THE VINDICATION OF ZION: Isaiah 62: 1-5; 1Cor 12: 4-11; John 2: 1-11
If the Holy Catholic Church is, as we claim, the true Israel of God, then what will the vindication of Israel look like? Christians and Jews entertain very different hopes on the basis of the texts from Isaiah that we have been reading through Advent, the season of Christmas and Epiphany. It is clear that Jews have invested great hopes in the state of Israel as the fulfillment of prophetic promise. That is a big part of why any settlement of land claims in that part of the world is so extremely difficult. We are no longer in the realm of rational human politics, but of Messianic visions of what God is up to in the world. The ordinary give-and take of arriving at a deal becomes impossible because the whole future of the world is supposedly at stake.
Christians support the state of Israel for pragmatic political reasons but look to the global church for vindication of the ‘true Israel’ and the fulfillment of messianic promise. State of Israel or global church? Christians and Jews have placed their bets differently on how the book of Isaiah is to be properly read Where do you focus on the horizon of history in searching for the realization of God’s purposes?.
“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”
What will vindication look like when God rejoices over his bride? That is what I want us to think about during this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Let face it. The church – at least in this part of the world – has been in exile for a hundred years. We have been scattered and taken captive and subjected to foreign ideology and rule. We know what it is like to live in Babylon. Which is where the prophet of Isaiah was living and dreaming and composing his songs of hope about God’s future for his people. Like the exiles thousands of years ago, our landscape also looks forsaken and desolate at the moment. But try to picture in your mind’s eye what it would look like to be a “crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God; to be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married – as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”
Such is the hope in which we live because we believe the church to be the inheritor of those promises to ancient Israel. he see in Jesus the beginning and the foundation of their fulfillment. During this season of Advent the light that has shone spread to the ends of the earth. Jews of course, also draw hope from these words and maybe we are both right to do so. But the church lives in its call to share in the Mission of God and to proclaim the good news, manifested in Jesus, to the whole world.
So what will vindication look like for those who have held on and remained faithful to the covenant in Babylon, those who have not given up on God or given in to those voices which say that Christian faith is passé, obsolete in the modern world? Those voices that claim that the Bible had been disproven by science, superceded by psychology and psychotherapy or whatever? What will God’s future look like for them and how will they know it has come?
Almost a hundred and fifty years ago, here in Montreal when it was the undisputed centre and capital of Canada, the Rev. George Monro Grant preached an address to the meeting of the 1874 Evangelical Alliance. His subject was “The Church in Canada” Is such a thing possible, he asked? “ He answered the question in a way that reflects Isaiah’s prophetic hope.
“God will give us the church of the future. It shall arise in the midst of us, with no sound of hammer heard upon it, comprehensive of all the good and beauty that He has ever evolved in history. To this church, Episcopacy shall contribute her comely order, her faithful and loving conservatism; and Methodism impart her enthusiasm, her zeal for missions, and her ready adaptiveness to the necessities of the country; the Baptist shall give full testimony to the sacred rights of the individual; the Congregationalist his to the freedom and independency of the congregation; and Presbytery shall come with her massive, well-knit strength, holding high the Word of God; and when, or even before, all this comes to pass, that is, when we have proved our Christian charity, as well as our faithfulness, proved it by deeds, not words, who shall say that our Roman Catholic brethren, also shall not see eye to eye with us, and seal with their consent that true unity, the image of which they so fondly love? Why not? God can do greater things even than this. And who of us shall say, God forbid?”
Speaking personally, I think Grant got it right. That is what God’s future will look when Zion’s vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The future for the Church to which I look forward is an ecumenical one. That is why I have invested lots of time and energy over the years in that direction. We don’t know exactly how all the pieces will come together. We only catch glimpses. When the Anglican church in St. Bruno came to the end of the road, it sold its building to the Eglise baptiste evangelique and moved in with the Roman Catholics at St. Augustine’s. All those joint services and shared Lenten lunches helped to make that possible and for it to seem like the right thing to do. Denominations that were fierce, even bitter rivals in the past, find a way to live together and share the rent. What was not possible in the past when church were strong, has become possible after the experience of exile in Babylon and the years of living together in the wilderness. Cross and resurrection. That is the pattern of the Christian life.
Somebody has said that human beings rarely do the right thing until they have exhausted all the other options. That is probably true in the church, too. A hundred and fifty years is a long time in human terms. Two full lifetimes. It is not so long for God for whom a thousand years are as a day says the Psalmist.
It is to Grant’s interpretation of Isaiah’s vision for the ecumenical Church that I look in hope. God will draw us out of the institutional and denominational structures in which we have been scattered for hundreds of years. The church of the future will include the best of the various churches that once comprised a now vanished Christendom. That is what we see in our hymn book. The whole of Christian history and tradition summed up in the songs of praise between its covers. And when God’s future comes upon the Church in Canada with all of it power and fullness we will sing a new song of praise together that shall extent to the ends of the earth. 1925 was an attempt to grasp that future, but for various reasons it didn’t quite come off. But when it happens, we will rejoice in God’s love and know that His future is upon us.
The fact that the Church Union of 1925 was not the complete realization of those hopes, does not make the hopes themselves foolish or unrealistic or impossible of attainment. On the contrary, that is what it will look like for our vindication to shine out like the dawn, Zion’s salvation like a burning torch. That is how we will know that we have arrived in God’s future after a hundred and fifty years of hardship and travail, heartbreak and mourning. Because, let’s be honest. It has been tough and it still is.
