How Will we Build the New Jerusalem?

Sermon Preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, 24th March 2019

At the service celebrating ninety years of the work of the Square Building Trust

Isaiah 65:17-25; Matthew 7:24-29

Founded in 1929 by Rowland Lishman, leader of the then Northumberland Square Presbyterian Church’s men’s Bible Class, the Square Building Trust is a registered social landlord providing affordable, well-maintained homes for rent in North Tyneside. It currently own 122 properties; 90 general needs homes for social rent (including houses and apartments) and 32 homes for people with a range of support needs. Members of the St Columba’s United Reformed Church continue to comprise a significant proportion of the Trust’s Committee of Management.

How do you feel about building the new Jerusalem?

Thousands of years ago Israel had ceased to exist as an independent nation. It had been swallowed up by a much bigger and much more powerful political entity, the Babylonian Empire. Now, however, having been held in captivity for a period of years, the people were coming home; they were leaving – exiting, you might say – from Babylon. They were becoming an independent nation once again.

Perhaps you can detect some resonances between that situation back then and a pressing political situation in the life of this nation today. If so, what you note and how you interpret it is, of course, up to you. I would not dream of commenting … except to say …

It seems to me, that whatever happens in the life of this nation over the next few days, weeks, months, or years, if it, whatever “it” turns out to be, is to work as well as it possibly can, then this nation needs to have a strong, imaginative, healthy vision of the sort of society we think we should be, or should become. ‘Where there is no vision,’ as it says elsewhere in the Bible (Proverbs 29:18 (KJV)), ‘the people perish,’. Today, through the prophet Isaiah, we are presented with God’s vision for a new society. And, most relevant of all for us we find the work of the Square Building Trust, begun in this congregation and enjoying its continuing support, is right at the centre of that godly vision.

“How are we going to build the New Jerusalem? “That was the pressing question facing those returning from captivity. For Jewish people, an Israelite nation without Jerusalem was unthinkable. The qualities and values which governed the life of this holy capital city would be those that characterised the nation as a whole.

Since that time and specific situation, “building the New Jerusalem” has become a proverbial image for the process of creating or restoring a nation’s greatness. And who wouldn’t want to live in a city or a nation like the one envisaged in this prophecy from Isaiah chapter sixty-five?

The new Jerusalem is a joyful place, whose people are a delight to God. (65:18-19) Weeping and cries of distress have been eliminated. (65:19) Child mortality levels plummet and life expectancy soars. (65:20) Work is meaningful and children have a future, as will their descendants. (65:23) Former enemies will be at peace with one another – the wolf and the lamb shall feed together – and the previously fearsome and dangerous, like the lion, become peaceful and unthreatening. (65:25)

It sounds wonderful, and it is, and right in the middle of this list of positive attributes of the New Jerusalem comes the work of the Square Building Trust:

‘They shall build houses and inhabit them; They shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; They shall not plant and another eat; For like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, And my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. (65:21-22)

There’s the vision that we both need and celebrate today; building houses, in a non-exploitative fashion, for the people who need them to be able to inhabit them: ‘they shall build houses and inhabit them … they shall not build and another inhabit … my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.’

We’re a long way away from ancient Babylon, Israel and Jerusalem, but that vision speaks to me today, making me question one aspect of our contemporary scene and convincing of the basic rightness of another one.

My question: There is widespread acceptance that in the UK today there is a housing shortage. Not all the people who want and need a place to live can find one. How has this happened? What can be done about it? Neither causes nor solutions are simple or straightforward; the life of a nation is complex. I wonder, though, is our government’s dependence on encouraging the commercial house building sector the right one for creating a new Jerusalem? Yes, houses need to be built, builders need be paid. Commercial companies that don’t make a profit go out of business and are in no position to build any houses whatsoever. But where generating profit is so prominent a component in the process, are the houses built not more likely to be suitable for those who can pay the most rather than those who most need a need a place to live? I wonder …

