See, I have made of you a witness to the peoples. In our modern world do we really need God? Has our faith or religion really got anything to do with our role in society and our way of life? Why do we need to be ‘witnesses’ and what will that mean to our lives?
In Isaiah’s time starvation through poverty was a big issue, as it still is in parts of the world, but as a society in western Europe we have by human agency, made provision for anyone in our country to be able to eat whether or not they can afford it. Although we know that there are many who live rough on the streets, we also know that at least in our country the possibility of shelter for all who need it is not unachievable. Our own welfare state is like the writer of Isaiah who invites ‘Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.’ So when we help others is it really necessary to make it obvious that we are Christians? Isn’t it OK to work for a secular charity, sponsor a child in a developing country or give up our time to help in a youth club or soup kitchen just because we are stout upright good moral people.
As good people we all want to help the world become a better place, where there is no war, no disease, no famine. And as good people we can all do our bit, although we know it can never be enough, to improve the lives of others. Just by being good people, the most we can hope to achieve is to be effective in a sort of ‘mop-up’ operation, catching the unfortunates that have become victims of the failures of our society and seeing that they don’t starve, and that they are clothed, in fact treating them according to the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, knowing that whatever we do for these we do for Christ. As good people we can be effective in the relief of suffering, but we are not addressing the causes of it. Isaiah’ invitation continues, ‘hear me, that your soul may live’.
There are greater things at stake than the lives of a few unfortunate victims. We are called to become engaged in a struggle for the very soul of society itself. Looking around us at our society we could feel, like Paul, the sorrow and anguish for the people of our own race, a Christian nation, built on Christian law, but increasingly rejecting, both through ignorance and choice, the teachings and values that helped build its foundations. Society at present often seems to be running out of control. We heard this week that there are now more rats in the Westcountry than people. We are producing so much edible waste, and failing so badly in its management that we could soon be in real danger from diseases like the plague carried by creatures we associate with medieval history. Crime figures, particularly violent crime, alarm us daily as we hear of a teenage murderer, obsessed with vampires, whose obsession was fed by the internet and other media. In America we see the corruption and financial breakdown of a commercial centre that loves money and uses people. Governments frantically change their policies and come up with aid packages, legislation and other measures in an attempt to bring things under control. Wherever things go wrong we see a culture of blame and compensation, anger and frustration, and as humans we simply do not possess the wisdom and ability necessary to make it work.
But God does. God has a plan for us to follow, and he has promised that when we follow that plan we can achieve the kingdom of heaven. A society that loves people and uses money. A society where everyone loves their neighbour, where we are effective stewards of creation, where we are united by common ideals and values. The task of achieving this may seem daunting, may seem impossible, like the challenge of feeding so many people on that Galilean hillside. How can our loaves and fish, our own limited resources, do anything to improve things? The disciples knew they had far too limited resources to be able to meet the task. But by giving what they had wholeheartedly to God they allowed God‘s power to work through what little they had. When Jesus was able to use that small meal, giving enough from it to feed the multitude he didn’t just give out the food, first he held it up to heaven. He drew attention to the source of the power by which he was able to perform this miracle. We are most effective in supporting others when we allow ourselves to become channels of God’s power, and don’t just rely on our own resources. And if we accept that all power to help others ultimately comes from God then we need to help others to recognise that source, both those we support and those who question us about what we do. We need to act as witnesses to Him who has the power to heal our society through our faith and Christian example, to win the hearts and minds of our own people so that our Nation can become the sort of society God can be proud of.