To be human is to tell stories: stories by which we re-write the past, in order to know ourselves in the present, and so resource ourselves to step into the future. Not all stories are equal; and every story is contested. The best reflection on 9/11 I have read is by the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. Sacks grounds that event in the fall of the USSR. In the West, that moment was re-told as the triumph of free-market capitalism and liberal democracy over communism. But there was another group of people who re-told that moment as the defeat of one of the two world super-powers by dragging it into asymmetric war in Afghanistan: and if you could bring down one that way, why not the other? Ten years on, Western leaders and their allies are just admitting failure. But at the time, President Bush told America to go back to shopping. The story we tell determines the lives we live. The West failed to re-evaluate its story in the light of rival claims.
Isaiah presents us with a story, a story that tells us that God will silence ruthless nations. This story was first told in the time between the fall of Israel to the Assyrians and the fall of Judah to the Babylonians. Ruthless nations rise, but God will humble them. Ruthless nations, including God’s own people. When Solomon succeeded his father David as king, he asked God for wisdom. God granted him wisdom, and gave with it those gifts that would test and refine wisdom: wealth and power. Solomon had wisdom, but did not necessarily use it wisely. He amassed chariots, like Pharaoh had done. He conscripted God’s people into building projects on a grand scale, like Pharaoh had done. He became ruthless. And when his son succeeded him, the people asked that he be less ruthless: but he replied, my little finger is as thick as my father’s thigh: that is, you ain’t seen nothing yet, kid. So ten of the tribes rebelled, forming the northern kingdom of Israel. Every one of their kings did evil in the sight of the Lord, until his patience ran out, and Assyria swept in. Two tribes remained loyal – the king may be a fool, but he is God’s appointed fool – forming the southern kingdom of Judah. While most of their kings did what was evil in God’s sight, a few led revivals, enough to stave off judgement some generations longer.
Assyria defeats Israel, but falls to Babylon. Babylon defeats Judah, but falls to Persia. Persia and Egypt fall to Greece. Greece falls to Rome. And Rome will fall to the Germanic tribes, and so on and so on. Ruthless nations will be silenced.
But there is more to the story that Isaiah tells. God is preparing a banquet for all peoples. God is preparing to destroy the shroud of death that covers all nations. God is at work to humble the ruthless, because only those who have been humbled can see that God is good, that God is working salvation for us all. Only those whose story has been demonstrated to be wanting will exchange it for a greater one.
Some seven hundred years, and several ruthless empires, later, Jesus picks up Isaiah’s story with one of his own: a story about a king who prepares a banquet – this one is in honour of his son – and who destroys a city of ruthless people, people who are so busy ruthlessly pursuing their own agenda, writing their own stories, that they ignore his invitation; a story in which an open invitation is extended to all – both the good and the bad. A story in which there is a dress-code; a story which will in turn be taken up by Paul writing to the Galatian church of being clothed with Christ. A story in which the shroud of death that Isaiah told us would be destroyed is replaced with a robe of celebration and reconciliation; and a story where, because the shroud is not yet destroyed, we are presented with choosing which we shall wear. Will we exchange one identity for another, or not?
What, then, does this story have to do with us? What has this story to do with our nation? It is a story against which to measure our own. Are you listening to the stories we are being told right now? The story of how we will emerge, slowly perhaps but surely, from the economic crises threatening to drag us down? And perhaps we will; but not indefinitely. Historians, historians who do not necessarily believe in God, tell us that the Wesleyan Revival was a key factor in our not having a bloody revolution like they had in France. On that platform, we had a different kind of revolution: industrialisation; this time engaged by Christian-led social reform. On that platform, we built an Empire, the largest the world has ever seen; and in that context, the modern mission movement was birthed. On the platform of Empire, we won two World Wars; though the winning cost us our empire. And today, we are a ruthless nation whose day is passing. It might take a little longer, but – despite the story any of our politicians tells us – that passing is inevitable. Nations rise, and fall, and having fallen they rarely rise again, and certainly not for hundreds of years. God’s story tells us this: and history proves God to be true to his word. As a nation, we will fall, and probably sooner rather than later.
And if the story we tell about being English, or British, in the world is found wanting, what are we to say? As God’s people, chosen to be part of this nation at this moment in history, to understand the times and know what to do, what is the good news we have to hold out? It is this: God’s alternative story, a story of celebration, of reconciliation between the peoples; a story in which Jesus, the Son, plays a central part; and a story of the world post the rising-and-falling Eras of the Age of Death. It is a story of humbling which opens our eyes to a story of hope. It is a story that counters misplaced patriotism, and frees us to affirm what is good without making an idol of it. It is a story that counters despair, and xenophobia, and frees us to point beyond the work of death to the work of restoration. It is a good story. It is our story. Learn it. Live it. Share it.