Sermon for Mirepoix
Third Sunday of Easter, 26th April 2020
Readings: Isaiah 40.3-11; Luke 24.13-35
May these words of mine and the thoughts of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord.
Whenever I read this passage from Isaiah (chapter 40, verses 3-11) something inside me wants to shout, ‘No!’. I am disturbed by his vision of a world where every valley has been filled in, where every mountain and hill have been levelled, and every high place flattened until everywhere looks like the mid-west of America: rolling, uniform plains with nothing to break the horizon. I fine this landscape which Isaiah gives us utterly alien and repellent. He has reduced the world to a wasteland in order to create his ‘straight highway’.
We are, of course, children of the 20th century – arguably the most destructive period of human activity. It is difficult to read Isaiah’s words without them evoking the sort of terrible devastation that follows a nuclear holocaust. We have to live knowing that life-obliterating destruction on this sort of scale is more possible now than it has ever been. There are human hands that hover over red buttons.
A similar but less extreme outlook would be experienced by those people living where a new airport runway is planned or where the HS2 rail link, connecting London to the Midlands and North of England, is envisaged. Talk of levelling and flattening, bulldozing a landscape they value, will send out wholly negative feelings. ‘Why,’ these people might ask, ‘should the environment be ‘straightened’ just so that a faster route can be constructed?’
These responses, however, are taking Isaiah’s words literally rather than metaphorically. We are only seeing things through the limited prism of our own time.
For most of the millennia homo sapiens has been prowling the earth, the natural landscape has presented problems in terms of communication. Getting from A to B was often fraught with difficulty. There were forests to penetrate, rivers to cross, mountain ranges to find a pass through, seas to navigate. These days, send messages anywhere in the world in a split-second is routine. Getting physically from here to Australia can take little more than 24 hours. Our world is a completely different place to that known by Isaiah. We need to understand how enormously frustrating it must have been for our ancestors, longing to be part of a community united around shared beliefs, but confronted all the time by a challenging and often hostile environment. It’s no surprise that the land, beyond the relative security of the towns and cities, is so often denounced in The Bible as ‘wilderness’ or ‘desert’.
It was not until the eighteenth century, that Europeans first began to appreciate wild places. The Romantics (people like Wordsworth and Coleridge) began to write about the mental and emotional effects of being exposed to an untamed landscape. More and more people began to seek out places that had never been explored or to take refuge (even if just for a fortnight’s holiday) in nature. It may be, of course, that the world’s most developed nations are beginning to recognise that this sort of wilderness tourism is no longer viable. If we continue to trespass into these wild places to the extent that we are, they will seek to exist. I wonder what Isaiah would have thought about that.
Isaiah’s purpose here is to imagine a landscape where nothing will be able to block out God’s glory. With the high places cleared away, his voice can carry more easily throughout the world.
What he then goes on to give us could actually be seen as a startlingly contemporary picture which would chime perfectly with a 21st century environmentalist’s view. He collapses the notion that humankind is the most important creature on the planet. The prophet shouts that humankind is as ephemeral as the grass and flowers, withering and fading as the seasons come and go. If we thought we were extra-special and super-important: forget it. Only God endures. Only God rises above the tyranny of the natural order of things.
It would be an awesome, terrifying and chillingly bleak message if Isaiah ended it there. But he doesn’t. Having made sure his listeners are aware of the ‘otherness’ of God and his almost alien authority, he pulls them back to a very domestic, comforting and (for his contemporaries) wholly familiar image: that of a shepherd gathering his lambs. Now instead of a terrifying vast landscape we are invited to picture fields and grassy slopes, where the sheep and goats graze with villagers living contentedly alongside their flocks.
So let’s recap on where Isaiah has taken us. In these eight verses, he spins us from a scene of vast plains with no identifiable features in the terrain. Like a seismic force, the message coming from the mouth of God has levelled everything in its path. Humankind, he then tells us, the most sophisticated living organism that ever inhabited Earth, is reduced to the equivalent of grass. Nothing that lives has any significance compared to the awful power of God. Then, finally, Isaiah reassures us with an image of this omnipotent God transformed into a compassionate shepherd.
It’s quite a journey. Let’s apply some parallels.
Many recent commentators have said that the pandemic is a leveller. It respects no-one. High status people like heirs to the throne and prime ministers can catch covid-19. Death fingers us all equally. That’s not quite true of course. We know that the elderly are more vulnerable and most at risk of succumbing to the virus. And those living in extreme poverty or without the resources to keep their distance from their neighbours are more likely to pick up the infection. But pandemics, along with other cataclysmic natural forces, do remind us that we, as a species, are not all-powerful despite the extraordinary capabilities we have developed over the centuries.
