Unconditional glory

Sunday 15th September 2013
Year C, The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
St Peter's, Henfield
Isaiah 60
John 6:51-69

Never has the history of any people been self-recorded and externally recorded so diversely, in so much detail and so intensely, as the turbulent history of the Chosen People. And perhaps that history, with all its tragedy and triumphalism, has never been better encapsulated than in the Third Isaiah, encompassing Chapters 40-66 of the Book of Isaiah. Certainly there is hardly any passage in the whole of Scripture more triumphalist than Chapter 60 where the Gentiles flock to Israel as the dwelling place of the eternal, glorious Creator God who is seen, in spite of all reverses, to care for his people and who is, at this point, extending his benevolent reign to the whole world.

But even if we could read this text without knowledge of the razing to the ground of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, with the destruction of the Temple, the Islamic capture of the enfeebled but revered city in qqq, the Christian re-capture under the First Crusade in qqq, and the Islamic re-capture of qqq; and then the Medieval anti-Jewish pogroms, the hypocrisy of blaming Jews for lending the money at interest which Christians borrowed, and, of course, Hitler's 'final solution' in which so many respectable Christians inside and outside Germany connived, not to mention a near equivalent Stalinist persecution, we would still have to read this passage against the background of enslavement in and freedom from Egypt and the terrible exile of the 6th Century BC. It would have to be a pretty spectacular promise that could make up for all that pain and persecution. The phrases in Isaiah 60 that leap from the page are:

This Chapter, and even the verses I have just re-read, could engage us for hours but there are some key points which we should not let pass:

The first is, that this whole passage, like the rest of the Third Isaiah, is not a foretelling or a prophesy, in the fairground sense, it is an assertion of relationship, it is the statement of a claim by a human being who rests that claim on divine inspiration. Here is a man who says that the worst is over, that the past can finally be forgotten, that the future is bright, that God will be glorified in his restoration of the chosen people.

But, secondly, there is an extreme danger in this claim because it makes God's being glorified in the eyes of his people strictly conditional on those things coming to pass that the prophet says God has promised.

Thirdly, the establishment of God's glorious reign is conditional upon the willing obeisance of the Gentiles who will re-construct Jerusalem and whose kings will be the breasts from which Israel sucks.

Now we know from what happened between the death of Isaiah and the time we left home this afternoon that none of this is true. The Third Isaiah was chancing his arm; and even if you accept that this passage is simply a vision of aspirational dimensions, history has made a fool of prophesy.

Now here we reach the major difficulty with the juxtaposition of our Second Reading with the First. The easy answer is to say that whereas the testimony of the Third Isaiah is quintessentially unreliable, the testimony of Jesus through the medium of the Gospel of John is utterly reliable but I think that this would be a mistake. The problem for the Jews at the time of Isaiah and then at the time of Jesus was that they had no mechanism for recognising the Messiah but, then, they could not make up their minds what they were looking for, let alone agreeing a mechanism to identify it. So the passage from Isaiah rightly asserts the connection between human salvation and God's glory, a connection most strongly narrated in John Chapter 17 where Jesus says that the Father will be glorified in him as he in turn glorifies the Father in his death and that their mutual glorification will in turn make us glorious. We are part of God's plan of unconditional glory.

In our Second Reading that glory is not of the cosmic type but is framed in terms of Jesus' giving of himself in Eucharist. Earlier in the same Chapter, Jesus explains how his body as bread for the world is in a different category from the manna which fed the Jews while they were in the wilderness; and in this explanation Jesus is perfectly clear about the giving of himself: that is what puts his promise into a completely different category from that of Isaiah.

But that is not to devalue what Isaiah says, because the Jews have stuck firmly to their faith in the promise, in spite of their suffering and persecution; they have no less grounds to doubt the coming of God's glory than we have. The difference between our faiths is that we believe in God in the human flesh and blood of Jesus and the flesh and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist. Where each of us draws a line between the metaphorical and the literal is a personal decision based on prayer, study and conscience - after all, all discussion of God in human language is metaphorical, even when it is written in the Gospels - but, ultimately, the most obvious conclusion is that, on all the evidence, we have the best deal because although all will be saved, we have God in Jesus and Jesus in the Eucharist to help us to build God's Kingdom on earth and be worthy of the everlasting kingdom.