Tag Archives: isaiah

Illuminating Faith – Lenten Study: Meeting God in Mark

This is not an original Illuminating Faith study but a recommended resource for a Lenten series from Rowan Williams: Meeting God in Mark.

This book has only short but nevertheless illuminating chapters. Williams also offers a structured reading of the whole of Mark’s gospel over the season of Lent.

This book could be used for studies at any time or in any Lent, although they would be particularly useful to lectionary-linked churches during the ‘Year A’ cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary, within which Mark’s gospel features as the set gospel for most Sundays in those years (2021, 2024, 2027, etc.)

Consider the timing of your study series. If using the studies for Lent, there are 6 weeks across which the studies could be conducted (including the week of Ash Wednesday and excluding Holy Week). Williams’ suggested plan for reading Mark’s gospel begins on Ash Wednesday. If the studies were not commenced in that week, participants should be encouraged to begin reading the gospel before the studies commence.

Order hardcopies of the books early enough for delivery! Paperback copies are available from about $AU14 and instantly available electronic copies (including Amazon Kindle) from about $AU6 (2020 prices).

A very brief summary of the three chapters is given below. In addition to whatever questions might arise in your study groups, Williams proposes several questions for reflection on each chapter.

Chapter 1.

  • Williams’ first chapter addresses questions of the What, Who, Where, When and Why of Mark’s gospel.
  • Of particular importance in this chapter is Williams’ invitation to discover more in Mark than simply a collection of stories to believe or not believe. This is the invitation of Mark’s Gospel itself: to allow ourselves to be addressed by the central figure in the story and to enter into the changed state of affairs which his story is said to bring about.

Chapter 2

  • Williams’ second chapter addresses the themes of secrecy, openness and understanding – all important tools in Mark’s telling of the gospel. He writes also about the significance the miracles and teachings of Jesus have (and, perhaps, don’t have) in Mark’s account.
  • Of particular importance in this chapter is Williams’ conclusion that the very substance of the gospel might itself require that we cannot be too precise or clear about what is seen and heard without reducing Jesus to something which less than his whole self and significance. What is at stake here cannot be reduced to simple observations and conclusions.

Chapter 3

  • The final chapter of the book looks at Mark’s account of the death of Jesus, with particular attention given to the unsettling nature of that story and the requirement that we return to it again and again in order to be reminded of its challenge to the easy assumptions we tend to take on about ourselves, others and God.

Illuminating Faith – Lenten Studies on Isaiah’s Servant Songs

These studies focus on Isaiah’s ‘Servant cycle’ readings, within Isaiah 42-53.

The interpretation of the Servant cycle has been much contested through history and still is today. The studies do not do in-depth analysis of the set texts or to present a sure conclusion as to their meaning but are rather in the form of Christian ‘meditations’ or reflections on one aspect of the particular passage. These meditations were originally sermons, and were preached at the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic, Lent and Easter 2019. As such, this crisis is reflected in some of the studies.

These texts have been very important in the church as lenses through which to view Jesus but appear in the Revised Common Lectionary used by many churches in the Holy Week readings, meaning they do not get a lot of direct attention in Sunday preaching. These studies may help to address that deficit a little.

The topics of the five studies are:

  • On seeing what is there
  • The flickering Servant of God
  • Love’s new creation
  • Sin-Sick
  • The God of COVID-19

The studies are intended for use as a read-and-discuss study series but can, of course, be used by individuals. The questions for reflection at the end of each study are guides only; the discussion can follow the interests of the group; and a psalm and confessional prayer response is suggested at the end of each study.

llluminating Faith studies are occasionally edited for corrections and other minor adjustments. The version date is incorporated into the file name of the download – check that you’ve got the most recent version!

Illuminating Faith – Advent Studies on Year B RCL (Isaiah)

These studies are intended for use as Advent studies in the ‘Year B’ cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). They focus on the first reading in the selection for each week, which is taken from Isaiah on Advent 1-3 and, for Advent 4, one of the RCL options around the birth of Jesus from Luke’s gospel is selected. While they are prepared as Advent studies, they can of course be used at any time: our need to hear of God’s approach is not confined to December!

