Last night I did a lecture in South Creake, Norfolk, and addressed the theme of my new book ‘Freedom is Coming’, seeking to distil lessons for today from the wisdom of three thousand years ago. As I said at the beginning, I believe a lecture such as this is a first word rather than the last word. The lecture itself was then followed by a Q&A during which I was pressed on a number of points. The basic text follows here.

We need to remember that when the Chinese say “May you live in interesting times”, it is a curse and not a blessing. There is something to be said for routine or boring times when life is fairly predictable and nothing much out of the ordinary happens to disturb or disrupt. If any such times ever existed, that is.

My parents lived through the Second World War in Liverpool – the bombings, evacuation, privations and rationing. Yet, I remember my father telling me more than once how his generation had had all the best deals: healthy food during the war (lots of vegetables and no sweets), the best jobs with the best pensions in an era of construction and optimism. His generation of civil servants certainly got the best pensions. Yet, in saying all this, he left out the experiences of conflict and the fact that some of his generation never made it into peacetime, or that peace in 1945 soon gave way to Korea, the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, the Berlin Wall, Middle Eastern terrorism, the Red Brigades, and so on and so on. OK, we also landed a man on the moon and England won the World Cup – once – but it is too easy to re-shape our history in order to tell a particular story.

I don’t need to tell you that all times are uncertain – every age is “interesting” in its own way. I think most of us would have thought it inconceivable three years ago that we would now be in a constitutional crisis, with the fundamental arms of our parliamentary democracy under threat and the future of the monarchy being questioned. Add to the mix Donald Trump in the United States, the rise of the AfD in Germany and the dominance of ‘illiberal democrats’ such as Orban, Bolsanaro and Putin, and it just isn’t clear what is going on. Here at home, if you are a Brexiteer the BBC is now the spawn of Satan, whereas if you are a Remainer, the BBC is now the spawn of Satan. What on earth is going on?

One conservative blogger makes the interesting claim that Nigel Farage is a modern-day British Martin Luther insofar as he challenges, disrupts and disturbs without any clear idea of what to do once the disruption has been achieved. I think this is an interesting idea (though Luther knew he might have to pay a personal price for his disruption). History and circumstances sometimes throw up a character who makes a massive difference and forces ‘normality’ to break up and reality be faced afresh. (But, I am not sure I would compare Farage with Luther … for lots of reasons.)

David Goodhart on BBC Radio 4 in ‘A Point of View’ on Sunday 26 May, rather than bemoaning the rise of populism in the UK, the challenges of Brexit and the breaking down of ‘normal’ politics, claimed that what we are witnessing now is actually robust democracy at work. He maintains that the limited appropriation of power by elites has been denuded by the clamour through the ballot box for ignored voices to be heard again. And, again, I think this notion of robust democracy merits serious consideration, even if I think it also raises questions about the content of disruption and who best exploits and benefits from chaos.

But, as this drama continues to unfold and the latest putative saviours of Brexit and political order enter the fray, Christians might well ask serious questions about how we are to understand the world in which we live, how we are to read the Scriptures in this context, and how we are to conduct ourselves – in language and behaviour, priorities and common life – as events unfold. I take it as read that Christians are called to engage in the whole of our common life, to argue politics, to help shape the future, and to get our hands dirty for the sake not of our own prosperity, but for the flourishing of God’s people in God’s world.

Now, this is a huge task. We cannot look at the UK in isolation from Europe – which, we must remember, is not coterminous with the European Union – and nor can we look at Europe in isolation from the wider world of Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping, Iranian nuclear development, or political instability in Israel or Iran. Everything is connected. And, given the global climate crisis, there is no escaping the complexity of interconnectedness. (Always be deeply suspicious of politicians or preachers who suggest there are clean and easy solutions to complex problems – like getting Brexit “done”.)

Yet, we also cannot grasp – or pay attention to – everything that matters. So, I want to cut through a section of these phenomena and focus on one people in one place at one time in history and ask if there is wisdom for us to be found in their experience and reflections, their decision-making and actions.

What I have to say is not neutral, however. I have written a book (published in August this year) called ‘Freedom is Coming’ which comprises readings through Advent, Christmas and Epiphany on Isaiah 40-55. I’ll explain why.

In Advent we try to reimagine the longing of God’s people for resolution – or salvation. For God to come among his people again and reassure them of their identity as his chosen ones. Their security and destiny lie in this, that Messiah will come and restore to Israel all that has been lost in exile and occupation, subjugation and humiliation. Jesus of Nazareth is to come among a people who are crying out for the fulfilment of God’s promises and trying to spot the evidences of this new day, this new world. As we enter into their experience, looking through Advent for the light, longing for renewal and hope, we cannot rush the experience. We slow down and think and pray and make time. Only once we have taken this time, and lived this yearning experience, can we truly experience the staggering joy of Christmas – what John Bell calls “God surprising earth with heaven”. Yet, rather than ending the wondering and solving all the questions, Christmas only opens up a different world with new challenges and demands … which leads us to Epiphany, Magi who search for the truth, and people beginning to see in the babe of Bethlehem and the boy of Nazareth something unusual.

In other words, the resolution of one question only reveals a pile of new questions that hadn’t been faced before because the phenomena from which they arise had not occurred before. Or, to put it more crudely, endings only proved to be new beginnings – and these new beginnings weren’t always welcomed by people who just wanted everything sorted out once and for all. All of this I explore in the book which I have with me.

So, to Isaiah and a bit of background. The background to the background, of course, is that Isaiah is not a bit of ‘scripture’ that sits disembodied in a holy book, dislocated or disassociated from the real world. It is precisely located in a world of empires, military conflict, violence, political intrigue, and all the things with which we, too, are familiar. And while the big beasts fight for power and prestige, the ordinary people just have to live with the consequences and get on as best they can. (And they are easily swayed in their political affections.)

Anyway, Isaiah was a prophet, writing in the eighth century before Christ, warning his people that they couldn’t take their future for granted. Chapters 1-39 see the prophet reading the signs of the times and discerning what lies behind and beneath events and the choices people face, and warning that departure from God’s ways will have consequences. As individuals are part of society, so will the consequences be social, political, economic, military, and so on. But, you might ask, in what ways have the people deviated from what God expects of them and, indeed, has called them to and for?

The text speaks for itself: if you bear the name of God and claim to be his people, then you must look like him and his character. And what does this mean? Those who have been called must serve; those who have received mercy must give mercy; those who have been slaves (in their ancestry) must never treat others as slaves. And that’s just a starter. The point is: you must in your common life and your individual character resemble and reflect the character, priorities and claims of the God you claim to serve.

Denial of this vocation is not evidenced by mere impiety or religious/liturgical negligence. Rather, it is exposed by allowing a society that penalises poor people, marginalises weak people, shuts the door on people ‘not like us’, associates nation with God, ignores the moral planks in the eyes of the ‘faithful’ while condemning the speck in the eyes of others. For example. The prophet maintains that it is a mockery of God to trample on the poor or sing songs of praise to God whilst denying his character in the choices we make and the society we construct.

These people are warned that God will not be taken for granted and that the consequences of living a life of denial are serious: the loss of those things that speak to the people of their identity, their vocation and destiny, their future and their security. Remember that the defining narrative that gives meaning and direction to these people is the story of the Exodus. After more than four centuries of humiliating and inescapable subjugation in Egypt, the people are liberated – the Passover – and led towards freedom in a land of promise. Yet, liberation is not instant and is not an event; it is a process, a journey, a leaving from but without knowing where it was leading to. (Why do some Christian songs suggest they left Egypt one day and bounced up next day in a land flowing with milk and honey?)

The Exodus, however, is not a simple story. The annual remembrance of the Passover was also for the Jews a reminder of the human reality, the complex choices, the fear and dread, the romanticising of the past along with the struggling with potential futures, and so on. The people were led out of slavery by a leader who, once in the desert and not giving the people the satisfactions they wanted, found himself rejected, bemoaned, ridiculed and abandoned. That’s leadership for you!

These people spent forty years wandering through a desert before they reached their promised land. A whole generation had died on the journey, the leader died before getting to the land, and they were given a load of instructions about what a good society should look like when they got the chance to build one. Yet, these people had to enter a new land, with new questions about their identity and what this identity demanded of them. They could learn from the past, but they shouldn’t repeat it.

So, back to Isaiah. The people who had forgotten the substance of this story were destined to head into their own exile. The cataclysm of loss was probably the only way they would be jolted by reality into rebuilding their identity and meaning, re-appraising their history, losing their illusions – about God, the world and humanity. Sometimes loss is the only way to stop us.

Which brings us to Isaiah 40-55. Here the people are in exile and have been for decades. This means that some of the exiles have died, families have been reshaped, the memories of ‘home’ have been kept alive and yet will also have become fossilised, romanticised or re-shaped to justify the current narrative. So, the words of comfort addressed to these exiles are not just intended to make them feel happy about the future, but to prepare them for a new world with new questions and new challenges. Yes, their exile is coming to an end – this is the meaning of ‘forgiveness’ for them. Yes, their punishment will soon be over and they will return home. But, home will be different – and not simply a place of assurance and satisfaction, but of new responsibility and faithful innovation.

Why, I ask myself, have I never heard this spelled out in sermons or lectures? I have read (and possibly preached) about the comfort of coming home after exile, as if this return meant the end of complexity, the end of hard decisions, the end of pain and uncertainty. But, I have rarely, if ever, heard about the real stuff of real human life and society which the text represents. We are meant to read through the text, not just to read across it. If the prophet’s text has any value – to the exiles or to us – it must be because it accords with and addresses our own uncertainties and longings for resolution or escape. But, faith and escapism do not go together.

Consider this. What happens to the remainers when the leavers go into exile? (And I am not speaking about Brexit here.) We know from our own experience in West Yorkshire how emigration and immigration work. I am always amused by friends of Pakistani – Kashmiri – heritage who visit family ‘back home’ and discover that those who never left are sometimes less conservative culturally than those who emigrated to the UK. Why does this happen? I think it is primarily because expats confect a memory of home that gets fossilised and refuses to move on. So, ‘home’ becomes a fantasy of what we imagine it used to be. Fantasy because it rarely allows for any development in my absence. (Having lived abroad in several places, we see the same phenomenon with British expats who promote and preserve a memory of Britain that is almost Victorian in nature.)

So, the problem is that the exiles return to what they expect to be the home they left generations before … and find themselves trying to make space among people who have continued to shape ‘home’ and resent this intrusion by people who want to impose their conservatism on the society that never left home in the first place. Do you see the problem? And doesn’t it sound familiar?

These communities – the remainers and the returning exiles – then have to negotiate the space and the priorities as they shape a new place together. A place that might have been simpler without the demand for generosity and the hard work of imagination. Yet, the questions they face and the choices to be made are precisely those that these people have not had to face before. The situation is new – is unique. So, what is to guide them as they adjust and adapt and face the challenges of creating one society out of the competing (or conflicting) imaginations and priorities of two sets of experience and two groups of people who can’t understand why the others don’t see the world (or the task) in the same way as they do?

Now, this should be setting off associations with the world in which we live today. Just like the returning exiles and the host communities into which they would now intrude (or assimilate), we cannot simply resurrect from the past some template of how to ‘do’ post-Brexit Britain or Trumpian America or a post-Brexit Europe. We have to face these questions anew, learning from the experience of the past and drawing on the wisdom of our texts, but having the determined imagination to face honestly and courageously these new challenges. We cannot go back. We cannot simply pretend that the world should have stood still fifty years ago.

So, what might Isaiah, from his particular political, cultural and historical situation, have to say to us – particularly us Christians who read these texts and call them “the word of the Lord” – in ours nearly three thousand years later? I will make several proposals by way of response.

First, read scripture properly. It is no good quoting comfortable (or comforting) verses or passages from the Bible without seeing them in the context of the bigger picture being addressed. One serious element of that bigger picture is that, to put it simply, empires come and go. History is never understood in the moment, but after time and distance that allow more objective reflection on the events experienced. Brexit, Europe, Trump and the rise of China and India (the end of the West?) cannot be fully understood while we are going through them. But, what looks powerful – invincible even – now will surely look different in the future in retrospect. When I worked at GCHQ in the early 1980s the bipolar world of USA vs USSR looked like a fixture. India and China were dysfunctional and backward oddities, both the subject of imperial occupation not so long before. And now? How invincible was the Roman Empire? Read Shashi Tharoor and ask how secure the British Empire really was?

In other words, today’s reality might not be as fixed as we like to think. What looks to be right and expedient now will certainly be questioned in the future. Will our children and grandchildren bless us or curse us for the choices we make today? Is our perspective informed by the narrative of Scripture that asks us to think longer-term?

This should lead us, secondly, to think, choose and act with what I often call a confident humility. I consider reality, bring to bear the wisdom gleaned from perusal of the past and the wisdom of our texts (and the story they tell), and then, together, make decisions that I recognise might turn out in the future to be wrong. These decisions will be made with confidence, but the humility of acknowledging my inherent limitations will temper the arrogance of certainty.

Yes, we must argue vigorously and test our assumptions and assertions, but, in the end, we must choose and know we might be wrong. And this is helped enormously if we face the failures of our past and don’t just romanticise our successes. For example, it is not a weakness to recognise the power of the British Empire whilst accepting that, although we can now see through a different lens, British gains came at the expense of subjugated people. (Read Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire and see that India had around 30% of world trade pre-Empire and only 3% post-Empire. Who benefitted and where did all the wealth go to?)

This is rooted, thirdly, in a commitment to hear and tell the truth. One of my problems with the whole Brexit process has been the rejection of truth-telling and the loss of truth-hearing. I have spoken of the “corruption of the public discourse” and this includes the unwillingness on the part of many politicians to face and tell the truth. For example, I asked a question in the House of Lords about the cost of Brexit. I suggested that if the prize is worth it (leaving the EU and “regaining sovereignty”, etc.), then tell us straight and we might all vote for it despite the cost. Tell us that we might suffer economically for fifteen years in order to gain the prize, and we might well vote for it. But don’t lie and tell us that leaving the EU will be easy or simple or cost-free. This has always been the problem for prophets: they tell the truth and pay the price. But, someone has to.

All this assumes, fourthly, that we are committed to the world as it is and not just as it might be. Israel’s calling – articulated by Isaiah and others, was always for the sake of the world. The blessing Abraham and the patriarchs were promised was to be a blessing to the world – even at the expense of those through whom the blessing would ultimately come. The blessing was not for the sake of Abraham and co. In fact, their vocation was to lay down their life in order that the world might see who and how God – Yahweh – actually is. People should look at the people of Israel and see the character of God worked out in real time, real place, real life, the ordering of society and the relating of peoples in the business of politics.

The prophets call their people back to this commitment and vocation.

Jesus embodies – incarnates – this vocation and lays down his life for the sake of the world that is God’s. The Church – the followers of this Jesus – are called to embody in their common life the life of this Jesus who embodies and fulfils the vocation of God’s people to lay down their life for the sake of the world. Christmas is about this: God opting into the world and committing to it in all its messy complexity and complex politics. And this with humility.

This demands, fifthly, that God’s people learn to compromise and commend such compromise in their own common life. But, isn’t ‘compromise’ a dirty word? It shouldn’t be. Compromise is essential to politics and to common life in a community. It is an art and a good, not a problem or a failure. Like the word ‘discrimination’, it needs to be recovered and re-valued. Compromise assumes that we are grown up enough to look through the eyes of ‘the other’ – my neighbour – and dare to see the world differently. This is a work of imagination. Imagination is not the same as fantasy. Imagination involves the capacity to imagine (a) how the world looks when seen through different eyes rooted in different experiences and assumptions, and (b) to envisage how, in the light of bringing my experience, assumptions and vision together with those of others, the compromise might be constructive and positive in creating a common life together. And, of course, this demands confidence, humility and maturity – a commitment to learn and grow.

Perhaps this is where I should conclude these ruminations; the recovery of imagination.

Freedom is coming. That is the plea and the promise of God to his people and to his world. But, this promise necessarily implies and involves the committed engagement of these people in addressing, from the wisdom of the past, the new questions of the present in order to create or shape the society and world of the future. We can only do our bit. But, if we are to learn from and be consistent with those who have gone before us, we must be prepared to sacrifice our own interests in order to serve the common good and be obedient to the God who calls us in the first place.

Today my new book is published by SPCK. Titled Freedom is Coming, it offers readings for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany based on Isaiah 40-55.

It is intended to make further sense of what Christmas is about and where Christian hope actually lies in a complex world.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme:

When the news of the royal birth was announced yesterday part of the excitement focused on the couple’s decision to break with tradition and do things their own way. And why not?

Well, this welcome royal baby arrived in a very royal week.

After a three-day coronation ceremony, I imagine the new King of Thailand is taking it a bit easier today. And I imagine I am not alone in the world outside Thailand to have observed some of the rituals on television without really understanding what was going on and why. As an outsider it was fascinating to watch, but hard to follow.

What I found most curious was the powerful appeal to tradition – tradition that goes back a very long way and roots the present vocation in a collective national, ethnic and religious memory.

One of the misconceptions about the word ‘tradition’ is that those who value it simply want to live in the past – held captive by some nostalgic notion of a golden age of simplicity and clarity that promises security.

But, tradition has to do with the collective experience and wisdom of the past which then informs and shapes the future, giving roots to the values that underlie our common life – better seen as a fanning of the flame in the present rather than a holding on to the ashes of the past.

Tradition goes deep. Having regard to the experiences and wisdom of past generations – their successes and failures, strategies and accidents – instils the caution needed if history is not to repeat itself and change is to be properly, intelligently and soberly appraised.

For example, the central section of Isaiah in the Hebrew Scriptures is addressed to a people in exile in Babylon, proclaiming the promise that freedom is coming, that exile is ending, that they will soon go home – which sounds great.

Yet, when we dig down into the reality of the exiles’ experience, the promise also becomes something of a threat. For example, what will this mean for those who were born in Babylon and for whom the place of exile is and always has been ‘home’? How will the returning exiles – immigrants – be received back in their ethnic homeland by those who never left and regard the land as theirs? How will they negotiate a common society when, having been exiled, their notions of ‘home’ might have become stuck in a nostalgic past?

In other words, the tradition might root the people in a memory, but they still have to shape today and tomorrow by facing questions none of them has had to face before.

None of this is alien to the politics of our time. Slogans that implicitly promise that we can return to a golden age of the past are, literally, fantastic. We can shape the present and future in the light of the past, but this always demands courage, corrective and competence.