heritage and live as those in the world around us live.  We justify this by saying we are identifying with the people so that they may better hear what it is God is saying.  We proclaim a message of a loving God who loves us as we are, where we are, no matter what we do or fail to do.  And this is all to some extent true.  God loves the sinner but hates the sin.  QED!  Let's keep on with the way we are now living and in the End God will welcome us into his eternal kingdom.  Really?


But look what that has meant for our Anglican Church.  A former Archbishop of Melbourne told me how he could not discipline a young priest after he moved his girlfriend into the parish house.  The rector and the parish council had made it clear they had no problems with it and they would fight any attempts by the Diocese to take action.  Further to that, the Archbishop then went on to confess he would not be able to introduce legislation to the synod that would insist on sexual relationships being linked to a male and female couple within marriage.  It would get voted down by both clergy and laity.


Sadly, this is not something limited to Melbourne.  During my own time as an assistant Bishop in Ballarat, I sent a young man home from theological studies because he moved his girlfriend in to his house and had no plans to marry her.  He was asked to make a choice.  Marry, leave the lady at home or give up his priestly formation.  He chose the latter.  That decision came back to bite me years later when a group of clergy decided to rebel even though it was the right, proper and Gospel decision to make.


In both of those cases neither man ended up marrying the woman with whom he had been living.  The took the psalmist's encouragement to taste and see the good things of the Lord just a little too literally.  In this they were doing nothing but pursuing their equivalent of the gods of Israel in the land of Canaan - we also seek to be like other nations.  The world in which they minister, many of the people to whom they had been sent to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom live in this way and have no difficulty with it.  Indeed, they would see this crazy insistence on an external moral code an infringement of their fundamental human rights.  Afterall, what goes on in a bedroom has nothing to do with anyone else - and that includes God who probably has much better things to do than keep an eye on what people are doing!  How alluring that argument is and how easily has the bulk of our Church adopted it.


Were you there when they crucified our Lord?

We see it in so many similar situations today.  Our Church has chosen the way of silence over the Way of the Cross and I would love to understand their reasoning for this.  Embarrassed by the scriptures?  Uncertain of their own faith?  Spooked by the evils of clergy child abuse?  Not wanting to stand out against the noisy mobs?  Perhaps even having serious doubts about the truth and primacy of the revealed word of God in the Bible.  Our clerical leaders have failed to lead and in their silence fail to model for us the Way of Christ.  The ones who do end up speaking out often end up do us all a disservice.


I was heartened last week upon hearing how a group of "conservatives" within the United Church have demanded a ban on same gender marriages.  This in a Church that has adopted the practice - and sadly along with just about anything anyone feels free to allow for themselves.  It takes courage for such a group to make a stand like this, and so good on them.  Where was the Church with Israel Folau?   Where are our leaders present in the public square as Victoria begins legalized euthanasia?  Abortion?  Poverty and inequality in our community?  Why does no one turn to our bishops and clergy for insights and guidance on these and other important moral issues?  It is because they have nothing to offer.


Folau's comments were put in a way few mainstream believers would express the teaching but all he did was invite those particular groups of people to repent and to turn to God and so avoid eternal damnation.  Was that in itself wrong?  Is it not a part of what Christ expects of those who carry the responsibilities of baptism?  In the end, were his words nothing other than a literal reading of St Paul?  I cannot think of one Anglican clergyman who stood up and supported Israel's courage and intent and then went on to offer a slightly more nuanced presentation of what Paul was saying to the Corinthians.  Where we they during the debate over the moves to legislate same sex marriage?  Where will they be in local diocesan debates over what to do about such marriages?  If our synods go ahead and legalize blessings of these relationships, do they appreciate just how much they have become like Ancient Israel and how they are leading the Church into its own for of Babylonian exile?  Folau may well be lacking in the area of preaching skills but the response is not let us be like the other nations.


