The first half of this chapter is a great Sunday School story: I can remember as a child loving the hymn based on it, James Burns’ Hushed was the evening hymn, set to Arthur Sullivan’s great tune. After that, though, it turns a bit nasty, so we keep that part out of the children’s ears, and safely inside those square brackets. But the chapter as a whole is a watershed for Israel, and a challenge for all who are positions of leadership today. To understand why, we’ll have to read around the passage a bit (never a bad idea).
Samuel, like so many other key leaders in the Bible, had been a miracle baby, and now as promised he was apprenticed to Eli the priest at the sanctuary in Shiloh. But around the key story we are given a lot more other information about the state of the nation at this time. 3:1 tells us that the word of the Lord and vision from him were rare, and interestingly the next verse tells us that Eli himself was virtually blind. But there was more to it than that. Whilst we have no record of Eli ever bringing prophetic messages from God, nor in fact doing very much at all in terms of his priestly leadership, he does seem to spend a lot of his time sitting around on a throne (4:13), and wringing his hands over the behaviour of his uncontrollable sons Hophni and Phineas. They too are priests, but are totally corrupt, pinching food from those bringing sacrifices, and raping any women they fancied. Eli hears reports from others about their behaviour, but can only rebuke this abuse of power in the mildest of terms. In addition his level of spirituality seems to be very low: he mistakes fervent prayer for drunkenness, in a way similar to some of the bystanders on the Day of Pentecost, and uncannily like some of the mockery levelled at charismatic Christians more recently.
Hannah, Samuel’s mum, had prophesied, in a way very similar to Jesus’ mum 1,000 years later, about God’s penchant for reversing people’s fortunes (2:7), bringing down the proud and powerful whilst exalting the meek. It is the first job of the her son as the fledgling prophet to proclaim that God is about to do just that to Eli’s family.
It is an uncomfortable calling to pronounce judgement, and one which is particularly out of fashion today in a church which has lost much of its prophetic edge and wants to be encouraging of pretty much anyone or anything. Yet we continue to reap the whirlwind from the behaviour of some of our leaders who, like Eli’s sons, use their positions to harm and abuse others. Samuel’s ministry is a hinge-point in the history of Israel, bringing to an end the corrupt period of the Judges and uniting the nation (for a while at least) under the monarchy. This story sets the tone for his future ministry as one who certainly could receive words and visions from the Lord, to great effect.
Over the years I have held several diocesan posts which have been about helping local churches to be healthy and effective. I have learnt two things from this kind of ministry: 1) it’s hard, and 2) effective churches are led by effective leaders. Most leaders have told me it’s hard in their particular patch, because it’s so urban, or because it’s so rural, or because it’s so middle-class … My conclusion is that it’s hard everywhere. But I have come to believe that leadership is key: it is rare to see an effective church with ineffectual or even downright corrupt leadership, and tragically I have seen plenty of both. The Bible encourages us to pray for our leaders, and that is needed today more than ever. But perhaps we also need to hear again some of the prophetic voices who call out bad behaviour and protect the Church from it in a way which Eli so manifestly failed to do.
Let’s start with a bit of Hebrew geekery – Gen 1:1 is a bad translation! There is no ‘the’ before ‘beginning’, and the word ‘beginning’ is constructed to show that it is the beginning of something, not just ‘the beginning’. So a better translation might read ‘When God began to create …’ We are used to the idea that creation happened ex nihilo, or starting absolutely from scratch, but a careful reading of the text won’t allow that here. Formless and void though it may have been, the earth was in some sense already there. So was darkness, and so were some waters over which the Spirit was hovering. One Jewish tradition taught that God had practised already, and had rejected 974 attempts before finally getting it just how he wanted with the 975th, which is where we live. Whether or not we like this idea (and it does have a certain appeal), it is clear that God had been at work long before the big bang which started things off here. He had already prepared the raw materials before the actual creation of our world began.
Today as we remember the Baptism of Jesus, which launched him into his public ministry, we can also see that work had been going on before the big day. The Bible is largely silent about it, as it is about the pre-creation cosmos, apart from the tantalising glimpse Luke gives us of Jesus aged 12. Of course this particular vacuum has been filled abundantly with legends, like that of Jesus bringing clay birds to life and striking neighbours blind. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas makes delightful reading (just Google it to see the text), but fortunately is not within our canon of Scripture. All we get is the big day when his ministry is launched, and an awareness that God has been at work in him before that.
