Sermon for Williamstown
17th of November, 2013
Over this past week I have been reading and watching the news from the Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan has affected millions of people; hundreds of thousands are displaced and thousands dead. As always, there’s a lag between the initial disaster and the time that emergency supplies can reach people affected, and so people have been left without food and water, shelter and medical aid, surrounded by the bodies of the dead.
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, everything God made was very good. And yet, despite the goodness of God’s creation, we see a world around us in distress. Where there should be peace, we see violence and catastrophe. Where there should be joy, we see sorrow and rage. Women die in childbirth; children die of preventable illnesses; men and women die of war, famine, disease and, as we’ve been reminded this week, natural disasters. This is not the way the world should be, we know this. We know it because the story of the creation has given us a vision of how God wants the world to be. We know it because throughout the centuries the prophets cried out for justice, telling the people what God wants for us. We know it because in Jesus Christ God came and lived among us and showed us what a Godly life looks like. Today’s reading from Isaiah is just one of the many, many, biblical descriptions of God’s good intentions for God’s beloved creation.
Over the past couple of months the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures have been leading us through the story of the Babylonian Exile, from the prophetic warnings, through lament at the destruction of Jerusalem, to Jeremiah’s advice to the exiles on how to live in Babylon, to the hope of return. Now the return has happened, the promise has been fulfilled.
Today’s reading comes from the author known as Third Isaiah, and it’s written after the Exile had ended, when many of the exiles had returned to Jerusalem. The Exile was over, and yet the expectations of Second Isaiah had not been fulfilled. Life was difficult. There was no new and glorious kingdom. In the midst of this despair another prophet arose, writing in the tradition of Isaiah. While First Isaiah had warned of the destruction to come, and Second Isaiah had offered the people hope in their Exile, now Third Isaiah offers them hope in the disappointment of their return, the hope of a new creation.
In the Hebrew Scriptures it is only in the writings of Third Isaiah that we find the description “new heavens and a new earth”. They are to be created by Yahweh, the only one who can create anything. Second Isaiah had talked from Exile about creation and about newness, and Third Isaiah is drawing on his predecessor. But Third Isaiah is also looking back to Genesis, echoing the story told there about the hope for creation and the dashing of those hopes. Bit by bit Third Isaiah tells of the hope that the new creation will overcome all the evils of the violation of that first creation.
The story in Genesis tells us that because of their sin, the man and the woman exiled themselves from God, hiding in the garden. One of the results of sin is separation from God. And this separation, Third Isaiah promises us, will be overcome in the new creation: “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.”
In the creation story in Genesis God cursed Adam and told him that feeding himself and his family would become hard work, only to be done by the sweat of his brow. Now Third Isaiah tells us of God’s blessing: “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”
The creation story tells us that God said to Eve: “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.” Third Isaiah writes: “They shall not labour in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord — and their descendants as well.” With the exception of the poor serpent, still condemned to eat dust, everything that went wrong at creation will be restored when God creates the new heavens and the new earth for which all creation longs.
The hope that Third Isaiah offers the exiles who have returned is of a new world of justice and peace: “No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.”
We know that this is the way that God intends the world to be. And so as people who seek to follow the way of Christ, we’re called to respond to the way the world is now is, the ways in which it falls short of what God intends, with prayer and action. We can preserve justice and to do what is right in the confidence of knowing that salvation will come and creation will be delivered. In our hope and faith that God will not leave the world as it is, we’re able to light candles in the present darkness, knowing that the darkness will not overcome them, and that soon there will be light. “The people who walked in deep darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”
Even now, in the midst of overwhelming disaster, candles can be lit to defy the darkness. Rev. Andy Tiver, a Uniting Church minister, is currently living and working in the Philippines. He is in a UnitingWorld placement with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, the UCCP, our partner church. Andy has been keeping us up-to-date and I want to read to you from one of his Facebook posts because it describes the way in which the churches in the Philippines and around the world are seeking to shine lights in the darkness:
It is a privilege to be at the centre of the church response to this crisis working in the ACT Alliance coordination centre – to see the different churches and church-related agencies working together and working with so much determination to bring needed relief to the people – much of it going to some of the most badly affected areas, and those places where other organizations have not reached … Sometimes that sense of being part of the body of Christ and a world community that is so committed to meeting the needs of the suffering and vulnerable fills one with a sense of gratitude that is almost overpowering.
It is also a real inspiration to be working in the NCCP compound and see throngs of people, young and old, from all different churches and walks of life, working all day and then all night under flood lights – packing food and clothing and other things. The big trucks coming in and being filled up. When they drive out the gate I want to cry because I think of how much this means to those who have been so hungry and have lost so much and will receive this support. Each bag is food for a week for a family, each truck is filled with thousands of bags, and then I think of how so many people have worked together to make it possible …
There are still huge needs here; it is true that the relief response confronted huge logistical problems (and to a great extent still does) but at least now food, water and basic necessities are beginning in increasingly large quantities to get to the people in desperate need. There is still a long, long way to go, the needs are still desperately urgent, and the trauma of this event and the cost in terms of what people have lost will take many years for people to recover from. But the Filipino people are and incredibly strong and resourceful people. The press might present the situation in the affected areas as anarchic, with people set against each other in the struggle to survive. The greater reality is that most people were and still are making sacrifices for others, reaching out to support each other and working as a community even in the midst of great stress. The Filipino people are a very special people. Thanks be to God. Lord have mercy.
And I also want to share with you some words from the General Secretary of the UCCP, Bishop Reuel Marigza:
… This tragedy must not deter us from our calling as Christians, whose commitment to serve is inspired by the giver of life himself, Jesus Christ.
These are trying days and challenging times as well. Let us not falter nor shirk from that calling to serve, for this means also serving God, the greatest giver of all.
This tragedy no matter how harrowing beckons our Church towards greater unity to serve the marginalized. If once again we find ourselves in the midst of disaster, such disaster that befalls us cannot divide us – no hunger or misery can ever separate us – because we are an inclusive and compassionate community in the bond of God. As a faith community, we locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless.
In the time in which we live, death and suffering can seem to be all-conquering. But we can be sure that in God’s measure of things, joy, delight, and life will prevail. Suffering and death are real. But until we reach that day when, the Lord tells us, “they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” we can respond to suffering and death as a faith community serving the world for which Christ died, and giving to those in need in imitation of the God who gives us everything. This is what the UCCP, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, and the members of the ACT Alliance are doing in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, and this is what we can do as their partners. God’s new world of justice and peace in which the sound of weeping or the cry of distress will no longer be heard is coming, and until it comes our job is to live so that God’s will may be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
To donate money to the Uniting Church’s Typhoon Appeal, please click here.
To donate money to the National Council of Churches’ Act for Peace Typhoon Appeal, please click here.