Personal Kenosis

Sunday 20th June 2010
Year C, The Third Sunday after Trinity
St John The Baptist, Clayton
Isaiah 65:1-9

It must be pretty depressing coming to church to be confronted with a reading like todays from Isaiah; it makes you wonder whether it's all worth it. Here you are, sitting faithfully listening to me when you could be doing so many other things; and there they are, washing their cars, going down to Brighton, visiting relatives or just idling with the Sunday papers; and Isaiah tells you that while you're busy in church, those naughty people are going to find favour. Of course, it's not quite like that; Isaiah is actually inveighing against ritual uncleanness and idolatry but the underlying point is the same. Isaiah is tying his people down to some terrible rigmaroles which supposedly represent God's will.

Not for this God ritual prayers and sacrifices; he wants nothing to do with it; and, as Christians, we are made only too aware by Jesus that the prostitutes and extortionists will be in front of us at the pearly gates. It makes you wonder.

There is an easy answer which is that this God is against formalised ritual which takes the place of true worship and the leading of a holy life and, indeed, this theme is taken up in the last verse of the reading. But, all the same, the overall  impact of the passage is one which calls us to consider the way we conduct our relationships with God.

I have to say, my sympathies are with the people of Israel rather than Isaiah. The Old Testament speaks of their struggle to come to grips with an abstract God when they were not only surrounded but inter personated with pantheists, which explains the presence of pigs; and in view of their terrible tribulations as two small peoples continually crushed between mighty powers, they stayed pretty faithful. The Old Testament is riddled with their bouts of unfaithfulness and repentance but when did anybody record the good news equally with the bad! In spite of all their shortcomings, the Old Testament is a remarkable record of theological development so that by the end of the Exile there is a definite development towards an understanding of the heavenly kingdom and a leaning forwards towards a Messianic age. Whether or not you believe that Zechariah literally prophesied the coming of Jesus, his image of the Messiah riding on a donkey is theological light years away from crude expectations of a soldier king.

And, then again, the religious leaders of Israel spent a great deal of effort trying to work out what was the right thing to do, particularly for the atonement of sins; and for a poor nation, animals represented their only means of food storage and a principal  means of accumulating wealth. For most people, sacrificing animals was no small matter. And, finally on this point, it's a bit harsh, I think, to term this sort of attention to detail as Pharisaic; in most cases it was meant for the best.

As Christians we need to be particularly careful when we consider the trials and tribulations of a semi nomadic people trying to relate to an abstract God because it is impossible for us to think our way out of the concept of God incarnate in  Jesus Christ. The Chosen People had a praying tradition and a sacrificial ritual but they knew nothing of the God/man intercessor, Jesus Christ. And so, to that extent, we have much less excuse; for not only are we sisters and brothers in Christ, we are children of his resurrection.

So what are we to make of Isaiah's strictures?

First, you cannot substitute corporate ritual for individual holiness of life. What The Lord complains of is the resort to empty  ritual when we should be fully aware of an acknowledge our creatureliness, God's gifts of creation, ourselves and each other.

Secondly, it may be difficult but we really must try to get personal with god, to establish and  maintain a relationship through silent prayer and listening.

Thirdly, a right relationship with God involves concern for our neighbour. It is wrong to think that the Old Testament does not contain any moral teaching of value today but Jesus carried it to new levels of compassion and humility.

The word I would like to settle on here is Kenosis, referred to by Paul in his letter to the Philippians where he speaks of Jesus emptying himself of his Godhead to become truly man. If we are to imitate Jesus, we, too, must undergo our own form of kenosis; and what this means is distancing ourselves from a religion based on the imposition of our particular morality on  others. To be truly kenotic means to deny oneself the indulgence of judgment which is a power relationship and instead to leave oneself open as a space for others; it is as if we stopped putting all kinds of  people in pens, behind walls and behind bars and let them be all around us.

The danger which Isaiah identified, against my argument earlier, is that the rich used sacrifice as a form of display to increase their social, political and economic power. In other words, they were subverting religion for selfish purposes. Now I doubt that we would go that far ourselves, but most of us do have a tendency to be better behaved in public than we behave in private; indeed, one of the characteristics which distinguishes us as gentlefolk is that we keep ourselves to ourselves and consider bad behaviour in public to be vulgar.

Which leads me,  inevitably, back to Isaiah's warning against confusing appearance with reality. We are apt to judge on appearances when we know that they can be misleading but, God judges us on what is in our hearts. The true humour behind what Isaiah was saying was that all the burning animals, were, literally, a smoke screen that didn't fool God. Life's too short for us to spend any time trying to fool God. It doesn't work. We might as well get on with the hard and holy work of being humble.