Isaiah 2:1-5; James 3:13-18
St Barbara’s 10.11.2019
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Imagine living in a country which has become split down the middle, a country where there had perhaps always been underlying tensions between different groups, but that are now fully out in the open, a country where those splits are often exacerbated, indeed sometimes even encouraged, by those in positions of leadership.
Perhaps it does not require too much of a leap these days to imagine such a place. But that was the context of the people of the Old Testament 2,700 years ago. A divided nation, with two kings, one in the north and one in the south, refusing to co-operate with one another, despite the enormous threat of armed invasion by the greatest superpower of the day. What can the prophet Isaiah, a person charged with the responsibility of speaking the Word of God into such a situation possibly say?
Well, for one thing, he paints the vision of a better future. In 1963 Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and declared “I have a dream” to a crowd of hundreds of thousands. The United States was still entrenched in segregation, racism was still viewed as legitimate, and yet Martin Luther King proclaimed a dream, a vision for the future where “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners would be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood… where his four little children would one day be judged not be the colour of their skin but by the content of their character..” He painted a picture of a better future, a future where “justice flows down like rivers and righteousness like a mighty stream.” It was a speech that gave hope to those in despair; it further galvanised a movement to bring about the end of segregation in America.
Isaiah looked out on a country divided, on a world on the brink of war, and did something similar. He proclaimed a vision of his nation being a place where peoples of all nations could come, not to conquer and pillage, or to be humiliated and imprisoned, but to come to find unity, justice and peace. A nation where the usual order of events – in times of war, farm tools being turned into weapons (or in Coventry’s recent past, car and bicycle factories being turned into weapons factories) being reversed, where people could put all their energies into building peace, not preparing for war. Its a vision worth all of us holding on to, aspiring to.
But how do we get there? How do we move in that direction of hope?
The words from the letter of James we heard, that were written several hundred years later give us some practical help. For peace begins with us. Today we remember the events of many wars, but especially the world wars. And the second world war did not start 80 years ago because of one bad person – Adolf Hitler. The seeds of war were sown long before that, in the attitudes of those who began to believe it acceptable to demonise others different from themselves, and who gradually slipped into a belief that any means became justified to assert their right. But such beliefs did not start there. They started with what James says in his letter – the harbouring of bitter envy and selfish ambition. The envy of those seemingly better off than themselves; the fear that those different than themselves may stymie their own dreams and aspirations. And those attitudes, unchallenged, led to a spiralling escalation that ultimately led to war.
Peace begins with us. We are entering into a general election campaign where it feels that the ferocity of rhetoric will only serve to further polarise our nation. Already we have seen large numbers of excellent MPs from across the political spectrum standing down because the level of verbal and on-line abuse and the threat of physical violence has become so great. Within our political parties a consistent theme of the last few years has been a failure to address significant concerns over hate-filled language, whether anti-semitic or islamaphobic.
We live in tumultuous, angry times. So what is our response? It is to take the words of James seriously: to live humble, considerate lives, lives that are impartial and sincere, that are full of mercy and good fruit, and to expect such lives of our leaders and those who seek to represent us too. Among our families, within our workplaces, within our community, to not pursue our own interests at the cost of others but to be generous, kind, merciful people, people who welcome people different from ourselves, not exclude them or vilify them. Martin Luther King urged his followers:
“In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
Isaiah, speaking to a divided nation, offered a vision of hope, of what was possible, if a people were willing to follow God’s way of mercy and love. James, in his letter, fleshed that out: rejecting envy and selfish ambition, and instead embracing humility, integrity, compassion, grace.
The forces of our world may feel as though they are pushing us apart. But God can give each of us the vision and the strength to live lives that unite and build for peace. Let us seek our strength in Him and live lives that make a difference.