Nationhood, populism and Jesus – Isaiah 2:1-5 by Revd Alex Pease

Isaiah Chapter 2

2 In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3 Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more

What makes you who you are?

How would you define yourself in six words in order of priority?

Well probably I might say: Man, Husband, Father, Christian, Vicar and English

I guess that you would get to your nation within six levels of identity

‘Nation’ such an interesting word  the Hebrew ‘goy’ which is used here really means ‘gentiles’ – i.e. peoples other than the Israelites.  It is used of peoples who have different  social, religious, and cultural values to your own.

I love this time of year because the rugby season has begun.

Rugby is a brilliant game because in it apart from skill, speed and strength you see courage, courtesy, sportsmanship and, of course, the most popular rugby to watch
is international rugby – and England are doing rather well at the moment.

It always amuses me on a Sunday morning, at this time of year, when our very considerable Welsh contingent are in church (is there perhaps some connection between the Valley and the Valleys?)

Just after some great victory of the Welsh over the English, a couple of years ago, Lavinia came to church with Welsh dragons still emblazoned on her cheeks!

And of course if you are Welsh, Scottish or Irish, you will say that that is your nation, if you are English, on the other hand, you may say that you are ‘British’ particularly if, instead of rugby,  you are watching international tennis…..

Our identity, our sense of self worth, is tied up in our nationality and the cultural values which go with it.

For many years,  all of my life at least, national identity has just been a bit of fun, something to aid enjoyment at rugby matches, but now it seems to have become
a matter of great seriousness, because, if populism, this anti-globalisation movement
which seems to be sweeping our world, has any common characteristic, it seems to centre around this idea of nation, of culture, which one theologian has defined as: ‘the way things are done, around here’. From this we claim our identity, as opposed to the culture and identity of others.

Suddenly which national rugby, football or cricket team we support may determine whether you are one of them, or one of us whether you do things the way that we do or not…

And those who feel that they have gained nothing from the systematic break down of borders, which globalisation has involved, have realised that their nation is, after all, the one thing  that they can truly say is theirs and they plan to own it.

But how can we live in a world in which seemingly the majority of the population
in both Britain and the United States, formerly the champions of free trade, appear to have rejected the globalisation which we probably invented?

Archbishop Justin recently gave a speech to the Catholic Institute of Paris on this subject, Archbishop Justin’s talk on the Common Good in which he pointed out that the turn that events have taken has been caused in part by a failure of European leaders to articulate what Europe is, except by talking about what it is not, a failure to achieve an integrated cultural identity for Europe.

Perhaps we face the same problem, within the United Kingdom what exactly does it mean to be ‘British’?

And how can we avoid a situation, where the assertion of my identity as an Englishman becomes a source of conflict with someone else asserting their identity as a Frenchman or a German or even a Scot?

Because we have been here before in the last century, and we don’t want to go there again…

At Christmas one of the joys throughout my childhood, and I guess for everyone else, was ripping open presents. The new toy would be grasped and operated, disregarding the packaging, which often contained the instructions.

When it turned out that whatever it was,  didn’t work, there would finally be a frantic search for the instructions through the wrapping paper to see if it had been saved from the bonfire!

Its best to read the instructions, before we take action, and so far as human flourishing is concerned, we need to read the instructions, what our Creator God has planned for us, how he meant us to be, before our sin came into the world and ruined everything, and how we will become again, when he returns to rule the earth.  Which could as we heard, from the gospel reading today (Matthew 3:1-12) happen at any moment!

We can read those instructions, by looking at the Bible, by looking at Jesus, by looking at what Isaiah prophesies, will happen at the end of time, when Jesus returns in power to rule our world, when God has his ‘ house’ – the place he lives, on earth.

By looking at how things will be, when the divine creator returns, we can see how things should be now and what we should move towards, how we should act, what we should aspire to be.

On this Advent Sunday, we should look to what is to come, as we look forward to remembering Jesus’ birth, we should also look forward to what will happen when he returns.

Archbishop Justin in his speech in Paris urged European political leaders, essentially to do now what Isaiah predicts in the passage we have just read will be done in the last days the days when The Lord returns, with a new heaven and a new earth and Jesus has established his ‘home’ on earth when all the nations,  despite their cultural differences, will stream to Mount Zion, to the Lord’s dwelling place on earth.

Archbishop Justin urged European leaders to look again at their broad Christian heritage,
Catholic Protestant and Orthodox, in which all nations  (despite their cultural differences) will find in the Lord’s teaching how to live, standards which include  the hospitality to the stranger implicit in the story of the Good Samaritan.

And to look at his teaching on how resolve disputes, to find in the words of Jesus, how to lead a nation in a way, which leads to the blessing of all humanity.

A future that is unwaveringly committed to human flourishing not mono chrome culturally – so that we are treated as all the same:

A Creator who makes 350,000 different species of beetle loves variety and so we should assume that same Lord also loves the incredible variety of our cultures?

But whilst he is committed to a variety of cultures, it is clear, in the prophetic words of Isaiah, that the mountain of the Lord’s house is higher than all the other mountains: the mountains of the other gods: the mountains of other world views: of scientific materialism, perhaps; of other religions….

So whilst encouraging us to respect other cultures,  because they reflect the variety of creation, and be hospitable and care for the stranger amongst us, as Isaiah puts it  we must ‘stream’ to the single destination of the Lord’s house, so that ‘he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths’.

From Caribbean pentecostals singing gospel to Russian Orthodox priests swinging incense; From frugal Scottish Presbyterians to voluble Roman Catholic Italians,; from sober Welsh Methodists to enthusiastic English Evangelicals..

His ways and paths must take priority over all human cultures, all ways of doing church
including our own…..

It’s so difficult:  we need to get the balance right, because, as Christians, as a church, we run the risk of either being so anti the culture in which we live, that we are entirely rejected by society and so have no effect on it;  or so similar to the local culture, that we are of no value as salt and light and so have no ability to inspire change, and thus also have no effect.

And it is here that the work and the lives of individual Christians, of you and me,
arises in a difficult tension between two things: living in the world,  living in a culture, but not being of it.

Living as English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish, within the world, but finding our identity first  not in being English, Welsh, Scots or Irish, but in being a follower of Christ.

In this we will learn to model disagreeing well, because at the end of time, as Isaiah foresees, it will be the Lord who settles all disputes in a way which all will discern not only to be just but also with self sacrificial grace, because they are resolved by Him.

Eventually, says Isaiah, there will be no more war, the resources of so many countries  spent on warfare and defence, the swords and spears, will eventually be turned to agriculture and feeding people, to ploughshares and pruning hooks.

And all nations will stream to the Lord for guidance on how to live and how to settle their disputes and we all  from whichever culture we come will find our home in Jesus.

Its our role now as individual Christians to act as if this time has already come…..

Amen

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