God’s word to humanity has been revealed through a whole history of Jewish and Christian communities

Keith Anderson, 12 September 2021

Isaiah 50: 4–9a; James 3: 1–12; Mark 8: 27–38

Our readings centred upon the responsibilities of being a teacher, and I take that responsibility quite in fear. Because today, we’ve got almost two sermons, one from Isaiah and the second from Mark’s gospel. (And don’t worry, I’m not going on too long.) What they have in common is surprise, when you take them seriously.

So the first. Have you watched the series on BBC4 on the planets? I have not seen them all, but what I have seen has been fascinating. Brian Cox has taken the viewer to each of our planets through the lenses of the various space probes that have been set up. The programmes themselves have been interesting, but something else is amazing.

The achievement of sending a probe as far as, say, Pluto is the culmination of hundreds of years of scientific study, going back to Copernicus and Galileo, on to Isaac Newton, Hubble and to the present-day community of space scientists. For some 500 years there has been a community of scientists throughout the world building upon one another’s work, which has led us to those fantastic pictures and knowledge of our planets in the solar system. It’s amazing, isn’t it?

However, I’ve come to realise there have been other scholarly communities in the past. To prepare for this sermon I have been reading about the book of Isaiah, our first reading. For centuries it was believed the book to have been the work of one man, Isaiah. But over the past 100 years or so, it is now believed to have a much more complex history.

Between 741 and somewhere around 515 BC, prophetic material was collected, edited and arranged by a community of Jews committed to the tradition of its earliest contributor, who we now label First Isaiah. For more than 200 years scholars collected, reflected, contributed and then edited prophetic material from what can only be called a School of Isaiah. Taken as a whole, the book of Isaiah reveals a community who over a period of time maintained a clarity of meaning throughout the stormiest era in the life of the nation of Israel.

There is within the work a hidden recognition that the lives of those who followed the foundation beliefs of Isaiah had a continuity from one generation to another. And what we read as Scripture is not the vision of a single prophet, but the results of generations of dedicated Jews.

Even our reading today comes from a section of the book written originally around say 540 BC, which is labelled Deutero-Isaiah. But it’s slightly more complicated than that, because this part of the group material, the servant songs, was inserted in some of the other parts.

Now why is this important for us? Over centuries there has been an assumption that holy words have come from individuals. So for many, it is still the tradition that the first five books of the Old Testament come from Moses, the Psalms from David, Isaiah from Isaiah, Mark’s gospel from Mark.

In post-Biblical times we are encouraged to read the work of say Augustine, or Benedict, or the sermons of John Wesley … and a few women, Julian of Norwich being an example. Times are changing, gradually.

What modern scholarship is revealing is that in much of our Bible what we see as God’s word to humanity has been revealed through a whole history of Jewish and Christian communities hearing, reflecting and adapting what they read and heard to what they believed was closer to God’s revelation. Even the Isaiah reading that we heard today, we as Christians associate with Jesus.

But it does not stop there. We are still the carriers of God’s word. We still have a responsibility to read and listen and then reinterpret; it is, I believe, how God has always worked.

We are still the carriers of God’s word. We still have a responsibility to read and listen and then reinterpret.

That’s the first sermon. Second sermon; this is homework, because I’m still working this out.

In our gospel we read Jesus saying, ‘Take up your cross and follow me’. Not ‘Follow me and you may have to take up your cross’. ‘Take up your cross and follow me.’ The taking up of the cross is the preliminary to following Jesus.

I am still reflecting upon this and have few thoughts about it, so it is homework for us as the Christian community – to reflect on that. I just have one thought about it, remembering that when Jesus went to Calvary he was too weak to carry his cross. Simon of Cyrene did it for him. Perhaps something about the Incarnation is that our cross we are called to take up is Christ’s. The all-powerful God may still not be able to carry his own cross, may not be willing to. The Incarnation may not just be about Christ, but also about the community of Christ – us – taking up our cross, his cross, and following him. Amen.