A LIGHT TO THE NATIONS – A sermon preached in Winchester Cathedral on Sunday, January 17th, 3.30p.m.


Preacher: Canon Gary Philbrick, Area Dean of Christchurch, and Priest-in-Charge of the Avon Valley Partnership

 Scripture Reference: Isaiah 49:6

Ps 145:1-13

Isaiah 49:1-7

Acts 16:11-15

O God, who commanded light to shine out of darkness, shine in our hearts to bring us to the knowledge of your glory shining in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

You may have heard this before – it was a favourite story of the great writer and spiritual teacher, Henri Nouwen, who died in 1996.

A rabbi once asked his students: ‘How can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?’ One of the students suggested: ‘When from a distance you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep?’ ‘No’, the rabbi answered. ‘Is it when one can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?’ asked a second student. ‘No’, said the rabbi. ‘Please tell us the answer then’, begged the students. The Rabbi said, ‘It is when you can look into the face of another human being and you have enough light in you to recognize your brother or your sister. Until then it is night, and darkness is still with us’ [From: “Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith” by Henri Nouwen with Michael J Christensen and Rebecca J Laird, 2011, adapted].

The light dawns when we can look into the face of another, and recognise that person as a sister or brother.

70 years ago at this time, the first-ever meeting of the United Nations General Assembly and on this day, the first-ever meeting of the Security Council, were taking place at the Methodist Central Hall in London.

Out of the embers of the Second World War, and as a successor to the League of Nations, the UN Charter had been agreed the previous year at the San Francisco Conference, and begins:


It’s worth reading the whole preamble if you have time.

In effect, the United Nations was formed so that, across the world, we could look into the face of another, and recognise that person as a sister or brother.

That’s an aspiration which has clearly not always been fulfilled over the past seventy years, but one which it is still worth holding on to and striving for.

Just after Christmas the Independent Newspaper published an article called ‘11 ways the world got better in 2015’ [27/XII/15 – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/11-ways-the-world-got-better-in-2015-a6787371.html]. For those of us fed on an unremitting diet of distressing news, it was an extraordinary ray of hope. Often through the support of the United Nations, there were huge improvements in universal education, combatting extreme poverty, connection to the internet, micro finance, Aids, malaria, polio, starvation, clean water, child mortality and, perhaps, after the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December, a tipping point in the fight against climate change.

In many different ways, people have looked into the face of another, and recognised that person as a sister or brother.

Was the formation of the United Nations a movement of the Holy Spirit across the face of the waters [Gen 1:2]? Are all the ways in which the world got better in 2015 signs of the Kingdom of God breaking in to a sinful and fallen world [Luke 4:18-19]? Where is the Gospel in all of this?

The passage we heard from Isaiah 49 as our first reading this afternoon is a highly striking one – and one which should give us cause to look upwards from our own small circles and our own concerns, and outwards to a world in need, and to all of our sisters and brothers.

Second Isaiah, usually thought to be writing in the sixth century BC, at an incredibly difficult time for the people of Israel while they were in exile in Babylon – Isaiah affirms their calling as the people of God: ‘Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me’ [Isaiah 49:1]. Out of all the nations, God called Israel to be his people. The mystery of election! Why choose these people? And yet, he did. The chosen people, called by God, and now in exile – no wonder the Prophet writes, ‘I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing [Is 49:4].

In this darkest hour of the Exile, the temptation must surely have been to concentrate on the most important things, the matters nearest to hand, what was most urgent – returning to the Promised Land of Israel, getting away from this unhappy exile in Babylon.

But God, speaking through the Prophet, has other ideas. He says: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth’ [Is 49:6].

Yes, there will be a restoration of Israel, the tribes of Jacob will be raised up – but that is not the main task for the people of Israel. The main task is to be a light to the nations, that salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

As Christians, we are not only called to ‘work out our own salvation with fear and trembling’ [Phil 2:12], but we are even more importantly called to be lights in the world [Matt 6:14], salt for the earth [Matt 6:13], yeast for the Kingdom of God [Matt 13:33]. Our calling is always to look upwards and outwards from our own concerns, our own needs, to see the needs of our brothers and sisters, and to be ‘a light to the nations, that [God’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth’.

Last Sunday evening I was at the Licensing of a colleague in one of the Churches of Christchurch Deanery where I serve, and was struck afresh by another Preamble – that of the legal declarations and affirmations required of every priest when licensed by the Bishop to a new post in the Church.

The Church of England is part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation [The Licensing Service].

… Which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.

It’s not been an easy week for the global Anglican Church, with the meeting of the 39 Primates of the Anglian Communion. At the beginning of the week, schism was forecast on the news. By Friday that seemed to have been averted, with the leaking of a communique, in effect suspending the American Episcopal Church from the representing the Anglican Communion on ecumenical bodies, or taking part in decision making on issues of doctrine or polity. It has clearly been a difficult meeting, and perhaps this was the only way of avoiding a split in the Church – although, rather a drastic one.

Amongst the Primates, and across the Churches of the Communion, there are very different interpretations of the meaning of ‘proclaiming the faith afresh in each generation’.

And there would also be very different interpretations of the verse from Isaiah I have been reflecting on this afternoon – ‘I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth’.

Just as the Israelites in exile were struggling with their immediate need to return from exile, to go back to the Promised Land, and yet were challenged by God to look beyond those immediate needs to the needs of the wider world, so I think we are being challenged to look beyond those issues which challenge us within and between the Churches, and focus on the needs of the wider world.

The Gospel can make a real difference to the lives of those near and far; many Christians have been involved in those 11 ways in which the world got better in 2015; Christians, as well as those of other faiths and none, work within the remit of the Preamble to the United Nations Charter, seventy years after it was first proclaimed; and all of us are called to be lights in the world, for ‘It is when [we] can look into the face of another human being and have enough light in [us] to recognize [our] brother or sister’ that we will fulfil our calling to be ‘a light to the nations’. AMEN.

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