A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, at the second annual Provincial Choral Evensong for the Anglican Province of Victoria, on 9 March 2014, at the Metropolitical Cathedral Church of St Paul, Melbourne:
Tonight’s readings (Isaiah 40.1-11, 2 Peter 3.8-15) encourage us to place our trust in God’s future. They tell us that the future that God intends for this world is to be a place ‘where justice is at home’ (2 Peter 3.13), and they encourage us to become partners with God in shaping our world to reflect that future. Above all, they invite us, as clergy and people of this Province of Victoria, to become ‘heralds of good tidings’ to those among whom we live, work and worship (Isaiah 40.9).
Our first lesson, from the second part of the prophecy of Isaiah, are words of comfort spoken to a people without hope; a people whose homeland and sanctuary had been destroyed, with the city of their faith in ruins. The place where all Israel had come together to ‘give thanks unto the name of the Lord’ lay in ruins (Psalm 122.4). The place promised them during the Exodus, the place ‘that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there’, had been devastated by a superpower (Deuteronomy 12.5). Babylonian invaders, who exiled the nation and turned their city of peace, Yerushalayim, for that is what the Hebrew words from which we derive the city’s name ‘Jerusalem’ mean, into a spiritual and physical wasteland.
For generations, the people of Israel had been in exile, cut off from their homeland and the place of their religious loyalty. For years, they had marked ‘the day Jerusalem fell’; solemnly recalled in their prayers how their enemies cried, ‘tear it down to its foundations’ (Psalm 137.7). The Psalmist tells us how they sat down ‘by the waters of Babylon, and wept as they remembered Zion’ (Psalm 137.1). In Babylon, their pagan tormentors lorded it over them. Their captors not only ridiculed their continued service of the God of Israel, a God who ostensibly failed them in their time of need, but also perverted their worship: they ‘called for mirth: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion”. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’, the Psalmist expressed his people’s affliction (Psalm 137.3-4). How can we remain loyal to the city of God in servitude and exile?
And now God’s prophet speaks to the exiles in Babylon, speaks to them as if Jerusalem lived on in their hearts. He speaks tenderly, not to a ruined city, but to a whole nation: ‘comfort, comfort’, he says. And he assures them that in spite of the destruction and devastation they had experienced they remain God’s people: ‘Comfort, comfort, my people’ (Isaiah 40.1). Now their ‘penalty is paid’; they have ‘received from the Lord’s hand double for all their sins’ (40.2). Even though they now live far away from the place where God’s glory dwelt on Mount Zion, their God still cares for them. And God gives them a vision of the future: a highway that leads them out of the desert of their exile. In speaking to them his words of comfort, God in fact inscribes in their heart ‘highways to Zion’ (Psalm 84.4).
Those highways are broad and level; where they lead through the desert the wasteland will become ‘a place of springs’ (Psalm 85.6). They are a way on which those who walk on it ‘will go from strength to strength’; a way that leads each one who travels on it to ‘appear before God in Zion’, as the Psalmist sings (Psalm 85.6-7). The Zion to which it leads is not the ruined city they left behind, but a new Jerusalem. The highways of their hearts will lead to place where ‘the glory of God is revealed’, where God is made known to all nations: ‘all people shall see God’s glory together’ (Isaiah 40.4). Although God’s people still live in captivity, although the city of their faith they left behind still lies in ruins, God sets a future before his people. He points out to them the place where his glory continually dwells. He instils in their hearts not only a deep yearning for that place, but also plants in their hearts the highway to that place, that city.
It is in the strength of that yearning that God encourages his people in the words of prophecy: ‘make straight in the desert a highway for our God’ (Isaiah 40.3). That highway for God is the highway to Zion. It is a highway of the heart, and not necessarily a physical road. And it does not matter that this road, that lifts up every valley and makes low every mountain, may not at first be a physical road; for it is real in every member of the people of God who yearns for God’s presence, and for his glory to be revealed. Nor does it matter that each generation passes away, ‘withers like the grass, fades like flowers’; for the promise of a road that leads to God has been granted to every generation; that promise will ‘stand forever’, like the word of God that ensures and safeguards our futures (Isaiah 40.7-8).
