Isaiah to Paul: From Feeling Rotten – to the Fruits of the Spirit
One of my very first sermons, I was still in training – but it’s not a bad effort and does have something valuable to say.
Have you ever thought, ‘I can’t do this’, or ‘I’m useless at that’? Have you ever refused to try to do something, saying, ‘I’m not clever like you’, or I’m not…’ or ‘I can’t…’ That’s what Moses said when God called him in Exodus 4:10, ‘But Moses said, “No, Lord, don’t send me. I have never been a good speaker, and I haven’t become one since you began to speak to me. I am a poor speaker, slow and hesitant.” Today’s reading are about people coming to recognise what they can offer even when they’ve thought they were really useless.
The reading from Isaiah comes when God is going to restore Israel to the land. They’ve been exiled in Babylon for about 70 years and they’ve heard every possible criticism from their prophets during that time. They’ve been told how sinful they were, that all their actions and behaviour have been wrong for ages, their precious city, Jerusalem, the city of the lord they’ve heard described as a harlot. They’ve been downtrodden among the Babylonians and cast down by God. They’ve been so miserable its unbelievable – they’ve been utterly shattered, and worst of all, it seemed that God didn’t love them anymore.
Imagine if something like this happened to you, your whole community transplanted to a nasty council estate on the edge of some really wealthy area where you could see how the other half live but live in grotty circumstances yourselves; your working folk condemned to work on the bins; and your church back home burnt down. Worst of all, some spiritual authority comes along, maybe the Bishop, and tells you you’re all useless and its all happened because you were so sinful.
You’d feel truly awful. Now, Isaiah, who certainly took his share of having a go at the people for their awfulness, comes along with a series of songs of joy. He’s telling the people that God still loves them. That their city is to be his Bride. That a time of rejoicing is coming. Do they deserve it? Well, according to all the prophesies until just before this one, presumably not. But God is infinitely generous, they’ve been through their bad times and God has wiped the slate clean, but he’s not waiting for them to start behaving properly again before he starts telling them the good news of what’s coming, he’s rejoicing in it, and asking them to rejoice with him.
God asking us to rejoice with him is part of what happens at Cana, when Jesus turns the water into wine. Its something more than that though, we’re not just rejoicing at a wedding that Jesus happened to be invited to, after all, we’re not even told who’s getting married, the wedding isn’t an important part of the story at all. What we’re rejoicing in is that Jesus turned the water into wine. In one translation I’ve seen its even described as ‘foot-washing water’, not necessarily the best quality water then. That’s us. Just jars of water and not the best water at that. And with that infinite generosity that is so much the nature of our God, Jesus turns us into wine. And not just any old wine either, the best wine. I’ve probably never drunk wine as good as the wine served up at Cana, my limit for a bottle of wine is £5 in Tesco; reasonable wine, but far from the best. But the wine Jesus serves, like the water he offered to the Samarian woman in John 4 was more than just water, is more than just wine. The best wine is that which is of Jesus, the wine of his gift to us. And that is what our jars of foot-washing water are filled with. In his generosity, Jesus re-makes our nature of not particularly special with his gift that remakes us into the best wine.
Now lets think of some people who don’t particularly feel awful but who probably think of themselves as not having any particular strengths, nothing in particular to offer to others. People who don’t really think of themselves as being of value to their community. Know some people like that? Of course you do, there may even be some you know who you think of like that.
Well that’s the sort of community who Paul is talking of. People who don’t know or value their own gifts. And people who don’t value each other’s gifts. That’s the gifts that God gave them, the gifts that God has given you.
When Jesus remakes us as the very best wine we definitely have gifts, not that we deserve them, we are still the very imperfect people that we always were but we all have something to give. So there are two things we have to do with that, we have to use our gifts and not hide from them, Jesus said, in Mk 4:21: “Does anyone ever bring in a lamp and put it under a bowl or under the bed? Doesn’t he put it on the lampstand? We also have to try to see those gifts in other people, see how the light of the Lord lights them up too!
The gifts that Paul is talking about in his letter aren’t particularly meaningful to us today, so what sort of gifts might we think about when we look around us. What sort of gifts do we see in ourselves, in other people; what sort of gifts do we see as needed by the church or by the community?
There are some gifts that we easily recognise in the Church, gifts of speaking, gifts of making music, the gifts that make for good planners and committee workers, but there are other gifts that we either don’t notice or undervalue.
There are the practical gifts, the abilities to make and mend; the abilities to clean and sort out stuff. Useful to the church when something is broken, dirty or chaotic but useful too in the community. Do you know someone who can’t afford tradespeople and is having to put up with things being broken in their home? Or someone who has come through some kind of crisis and could really do with a bit of help putting their home back to rights? You might think you don’t want to be seen as ‘interfering’ but its not interfering to be available to others to ask for help when they need it. You might not think of something like fixing your neighbour’s broken cot as a particularly Christian service, but caring about your neighbour is where its all at.
But there is one gift that is truly special and is not only undervalued, it is hardly noticed. It’s the gift of listening. We live in a society where it’s the noisy gifts that get noticed, this is the quietest gift of all – but its oh, so precious. Do you know someone who’s really quiet but who somehow gets to hear everyone’s tales of trouble? Someone who always seems to have time to listen to others. Now there’s a real gift and usually, the people who possess it don’t even realize.
So look at yourself, what gifts do you have? Not as something to be proud of, after all, your gifts are gifts from God, not something you own but something you can be grateful for. So, being grateful for them, what do you do with them? How can you offer them to others?
And what gifts do you see in your neighbours? It may be that, looking at someone you don’t even like, you may see some marvelous gift, some quality that they are itching to use in the service of the community around them. We are told to love our neighbours and sometimes that’s not easy, but if we can’t love them, we can at least value them – it’s a step in the right direction!
So, we, the jars of poor quality water, turned into the best wine by Jesus, need to see how to offer that wine to others, how to appreciate the Jesus-given qualities of our fellows and truly, how to be glad and thankful to Jesus for the change that he has made, and continues to make in our basic nature.