Given on Sunday 15th August 2010 at The Abbey by Mrs Lesley McCreadie, Licensed Lay Minister
As I sat and watched TV the other evening I was amazed at the number of adverts for products promising a new me; no more grey hair, no more wrinkles or tired eyes. Wow! If only they were all true – they promise much but in reality deliver very little.
Our reading from Isaiah this evening is a little like this. Isaiah of Jerusalem, the great 8th century prophet, writes clearly about the way the people of God have failed to honour the promise they made to God; they promised much but strayed from God’s love.
Covenant is a very important theme in the Old Testament and there are many different forms of covenant. Of course the covenant Yahweh made with Abraham stands out; when God called him to leave his own land and go to Canaan where he would become the father of a great nation. The covenant God made with Moses on Mount Sinai, where even as it was being given to Moses, below the mountain the people were already making an image of a calf to worship. In the passage we have just listened to Isaiah speaks of the covenant the people of Judah have made with death, with the grave, with the result that they are trusting in a lie and false gods. This contrasts dramatically with the covenant God made with Abraham – this covenant symbolised life and truth and was a covenant with the one true God. Isaiah makes the point that all covenants which are not ‘God-based’ are bound to fail because God is always faithful, but human institutions will always fail or let you down.
Isaiah is referring to the alliances the people of Judah are seeking to make with foreign powers. At the time of writing, the southern kingdom of Judah is under threat from the mighty superpower Assyria. In earlier chapters, Isaiah has been trying to alert the people to what is going on around them. They could not put their heads in the sand like ostriches and say that ‘we are God’s chosen people, we will be fine’. They believed the covenant relationship would save them regardless of the fact that they had broken that relationship by their treatment of the poor, their record of social injustice and their apostasy – seeking other gods. The leaders of the nation were busy making alliances with other nations, particularly Egypt, and these alliances were being sealed in the name of foreign gods.
What the people need to do and so do we, as v 16 tells us, is to make God the cornerstone of our lives.
‘See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation.’
Let us just remind ourselves of the function of a cornerstone. A cornerstone is a tried stone specially selected; it binds the whole building together; it bears the weight of the building; it is strong, and vital to the stability of the building. What a wonderful symbol this is of God in our lives. God must be the cornerstone of the lives of the Judeans because all the false covenants will be annulled after great tribulation. With hindsight we can see that v 16 is very reminiscent of the New Testament description of Jesus and of the Parable of the Two Foundations which concludes Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. We can see that there is hope in the future, in the shape of a New Covenant made between God and his people in the form of Jesus Christ. The cornerstone so carefully selected by the builder shows us how precious we are to God who selects us and supports us through all the turmoil of life.
Our passage from 2 Corinthians reminds us that life was not easy for the emerging Christian church either. They were not involved in the threat of war; the Roman Empire was firmly in control, but there was persecution from the Roman authorities and from local people. Many Christians today might feel empathy with the situation in Corinth, with society marginalising the Christian faith and the constant talk of us being a secular society, of it seemingly being more and more difficult to function as a Christian in some professions and by the loss of Sunday as a day set apart from the rest of the week. For the Christians in Corinth there was the additional burden of famine and of the need to support their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem who were in a worse state than themselves. Paul commends the example of the Macedonians who despite their own situation have given above and beyond the call of duty. Paul says that they do this because of their love for God which causes them to give even though they themselves are in need. I am minded of a church congregation which was seeking to raise funds to reorder their church building. They had previously agreed to give away 10% of all monies raised to overseas mission work, and continued to do this throughout their fund raising, trusting that God would move the hearts of people to be generous in excess. They were not disappointed. Sometimes talking the talk is not enough, as Christians we have to be seen to be walking the walk of faith. This is what Paul wanted of the Corinthians, when once they had given their lives to God they needed to give with a generous heart which might take them out of their comfort zone.
There are many messages for us to take from these two scripture readings, but I think the most important is this. We may not experience famine or the threat of invasion, but we all experience times of extreme pressure. This might be the loss of a loved one, the breakup of a marriage, sudden unemployment, or times when situations seem to be out of our control. It is how we respond to these times that matters. Do we like the Judeans seek false alliances or covenants, and put our faith in secular powers, or follow the crowd? Or like the Corinthians stay in our comfort zone? Or do we recall our Baptism and Confirmation? When God ‘called us by name and made us His own’, and we became members of the family of the church which is built on that cornerstone, standing firm, binding all together. In times of pressure and tribulation we must return to Him who knows us and loves us better than anyone; who knows what it is like to watch a loved one suffer and die, who can identify with us when we feel shame, and who does not offer false promises as in the TV adverts, but can say to us, ‘in the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have overcome the world!’