This yearning for God to establish his city of peace among us so that we might go there, worship him there, and live with him there, is ours as much as that of previous generations of believers. Our second lesson, from the second epistle of Peter (2 Peter 3.8-15) gives us an insight into that yearning for God to rule and reign from the point of view of one of the first generations of Christians: ‘the Lord is not slow about his promise’, Peter writes to the early Christian church (2 Peter 3.9). We may still wait for God to act, want him to bring his city to earth, and build his highway to take us there. But God ‘is patient with us, not wanting any to perish, but wanting all to come to repentance’ (2 Peter 3.9). God will bring his city, will bring his rule to earth at an unexpected time of his choosing: a time when ‘the glory of the Lord shall be revealed’, a time when ‘everything that is done on earth is disclosed’, Peter assures his readers. In the strength that promise, ‘we wait for a new heaven and new earth, where righteousness is at home’ (2 Peter 3.13).
As they yearn for the coming of God’s new heaven and new earth among them, Peter exhorts his readers to use their time of waiting wisely: ‘while you are waiting, strive to be at peace, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation’ (2 Peter 3.14-15). When God brings in his rule of righteousness, there will be no more room for injustice, Peter explains. Earlier in the chapter, Peter spoke of the fate of those who act against God’s rule of love: they are ‘stored up for fire, are kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly’ (2 Peter 3.7). God’s people will be vindicated on the day God levels the mountains and lifts the plains, and finally reveals the highway to his city: ‘the Lord God comes with might, his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him’, our first lesson put it (Isaiah 40.10). Until that day, however, God places into our hearts that yearning desire for a world of justice and care for those who are oppressed; a world where the hungry are fed as by a shepherd, and the vulnerable gathered like lambs in the shepherd’s arms (Isaiah 40.41). Until that day, God teaches us patience, so that we may bring many to share our yearning for God’s values to shape the world we live in today.
When he reveals his glory, God will break all injustice, and restore the rights of those brought low, our readings assure us; if needs be he will do so by bringing in a new creation altogether. At the same time our readings assure us that God does not wish to bring destruction to the people he made: he does ‘not want any to perish, but rather wants all to come to repentance’ (2 Peter 3.9), ‘so that he may be merciful to all’ (Romans 11.32). And in doing so, God relies on us, the people of each generation who heard and believed his word, to assure others that his promise is certain: the promise of a future where all can know and be known by God; the promise of a world where righteousness is at home. This promise is both for our future—a time when God’s glory will be revealed to all people in his kingdom of justice and peace—and for now—a time when many neither know justice nor peace. At the end of time, it will be God who will ‘come with might’, bringing reward and recompense, bringing justice and peace, care and comfort for his people. Until that day, however, it is you and I who are called to show forth, through our actions, the values of God’s rule in own generation.
Here at St Paul’s we believe that this Cathedral can be a place where the transformative message of God’s kingdom can be made visible for our City, Diocese and Province. We believe that by living out the values of God’s kingdom we can be a place where people can find and nurture their own ‘highways to Zion’, their own pathways to God’s rule. We do so through our ministry of prayer: when we pray each day for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven; for God’s people to be given their daily bread; when we pray that God would forgive our sins, and in turn commit ourselves to live by the way of forgiveness and mercy. We do so through our ministry of welcome: welcoming those who increasingly know no welcome in this country, working for and with migrants and refugees in the heart of our state capital. We do so by sharing our conviction that God gives us a future, and by inviting others to put their trust in our hope. We do so by caring for the physical environment around us, and ensuring that generations yet to come will enjoy grass and flowers, mountains and valleys, and God’s breath blowing over them. We do so by inviting others to belong and find their home here in this church, and to know it to be a place where ‘the highway for our God’ can be found.
As we celebrate our belonging together and our joint ministry as Christians in this Province of Victoria, I invite you to share with us who worship and work at your home church in Melbourne’s CBD in being heralds of good tidings to those who may not yet know God’s good news; the good news that God gives us a kingdom and a future, that he assures us that our penalty has been paid in his Son Jesus Christ. The good news that he seeks to be ‘merciful to all people’ and that, as a token of this promise, he inscribes in the hearts of all who love him the map to this kingdom of peace and justice, reveals to us the ‘highways to Zion’.