The other thing to note about Gen 1 is that it is a deeply polemical work, in other words it is written for something, but also against something. The chapter is generally thought to be a part of what is called the Priestly Code, probably written after the Babylonian exile to give a logical and orderly account of the creation. But it was written in the context of a nation which for a generation or more had been living with a different story, that of the Babylonian god Marduk cutting the evil sea-monster Tiamat in half and using the two halves to make heaven and earth respectively. Clearly the writers were very familiar with this story, and the people for whom it was written would have been very familiar with it too; indeed some of them may have believed it, along with the pantheon of other gods worshipped around them, represented by stars, sun, moon, trees and so on. There are interesting echoes: the Hebrew words for the ‘deep’ in v.2 is related to the name of Tiamat, and the separation in v.6 reflects the cutting in half of the monster. In other parts of the OT God chops up sea monsters or otherwise destroys them. But then, in a deeply subversive way, God goes on to create sun, moon, stars and the rest. They’re not gods: they were spoken into being and put there by our God! This is the truth, and you’d better believe it!
Another passage (which I would have chosen for the Epistle today if they had asked me) brings these two ideas together. Paul wrote in Gal 4:
When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.
God had been at work in and through his Son, but one day, on just the right day, the set time arrived, and Jesus manifested himself and began his ministry. But the word ‘repent’, with which that ministry began, means that his ministry was not just for something but also against something: all that is evil, unjust and destructive, all that we have put our faith in, all the myths which we have believed because all those around us believe them. Simeon had perceived this when he first me the baby Jesus. God had been at work in him preparing him for a ministry which would inevitably bring division, become a challenge, and call people to a crisis point, to a ‘make your mind up time’.
So Jesus’ baptism invites us to consider how God might already have been at work, in our lives, in our world, in the Covid pandemic, in Trump’s USA … and what we might be called to turn from in repentance so that the truth can restore our perspective and set us free.
It has been said that it was a bit of an embarrassment to the OT writers that it wasn’t David who had built the Jerusalem Temple – after all, as the greatest King Israel had ever known that would be highly appropriate. But the historical fact is that it was Solomon, so the very least they could do was paint it as David’s idea, and explain why he hadn’t actually followed through. The reason for that, according to this passage, was a prophetic oracle from Nathan. But there is a deeper level at which this story can be read, and one which is highly apt as we prepare to move from Advent into the Christmas season.
In the few chapters before this pericope, David has been anointed King over the tribe of Judah, been crowned in Hebron, conquered Jebus and established it as Jerusalem, the City of David, been crowned there as king of all Israel, defeated the Philistines once and for all, and brought the Ark of the Covenant into the City. Happy days! Now he is settled into his fine new palace and at rest, except for one nagging doubt – why should he have a house like this when God was still making do with a tent? So he decides to build him a house. Great idea, but God has other ideas – he doesn’t want David to build him a house – he wants to build David a house.
There’s a lovely picture in v.7 – ‘Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites …’ God doesn’t live in a house – he lives with his people. He walked with Abraham from Ur to Canaan; he walked into Egypt with Joseph’s family, and out again with Moses; he crossed the Red Sea with them, and even wandered around for 38 years in the desert with them. And all that time he was content to live as they lived. As we gaze again this year with adoration at the baby in the manger, what a picture of the incarnation that is to take with us! As we look back over the troughs and peaks of our own lives, God walked alongside us, even when we could only see one set of footprints. He never once demanded royal status, or a place to stay – he just wanted to be with us. And of course he’s with us now, in lockdown, in whatever Tier we happen to be stuck in, in our sadness this Christmas not to be with everyone we’d like to be with, in the anxieties (or joy) of stepping into an unknown Brexit … Emmanuel really is God is with us.
But for David there was still more. A play on the Hebrew word beth means that rather than David building God a house, a physical building, God planned to build David a house, a dynasty. The nation had just emerged from a turbulent period in their history, and the God who had walked with them through it all knew exactly what they needed: a home, roots, peace and justice, and above all rest. How is this going to become reality? Through David’s house, his dynastic line, which will be established forever.
