A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 18 October 2020 by Revd Dr Sam Wells.
Readings for this address: Isaiah 45. 1-7
One comedy strand that’s taken on a life of its own in recent years and just keeps on giving is ‘Overheard in Waitrose,’ a Twitter account that shares deprivations only the rich can truly understand. Among my recent favourites is, ‘Darling, do we need parmesan for both houses?’ There’s also joy to be found in, ‘Daddy, does Lego have a silent T, like merlot?’ Some may identify with ‘Mummy, will we have to sell some of the holiday homes now that we have left the EU?’ Or there’s the unique, ‘Well I don’t understand how you can’t have organic courgettes. What is this? East Berlin?’
The trouble comes when you swap the hardships of the privileged for the more intense deprivations of the dispossessed. That’s precisely what happens when Judah is carried away into exile in the sixth century BC. Quickly it exchanges Waitrose for the soup kitchen. And yet what it discovers in the midst of its enforced humility is a bigger God and a closer God, a wider range of friends, and a new understanding of its own capacities. I want today on what we might call Disability Sunday to suggest that we can reimagine disability in a similar way. If we stop assuming everything in ourselves and others that can be termed a disability is Babylon aching to get to Jerusalem, a soup kitchen longing to get to Waitrose, and start considering what insights we might only find in Babylon, we’re close to transforming our own and our society’s perception of disability, and at the same time getting closer to what the gospel is really about.
I want to read with you one of the four most significant pieces of literature associated with Israel’s sojourn in Babylon. Isaiah 45 is a sensational moment of revelation, not just in the Old Testament, but in the whole religious history of the world. I’m going to explain that bold claim, but I’m not going to dwell long on what Isaiah 45 meant in the sixth century BC. I want to focus on what Isaiah 45 means in the context of disability today. I’m going to suggest there are ten features of this passage that we could call a manifesto of what God is saying to society, church and each one of us about disability today.
Here’s number one. It’s a single word: Cyrus. Why is that sensational? Cyrus was a Persian king. When this was written, he was poised to invade Babylon. In other words Israel’s destroyer was about to be destroyed by an invader from further east. But unlike Babylon, Persia was glad to see Judah’s exiles return home. The point is, and this is what makes this verse so crucial in the Old Testament, Israel’s saviour was to be someone from another race, nation and religion. Which means God was the God not just of Israel, but of the whole world. A humble Israel was discovering a bigger God. What this means for us is that God works in myriad ways and through a kaleidoscope of people. You may think your body doesn’t have the features of a West End dancer or your mind doesn’t have the steadiness of a chess champion. God doesn’t care. God used Cyrus. God can use you.
Here’s number two. Again a single word: anointed. This is even more sensational when you realise what the word is in Hebrew. Meshiak: Messiah. Messiah is the one who Israel began to long for, to anticipate as the transformative agent who brought to an end oppression and humiliation and inaugurated peace and prosperity. You realise the significance when you translate it into Greek: Christ. Isaiah’s calling Cyrus the Christ. Christ came from nowhere, and his greatest act was when he was deprived of the use of his hands and feet. Now it’s fashionable in biblical scholarship to say Isaiah had no idea there would one day be a man called Jesus of Nazareth. But even if you accept that, what was Isaiah certainly referring to? Saul, David Solomon, the great kings of Israel 400 years before. Isaiah is tacking Cyrus onto the back end of that list. That’s plenty sensational, even if you don’t accept the reference to Jesus. And what does that mean for us? It means that when the Holy Spirit wants to work through you, you are anointed to be part of the great line of those who’ve been agents of liberation for God’s people. You may not think you fill the profile to be God’s anointed. Well, it’s not up to you. Stop pushing the Holy Spirit’s anointing grace away. God had a role for Cyrus. God has a role for you.
Here’s number three. ‘Whose right hand I have grasped.’ This was clearly not written during a pandemic. But feel the force of the image. Imagine yourself before an easel, painting. If you’re like me, that’s a daunting prospect. The fact is your right hand isn’t fantastically gifted at painting. Or drawing. Or any of it. But imagine the Holy Spirit taking your right hand and causing you to make fabulous marks on the canvas, to do things beyond your imagination, to astound yourself with the wonders you could do in each other’s power. That’s how the Holy Spirit works through disability. Take my hand, precious Lord. You may not even have a right hand. The Holy Spirit will find a way. There’s plenty of people who paint better with their feet than I can with my right hand. ‘Whose right hand I have grasped.’ These are words that say life isn’t about becoming brilliant at everything; it’s about learning to let the Holy Spirit to work through you, however you’re wired up, however strong or weak in body, mind or spirit you may feel. God grasped the hand of Cyrus. Let God grasp yours.
