2015-09-13 by Jeremy Clarke
Preacher: Veronica Zundel
13th September 2015
Isaiah 50: 4-9a; James 3:1-12
Isaiah 50: 4-9a (NIV)
4 The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue,
to know the word that sustains the weary.
He wakens me morning by morning,
wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.
5 The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears;
I have not been rebellious,
I have not turned away.
6 I offered my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;
I did not hide my face
from mocking and spitting.
7 Because the Sovereign Lord helps me,
I will not be disgraced.
Therefore have I set my face like flint,
and I know I will not be put to shame.
8 He who vindicates me is near.
Who then will bring charges against me?
Let us face each other!
Who is my accuser?
Let him confront me!
9a It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me.
Who will condemn me?
I’m afraid I have to start with a confession. I’m on a tight schedule to get my latest set of Bible notes finished by the end of next week and I haven’t had much space in it to spend on this week’s sermon. But when I looked at today’s lectionary readings, I realized that I had already written an article on the OT reading from Isaiah, for Christian Writer magazine. I think what I wrote is relevant not only to writers but also to everyone who uses words, so for the first part of this sermon I’m going to read you the article with a few adaptations, and then look at a second Bible passage to offer a few thoughts on how it applies to the rest of us. The article is entitled:
Has your beard been pulled out yet?
So there I was, skimming through Isaiah to find some reference for the Bible reading notes I was writing, and suddenly this verse leapt out at me:
“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (Isaiah 50:4).
Aha! I thought, that’s a good text for a writer. ‘Sustaining the weary with a word” is exactly what I aim to do through most of my writing for the Christian market. Many of the Christians I know are weary: weary of the demands of work and family (and I might add church), weary of trying to live a Christlike life in a chaotic world, weary of being misunderstood or looked at askance in their churches. Those are the people I want to “sustain… with a word”, whether that’s in the miniature form of a Bible reading note (which is rather like Jane Austen’s “carving on a little piece of ivory”), or in a whole book.
And then there’s the first bit: “the tongue of a teacher”. I survived only one term in teaching, and never finished my probationary year, so teaching is not my best loved profession. But I realise that often in what I write, I am trying to teach my reader to look at the world or at their faith in a different way. So: sustainer and teacher – they seem like good definitions of a Christian writer, whether that writer is published within the Christian market or reaches a wider readership.
The next bit is encouraging too:
“Morning by morning he wakens – wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.”
A timely reminder for the Christian writer: what we write comes from God, whether that’s by ‘direct inspiration” or by using the brains and feelings God’s given us – and usually it’s a bit of both. The following verse guides us in our response to God’s call to write:
“The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward” (v5).
Indeed, if God calls you to be a writer, it is a call not to be scorned, whatever obstacles are in your way.
But what’s this?
“I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting” (v6).
That wasn’t part of the contract! I signed up to be a writer, not to have my beard pulled out (if I had one) or to be insulted and spat at! Here it is, however, slap bang in the middle of Isaiah: anyone who agrees to ‘prophesy’, whether that’s in preaching or in writing, or even in politics, will encounter opposition, criticism, even hatred.
It’s true, folks. In the course of my career of 35 years as a freelance writer, I have been told by letter (and latterly by email) that I am “making Jesus weep” and “poisoning millions of young minds.” (My inner response to the latter was “would that there were really millions, would that they were young!”) Yes, I have also had many responses, in fact the majority of them, that said things like “your words were just right for me that day” or “thank you so much for lifting a huge weight off my mind.” I keep them all, for moments when I am feeling less than confident in my abilities or gifting.
As I said recently in a Facebook discussion of one of Jesus’ anointings – I think it was the one where someone says, “This ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor” – “This story shows that when one Christian does something for God, another Christian is bound to come along and criticize it.” We writers make our thoughts and feelings, our dreams and speculations, public for others to view; some of them are bound not to like it. We may not be spat at (I was once spat at in Jerusalem by an Arab woman when I tried to photograph the very large radishes she was selling, but I have never been spat at by a reader). But we will almost certainly be insulted, whether in person or in writing. We may even be insulted in reviews, if we are lucky enough to get any. All publicity is good publicity, as they say!
It is part of the writer’s life to be criticized. I don’t mean just the helpful criticism we may get from friends or fellow writers, which should be welcomed, not rejected. But if you manage to get published – and more, if you manage to get published repeatedly – you are almost certain to get the metaphorical equivalent of having your beard pulled out. I think we should take it as a compliment: someone has been sufficiently stimulated by our work to make a response, even if it’s a negative one. Apathy would be far worse. And anyway, you can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but… you know the rest.
