A sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

Isaiah 40:1-11

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying… Amen.

Comfort, O comfort my people,
   says your God.
(Isaiah 40:1)

These words, so familiar to us, known to us in liturgy and in concert halls, were spoken to the people of Israel in a context that has powerful significance. These words are not about the gentle comforting presence of God when we feel a little bewildered, a little dejected. These words are about an alternative reality, an alternative world, a world where God is, where God speaks, where God acts. Where God brings home.

The context is exile. The people of Israel were deported to exile in Babylon and there they lost everything that told them who they were. Their temple, their place where their sacred texts were read and wrestled over, … their land, a land promised by God that they had journeyed through the wilderness generations before to find, … their king, a king given to them by God after their repeated urging to God of their need for a royal leader. Temple, king, land are all gone, razed to the ground and the people are taken away to a strange land where they are invited to embrace a new identity, to be Israelites no more, to sing Babylonian songs of worship to Babylonian gods on Babylonian land.

In the theological world view of the Old Testament writings, God sent God’s people into exile as a punishment for their disloyalty. The story of the creation of a golden calf by the people of God who were fed up waiting for God gives great insight. Being in covenant relationship with God is difficult. Waiting and praying and hoping and caring for the widow and the orphan and the stranger in the land, walking humbly with God, is a lifetime of patience and courage and hope. And the people of Israel often found that it is easier to worship another God, be it a calf of gold, or one of the many other gods on offer in our time and place.

And so the people of Israel found themselves in exile punished for their lack of loyalty. But exile is not forever.

Isaiah speaks. Isaiah speaks of coming home.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, Isaiah says,
   and cry to her
that she has served her term,
   that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
   double for all her sins.

The sins of worshipping other gods have been washed away. There is a new possibility. An identity which is held in memory.

And the journey home, to a home held in memory, is imagined.

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
 Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain.
 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
   and all people shall see it together,
   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

The highway Isaiah speaks of is the highway home. The way of the Lord will lead the people home via lifted valleys, and mountains and hills lowered, and levelled ground. This is radical work this highway building but there is no doubt this shall be done. The mouth of the Lord has spoken.

A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
   And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
   their constancy is like the flower of the field.
 The grass withers, the flower fades,
   when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
   surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
   but the word of our God will stand for ever.

The people know about the frailty of human life. And in exile there is nothing but that frailty. The withering grass and the fading flower is all that is real. Frailty is all there is. Until the prophet speaks. Until the prophet calls into the people’s memory – do you remember from whence you came? Do you remember Jerusalem? We are people of God. And the word of God will stand forever.

Walter Brueggemann reflects on Isaiah’s words in this way. He describes the prophet as a poet.

“The use of these two metaphors, exile and homecoming, is an act of remarkable evangelical imagination. The homecoming metaphor makes sense only where the metaphor of exile has been accepted as true. …Isaiah’s poetry of homecoming is precisely imaginative poetry which liberates. … It is an imaginative act of speech that intends to evoke reality and lead this community out of its present situation. The poetry is grounded in the theological conviction of God’s sovereignty. … The poetry … is not explained by theological conviction or by political analysis, but by an inventive, creative act of poetry that means to speak this community out beyond present circumstance by the force of the poetic word, which is offered as the fresh decree of God’s own mouth. …The very art of poetic speech establishes a new reality.”[1]

The new reality, the reality of a world a created by God, loved by God, restored by God, is established by the prophet’s speech, by poetry. The exiles are reminded of their identity, the memory of who they were, people of Jerusalem, not people of Babylon, by poetry.

And so our passage this evening from Chapter 40 of Isaiah’s prophecy ends with an exhortation to speech.

Get you up to a high mountain,
   O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
   O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
   lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
   ‘Here is your God!’

The people are called to speak, to be witnesses to the truth of God.

I wonder then, about our Babylon, where it is that we are in exile. Many in our world are literally in exile, far from home, when home has become unsafe. For those of us fortunate enough to live in relative safety, though, this image, exile, can still inform us. For I wonder if we not in our time and place almost in exile in the written and spoken word. If we are not in exile from wise speech, from profound literature, from an appropriate articulation about issues in politics and international affairs, about concerns for our environment.  If our world is not one where the truth that comes from deep reflection and careful and respectful discussion is lost in texts and tweets and FaceBook whose content is driven more by fear and self interest than the desire to help bring in a better, fairer world. Might it be that our exile is in the place where speech manipulates and distorts rather than informs and guides towards freedom.

Might it be that into our exile the voice of the prophet speaks?

Comfort, O comfort my people,
   says your God.

That in this wilderness of barren and manipulative speech that characterises so much of public interaction in our time and place the prophet proclaims the possibility of a highway home to deep expression of the truth of God, whose speech causes creation, whose Word made flesh brings redemption to all things.

Where do we hear the prophet’s voice? Where do we find its expression? I think we know …that one place is in this place …

How lovely that this night we heard for the first time a new Motet, commissioned by Leonie Hempton OAM for the Cathedral Choir
to take on tour and written by our own Rachel Bruerville (b.1991) – Locus Iste

Locus iste a Deo factus est, This place was made by God,
inaestimabile sacramentum; a priceless sacrament;
irreprehensibilis est. beyond reproach.  

It is in this place, our Cathedral, this night, that we hear the prophet’s voice calling us out of exile, calling us to the memory of our identity in God, calling us home.

[1] Walter Brueggemann Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile pp. 94-5.