We’re still waiting, of course, for the total establishment of God’s kingdom, which is both here but also not yet here, which breaks in now and then but is still only partial and provisional. But Advent hopes for, and Christmas promises, that great David’s greater Son will come and take up his reign in all its fullness, and that yearly remembrance should inspire our hopes and prayers, because after all, don’t we need a home, roots, peace and justice, and rest right now? We are called to live in the excruciating tension between the present reality and the future hope, and it is the job of the Holy Spirit, according to Ephesians 1, to keep us in that tension, like prisoners on a mediæval rack, stretched between hope and exhaustion. But the God who walked through the wilderness with his people walks with us today and into what we all hope and pray will be a better year ahead. May God’s hope, and even his joy, be yours this Christmas.
[I’ll be taking a rest myself from blogging over Christmas, so we’ll meet again in January.]
This well-known passage immediately presents us with a question which is not easy to answer – just who is ‘me’? Who exactly has been anointed by the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord? The obvious answer seems to be the prophet, but a closer look at the language makes this a bit less certain. In fact there are several allusions which suggest that it might be more complicated than that. First of all the term ‘anointed’ is a royal term. So is the speaker a new King David, coming as promised in Is 11 to bring healing to a divided nation, and to rule with equity and justice? Or could it be God’s Servant from Is 42 – 53 who is coming to bring justice and care to the broken? Or maybe the reference to the Day of Jubilee from Lev 25 indicates that someone will be sent by the Spirit to sort out the economic imbalance within society – a financial as well as spiritual fix? Or does it all point to Jesus, who in Lk 5 quotes this passage as the manifesto for his ministry?
All of this points to a second question, which is much easier to answer – When? What is the context for this prophecy? The answer is almost certainly post-exilic Judah, a time and a place riddled with disappointment. Yes, they had been sent back to their homeland from exile, but things were very far from the glowing outcomes promised by earlier prophets. They may have rebuilt the city and the Temple, but they had signally failed to rebuild society, with its justice and respect and its economic stability. They may not have been prisoners any longer in Babylon, but they certainly felt trapped in their disappointment at the way things had turned out.
So the third question is this: what exactly was it that whoever had been anointed was coming to do? Interestingly the language is predominantly that of restoration of self-image. The current imprisonment, no doubt within living memory of the nation’s physical imprisonment in exile, had served to make the people feel miserable, ashamed and despairing. It is these feelings that the deliverer addresses, swapping comfort for mourning, beauty instead of dowdiness, joy for grief, and praise for despair.
Our nation might well be thought to be in a similar position as we approach the end of 2020, a year which will go down in history as one of the worst we can remember. We have been imprisoned by Covid, humiliated by Brexit, ruled by those who are generally considered to be at best incompetent and at worst thoroughly corrupt, riddled with shame at what our nation has become, and with fear about what it will become. Many people have been heard to say that they have become ashamed of being British, and whatever political views you may hold, it seems clear that no good is going to come from the downright lies which convinced people into isolationist policies four years ago. So what does Isaiah say to 2020 Britain?
The answer, I believe is threefold – wait, hope and praise. If the people were disappointed in the immediate aftermath of the return from exile, that was nothing to what was to come, as the nation was to be ruled over the next few centuries by one world power after another, and Jewish fortunes continued to decline. It was to be at least 400 years before Jesus the Messiah stood up in the Nazareth Synagogue and claimed these words for his own, and two thousand years on we are still waiting for their complete fulfilment. God lives in a completely different timescale from ours, the Psalmist tells in (90:4), and my goodness don’t we know it? The cry ‘How long, O Lord?’ is a frequent one in Scripture, and probably in our own lives too. Waiting in the darkness, in the words of Maggi Dawn’s song, is not an easy skill to cultivate, but actually we have little option. Keeping hope alive is not based on evidence: it is based solely on what God has said, and what we choose as an act of will to believe.
Waiting, hoping, but how do we pass the time while we’re doing those? It is interesting that although the fulfilment of the prophet’s words was not to come in the foreseeable future, the response is immediate. Verse 10 begins a song of praise which reads as though the promises of the first bit of the chapter have already come true. God has reclothed me, he has beautified me, new things are beginning to grow. That is faith in action, praising God for what he has said will happen before it does happen, as though it has happened. I love these words from Morning Prayer during the Kingdom Season:
Blessed are you, Sovereign God, ruler and judge of all; to you be praise and glory for ever. In the darkness of the age that is passing away, may the glory of your kingdom which the saints enjoy surround our steps as we journey on. May we reflect the light of your glory this day and so be made ready to come into your presence. Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
Blessed be God for ever.
