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The Reverend Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)
Sunday 29th April 2018 – 4.00pm Evensong
Isaiah 60:1-14 Revelation 3:1-13
The opening verses of this evening’s first lesson from the prophecy of Isaiah are some of the most beautiful and lyrical words in the whole of the Bible:
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
Some might argue that Isaiah has a more such lyricism than any of the other prophetic books. And you’ll be familiar with other such passages, not least from Handel’s oratorio, Messiah. Take this, for example:
Comfort, comfort ye my people,
saith your God.
Speak comfortably to Jerusalem,
and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished,
that her iniquity is pardoned (Isaiah 40:1-2).
Those were verses from chapter 40. Here are some from chapter 53, from one of the so-called suffering servant songs:
He was despised and rejected,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
Surely he hath borne our griefs,
and carried our sorrows:
he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities (53:3, 4a, 5a).
And then what about these from chapter 61, words which Jesus reads when he goes to the synagogue immediately after his baptism and temptation in Luke’s gospel:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me;
He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
To bind up the broken-hearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives
And release to the prisoners (61:1-2).
These few passages beautifully convey the general tenor of the latter part of Isaiah’s prophecy, addressed as they are, first, to those exiled to Babylon after Jerusalem had been destroyed in 587BC, and then to the exiles who’d been allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their city, their temple and their lives, some fifty years later. Whereas the first part of the book, which relates to the situation of Jerusalem under the threat of Assyria in the eighth century BC, contains warnings about failing to trust God and making alliances with foreign powers, the latter part of the book, clearly addressing much later historical circumstances, speaks to a people broken by suffering and disaster, whose morale is in need of rebuilding. To these people, Isaiah speaks words of grace, hope, encouragement, healing, forgiveness and restoration: ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.’
I suspect it’s rather hard for us actually to imagine just what the situation must have been like. Those who are old enough to have lived through the Second World War might be able to identify with a general sense of being exhausted and worn down, but, in this country, at least, that will have been tempered with euphoria at having won. This wasn’t the case for Isaiah’s exiles. They were utterly broken, believing themselves to have been abandoned by God and left to the mercy of the Babylonians. They’d lost everything. The whole of their history and identity rested on the belief that they were the chosen people, enjoying a special relationship with God, and yet all that now seemed little more than a delusion. The return to Jerusalem to start the enormous task of rebuilding will surely have been tinged with a heavy dose of forlornness and weariness, to say nothing of self-recrimination and guilt. Even to entertain the possibility of believing in themselves once again must have seemed like requiring a monumental effort on the part of the people, let alone believing in a God who loved and cherished them. And yet it is to such a condition that Isaiah speaks, ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.’
This is, of course, the message of Easter, that the one who was despised and rejected, the one who bore suffering and sorrow, has been raised, that his glory is not for himself alone, but that his light irradiates the whole creation. The light of Christ is our light; his glory is also our glory.
Can we possibly believe that? Does the world look like that? Does the situation in Syria, for example, encourage us to trust that the light of the Risen Christ is already shining upon them and us, to see that the glory of God has already risen upon them? It’s not surprising that many would dismiss such notions as fantasies and delusions, and yet the light for which we look is not one that blinds us because it’s so bright, but rather one that glimmers faintly but steadily.
Faith isn’t simply a private matter for individuals, it’s something that relates to every aspect of our communal, national and global life, but this isn’t to say that it’s not personal. After all, the focus of the Christian faith is a person, who himself experienced suffering and death and, in one sense, tragedy, disaster and failure. And I suspect that it’s in the context of our own personal lives that we’re most likely to find the possibility of seeing, believing and trusting that at the heart of everything is a gracious presence and power of love and goodness, which often seems to be obscured, sometimes glimmers, and occasionally blazes for just a short time. In other words, we’ve probably all got stories, not only of how we’ve experienced suffering, despair and failure, but also of how, in ways we may not be able to explain or even comprehend fully, we’ve also experienced new life, new possibilities, new beginnings. These, I would suggest, are experiences of resurrection, which are signs of the glory of the Lord rising upon us because our light has come.
We’ll all be aware, no doubt, of other people for whom this is the case. John Profumo comes to my mind, and I’m longing for his biography to be written. Born in 1915, Jack, as he was known, was one of might be called the top drawer of society. Educated at Harrow and Oxford, he was appointed an OBE in 1944 for distinguished war service, rising eventually to the rank of brigadier. He inherited a barony from his father in 1940, entered politics and served as the conservative member of Parliament first for Kettering and then for Stratford-on-Avon. In 1960, he was appointed Secretary of State for War.
It’s the year 1963, though, which marked the turning point of his life. Having married Valerie Hobson, an Irish actress, in 1954, he was introduced in 1961 to Christine Keeler, a high class call-girl, with whom he began a brief affair. This would have been of no consequence, had she not also had an affair with Yevgeni Ivanov, the senior naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy. In March 1963, the Labour MP, George Wigg, raised questions about national security in the House of Commons, insinuating that Profumo had conducted an affair with Keeler, something that Profumo denied. In British politics, however, lying is deemed to be the ultimately unforgivable sin, and so it was that on 5th June 1963, Profumo was forced to resign, his political career in tatters.
The remarkable thing about Profumo is that he maintained a total silence about the events that had led to his political downfall. His wife stood by him faithfully, and not long after his resignation, Walter Birmingham, the Warden of Toynbee Hall, a charity working with the disadvantaged in London’s East End, invited him to work there as a volunteer, something he did until his life ended in 2006, at the age of 91. Using his political skills, he worked tirelessly and self-effacingly as a fundraiser, for which, in 1975, he was made a CBE. He was invested with this honour by the Queen herself, something that many saw as marking his rehabilitation to public life, and Margaret Thatcher invited him to attend her own 70th birthday party, seating him next to the Queen.
His obituary stated that his life consisted of two halves: disgrace and redemption. Profumo himself never justified or defended his actions and never referred to what became known as the Profumo Affair, which is why, sadly, there’ll probably never be a biography. In his obituary, though, Lord Longford said that he felt more admiration for Profumo than for anyone else he’d ever known. The residents of Toynbee Hall described him as a saint.
I’ve no idea what his religious affiliation was, if any, nor do I know whether he took matters of faith and spirituality seriously. All I can say is that for me, the way he lived his life after the political scandal is inspiring. There appears to have been no trace of self-pity, just a concern to make amends. What enables that to happen, whatever our religious persuasion, is the grace of God. That’s what we see in the restoration of the Israelites in the sixth century BC. It’s what we see in the resurrection of Jesus, and it’s what we experience in our own lives in all sorts of small and large ways. Sometimes we hit rock bottom in life, but whether we do so as a result of our own making or that of others, the bottom is never a dead end. For beyond what we can conceive or comprehend is something else: the indestructible presence of God, who comes to us as grace and who always addresses us with the words, ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you’.
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