Isaiah 58:6-11; Matthew 13:3-9,18-23
6th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 16.07.2023
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Hearing the prophet Isaiah’s words that we heard in our first reading this morning, I am reminded of a song, written in the early 1980s that touched the cord of a city and a nation. It was by Coventry’s local band, The Specials: Ghost Town. Written as unemployment began to reach 3 million, and as cities like Coventry, saw the demise of the car industry, they sang the words: “This town is coming like a ghost town, all the clubs have been closed down… bands won’t play no more, too much fighting on the dance floor… Government leaving the youth on the shelf, no job to be found in this country. This town’s becoming like a ghost town.” Words that some of you will know very well and for those of you who lived in Coventry during those years you may be able to identify with those words.
It was a song that held up a mirror to what cities like Coventry were becoming – ghost towns, with shops and industries closing down, with no jobs. It was a warning too. They sang: “Can’t go on no more, the people getting angry.” Indeed as they sang those words, Brixton in London and Toxteth in Liverpool exploded into riots.
The Specials stand in a long line of people who have tried to highlight the challenges and the despair of cities or nations. In fact, it is a tradition that goes all the way back to the prophet Isaiah, 2,500 years ago.
Back then, Isaiah stood on the streets of his own city, Jerusalem, and sought to shine a light on the realities of what was happening all around him, to highlight the failings of his city. It was a city where the poor were being abused, the homeless were ignored, the hungry were being allowed to starve; where wealth and personal gain was being pursued at all costs. A city where God and his values were being ignored. His words were simple: this has got to stop or disaster will come.
Well there are times when we need to hear those messages in our own day. Just one example. How is it that 20 million people living in Ethiopia stand on the brink of starvation and death today and yet it barely registers in the news? How is it that we can get strawberries in our supermarkets all year round, even in the depths of winter, and yet we cannot find the means or the will to get the most basic foods to people who will die without? They are tough questions, and there are not necessarily easy answers, but at times we need prophets of our own day, people like Isaiah – those who call out what is happening, who show us the realities that we would rather not face up to.
The baptism promises that have been made as part of this service can leave us feeling uncomfortable. “I reject the devil… I renounce the deceit and corruption of evil… I repent of my sins…” But those words contain a truth that we would do well not to forget. Life is not all it should be. There is much in our world that we need to turn from if this world is to be a better place.
But unlike the depressing words of Ghost Town, Isaiah also offered words of extraordinary hope. He offered a vision of what could be, a vision of what will be. He spoke of a new Jerusalem, just like we may speak of a “new Coventry”. He gave a vision of a future where justice was restored, where all people had enough to eat, where all people had homes to live in, and jobs to do, a vision of a future where broken relationships were healed and where God was acknowledged and worshipped. A vision of a world where ultimately suffering and death would end.
A short sermon like this cannot do justice to the extraordinary richness of Isaiah’s vision, a vision that has inspired hope, worship, music and praise ever since he spoke those words. Try reading Isaiah chapter 40 to get a taste. It is a vision that transforms life. What we see is not all that can be. We do not need to look at life and despair. There is hope that life can be better, that justice will prevail, that the hungry will be fed, that honesty and truth will triumph.
How does that happen? Isaiah spoke of two things: a change of heart and a change of actions. Firstly, he called people to turn around. In the baptism promises there are things we turn from. But there are also things we turn to. We turn to Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life. We say that we are committed to following in Christ’s way, a way that gives life and love. It is a commitment to saying, with God’s help, we will seek to live differently, to seek to live a life that is about integrity, justice, fairness, compassion, a life that recognises God is a God of love and life and we are to be like him.
And secondly, it is not just about intentions, important as those are. It is about actions. Isaiah criticised the people of his day for saying one thing but doing another. They were good at putting on a religious show – making everyone aware that they were fasting, going without food for religious purposes – which seemed very holy, but they were failing in the things that really mattered: loosing the bonds of injustice, freeing the oppressed, sharing their food with the hungry, welcoming the homeless into their homes. Today the church sometimes can have a bad name for hypocrisy – saying one thing and doing another – and this is fairly deserved at times. But it is up to us to live our faith in practice.
Jesus spoke in the parable we heard in our gospel reading of people responding quickly to his message but then equally quickly giving up; and of others having good intentions but then getting waylaid by their worries. Having the intentions but not the actions. But he also spoke of those who took hold of his message and allowed it to bear fruit in their lives, with dramatic and life-giving results, yielding a harvest thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold what was sown.
When we live out the words of Jesus in our lives, we will begin to see glimpses of the “new Jerusalem”, the new Coventry as it were, where people are cared for and compassion is made known, where lives are lived with integrity, and those who are oppressed are set free.
Then maybe a new song will be written. We will sing not of a ghost town but one filled with God’s Holy Spirit, one of vibrancy and life. Jesus calls each one of us to be part of turning that hope into reality today.