The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come with singing to Zion.
At this time of the year the prophet Isaiah comes into his own and starts to occupy the top slot in the lectionary for Old Testament readings. We heard him last week and he will appear again and again in this season of Advent and then on through Christmas into Epiphany. The back end of the book of Isaiah is full of words of hope: it was this part of the book that the very first Christians ransacked for images that helped them to put into words what they had experienced through Jesus’ presence and ministry. This part of Isaiah’s writing is full of picture language to fire our imaginations and so ‘m going to talk about a couple of these images. The first of which is that of a prisoner who has been ransomed.
We might remember from our history lessons that taking hostages in warfare was par for the course in the Middle Ages. Of course, ordinary men and women were (as ever) dispensable but if you could capture a knight on the battlefield you had really hit the jackpot. Some of those who signed up for foreign adventures (wars) never returned, not because they were killed but because they were held indefinitely in some French castle or other – think Richard the Lionheart, who had to be ‘bought back’ following his capture and whose ransom emptied the treasury. But taking hostages and demanding a ransom isn’t just confined to ancient history, it has been in the news this week. Orla Guerin has been reporting from Haiti where the forces of law and order are under extreme pressure and where crime if rife. There, half a dozen kidnappings take place every day in Port au Prince. Gangs are increasingly well-armed and able to outgun the police. Individuals are taken hostage and ransoms demanded. It was the same all those years back (you might remember) in Lebanon and Syria: my guess is that you have to be a certain age for the names Terry Waite, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan to mean anything – but those three spent years in solitary confinement as their families and friends were helpless to get them back out of the hands of the militiamen who held them. Governments have again and again held to the line that ‘they don’t pay ransoms’ as doing so would encourage more hostage taking…but it’s difficult isn’t it? What deals were done to obtain the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from prison in Iran and look at what was needed to get the American basketball player Brittney Griner out of Russia.
Back in Old Testament times people who had been reduced to penury were sold into slavery: the idea of someone ‘redeeming you’ or ‘ransoming you’ from this was very real back then, but remember , little girls in Afghanistan today are sold in marriage to others so that the family can survive just a little longer. The image of being ransomed by God understandably therefore occurs throughout scripture but it is not without difficulty. Push the image too far and we might tie ourselves up in knots wondering ‘who does God pay’ to set us free and to bring us home. Charles Wesley’s hymn (And can it be) describes us imprisoned ‘fast bound in sin and nature’s night’ – we’re held, trapped, unable to rescue ourselves from the consequences of the Fall: humanity’s (and our) decision to live life without reference to God. But images are just that – they’re pictures- the primary image or idea is of ‘release’. Release achieved at a cost. People who were lost are now found. The cost is paid, willingly, unstintingly by God to bring us home, to bring us back into His family. The cost is paid – so, in the parable of the prodigal son the father loses half the farm and is shamed in front of his neighbours by both sons but rejoices that they are with him. The cost is paid on the cross of Good Friday as God, in Christ, gives everything to draw the sting of Death itself. There are now 7 billion people on the planet and there have been billions before us – each and everyone precious to God. Imagine. To be worth everything to God? Imagine: he gives His everything for you? No wonder they return home with singing to Zion: they, we celebrate God’s goodness.
And then a second image. The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad…waters shall break forth in the wilderness’. Unexpected. Miraculous. Creation itself responding to the redeeming presence of God – as if His presence has struck a chord deep down in the created order that just starts to throb with energy and new life. And the unexpected and miraculous just keeps on coming. The eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sings for joy’.
In the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans there is a chapter that picks up this idea of creation being redeemed. It is chapter 8 – one of THE greatest chapters of Christian theology. Half-way through this chapter Paul says: ‘I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.’ Paul goes on to say that the whole created order is frustrated, cannot reach its potential because it must wait till God’s people are known but that one day ‘it will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.’
That’s quite a thought isn’t it? That one day the whole universe will be transformed by the life-giving presence of God and finally reach its potential: we sing of this in one of our hymns when we sing of ‘the earth being filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea’. Now, we get glimpses of wonder, moments when the veil is parted and we see through and beneath the surface of the world and sense God’s Presence within creation. Our experience within our own lives as Christians is of having ‘this treasure in clay jars’ – the glory of God is present but hidden. But one day…one day we will see Him as he is. One day we will no longer be looking through a glass darkly but see Him face to face, we will know Him just as He has known us, and the whole of creation will join in praise to God.
In CS Lewis’ Narnia stories we don’t have a desert of sand, rather we have a desert of snow and ice. But do you remember what happens when Aslan the Lion is on the scene? The ice melts. The snow begins to disappear, and the wicked witch is thwarted. Do you remember what takes place once he has been sacrificed…and then raised? Blossom appears on the trees. The rivers begin to flow and the sun shines in a clear blue sky.’
In our gospel Jesus, responding to those sent to him by John the Baptist to ask whether he was the Messiah (the one who is to come) told them ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and poor have good news brought to them’. What is the Good News for Christians? It is that the Kingdom of God has come and His rule is being revealed. The Narnia snow is melting. Isaiah’s parched desert is alive with running water and growth.
The Kingdom has come and His rule is being revealed but we are still in an ‘in-between’ period in which we are to put our shoulders to the wheel and live (in Advent terms) as children of light. As the ‘ransomed of the Lord’ we sing a different song, we live by different values, we celebrate the work of God in our own lives, in the lives of others and in the wider world. We ally ourselves with all that seeks the common good, all that seeks to bring health and wholeness and well-being and community and fulfilment and creativity and joy and belonging and forgiveness to this place in which we are set. For God wants the best for all of His children, not just a few. The ransom has been paid: our task? – to help bring people home into the embrace of our heavenly Father.
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