SERMON: Mourning and Dawn

A sermon preached at Wesley Uniting Church, Melbourne on 27th of January, 2019. The context was the Day of Mourning set aside by the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA), alongside the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC). The readings were:
Isaiah 62.1-5

Luke 4.14-21

The logos of the UAICC and the UCA walking together.

The logos of the UAICC and the UCA walking together.

God, may my words be loving and true, and may those who listen discern what is not. Amen.


In Christ we find refuge. strength. and hope.

In the continuing attempt to listen to the particular insights of first peoples the national Assembly of the Uniting Church has asked congregations to set aside a Sunday towards the end of January as a day of mourning. A day that recalls us to the terrible history of the treatment of indigenous people in this country by second peoples. In setting aside a Sunday as a day of mourning the Uniting Church has sought to hear the voice of God through the voices of our indigenous brothers and sisters. This voice is often one of pain and one of mourning.

The commitment to listen to the voice of God through the voices of our indigenous sisters and brothers challenges the very act of preaching and proclaiming the Gospel. The Uniting Church confesses in the preamble to its constitution that the very integrity of the Gospel was diminished by the church’s failure to speak the truth about First Peoples in this land, and in the church's complicity in dispossession.

I want simply today to proclaim the Gospel with integrity.

In Christ we find refuge. strength. and hope.


Can we today proclaim the hope we find in Christ in the midst of mourning?


Our reading today from the latter part of Isaiah is a poem written out of the experience of the exile imposed upon Israel by the Babylonian Empire. This poem proclaims hope for God’s people. In holding together both the experience of exile and the proclamation of hope this poem may help guide us in holding onto the mourning we recall today, and the hope which we proclaim in Christ.


Scholars have suggested that this latter part of Isaiah was written towards the end of the Jewish people’s exile. During the period the Jewish people were seeking to recover and rebuild their society.

This text, therefore, speaks out of an experience of people being stripped of their land, stripped of their identity, stripped of the cultural and religious practices that sustained their relationship to God. And this text speaks into the difficult road of return, the refuge of recovery and remembrance, the hope of a renewed society. This text is a testament to the strength and resilience of the Jewish people.

If we hear the words of Isaiah 62 as the words of a people trying to find their roots again in their own land, we may hear the solemn undertones of grief beneath the surface of what seems like confident hope.

Isaiah speaks on behalf of Zion, the land of the Jewish people, and a word of hope for Jerusalem:

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, | and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest | until her vindication shines out …” (v1)

Isaiah’s pursuit of vindication carries the period of exile and suffering into the new world of God’s hope. Isaiah refuses to understand the period of exile as a sign of failure or unfaithfulness, as a simple act of punishment from God. Vindication reveals that God’s people are justified, are right with God, and have remained faithful through their experience of dispossession. In setting up this song of hope with a focus on vindication Isaiah carries the suffering of his people into his song.

Isaiah’s hope is therefore not abstract. It is not detached from reality. It does not look up to heaven and expect everything to be washed away. Isaiah’s hope is rooted in the survival of his people. Isaiah’s hope is rooted in resilience and return to land: in a people who are faithful to God.


The newness of life and name that are heard in Isaiah’s song carry with them the memories and scars of exile and dispossession.


Isaiah, I suggest, teaches us about the solemn grief which sits beneath the surface of divine hope. On this day in which we mourn with our indigenous sisters and brothers we must hold onto the hope of Isaiah’s song. Holding fast to the hope of God, but not allowing that hope to erase the true and painful history that has shaped us in this land.


A history of dispossession. A history of pain, trauma, and suffering. Many were killed by the white settlers that built modern Australia. Many were subject to slavery, and slavery like conditions. Many were treated as little more than animals. Refused the basic rights and dignity that others enjoy: citizenship, voting rights, land rights. Children were stolen from first peoples. Exiles in their own land.


Our indigenous brothers and sisters have been shaped by experiences of survival. Experiences of forsakenness and desolation. Our hope cannot erase this true and painful history.


And yet …

In the midst of this solemn grief can we still proclaim hope? In the midst of mourning can we glimpse the dawn?

This is the task we recall ourselves to today. As we mark today as a day of mourning we are challenged by the hopeful song of Isaiah, that yet carries within itself solemn grief. We are challenged to ask ourselves what the hope of the Gospel might mean for our indigenous brothers and sisters. We are challenged to proclaim the Gospel with integrity.


The Gospel is the proclamation that Isaiah's hope has been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus’ death and resurrection as Israel’s Messiah he has established the reign of God’s love once and for all. Through acts of mercy and justice this new reign of love has broken open our currently reality and begun to find roots in this world.


Empowered by the Spirit Jesus began his ministry by outlining the shape of God's reign of love in Luke 4. Reading from the scroll of Isaiah, Jesus marks himself as the fulfillment of the same hope we have been reflecting on. This hope is:


“good news to the poor,” it “proclaim[s] release to the captives … sight to the blind … freedom to the oppressed.”


“[T]he year of the Lord's favour” and the vindication of God's people has arrived.


In Christ this hope is fulfilled.


In Christ we find refuge. strength. and hope.


This is the Gospel.


To proclaim this Gospel with integrity means we must commit ourselves anew to the experiences of our indigenous brothers and sisters. We must commit ourselves to hearing their stories. We must commit ourselves to telling the truth about our collective history.


Not simply because Christ here outlines a program of social transformation. But because Christ brings to fulfillment a hope that has been forged out of the painful history of exile and dispossession, and refuses to erase it - as we must refuse to erase painful histories in the midst of our hope.


We must proclaim this Gospel of Christ because in Christ the reality of God’s reign of love begins to take root in this world through mercy, and through justice. Because this hope is not abstract, but carries our suffering into its song.


We cannot proclaim with Christ good news to the poor if we do not also proclaim good news to our indigenous brothers and sisters who have had their wages stolen, and their work exploited.


We cannot proclaim with Christ release to the captives if we do not also proclaim release to our indigenous brothers and sisters who are the victims of unjust systems of policing and imprisonment.


We cannot proclaim sight to the blind with Christ if we do not also proclaim sight and health to our indigenous brothers and sisters who experience three times higher rates of blindness, 10 years less life expectancy, and poorer health outcomes than non-indigenous people's in this land.


We cannot proclaim with Christ that God’s new reign of love has broken into our reality unless we participate in this new reality through acts of mercy and justice. And we do no justice to this proclamation if we fail to recall the histories of exile and dispossession out of which the wisdom of our own tradition has been forged, and the strength and resilience of our indigenous sisters and brothers through their own painful experiences.


Echoing Isaiah:


For this land’s sake we must not keep silent, | and for the sake of our indigenous brothers and sisters we must not rest, | until their vindication shines out like the dawn …

We must learn to carry solemn grief beneath the surface of our Christian hope: listening to Isaiah speaking out of exile, and listening to our indigenous sisters and brothers speaking out of dispossession.


In Christ we find refuge. strength. and hope.


Amen.