My sorrow comes from seeing how the Church leaders  will remain where they  have been for just about every moral issue of or time - the environment, population numbers, the over-sexualization of modern life, euthanasia, abortion, domestic violence, drugs, gangs in our streets, the myth of #Me too, and so on. The Anglican leaders will be like Israel of old, going along with other nations rather than standing firm in the way of the Lord.   It is already happening if we look at the rapid decline in our Church numbers.  With no moral leadership thousands of believers have gone elsewhere or abandoned their faith altogether.  That is a consequence for which our leaders will need to stand in judgment.


Perhaps it is time to remind our Church authorities of the warning issued by Jesus in Matthew 10:32-33...So, if anyone declares himself for me in front of others in the world, I will declare myself for him in the presence of my Father in heaven.  But, the one who disowns me in front of others, I will disown in the presence of my Father in heaven.


Christ's Karios is here

In the scriptures, the only time that matters is God's time - kairos in the Greek.  This stands over and against human time - kronos in the Greek.   My feeling in watching what is going on around the world is that like the Hebrew people standing on the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates in Babylon, we Christians have been told now the kairos is upon us.  We have an opportunity to repent of the past weaknesses, excesses and failures and begin again to collaborate in the ongoing works of the Son of God in creation.  It is up to all of us to initiate a return to the basics of our faith and to live the Way of Christ in the world.  Yes, it will mean a range of deaths, the certainty of us ending up in one way or another on the world's Golgothas but it is the way God has been renewing creation from the time Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden.


For too long we have sat back snugly ensconced in Zion (to quote Amos) while people abandoned our parishes, undermined Gospel initiatives, mocked God in the public square and did so unchallenged; introduced moral codes that are destructive for healthy human communities, abandoned the traditions of the past that have made us who we are and erected altars to the god of the self in the market places of our cities and towns.  We have reached the point where we need to hear the voice of God (through Amos again) declaring I detest the pride of Jacob, I hate his palaces, I mean to abandon the city and all it contains...only a few will escape to carry the bones out of the house.  Amos was writing about Israel's pursuit of the empty gods of the nations.  The nation will be abandoned...apart from a few, a remnant of what once was. 


That is where we are.  A sad and sorry remnant of what once was.  That remnant, however, is not all holy and pure.  It also includes clergy determined to stay on doing nothing until they can collect their super; Bishops who have worked hard and played the perfect political game to reach those dizzy heights;  Bishops who seek fame and fortune for being the 'first" to break the traditional mold and so gain notoriety; regular worshippers who have managed to turn themselves into big frogs in little ponds - and then the faithful, loyal disciples of Christ who come to Church to worship God despite the manifold sins and failings of the institution.  They are the true remnant and we find them in small, scattered communities around our cities and towns.  They are the ones who hear the Good News of the Kairos and double down in prayer, in celebrating the sacraments, in studying the Bible and in reaching out to the world in charity and love.  They are mostly silent because they feel they do not have the power and authority to speak and wait for heroic faithful leadership from those ordained to such ministries.  They wait and they wait.  They endure and survive one failing cleric after another and look with hope to the future.  It is in them God is at work, in them rather than in our Diocesan Councils, synods and the manifold Church committees that give us a veneer of doing something for God.


Arise!  Shine!  Your light has come...


And so, here we are, back to where we began, with the invitation from God.  I believe we are living in a time when God's Light has come to us.  After decades of ecclesiastical navel gazing, we are looking around us and finding closed parishes, diminishing congregations, growing debt and a clerical leadership unable to feed us with Heavenly Bread.  Things were better, more hopeful and exciting thirty or forty years ago. We said our prayers, celebrated our sacraments and reached out to the world through works of charity.  Our priests were out on the streets visiting the people, anointing the sick and spending time with believers and unbelievers alike to share the faith and to teach the Gospel.  Any politician or government tempted to bring in legislation they believed to be against the expectations of the Kingdom of God had to endure the public challenges of our Church Shepherds.  We studied the scriptures, argued theology, taught our children the ancient traditions of Christianity and sought to illuminate the way they should live in the world in order to make it a better place.  We tried to bring up responsible and informed young men and women who would engage with the world and not just condemn it.  So, what went wrong?


