Light in the Darkness
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Isaiah 9.6-7; 61.1-11
Listen to this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/bloomsbury-1/light-in-the-darkness
This week, we are bringing to a close, for now,
our journey through the Old Testament prophetic literature,
which has been carrying us through Advent.
If you remember, we have been hearing how different prophets
helped the people of Israel deal with the trauma and grief
of their experience of the Babylonian exile;
and last week, with the prophet Joel,
we saw how even after the return from exile,
things weren’t all plain sailing for those who came back from Babylon
to their task of rebuilding the Temple and City of Jerusalem.
Well, this post-exilic period is the historical context
for the main part of our reading for today
from chapter 61 of the prophet Isaiah.
You may have heard me say this before,
but the book of Isaiah as we find it in the Old Testament
is actually three books edited together.
First Isaiah, which take us up to chapter 39,
is set in the time before the exile.
And our first shorter reading from chapter 9 this morning,
with its messianic expression of hope
for a child born to re-establish the kingdom of David
comes from this period of the text.
But then, instead of a new David,
what Israel encountered was a time of exile in Babylon;
and Second Isaiah, which take us from chapters 40-55,
is a word of prophecy to the exiles,
and it’s in here that we find the wonderful suffering servant passages
that we often read at Easter.
And then we come to the final section of the book, chapters 56-66,
which is a prophecy to those who have returned from exile,
and it’s from here that we get today’s main reading, from chapter 61.
And the key thing I want us to take away from this, today,
is that those who are tasked with rebuilding after a period of trauma,
need a strong sense of vision if they are to rebuild well.
This was true for the ancient Israelites,
and I suspect it is true for us too.
So let’s spend a few minutes now with Isaiah,
to hear what word from God he brings
to those tasked with rebuilding after a time of exile.
Well, he begins with a passage
that we probably know better from Luke Chapter 4,
where Jesus reads it from the Isaiah scroll
at the start of his public ministry in Nazareth.
We’re coming back to this passage in a few weeks’ time,
so I won’t spend too long on it now,
but what strikes me as significant
is that Isaiah recognises
that all is not well with the world.
There are people who are oppressed,
people who are broken-hearted,
people who are held captive to forces beyond their control,
and people who find themselves deprived of their liberty.
And the vision that Isaiah offers is of a society renewed,
of a social order rebuilt,
which starts with a recognition of what is still wrong with a world
where people stand in need of mercy, restoration, and comfort.
This centring of the vulnerable at the heart of the rebuilding project
is where Isaiah believes the people of God should always start.
And so Isaiah offers a way for us, with the ancient Israelites,
to hold space for grief, lament, and mourning,
but into that space to hear words of hope,
and a promise from God of restoration.
And this, in a nutshell, is how we experience the season of Advent;
it is a time for recognising the darkness and pain of the world,
but daring to believe that there is a promise of new life from God,
coming to birth as hope in the midst of hopelessness.
Just as Isaiah whispered words of divine restoration to the dispirited exiles;
just as the Christ child came to a world of poverty and people displacement;
so God continues to come to us in Christ,
as we too live in a world that is not yet the world as it should be.
And the challenge for us, as it was for ancient Israel,
is to grasp this vision as we play our part
in the continual rebuilding of the world
that we are called to participate in with Christ.
And whilst this is always the calling of the people of God,
there are some years where it feels more true than other,
and I suspect that this is one of those years.
We may not have to rebuild the walls of our city,
or reconstruct our holy sanctuary,
but we have certainly experienced a time of exile
with many of us not having been into London or Bloomsbury
for a considerable period of time.
Well - as I speak to you this morning from the church,
I can bear the good news that the building is still standing
and the heating is still working!
But this doesn’t mean we don’t have our own rebuilding task ahead of us
as we look forward through to 2021.
I’m reminded of one of my predecessors, Townley Lord,
who was minister at Bloomsbury in the 1930s and 40s
In the church history, Faith Bowers tells the story:
Alice Lord felt they had virtually to begin again in 1930. The active membership had dropped and Dr Lord overheard someone outside the chapel observing that the church was finished and would become a cinema within two years. (p.333)
How alive a church is depends on one’s perspective. There was life in the old church yet, but it needed to be rejuvenated to serve the new generation. (p.333)
Over the next decade, the church saw some growth,
but then the second world war came, and things changed again.
