St Francis, Terriers - Advent 1 (27.11.2016)

Jeremy Moodey, Chief Executive of Embrace the Middle East

It’s a pleasure to be back here at St Francis of Assisi, especially given the generous support which I know many of you give towards the work of Embrace the Middle East, or BibleLands as was. My last visit to Terriers was in February 2014 and I spoke then about the compassionate ministry of our Palestinian Christian partners in Gaza. They’re engaged in some amazing work, running schools, hospitals, clinics and many other social projects. This despite the tiny size of the Christian community in Gaza, less than 0.01% of the total population of almost two million.

Since then of course there has been another terrible war in Gaza, the third in seven years. It is reported that hundreds of thousands of children in Gaza are suffering from post-traumatic shock, given the death and violence they have witnessed. There is precious little psychosocial help for them, although our Christian partners are doing what they can. But the Christians too are under pressure. When I spoke here in 2014 the Christian population in Gaza numbered 1,500. Today it is just over 1,000. Israel is letting many emigrate to the West Bank or further afield, for they are an ‘inconvenient truth’ as Israel seeks to isolate and stigmatise Gaza as a haven for Islamist extremism.

Tony’s cunning wheeze was to capitalise on the fact that I was due to be in Gaza again this last week. Indeed I only flew in from Tel Aviv late last night. The idea was that I could update you all on how the Christians in Gaza are faring, and how your support is making a difference. What I had not counted on was the Israelis refusing me my permit to enter Gaza. In fact, I spent most of my trip kicking my heels by the border crossing waiting for an entry permit that never arrived.

But I did spend some time with my Palestinian friends, and they are increasingly despairing that there will ever be a just peace in the land of the Holy One. The shock victory of Donald Trump is bad enough, but even before that the existence of 750,000 Israeli settlers on stolen Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has effectively killed the two-state solution. No-one has yet come up with a viable Plan B. Our Psalm this morning, Ps 122, enjoined us to ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’. If you haven’t done so already, now would be a good time to start!

So where is the hope? Not only for peace in Israel/Palestine but also for peace in Syria, in Aleppo, in Mosul, in Yemen. The Middle East is in a terrible mess. Our Christian partners in the region, those who are still there, are binding up the wounds, especially for some of the five million Syrian refugees who have fled their country. But is that the only hope we can find?

Our Old Testament passage this morning, from Isaiah 2, gives us the famous phrase about turning swords into plowshares, and spears into pruninghooks. The hope of future peace, and an end to war. ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation’ (v4). I guess this morning we would all say ‘Amen’ to that, especially for the troubled Middle East. There is an almost identical passage in Micah 4. Nobody is quite sure which prophet came up with the phrase first. Or why the prophet Joel (3:10) says the exact opposite, about turning plowshares into swords and pruninghooks into spears. Typical, the sceptics would say: the Bible contradicting itself! And which prophet is right? If it is Isaiah and Micah, can we take any comfort from these verses, or are they just a pacifist’s pipe-dream, divorced from the reality of our violent and sinful world?

Well context is everything when it comes to understanding Scripture, and Joel’s inversion of the phrase in his prophecy is really about the turbulent end times. Our Gospel reading from Matthew 24 touched on the uncertainty of those end days, and the return of Jesus. I’ll save a sermon on that subject for my next visit to Terriers!

But Isaiah and Micah are talking about something else. It is important to remember as Christians that the great narratives and prophecies of the Old Testament can only be truly understood through the prism of the New Testament and the person of Jesus Christ. Whenever we read the Old Testament, we have to remember that everything points to Jesus. Martin Luther famously wrote, ‘in the whole Scripture there is nothing but Christ, either in plain words or involved words’.

And so it is that our passage from Isaiah 2 also points ultimately to Jesus. Having described the wickedness of Israel and the degeneracy of Jerusalem in chapter 1, Isaiah goes on in this next chapter to offer the hope of a better future, of a time when our sin is not held against us and we are reconciled with God. A future rooted in the rule of the Messiah, the Prince of Peace, King Jesus. As Paul writes to the Ephesians, 2:14, ‘For he [Jesus] is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…’ Swords are beaten into plowshares because under the kingly rule of Jesus, there is perfect peace, with God and between men.

Now you might object that the Messiah’s rule is something for the future, and of little comfort for the suffering people of Gaza and Aleppo, or the Syrian refugees freezing even as we meet this morning in the mountains of Lebanon. But that is the mystery of God’s kingdom, for it is what the theologians call an ‘already but not yet’ aspect of God’s grace. The Kingdom is in some senses already here, which is why Jesus told the Pharisees (Luke 17:21), ‘behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you’. Jesus the King is with us by His Spirit, and so is his Church. And yet we also pray in the Lord’s Prayer ‘thy Kingdom come’. Some aspects of the Kingdom are still to be realised.

So when Isaiah prophesies (v2), ‘the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it’, he is referring to the church of Jesus Christ, the true Zion. He is referring to you, and to me. The church is often depicted as a city on a hill which sends out light. That’s why Jesus says (Matt 5:14): ‘You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden’.

And the church is a light today, bringing healing and hope to those who are suffering so grievously in the Middle East. That is the work we – and you – are supporting at Embrace. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, yes. But pray also that the church in the Middle East will continue its powerful witness, bringing the compassion of Christ to those in need.