Here’s number four. ‘I will go before you.’ Thirty-five years ago I met a young priest with a Northern Irish accent. I asked how he’d ended up in Sheffield. He said when he’d been small he’d been involved in the Troubles and had lost a member of his family and connected with the Corrymeela Community in County Antrim. Eventually he’d fled Ulster and tried to make a new life in England. When he went forward for ordination he met with the director of ordinands. The director said to him, ‘I know who you are. I’m a member of the Corrymeela Community. Years ago we were sent a story about a young boy mixed up in the Troubles. I’ve been praying for that young boy ever since. And now – here you are.’ ‘I will go before you.’ The Holy Spirit went out ahead of that young man and prepared a way for him. You may feel your limbs don’t work, your neurodiversity is a mystery, you have challenges visible and invisible. Isaiah’s telling you God will go ahead of you. God went ahead of Cyrus. God’s saying ‘I will go before you.’
Here’s number five. ‘I will level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron.’ Who says there’s no disability audit in the book of the prophet Isaiah? This is saying you’ll be able to go the 500 miles from Babylon to Jerusalem in a wheelchair. The mountains will be turned into accessible ramps and the valleys will have lifts available. But there’s also something profound here about being in prison. Doors of bronze and bars of iron. Israel felt it was in a cage. Whether that was a cage of its physical or mental condition, or a cage the society of the time put Israel in, who knows. If you feel you’re in a cage, God is saying, ‘I will set you free.’
We’re half way through our manifesto and we’ve only read two verses of Isaiah 45. Here’s my favourite: number six. ‘I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places.’ I’m not quite sure what this meant for Cyrus, since he had enough treasure for a lifetime, wherever he kept it. But just behold what it means for you. Answer me this: Do you have treasure? Do you have riches? Are they hidden? For all the negative things you’ve had said to you, all the remarks that have diminished your expectations or made you feel you had nothing to bring to the table, is there still a candle burning in a part of your soul that says, ‘If they only knew’? Here’s the question: Is your treasure concealed in darkness? Are your riches hidden in secret places? Have you let anyone get to know you well enough to know where the secret treasure lies? Have you allowed God to get to know you well enough? Are you as inhibited by false modesty as you are by others’ disdain? I believe God has already given you everything you need to respond to the call being placed upon your heart. But you’ve got to get it out of the cavern, shift it from the back of the larder. Now’s the time.
Here’s number seven. ‘I, the Lord, the God of Israel, call you by your name. … I surname you.’ I wonder if there’s a name that no one else knows. You were given a name at birth. You were given a nickname at school. You were given a surname. Maybe that changed at some stage. God is saying, ‘I know your real name. The name no one else knows. And I’m giving you a surname, because you’re directly related to me.’ Names can have negative associations. But if you’re precious, honoured and loved, you have a new name. A new name doesn’t make you a new person. But it can identify the person you always were that was longing to get out from behind a label or a stereotype. God is calling you by that new name, right now.
So to number eight. ‘For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen.’ In other words, this isn’t fundamentally about you. I’m not calling you because I feel sorry for you or because I’ve tried everyone else. I’m not calling you because I want you to be my pride and joy above everyone else. This is about all God’s people. They can’t flourish unless they receive what only you can give. They’re inhibited to the extent you’re not able, allowed, prepared or willing to give it. If you had the only kidney that could save a dialysis patient’s life, you’d give it like a shot. Your treasure hidden in darkness is like that kidney. Unless your light shines the world will remain to that degree in the shadows of night. Let it shine, not for your sake but for everyone’s.
Number nine. ‘Though you do not know me.’ Cyrus clearly didn’t know the God of Israel. But do we? Yes of course we know about creation, Israel, Jesus, the church and the life to come. But we still assume God wants only the strong, the wise, the beautiful, the resourceful, the faithful. Do we really believe the Holy Spirit is aching to work through people as fragile and humble as us? There are numerous obstacles in the way of disabled people finding their voice and singing their song. But sometimes the biggest obstacle is our own self-doubt, our own misgivings. God knows you. Do you want to know God in return?
And finally number ten. By this time we should be shaking with expectation. ‘So that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me.’ This is all about God. This is all about worship. This is all about the whole world being reconciled to God and enjoying God forever. This is about glory. This isn’t a sideshow, a subplot of a more significant story. God is saying, ‘I am wholly invested in this story, and utterly absorbed in your part in it.’ There’s nothing more important than this.
Isaiah 45 was sensational when it was written 2500 years ago. It was an earthquake whose tremors make us shudder today. But there’s another earthquake just as significant. And its tremors shake not just the church, not just society, but heaven and earth combined. Can you feel them shaking your heart? I hope so. Because God’s got a job for you to do. As big as Cyrus. Just for you. Even you. Especially you.