Isaiah uses the poetic imagery of a wedding feast in singing about the return from exile and the promise of God’s future. In his song about the restored Jerusalem, God rejoices over Zion as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride. And this same wedding imagery links Isaiah with John’s account of the wedding at Cana. John is telling us who Israel’s bridegroom is, and because He is Israel’s Messiah and bridegroom, he is also bridegroom to the whole world. So what does the ecumenical and global future of the Church look like?
Well consider Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. The first thing to thing to be said is that Church is bound together in the affirmation that “Jesus is Lord”. That confession, made in the power of the Holy Spirit, gives us a unified identity that is more fundamentally important than any of the things that may divide us. If we affirm in words and manifest in our lives that “Jesus is Lord”, then we are part of One Body, the body of our risen and ascended Lord whatever our differences.
One of the tragedies that beset the church over the past century is that while the acids of modernity where attacking the basics of Christian faith and identity in our society and challenging the fundamental affirmation that “Jesus is Lord’, Christians were preoccupied in internal struggles over secondary matters. Even worse, the gifts that God has bestowed upon the Church in all their rich variety became a source of division like the gift of tongues in Corinth had become divisive. If you don’t speak in tongues like us, if you don’t do things our way and share our particular gift, then you are not a real Christian whether you confess that Jesus is Lord of not.
Anglicans are very proud of their fine liturgical tradition. But it is a gift of God that became divisive and contributed to the acrimonious sinking of a proposed union with the United Church in 1970. Presbyterians fought viciously amongst themselves over the introduction of organs into our services of worship. Instead of God’s good gifts – the rich music tradition Anglicans, Methodists and Lutherans becoming a common inheritance of the whole church in the nineteenth century, there were many Presbyterians who wanted to stick with the 150 psalms and the half a dozen tunes to which they were sung in Scotland. That was their tradition and no one was going to deprive them of it.
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit”, says Paul. “And there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”
This is how it is supposed to work, says Paul. The gifts for ministry that God has showered upon his Church are to humbly offered up for the common good instead of being matters of unseemly competition and a source of rancour and strife. Those who have been given the gift of tongues, for example, do not look down contemptuously on those who have not. Some Pentecostals will tell you that unless you have been baptized by the Holy Spirit, the proof of which is that you speak in tongues then you are not really a Christian. There are others who say that unless you believe that when the Pope speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals they he speaks infallibly, then you are not a real Christian. And yet others who say (as our Presbyterian ancestors did) that if you believe THAT, then you are worshipping the anti-Christ, and so on.
We live in a city that has been defined, historically, by linguistic and religious difference. Hugh MacLennan made famous the phrase “two solitudes.” But what if we were to think about our situation in terms of what Paul says to the church in Corinth.
Protestant and Roman Catholics have – or at least used to have – different strengths, different gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit. There was a rich tradition of prayer and contemplation in R.C. religious orders and fine examples of service in dedicated teaching and in caring for the sick. Such piety and dedication was and is impressive. Protestants on the other hand manifested, in the power of the Holy Spirit, a gift for free self-government without any hierarchical authority breathing down their necks and telling them what was and what wasn’t permitted. The result was strong growth in particular congregations an unleashing of energies of the whole people of God and a social dynamism that reshaped this city in lots of ways. Individuals were encouraged and empowered to explore their gifts find their particular vocations in God’s service.
In lots of ways Protestantism and Roman Catholicism were Yin and Yang to each other but, instead of them being mutually reinforcing aspects of a greater whole, they engaged in a mutually destructive rivalry that that encouraged society as a whole to push them both to the sidelines. If such nastiness was what Christian faith added up to, who wanted anything to do with it? One of the things that I have appreciated most about being in St. Lambert and, more generally, the South Shore is the degree of ecumenical co-operation, because I am convinced it is where the action is in our time. I know that progress is slow and change incremental, but I’m pretty sure it is in the right direction. But it is hard to get people to lift up their heads and to look to God’s horizon because we are pre-occupied with our own immediate communities and buildings and the challenges of survival.
A week tomorrow night, St. Francis of Assisi is screening a documentary film by Rev’d Dr. Matthew Anderson entitled “SOMETHING GRAND” , followed by a discussion. It is the story of a group of pilgrims setting out from France on the 800 km walk to Santiago de Compostela. In a half-hour of footage, we meet a diverse group of travelers, walk the walk with them, and ask some of the harder questions about what it means to faith and life to be a “21st century pilgrim”. Somebody says, Presbyterians don’t do pilgrimages. Martin Luther and Calvin didn’t approve of them. That’s certainly true. But the issues of the 16th century are not exactly the same ones that we face today . The lines are drawn in different places,.
What if we feel like discouraged exiles in the wilderness because we are blind to what the Holy Spirit is up to in our times. God can miraculously transform the water of dutiful religious obligation and faithfulness into something much more wonderful – the joyful wine of the Kingdom. We’ve been invited to a great banquet, a great wedding feast. So how come we don’t always feel the joy? Is there something getting in the way of the promised power of the Holy Spirit? Why not do something unexpected, something out of the routine and go see and discuss a film about people who have decided to go on a pilgrimage. We may discover riches that we didn’t know existed within the Holy Catholic Church. Gifts of God poured out on his people that can now actually be shared across denominational boundaries?. Riches offered up for the common good.
Instead of bemoaning the prospect of denominational collapse, perhaps we are being summoned to opportunities for a common life and witness that such a collapse provides? Maybe, like exile in Babylon, it is the path required for Zion’s vindication to shine out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”