Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- All of our readings seem to proclaim that faith, our belief in God and worship and following him, is easy. It is easy because it is not something primarily which we do, but which God does for us and in us, and to which we then respond; and this is fundamental to Baptism, that of Jesus, in his giving himself to the Father and for each of us.
This surely is the meaning of our passage from Isaiah, (40:1-5. 9-11), in which the prophet, here Second Isaiah: he of the Babylonian exile, offers God’s promise and hope of deliverance to those exiled far from their homeland and clearly thinking that their lives and their faith were to be annihilated, blotted out. Clearly those great images in Isaiah, of the levelling of the hills and valleys are not about literal events, so much as the smoothing of the pathway to God. They speak of an easy journey to divinity, hence the smoothing out of hills and valleys; of approachability on the part of God who is ever reaching out to his people who are already ‘consoled’, redeemed, forgiven by him for their infidelity. “Here is the Lord coming in power, his arm subduing all things to him.”
It speaks not so much of the smashing of national enemies, here the Babylonians, but of God’s tender care for Israel, “He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast.” It is an allegory of God’s love for his own, his tenderness to us. Indeed, this was to be the case, since Israel rediscovered God during the exile and renewed their faith in him through the scriptures, since they had been deprived of him in temple sacrifices and priesthood by the Babylonian destruction of the first temple. Previously, they had come to know God through the Exodus and their journeying to the Promised Land, and now they needed to relearn that relationship through another period of hardship and exile. It is often through hardship and challenge that faith grows.
Yet Isaiah often speaks only to and for the ‘chosen’ people, and when we come to Paul’s letter to Titus, (2:11-14; 3:4-7), who was sent as a missionary to Crete, the message is of a quite different and universal appeal. Crete had been and was a truly international place, a veritable melting pot of the nations. For hundreds of years traders from Ugarit in northern Syria had met with the earliest traders from the west on Cyprus and Crete. It was there that they exchanged language and the art of writing, different styles of pottery and the poetry we know of as Homer. Cultures and languages, art forms and civilizations met and embraced on these islands, and Paul in the 1st Century AD would have been well aware of the vibrancy of the culture of such an island. He knew of the mixture of races and the truly international outreach of the place, and he recognised that there, above all, the Christian message of the salvation of all men had gone out from the Jews to others. His message to Titus therefore stresses the active and loving power of God for all. “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race.” This is an act of the ‘kindness and love of God our saviour’, not about any deserving on our part. “It was not because he was concerned with any righteous actions we might have done ourselves.” Judaism insisted that one had to observe the Mosaic law if one was to become ‘righteous’, and saw pagan inability to do this as excluding them from God’s love. Paul knew differently, and insisted that openness to God was an act of divine love and compassion. This is what the formerly pagan inhabitants of Crete have to get their heads round, just as we do today. Perhaps for us, schooled in individualism and self help, it is even more difficult a message to accept than it was for the pagans of the first century; who at least had a strong sense of society and of belonging to the empire, and for whom ideas of the privacy of the individual were quite frankly beyond their ken. What we today need to learn and accept is that becoming Christians, men and women of faith in Jesus, is God’s work, his gift, and not fundamentally about us or what we do.
This understanding of St Paul’s is emphasised again in our Gospel, Luke (3:15-16. 21-22). We are told that after his baptism Jesus was at prayer when the divine voice proclaimed from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you”. Note this is a message for Jesus, not information for us. His totally free and willing submission of himself to John’s baptism is therefore affirmed by the Father who then empowers the Son to begin his ministry. It was to be a ministry of self-surrender to humanity, a giving-over of self to the world. So the message of today’s readings seems to be one in which we are encouraged to relax, to let go, and to allow the Spirit to work in us as it did in Jesus, and as it did in Paul.