The Church turned away from any concept of a revealed Truth, that God has spoken through the scriptures and continues to speak through those same scriptures.  Led by our bishops and clergy, we were encouraged to abandon the whole idea of their being an objective moral code and to adopt the primacy of the "me-myself" philosophy of life.  We watered down any idea of sin, judgment, heaven and hell.  The Bible, Tradition, the Universality of the Church; the urgency of bringing Christ to the world, of mission and evangelism were all pushed to the margins in favour of what was trendy.  Everything went on hold while we spent decades in arguing over ordaining women to priestly ministry and the need to remove all male pronouns from our Bible and liturgy but little time on teaching people the way to pray and to explore and understand the Word of God.  We allowed our bishops to become CEO's and administrators, handed over control of the Church to lawyers and accountants, ordained priests who would toe the modern trendy expectations and chose bishops who would not rock the ecclesiastical status quo.  No matter how good you were in terms of theological education, how spiritual you were and blameless in your Christ-like living, you would never be offered a license to minister in a parish (in most Australian dioceses) unless you toed whatever the party line was at the time. Our present bench of Bishops is a sad illustration of that fact today. 


It is true that the world too has changed, that people no longer feel the same need for religion as they did twenty, thirty or forty years ago.  But that does not explain the demise of religious affiliation today.  We are a mere rump of what God expects us to be only on account of our own failures and our willingness to compromise on our sacred covenant with God, the New Covenant made in Christ and alive in the work of the Spirit.  It is not difficult to see clear parallels between Israel at the time of the Roman Wars, when the Temple was destroyed and thousands of Jews sent off into slavery, exile or to their graves.  They had spent more time fighting their own causes, protecting their own positions of power and their historical privileges than they did seeking to discern what God was saying to them and wanting to do through them.  They lost their Temple and their places of security because they wandered from God.  They failed to see the Messiah living among them because they demanded God send them the Messiah they felt they needed, the one who would meet their expectations.  And so they lost it all, just as we too, the Church in the West, is experiencing the loss of all we felt was dear to us.


But the world is turning.  The morality, politics and godlessness of the 60's and 70's are being seen for what they were:  empty promises, mirages of hope in a time of difficulty and change.  Our world today is electing the likes of Trump because they are sick of the meaningless and selfish living imposed by those who have the power to determine what is politically correct and acceptable in a modern liberated society.  The Far Right is gaining popularity across Europe because so many people feel they have been led into a dead end by the constant changing of the moral and social goal posts for our families, work-places and communities.  We have been crushed by identity politics, by movements, by minority groups, by pseudo-intellectuals who reject everything associated with religion and condemn the past as being colonial and therefore evil.  A buffoon like Trump is preferred to more of this drivel that seeks to silence those who object and seek to build a world around Gospel.


Arise! Shine!  Our Light has come...


Our Light has come and it is time for all Christians to stand up for Christ in the market places.  We are needed more than ever to be offering the world an alternative to the liberal ways of the godless as well as the absurd ways of the Far Right.  The Church needs to be doing what it has always done best, present the Gospel as being for all men and women.  We need to be washed in the blood of martyrdom, for the renewal of the Church and the proclamation of the Gospel can only come when we are ready to pay the high price of faithfulness.  It is the narrow way that is the way to the Kingdom and not many will want to follow it, preferring instead the wide open way, the way that has led us to where we are today.  But it is in our understanding that we are living in God's Kairos that gives us hope, determination and courage.


I cannot help but ponder the final words of Jesus to Peter after the Resurrection...John 21:18... Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.'  The time of our youth has long passed, and we no longer have the option of going wherever we wanted to go.  Now is the time for us to stretch out our hands and allow ourselves to be taken where God wants us to be going, even if it is not our preferred fate.  For Peter it was an indication of his coming martyrdom.  For us - well it means a thorough going repentance, a return to the basics of our faith and a commitment to engage the world with the Kingdom of God. 


Michael Hough

Linton, June, 2019