Reminding us that, for all our sophistications, we are still part of the natural order of things has particular relevance for today. For the first time in history we are having to face, as a mater of critical importance, our responsibility for managing climate and the environment. In this regard, David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg have things to say which chime closely with Isaiah’s words, “All humanity is grass and all its beauty like the wild flower’s.”
The image of the Good Shepherd, which Isaiah gives us, was beloved by 19th century evangelists. There are quite a few C of E ‘Good Shepherd’ primary schools in the UK. The image has perhaps got tangled up with a traditional Sunday school picture of ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ and fallen out of fashion. It doesn’t help that modern shepherds, if we are familiar with them at all, often race around on a quad bike. And those of a vegetarian or vegan persuasion probably struggle to respond favourably to a profession that fattens animals for slaughter.
It’s a good thing, therefore, that we, have the picture of Jesus as his disciples encountered him on the road to Emmaus. This incident is easy to imagine. It has a familiarity about it. You’re on a journey; you meet a congenial stranger and conversation soon progresses beyond small talk. Important ideas are discussed and opinions shared.
I like the way that Cleopas and his companion are open to new concepts. They freely confess their disappointment that Jesus did not live to liberate Israel as they were expecting. They are clearly still reeling from a suspicion that Jesus’ tomb has been desecrated and his body dishonoured. But despite these preoccupations, they respond positively to the explanations this stranger on the road offers them. They see in this traveller a man who has a fresh and compelling way of looking at things. He brings them hope and renewed optimism. They have made a new friend and so it is natural enough that they should offer him some hospitality at the end of the day.
Jesus on the road to Emmaus is God incarnate, God in a familiar human form. He is fulfilling the same function as the shepherd that Isaiah gave us. Jesus is engaging and sympathetic. There is nothing supernatural about him until he disappears. Indeed it is when he is at his most human, sitting at a table, sharing a meal, that his divine nature is most apparent.
For me, the Emmaus encounter is one of the most moving events recorded in The Bible. I think the juxtaposition of the extremely ordinary followed by that flash of revelation is really compelling. This, I think, is an example of how many of us might encounter God. If we keep ourselves open to his influence, as Cleopas and his friend did, then it is possible to find ourselves (in C.S Lewis’ phrase) ‘surprised by joy’. It is like (as Gerard Manley Hopkins describes it) catching sight of the blue-fire of a kingfisher in flight or the iridescent pattern on a dragon-fly’s wing.
These are the epiphanies we need to live for because they are the moments – certainly, this is how I feel – when the spiritual is most obviously grafted onto or embedded within the physical. These are the moments of ‘enlightenment’ when we see things more clearly, when a pattern shines through the mud and muddle that so often blur things.
I think it is at times such as these virus-riddled days, when the whole world seems to be spinning on a different axis, that seeing things in this sharper perspective may become easier. Old certainties have been shaken, what used to be routine and predictable is anything but, a future tidily mapped out may now be no more than fantasy. We are forced to review and reappraise. We are given the chance to ask ourselves what really matters. We can consider taking a change of direction.
Perhaps this new perspective is what Isaiah wanted to convey when he flattened the hills and filled in the valleys. He wanted us to look at the world around us, this place where we live out our brief span, in a different way. He did not want us to see it as a place full of obstacles and obstructions but as somewhere where the breath of God could blow freely and powerfully.
Verse 10 of chapter 40 in my ‘Jerusalem’ translation of the Bible reads: “Here is Lord Yahweh coming with power, his arm maintains his authority, his reward is with him and his prize precedes him.” The first half of the verse is clear enough – we have just been given an image of how fragile we are when blown upon by the breath of God. The second half of the verse is less straightforward. I am particularly intrigued by that word ‘precedes’. What prize can come in advance of God? When verse 11 goes on to tell us that God is like a shepherd, gathering the lambs and taking them to their mothers, and knowing (as we do) that Jesus is this shepherd, it becomes clearer. It is Jesus, the incarnation of God, who has come forward. And it is Jesus’ work, begun on the cross and completed through the resurrection, which is the prize. Clearly, that which God prizes is nothing less than the salvation of humankind.
That is humbling. It is even more awesome than staring out over a landscape where every mountain has been levelled.
To recognise the salvation that is being given to us, to be appreciative of this enormous gift, is surely what our life’s work needs to be.
It is to be regretted if it takes a pandemic to nudge the human race to that realisation. Perhaps it should be the mission of those of us who, occasionally, glimpse God at work to tell others what we can see. If enough of is do, maybe never again need it take cataclysm, catastrophe or apocalypse to show us how humankind fits into the pattern – a pattern which is God’s awesome plan.