Back to Isaiah 50. Fortunately, I didn’t stop reading at “insult and spitting.” I went on to the next couple of verses:
“The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” (vs 7-9a)
I love the tone of this: “Let us stand up together” – it’s the biblical version of “bring it on”, challenging the opposition to a face to face fight (though I’m not suggesting here that a writer should come to fisticuffs with her disgruntled reader or reviewer…). It’s the writer’s cry of defiance: God is on my side, so I don’t care what you throw at me. I have asked Ed to put on my gravestone a similar sentiment, the words of Pontius Pilate in John 19:22:
“What I have written, I have written.”
It’s my last snook cocked at over zealous editors and grouchy readers; it’s also a reminder to myself that though I may not have written a blockbuster, I think, in Othello’s words, that “I have done…some good”, and I stand by it. Which leads me nicely to the last verse that struck me, and which isn’t actually included in today’s lectionary reading:
“All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up” (v 9b).
Here’s a reminder that critics are only mortal; but also a reminder that this is true of writers and our works too. Few of us, and few of the works we have created, will be remembered for very long after our deaths – unless we are among the highly blessed whose writing will continue to live for centuries. But God will remember, not only us but our written works; and our ultimate reward is from God.
There we are: a biblical encouragement, challenge and warning that seems tailor made for writers. And we do seem to be a church with more than its fair share of writers at the moment. But what about the rest of us? This is where our second reading comes in.
James 3:1-12 (NIV)
3 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they sayis perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.
4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.
5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.
6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind,
8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.
10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?
12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
Now that’s a scary warning, especially for those of us who preach or who write devotional material. “Not many of you should become teachers.” Why? Because teaching, indeed speaking at all, is a dangerous activity; you never know what may come out. (One of my friends who is a primary school teacher was giving a geography lesson and she found herself saying “Today I want to talk about continents and the countries within continents!”)
Seriously, though, James is right. When we use words – and we all do that – we can do as much harm as good, and often do. Last weekend Ed and I saw Tim in Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’, in which Rosalind utters the immortal line “Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.” But in fact some of us, women and men, have the habit of speaking first and thinking afterwards – not a good habit.
James rebukes his hearers for being like a spring that gives fresh water one moment and polluted water the next; using their tongues to bless God, and then to curse their fellow human beings. And this is not just inconsistency: it’s actually an impossibility. We cannot, as it were, pour fresh water on God and polluted water on our neighbour, any more than a fig tree can bear olives or a grapevine figs. If you add salt water to fresh, he says, the whole doesn’t become fresh – the whole becomes salty. Our hurtful words to our neighbour make our pious words to God meaningless. James here recalls the letters of John, where he says: “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
The fact is, although the saying goes “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me”, it’s not true – words can hurt me, and you, a lot. When I encounter sexist or racist language, or even bad grammar, I feel it as a real pain. Of course the bad grammar doesn’t hurt any people except revolting pedants like me; but sexist or racist language puts some people outside the category of humanity, and it does real damage to people’s self-esteem. I’m proud of this church for producing its inclusive language statement in 1986, nearly 30 years ago, when some of us were just beginning to wake up to feminism and its relevance for the church.
Of course It’s broader than that. We often speak, not just in haste but in anger, and we label our political opponents as hypocrites or crooks when they may actually be just as sincere as we are. James majors here on the harm words can do. But what about the good they can do? The Bible notes I’ve been writing are on the letters to the seven churches, in the first few chapters of Revelation, and I was very struck when I read the letter to Smyrna, by the words “I know your affliction.” What a powerful statement. When the words “I know” how you feel” come from someone who doesn’t, they are irrelevant. But because of what Jesus went through on the cross, we know he really does know.
Many years ago I met another writer at the Arts Centre Group. I don’t remember her name, and I never saw her again, but what she said still stays with me. She said, “I want to write healing stories.” I knew exactly what she meant; the books I love to read best are those with an element of redemption in them: stories that not only reflect my experience but also transform it: healing stories.
And to return to the opening article: when we write healing stories or speak healing words, even if we are criticized for them, we will know we have spoken what God gave us to speak, and will be able to stand by our words. As Jesus promised in Matthew 10, “When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” May that be true for you and me.