(Isaiah 61: 4-9)
How do you see the future of the Church in the United Kingdom? I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many of you here are feeling a great deal of concern at the declining influence of the Church and its values in British society.
Certainly, the traditional beliefs and moral values of Christianity seem to have been pushed out to the margins of national life. And contrary to popular belief, it’s not other religions that are the problem. In fact, I believe strongly in treating all faiths with respect. And it’s all too obvious that for society at large, the so-called equal respect for different religions is in reality an equal disrespect. Try wearing a religious symbol at work, offer to pray with a vulnerable patient or student, or defend the place of religious education in state schools, if you want to see this prejudice in action. National government, local government, the public services, the business sector, the media…. All are guilty of paying lip service to a multi-faith society while making fewer and fewer concessions to the beliefs and values that so many ordinary people in this country hold dear.
In the case of Christianity, this tendency to push faith to the sidelines of public life is all the more damaging, because it contradicts not just people’s individual beliefs, but the ancient spiritual and moral values that have shaped the society we live in. To deny those spiritual and moral values is not tolerance, it is not social harmony; it is denial of the very foundations of our nationhood and our society.
So what does the Bible say about this? Does it give any comfort, any reassurance to those alarmed at this nationwide backlash against our Christian heritage?
I believe this evening’s reading from Isaiah shines a valuable light on the prospects for the Church in this country. I fully expect that in the short term things may get worse before they get better. But this prophecy from Isaiah represents a shining promise that ultimately our saviour God and the Church of Christ will be vindicated, will be victorious, will reflect God’s glory in this land.
In order to understand the relevance to our own times, we need to remember that these last chapters of Isaiah were composed at a crucial time in Israel’s history. After at least two generations in captivity in Babylon, a courageous group of exiles had returned to Jerusalem with high hopes for a new life back in the Promised Land of their forefathers.
And what did they find when they got there? In a word, disillusionment. The sacred buildings were in ruins. The people now living there embraced a host of alien religious cults, and bitterly resented the newcomers trying to re-establish worship of the God of Abraham. Even God himself seemed remote – the Temple no longer seemed vibrant with the presence of the living God as it had been described to them by their grandparents. It seemed to many that God himself had forsaken his people.
What a picture of the Church as it exists in most parts of Britain today: run down, isolated, powerless, resented by so many in the surrounding community. And yet, in the midst of all that heartbreak, the prophetic voice of God was moving afresh, giving hope for the future and strength for the moment. And I believe that the glorious promise of God to those returning exiles is also God’s promise to the body of Christ in this land.
Let’s look briefly at a couple of the promises in this passage:
1. God says in verse 4, “You will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long-devastated.” If we look around this country, we see thousands of churches that have been demolished, or converted into flats, restaurants, furniture warehouses, even mosques and temples. In recent decades there has been a declining demand for all these as place of Christian worship. But I take this verse as a promise that the church will one day grow again, to the point where our sacred buildings will once again throng with worshippers and form the heart of the communities around them.
2. Then, in verse 7, God says through the prophet, “Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance.” Of course, some of the leaders of different denominations have done much to discredit their churches, but for those of us who see the goodness of God at the heart of the church, it is frustrating to see TV and newspaper coverage of the church dominated by shame and disgrace: stories of child abuse, marital infidelity, greed and intolerance. How reassuring then, to be reminded that our sovereign God promises blessing instead of shame, and instead of disgrace, rejoicing in our inheritance.
So, if we accept these promises, what is the way forward? Firstly, we must never allow ourselves to be seduced by despair, never adopt the scepticism of the society around us, never believe that Christianity has lost the battle, never forsake our distinctive beliefs and moral values. For we have a loving, sovereign God who – as we know from scripture and long experience - keeps his promises.
Secondly, God’s promise to the returning Hebrew exiles was eventually fulfilled in the coming of Christ, God’s living presence in the midst of their community. And when we, the Church in this land, are fully willing to be Christ for the world, with all the costly self-sacrifice that entails, then the promises of this prophecy will be fulfilled for us.
And what promises they are. Paraphrasing the words of Isaiah’s prophecy, God will reward us, he will make a renewed covenant with us, and all peoples of every culture will be able to see that we Christians are a people whom God has blessed. Let’s bow our heads in prayer.