Sermon for Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 18 August 2013
A Sermon Preached by Fr Gerald Beauchamp at Evensong & Benediction on the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity, 18 August 2013
Readings: Isaiah 28. 9-22; 2, Corinthians 8. 1-9
In the year 701BC King Hezekiah of Judah launched an attack on Assyria, the empire expanding on his northern boundary. He thought that Egypt (to the south) would support him. During this period Babylon to the east supported Egypt because Babylon itself was under Assyrian control. King Hezekiah’s strategy failed. Egypt’s moral support was not backed up by troops. The Assyrians pushed back hard and laid siege to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was only saved from being sacked because the Assyrian general Sennacherib, son of King Sargon II was summoned back to Nineveh to put down a coup. But the Assyrians exacted a heavy tribute from the people of Judah. The gold doors of the temple were taken off and handed over along with much other gold and silver.
The years leading up to this crisis are the context for this evening’s first lesson. Judah (as ever) was being squeezed by much larger powers yet trying to preserve as much independence as possible. Hemmed in by Assyria, Babylon and Egypt this unholy ‘trinity’ was the backcloth against which Judah’s internal power structure struggled to achieve some sort of balance and cohesion.
Judean society stood (and fell) on three pillars. There was the monarchy established under King Saul around 300 years before Hezekiah. There was the Temple set up by King Solomon staffed by its priests. And then there were the prophets – the wild cards. They could say anything to anyone. Their oracles came from God. But Judah’s tragedy like Israel’s was that when the internal ‘trinity’ of prophet, priest and king was most needed to oppose the threat of the external ‘trinity’ of Assyria, Babylon and Egypt, Judah’s own triumvirate was too often found wanting. Hezekiah was a stupid king but he and the nation could have been saved if the priests and prophets had served him well. But they didn’t. Why? Because they were drunk.
In the verses immediately before this evening’s lesson Isaiah castigates prophets and priests who are so drunk that they stagger. The tables where they sit are ‘covered in vomit’, he says. Society (literally) is in a terrible mess. The exact nature of the drink problem is unknown. The priests and prophets may have been wastrels but they also have been trying to use alcohol to induce a mind-altering state. Cultures then and now sometimes encourage the use of substances to see this world in another light or see another world altogether. Like some of you I come from the ‘Lucy-in-the-sky-with-diamonds’ generation. Indeed, if you think back to the day of Pentecost when the disciples preached like prophets – ecstatically yet also directly – the scoffers in the audience said that the disciples were drunk – ‘filled with new wine’ (Acts 1. 13).
Well, for whatever reason Judah was in trouble. Hezekiah the king was not politically astute and the priests and prophets were out of it. What was in short supply was ‘knowledge’: ‘Whom will he (i.e. the Lord) teach knowledge, and to whom will he explain his message?’ asks Isaiah. In other words: ‘How is God going to get through to his people?’ ‘Who will make God’s message known?’ The usual channels of communication had failed.
The next few verses are obscure and there is some debate about how they are to be translated. Will God use infants to be his prophets? ‘Those weaned from milk, those taken from the breast?’ Isaiah then appears to mock: ‘For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.’ It’s not clear if Isaiah is chiding the drunken priests and prophets who are talking nonsense under the influence or whether he’s imitating them imitating him sarcastically as he goes through their misdemeanours but whichever it is, Isaiah is pointing to the lack of proper discussion. There’s no serious talk. Straightened times need straight talking but that isn’t happening.
‘Truly with stammering lip and with alien tongue (God) will speak to his people.’ The ‘stammering lip and the alien tongue’ is a reference to the Assyrian language: it sounded awkward and foreign. But these Assyrians, although they aren’t God’s Chosen People they are his chosen instrument for chastising his Chosen People. For Isaiah God is king of creation not just the people of Judah so he can range far and wide to mould them. God had given his Chosen everything. After the wanderings in the wilderness he had given them the Promised Land: a place in which to rest. (‘This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose.’) But the peace of God that passes all understanding that is to characterise the nation is nowhere to be seen. So Judah’s fate is sealed. It will ‘fall backwards and be broken, and snared, and taken.’ By Hezekiah allying himself with Egypt Isaiah foresees death for the nation.
International events, the ‘unholy trinity’ of Assyria, Babylon and Egypt had conspired with the un-whole and bankrupt ‘trinity’ of drunken priests, inebriate prophets and a foolish king to produce the perfect storm. Isaiah tried to ward off disaster with a different ‘trinity’: a three-fold exhortation that might be summed up as: ‘Sober Up. Grow Up .Make Up’.
- · ‘Sober up’: strive for genuine experience of God not spirituality out of a bottle.
- · ‘Grow up’: no more baby talk; no more scoffing; no more insincerity.
- · ‘Make up’: be more astute; don’t make enemies; be yourselves power-brokers not broken by the power of others.
‘Sober Up. Grow Up; Make Up’: not a bad motto for living.
- · ‘Sober Up’: far be it from me to preach temperance in a church that has its own bar but sobriety does seem to be in short supply sometimes here in the West End. I’m all for a good time but walking around the streets here as I do most of the week I see an awful lot of people who think that they’re having a good time but obviously aren’t. Its hard to believe that the enormous sums of money that go into various substances both licit and illicit couldn’t be put to better use.
- · ‘Grow Up’: From time to time our politicians promise us the end of ‘yah-boo politics’. Well, we’re still waiting. The decline in membership of political parties in this country is a serious threat to our way of life. Public life suffers greatly from a lack of informed and serious debate about the issues of the day. The church ought to be setting an example but too often it doesn’t.
- · And as for ‘Make up’: the world cries out for peace but few are the peacemakers.
Isaiah however was always more than a prophet of doom. He was a prophet of hope. ‘See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation.’ This image of rebuilding after destruction would become part of the grammar of the Christian proclamation. ‘The stone rejected would become the cornerstone.’ Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, the holy and undivided Trinity was seen by the church to be the fulfilment of Isaiah’s hope. After death comes resurrection.
So as we make our way through the season of Trinity let’s sober up if we need to, grow up if we have to and make up if we should. Amen.