Which brings me to my conviction: There is widespread acceptance that in the UK today there is a housing shortage. Not all the people who want and need a place to live can find one. How has this happened? What can be done about it? Neither causes nor solutions are simple or straightforward; the life of a nation is complex. Well, whatever the case, I’m convinced that the work of the Square Building Trust is in harmony with the desire to build a new Jerusalem in this sometimes green and pleasant land. The Square Building Trust, from the beginning, to the present day, and, God willing, for some time to come, is about building homes for people who need them. This is its – this is our – primary focus, and I believe it’s a biblically inspired one.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you have to a great Bible reader or a signed-up follower of Jesus Christ to hold and affirm a vision in which the driving force for building houses is that they will be available for the people who most need them. To suggest that would be both arrogant and mistaken. What I am saying is that in this specific case – the Square Building Trust – the impetus, the vision, for the Trust’s work came via one person having an explicitly Christian perspective, and that we can all learn something from that.

The one person was, of course Rowland Lishman. We have heard something about his life and work already today. Ninety years ago, in an era of housing crisis, where those who most needed decent housing were also those least likely possess it, Mr Lishman took action. The initial setting for this action was the men’s Bible class in this church, over which he presided. I have no way of knowing whether Mr Lishman ever connected the work that he did with these verses from the Book of Isaiah, with its vision for the new Jerusalem. I’m confident, however, that had someone pointed them out and asked, he would have affirmed that link between the biblical vision and the work he was doing.

I’m also hopeful that Rowland Lishman would be quite put out if we made him the primary focus of our thanksgiving today. I think he would have been quite uncomfortable if we airbrushed Jesus out of the picture. In Jesus’s story – his parable – about wise and foolish builders, both men hear the words of Jesus. What makes the difference is whether they act upon those words. The one who hears Jesus but do not act finds that everything comes crashing down around them. The one who hears and acts is wise, and their work endures, even when times are stormy.

And you can dig back a bit further behind that phrase, ‘everyone who hears these words of mine’. (7:24, 26) We’re told in Matthew’s Gospel, ‘when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching.’ (7:28) ‘These words’ and ‘his teaching’, in the context Matthew’s Gospel refer to the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon, which runs for three whole chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, concludes with this story, where what matters is that you act and well as listen to Jesus. Those of us who spent several Thursday evenings last year, working our way through the Sermon on the Mount together, may remember discovering that so much of what Jesus had to say was teaching concerning the Hebrew Scriptures; what we Christians usually refer to as the Old Testament.

So, the crowds were astounded by Jesus’s authority in teaching about the scriptures that include the Book of Isaiah, and so, of course, this vision of what God is looking for in a new Jerusalem. At the heart of this new Jerusalem: ‘they shall build houses and inhabit them … they shall not build and another inhabit … my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.’ Listen to that, says Jesus, and also do something about it! That’s how Rowland Lishman responded ninety years ago, and we are thankful for it. Though Rowland Lishman has gone, however, the biblically-based vision endures. To play a part in building a new Jerusalem in our day is the continuing biblical call that Christians hear today. The question is, how we will act upon what we hear?

So, how grateful I am for the existence and work of the Square Building Trust. It gives me a means to act upon what I hear. For like you, I hope, we want a country, however it is constituted, in whatever relationship to other nations, to exhibit these aspects of a new Jerusalem; a society where all flourish. We want this nation to be, we want North Tyneside, we want North Shields to be, a place of joy and delight. We are hoping for, we are desperate for an end to weeping and crying. We deeply desire happy childhoods and long life, meaningful work and a hopeful future, an end to enmity and the banishing of fear.

And we get to play a part in making a reality an important part of that beautiful vision: building houses for people to inhabit and enjoy, so that their lives may flourish. So today, we give thanks for the vision and the work – the action – of the Square Building Trust, helping to build the new Jerusalem. And may God give us in our day the inspiration and the strength to hear the words of Jesus and the prophecy of Isaiah, and to act upon them. Amen.

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