The topics of the studies are:

  • Hope and Prayer
  • God is Coming. And it is the End of You
  • The God who brings Death and Life
  • Mary: The Freedom of the Servant

The content of the studies is in the form of a meditation intended for use as in a read-and-discuss group study setting. Questions for reflection are included to start conversation and the psalm for each Sunday in Advent features as a focus for prayer.

llluminating Faith studies are occasionally edited for corrections and other minor adjustments. The version date is incorporated into the file name of the download – check that you’ve got the most recent version!

17 December – The God who brings death and life

View or print as a PDF

Advent 3

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Good news to the oppressed, binding up of the broken-hearted, proclamation of liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners; a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit; the garments of salvation, a robe of righteousness, a garland, jewels…

The word of promise in this language is surely extraordinary in the ears of those who have lived through hell. Isaiah proclaims a great reversal, a turning upside-down of the experience of the people of God – the return of God to their midst as blessing.

But what about those for whom the world is not horrific, for whom life’s biggest challenge is along the lines of negotiating a shopping centre carpark a few days before Christmas or waiting out a kitchen renovation? What does Isaiah have to say to any whose life is largely devoid of oppression or ashes or unrighteousness? Because, for most of us – in and out of the church – life is mostly ok most of the time, and so Isaiah’s proclamation comes like icing on what was already a pretty good cake.

One way of hearing Isaiah under these circumstances is to imagine that he speaks not to us, but as us: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” or us. The word to us becomes our own word and, going further, we take it upon ourselves not simply to speak of the coming of God but to be those who realise God’s peace. We have received the Spirit, and we are to pay that forwards, for others.

Certainly, those who “have” are under a moral obligation to share and bless those who have not. But if this is all it’s about, then there is no possibility that God has anything more to say to us. Is there a word of the Lord – a blessing, heart-raising word – for the relaxed and mostly comfortable?

The question of our redemption is not pressing today, either in the church or in society more generally. Certainly we are constantly working towards something, and something better than we what we presently know but this kind of progress is not the business of Christian worship or faith. The heart of our confession is not the offer of a nudge from worse to bad, or bad to good, or good to better. We speak, rather, of life out death, of the creation of something out of nothing. Christian faith is, at heart, concerned with miracles, with the impossible. For when God comes, what he brings is not only the kind of healing we think we need but also revelation of the full extent of that need. In the breadth of Isaiah’s preaching God speaks such words of comfort as we read in worship this time of year, but also divine rage and accusation against the people for things about themselves they would scarcely recognise or be aware of.

When God comes, it is always as life out of death, as creation out of nothing. This means that when God comes it is always with bad news as well as with the good, the good revealing the bad. The broken-hearted may not know, or have acknowledged, that indeed their hopes have been dashed; the captives not know that they are imprisoned, the comfortable not know just how insecure they are.

We mark just this dynamic in our worship each week. We call on God, whether we are feeling we need God or not. We hear that we are forgiven, often of things we had not imagined we were guilty of. Perhaps quintessentially, we gather around a table at which is served a victim through whom salvation is somehow won.

All of this “works”, however, only to the extent that the bad comes with the good. If we speak of the coming of resurrection, we speak also about the coming of death. But we have to be careful here. The proclamation of resurrection is not for the dying but for the dead. We noted last week that we all know that we are dying. This knowledge, however – our mere mortality – is not the question answered by resurrection. Resurrection reveals death – a death we do not yet know – it does not merely nudge us through what we already know. Resurrection doesn’t answer our sense for death because we have not yet asked the question well enough, despite our mourning and ashes, as real as they are. The resurrection with which the church is concerned is that which identifies who is dead, including us dead who are still walking.

This is enacted also in the Eucharist. The Eucharist “works” only to the extent that we who receive the body and blood admit a culpability in its having been broken and spilt. There is no “nudge” here into a better life by taking a spiritual medicine which treats some disease in us, and so which could be substituted for a generic brand which is not called “body” and “blood”. The ritual kills in the accusation of our complicity in death, and raises in the creative grace of God. Death is but a means by which God can bless; the Eucharist is death and resurrection – Jesus’, and our own.

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Isaiah proclaims, with the emphasis falling on the spirit, and not on the “me”. For it is the spirit of the Lord which creates and renews the face of the earth. This is the light John announced, which enlightens everyone (John 1.9), even those who do not yet know they are living in shadows. When God comes, the dark places appear and are flooded with light. And God is coming.

For this spirit, this light, all thanks be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and always. Amen.

10 December – God is coming. And it is the end of you.

View or print as a PDF

Advent 2

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85
Mark 1:1-8

To those looking for peace comes the cry,

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.”