Faith continues the story:
War was declared on 3 September. Attendances at Bloomsbury dropped to forty almost overnight and everything changed. Only three deacons remained. (p.336)
Dr and Mrs Lord, with the handful of remaining helpers and the faithful caretakers, kept the church open throughout the war. Residents and tourists vanished, but many service personnel passed through London and were glad of a welcoming church. (p.336)
As the victory celebrations faded, it became clear that people were not returning to live around the church in the old way. Office blocks replaced residential tenements. After those heroic years, there must have been a sense of anticlimax as the church grasped that there could be no return to the ‘good old days’. Alice Lord recalled the heartbreaking realization that they had to start again from scratch in these inauspicious circumstances. Committed to Bloomsbury they were determined that this church should not die. (p.337)
My point is this, the people of God have been here before.
There are times of exile, and times for rebuilding,
times of sorrow, and times of joy.
There is a time, as the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it,
for everything under the sun.
And right now the vaccine promises us a hope
for the end our time of pandemic-related exile;
in the next few months we will be returning to our sanctuary,
and rebuilding our community.
But as those who returned to Israel from Babylonian exile discovered,
we will not be able to rebuild exactly as before.
Through our time of exile, some things have died,
projects have ended, ways of being have ceased,
and we will mourn their passing,
and then we will build anew.
One of the positive things I think we have discovered
during our exile to the land of Zoom
has been that our faith community can withstand
a time of extended exile from our sanctuary.
If you had asked me this time last year,
whether it was possible to sustain Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
away from our building, and without meeting together for the best part of a year,
I would have said that I very much doubted it.
But just as the Jews exiled to Babylon
developed new ways of practicing their faith
that not only allowed them to survive the exile
but which sustained them through the millennia that followed;
so I believe that the way our community of faith at Bloomsbury
has responded during the last year
will create in us a robustness that will sustain us in the years to come.
And as we seek to rebuild ministry in Central London,
we will need to keep our God-given vision for Bloomsbury before us.
Just as the exiles needed Isaiah to set before them
a vision for their renewed society,
so we too will need
to keep our vision for Bloomsbury before us.
All that work we did in 2019
can be for us our call to a different future
where God’s promises are made real in our time,
through our community, in our church, and in our city.
If you haven’t read these words of values, vision and mission recently,
I’d encourage you to go to the church website,
and spend some time prayerfully re-reading them,
and also reading the commentary that accompanies them.
We will need these words before us
guiding our decisions and our prayers
as we move forwards from where we are, to where we will be.
Just as Isaiah’s vision called the Israelites
to discover that God’s values are for a reorientation of society
to one where the poor are empowered,
the enslaved are liberated,
and money is used to build equity;
so we too can be part of building a better world,
where the present does not get to define the future,
but rather where the present becomes the occasion
for thinking about what God is calling us to in the future.
The financial instability caused by the current political situation
and the ongoing impact of the pandemic
means, I suspect, that our wider society
is going to need people of faith and vision
to help rebuild in ways that centre the vulnerable
and care for the weak and the oppressed.
And just as the trauma of the second world war
gave rise to the systems of social security and healthcare provision
that many of us are so proud of in our country to this day,
I wonder what visions for renewal and rebuilding we can advocate
that will benefit those who would otherwise face isolation and exclusion.
From our work with Citizens UK on homelessness,
climate change, and community building,
to the possibilities raised by a renewed attention to a Universal Basic Income,
our world needs people of faith, who dare to believe that a better future can be built
from the ashes of destruction and the trauma of exile,
because we dare to believe
that God isn’t yet finished with remaking the world.
And so Isaiah calls to us, as he calls to the faithful in every generation,
and we hear an encouragement to live in hope
that God is able to do far more abundantly
than all that we ask or think,
according to the power at work within us,
as the writer of Ephesians put it.
So as we gather today, both online and in person, on the third Sunday of Advent,
this is a time for looking back at the difficulties of the last year,
and being honest about the losses, the sorrows, and the troubles.
It is also a time for being honest about today,
about where we are, in terms of our personal faith,
our community of faith,
and the difficulties facing our church both practically and financially.
But it also a time for looking forwards with Isaiah,
to the promises of God that call us ever onward,
offering us a profound hope that God has not finished
either with us, our church, or our world.
Next year will bring its own troubles, I’m sure,
but if we remain faithful to God’s call and trust in God’s promise,
we will continue to be God’s people,
called and commissioned to work and live in faith ,
that through Christ, God comes again to our world of darkness
to bring in our time the eternally-renewed glimmer of new light.