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s093o02 Lockleys Advent 2 8/12/2002

"Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.

Isaiah 40:2

We have the conception that the Lord is just, but I suspect that God's justice and our justice are somewhat different. For my text this morning, if taken literally, means that the Lord is quite definitely not just, at least in our human terms. In our human terms there is a specific penalty for wrongdoing and a judge would be manifestly unjust if he or she sentenced a miscreant to more than the proper penalty set down. In Australia this would be grounds for an appeal. But, of course, this is precisely what Isaiah says of God. He says that the nation of Israel had been punished by God twice as much as she deserved.

We regularly watch the Channel Ten news simply because we eat our dinner at this time and some in the family want to watch the "Simpsons" when the news is on the other channels. I can't, for the life of me, imagine why :-) Being an hour-long news - it is not unusual to get to see reporting of impassioned pleadings about the severity, or the leniency, of the sentences judges give. It seems a fact of life that people plead the severity of the sentence handed down to them, and the leniency of the sentence handed down to someone else.

"Unfortunately" the biblical authors have a habit of ascribing everything that happens to God. Any event is either willed by God or, at the very least, allowed to happen, by God. So everything that happens, happens for a divine purpose. Difficult things happen and we have learnt perseverance from them. I suppose this can help us cope with the transitoriness of the human condition. The difficulty comes if this is extended to sickness. Some people use this principle to say that all sickness is a result of some sin the person has committed, and the sickness is God's punishment. Some sickness is indeed a result of the stresses under which we put ourselves, but there are people who suffer through no fault of their own. Indeed it sometimes seems that those who try to do the right thing sometimes suffer more than others.

I have commented before how infrequently Jesus talked about sin and how frequently this subject was the preoccupation of those around Jesus - his own disciples no less than the religious authorities.

The prophet Isaiah was speaking about a concrete historical situation. He was speaking of the return of the exiles to the Promised Land. The reality was that the people of Israel were fairly minor pawns in the megalomaniacal ambitions of powerful rulers around them. One dominated others by exiling them, another sought to rule by currying favour and returning people to their home land. It was all pretty arbitrary. Isaiah seeks to comfort the returning exiles by saying that God is gracious.

Last week I spoke about God's call often being uncomfortable, something we can't avoid, and something which brings us a into respectful relationship with others rather than allow us to remain independent.

So Israel's *punishment* for asserting her independence was exacted by the nations around about her, and the reality is that the punishment was more than God could determine. So if we seek to retain our independence at all costs, the penalty may well be harsher than God would want. If we live miserable lives simply because we are getting older and not able to do all the things we could when we were 16, and lamenting that we can't remain as independent as we once were, we are punishing ourselves, and again far more than God would do.

God is gracious, we are made for one another. God will not love us more because we've been able to do so much for other people. God loves all people equally. In the words of Molly Wolf (of Sabbath Blessing fame): " ... when that particular beloved is threatened, we translate our fear and grief into righteous rage, and we battle to the death, making it a zero-sum affair and rejecting reconciliation or comfort. Or, if we're on the other side, we cheer when we've won -- as though God loves a winner and hates a loser. Uh-huh. And *who* went to the Cross as a convicted criminal?"

Sometimes, as we read the words of St Peter about our day being like a thousand years - in the midst of our troubles - it can seem like the Lord could well do with the realisation of what time means to humanity. Do we really think God is blissfully unaware of this time difference? I wouldn't worship a god who was unaware of the full effect of human reality on all people, and I wouldn't commend such a god to the worship of anyone else.

It seems that we can only have patience, yet what cold comfort the injunction to be patient is!

But when we look at that reading for the epistle, the startling fact is that St Peter is not exhorting us to be patient at all. St Peter, or whoever wrote these words, twice talks about *God's* patience, and the appropriate response from us - considering "what sort of persons ought you to be".

So this is not a call to passive patience but to active discipleship. How often when we are feeling sorry for ourselves should we pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and get on with life as best we can. There are plenty who have much justification for their misery.

Having just typed these words, I am reminded by the pain in my own neck that I need to make an appointment to see the physiotherapist, otherwise I will simply continue to experience the same pain. Often it is a lot easier to pick ourselves up by the bootstraps if we enlist the help of someone else when we do so. Of course the physio will give me exercises to do (each hour as it turns out) but at least I know that I am doing the right thing and that there is nothing more serious that is wrong.

If God is patient with us, not intervening in our lives to stop us when we do wrong, (for none of us like to be corrected or reproved) - do we expect God to be less reticent when it is someone else who we think ought to be reproved or stopped - simply because we are the butt of their actions. So God cannot limit the "punishment" for man's inhumanity to each other - it is only we ourselves who can do this. God is gracious, and while some retribution is perhaps "inevitable" when it comes to acts of terrorism, any continuance of the cycle of violence - in the name of God - cannot be justified.

For the hidden agenda of attributing everything to the providence of God is that some will want to say that their acts of terrorism against others are decreed or demanded by God. This simply cannot be the case for us. In the Christian faith, no one ever deserves any *punishment* they receive, the only *punishment* they deserve is to realise that they are already forgiven.

So when we hear the Lord speaking tenderly to Jerusalem and saying that she has received double for her sins, we can take it that God speaks similarly to others when they are in dire straights - as Jerusalem was at that particular time.

I was struck, when we read the last of those three parables of judgement from Matthew chapter 25 - that visiting the Lord in prison was mentioned. And I recalled that often the year of the Lord's favour is pictured as including "release to the captives" (Lk 4.18) in fulfilment of the words of the prophet Isaiah (58.6, 61.2). Of course we would assume that only those prisoners who *deserve* release would be set free, but I suspect that this is just not the case. The coming of the Lord is the jubilee, the time for everyone to start anew. The past is forgotten completely. This is the reality of the Lord's justice - all are set free.

There is another "cause and effect" issue that I must deal with. It has been suggested that Australia might well be better served by distancing ourselves from the (alleged) unthinking acceptance of the current stance against Iraq held by the White House. I am not sure that it has been actually explicitly suggested that the Bali bombings might be a result of our *unquestioning* following of the current US policy there, but it has come close.

It may possibly be that the bombings might be a response by the perpetrators to the policy of our government, but personally I doubt it. It is far more likely that the bombing Is a reaction to our affluence, our alignment with the principles of capitalism, and our "Christian" heritage (if only they knew!) - none of which we are likely to readily renounce in the short term, let alone in the long term.

So in this sense there is no 'cause and effect" that we can effectively change - or that we can attribute to God. What we can do is make sure that we try to be disciples, to consider "what sort of persons ought (we) to be". It may well be that we distance ourselves from what is perceived to be the current policy of the White House, but we ought to do this because we want to be disciples and love the other, not because we offer what might in fact be a false sense of security to people. What I am saying is that we can't avoid conflict simply by a policy change. The causes of the bombing in Bali has its roots far deeper than that, and it requires some re-evaluating of the priorities of us all.

For any act of terrorism is never the tool either of God or Allah, or of the deity of whatever name the deity is named - for God is the God of the whole universe and God is gracious. Everyone has received double for all their sins, not because God has willed it, but because, being our own worst enemy, we will it on ourselves and on each other.

I cannot finish but by repeating those lovely words which end our first lesson, for this is the sort of God we worship, a God who, towards each and everybody these words are true: God "will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep."


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