God is coming! Make the way straight! “Cry out!”

And what shall we cry?

“All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass…”

You’ve gotta love the Old Testament prophets for their capacity to punch, square in the face, any easy forgiveness or cheap attempts to leap out of the world as it is into sentimental notions of paradise on earth or of eternal life! Isaiah declares: God is coming. And No One. Gets Out. Alive. Comfort, O comfort my people…

How do we respond to this? Horror, revulsion or terror would make sense to any normal person who took it seriously. But what about the people gathered here today? Does this horrify, terrify us as well? Are we “normal”?

The abnormality to which we are called as conspirators with Isaiah and disciples of Jesus is that we not be horrified here. Rather, we are to find ourselves set free with the realisation that we are not divine. That we are grass, that we are mortal, is the mark of our creatureliness.

We need, of course, to speak carefully. There is here no exultation in our mortality. It is not a thing to celebrate; it is just “a thing.” “No one gets out alive” is the law. It is, simply, the case. The function of law is to limit: only drive this fast, only drink this much, keep your hands to yourself; that far and no further. The law constrains, which is precisely what Isaiah declares here: you are constrained. You are flowers and grass, and will wither and fade.

We all know this, of course. What matters is the impact we allow the fact of our mortality to have. If our mortality is fundamentally offensive to us, then we labour to keep it at bay, to preserve ourselves as long as possible, to hold death at a distance by whatever power or influence we have. Life understood in these finds Isaiah’s mortal realism horrifying, terrifying, or repulsive. Who needs – or wants – to be reminded of the enemy when the work of our lives is to keep us hidden from that enemy for as long as possible? We see this in ourselves and in others, and we might characterise it as a deathly mortality. It knows only the law and its limits.

But Isaiah’s proclamation does not call us to this but, rather, to a lively mortality. This is a mortality – a creatureliness – which knows the limit and exults not in it but in the freedom which comes with it. This is the freedom not to have to survive, the freedom of not being necessary. The gospel in Isaiah’s proclamation is not simply that Israel’s “sins are taken away”. The content of those sins was the drive to make ourselves necessary, the denial of death’s final claim on us and of the possibility that we might cease to be. Isaiah’s gospel is that when God comes that kind of striving and anxiety is no longer required.

A deathly mortality is reflected in the corresponding deathly life: a life lived at heart in fear of – or revulsion at – the God who defines us as creatures, as grass. This is a life which finds it insufficient to be in the form or image of God and grasps at more (Genesis 3; Philippians 2).

A lively mortality is one which would live life to its fullest. A lively mortality celebrates the approach of God because it is when God comes as Creator above, and beyond, and yet for, us that we come to ourselves.

Here the law finds its end – its purpose: God being God, creature being creature, in the same moment. (This is, of course, what we say is the meaning of Christmas: the coincidence of God and the world, Christ as the end of the law, not only in his death but in his birth.)

In neither the lively nor the deathly experience of our death is that death any less real. All that matters is which way death’s shadow falls.

If it falls towards us, on this side of our inevitable definition in death, then our life is lived in a valley of death’s shadow. We live and die in a twilight; aware of the hint of more but not able to do much more than light candles and fires against the encroaching gloom.

But if death’s shadow falls away from us, on the other side of death, this means that death is obscure, that we cannot see what is beyond it, what it holds for us. This is to say that death is incomprehensible. And this is to say that we – who are mortal – do not yet now what we are. What it finally means to be a creature is still hidden from us, even if we walk now in the light. But we need no longer be jumping at the shadows.

This is the death – and the life – to which we are called, in all its incomprehensibility. And the word about all this is given in Isaiah for our comfort: when God comes, we become as we are created to be.

In the church, of course, we also hear rumours of resurrection, of death overcome and of life without end. At heart, this way of speaking is to say the same thing with a different emphasis or accent. Resurrection does not deny our death but only changes it; the “only”, however, is momentous: freedom from fear, life along straight and level pathways.

The gospel is that God is coming. And this will be the end of you. And a new beginning.

God comes that we might know that we are not God, that we are not necessary and do not need to try to be. More than merely necessary, we are loved, desired, by the God who created us in order that he might come to us, and we to him.

And God will come, and come, and come, and come… until we are his.

Now and always, all praise and glory be to the God who creates, sustains and sets us free. Amen.