‘The darkness of the age that is passing away’ is a powerful symbol. We might still feel shoulder deep in the muck of 2020, and we may yet sink deeper still, but to praise God for what he has promised, and to wait and hope for its fulfilment, is deep spirituality indeed.
It is not surprising that when Mark wanted to find an OT reference for the ministry of John the Baptist he turned to this passage from Deutero-Isaiah (the second of three sections of the book which we call Isaiah). Like the exiles to whom Isaiah wrote, Mark’s contemporaries were under foreign domination and longing for a deliverer to set them free. Like Isaiah John came to announce the coming rescue. But there is so much more for us in the Isaiah passage, which we miss easily if we only ever think of John the Baptist.
Imagine you were a Jew living in Babylon, sent there, so the prophets had told you, because of your own sin and idolatry. Before it happened, you may have joined in with the crowd, nodding in the direction of Yahweh but not letting your religion get too carried away. There were all those annoying prophets who kept telling you that punishment was coming, but, well, nobody likes a killjoy, do they?
And then it happened. King Nebuchadnezzar swept into town, and suddenly you were a few hundred miles from home, hearing news that your city had been smashed to pieces, and even the Temple, the very place where people went to meet with God, had been destroyed.
At first it was tough, but the first ten years were the worst. Another prophet had told you to dig in for the long haul, and to work and pray for the welfare of your foreign oppressors. There was talk of home, of course, but little hope. After 60 years, it felt like this was the new normal. It was hard to keep believing in Yahweh: some turned to the Babylonian gods now that they were living in their patch. Others believed that if there was a Yahweh we had completely blown it this time. If only we had listened to the prophets! Surely any relationship between us and God was well and truly over.
No doubt all kinds of thoughts like this would have gone through your minds. Imagine your surprise, then, when a new prophet arrived in town. You were probably expecting more telling off – that’s what prophets are for – so imagine your shock when you first heard the words which came to be written down for us in Isaiah 40. In fact you would only have to have heard the first six words to get the entire message of the next 15 chapters: ‘Comfort my people says your God’. Great – we could all do with a bit of comfort – but actually the message was far more profound. The key words were ‘my’ and ‘your’, and the people would have heard them open-mouthed with shock.
Centuries ago God had appeared to Abraham, and set up a deal with him, a covenant, or relationship. The deal; is first spelt out in Genesis 17, and then reappears regularly throughout the OT: ‘You will be my people, and I will be your God’ – that was the deal. So imagine the surprise when the prophet used those very words to a bunch of people who thought they had gone beyond the pale with God, never to be welcomed back. He was saying, in effect, ‘The deal is still on!’ despite all you have done, and not done, it’s as though nothing had happened, nothing had come between us.
Amazing news though this is, there is another word which is really important. You may have wondered about it yourself. The word is ‘double’ in v.2. it reads as though God has punished them twice as much as they deserved, just to make his point. But the Hebrew word kiphlayim doesn’t mean double as in twice as much, like a double helping of pudding. It means the exact equivalent. In one church in which I worked in the past we had my double in the congregation. Poor chap, he looked so much like me that my toddler son used to run up to him for a cuddle thinking he was his dad. That’s what the prophet means here. You have received for your sins the exact amount appropriate as punishment, not twice as much as you really deserve. What incredible good news! Your sin has been paid for – exactly! Your punishment is over! There’s no more to pay.
As Christians we know about God’s forgiveness, of course – goodness knows we need to! But many of us go through times when we feel we’ve gone just one step too far this time, so that there’s no way back. Or we feel that we still deserve more punishment, which God is waiting for an opportune moment to smite us with. Like the returning Prodigal Son we call God ‘Father’ but actually mean ‘Boss’. We might be let into the servants’ quarters of heaven, but our place in the family has gone for ever. If you’ve been there, listen to Isaiah’s words once again – ‘Comfort my people, says your God’.
I absolutely love this setting of those words, but you may prefer the original: