Isaiah and Peppa Pig

Isaiah and Peppa Pig

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No less an authority than the teacher in an episode of Peppa Pig once said that poetry was “a magical way of using words that puts a picture in your mind”… Are you moved by the magic of poetry? Does it ‘do’ something to you? If so, are you more Wordsworth, Maya Angelou or Pam Ayres? Or does poetry leave you cold?

Some years ago, Mario Cuomo, the New York governor at the time, was credited with saying: “Campaign in poetry, govern in prose”. He was implying that poetry can capture our aspirations and imagination, it can be full of possibility, saying things in such a way that it influences how you place your vote. But, once the successful candidate has won the election and got the job, ah, that’s when everyone finds that the day-to-day reality is messy and full of details and compromises.

Rhythm and rhyme

Perhaps we think of Martin Luther King Jr. He was an adept politician, but when he spoke it was with the rhythm and rhyme of a poet. He was summonsing a group of people disenfranchised in their own land and giving them a vision of the future. When King spoke of having a dream, it was short on details of how it would actually happen – but it was energising nonetheless. It gave hope. It critiqued how things were but announced that those same things couldn’t stay that way. That the social reality of the time was just a contrivance not a permanent way of being, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

The parables of Jesus aren’t poetry, but they do something similar. In acts of imagination, his parables conjure different realities for his listeners, an alternative way of living. For the most part they are open-ended. The listener is left to figure out what to do, to question the assumptions of the day.

Grieving their loss

The author of our passage in Isaiah is just such a poet though. The people of Israel have been in exile in Babylon for a very long time. He’s speaking to a community which is far from its homeland and its beloved Jerusalem and living in a dominant culture which is imposing its own values and hopes and fears. The people have lost their will, lost their way and lost their world of faith. They’ve seen their homes, their city and their temple fall. They are discontent and grieving their losses. They’ve written-off the prospect of coming home.

In chapters 40 to 55 of Isaiah, the author is looking to change that perception of their reality. The poet appeals to old memories – to put God, Yahweh, firmly on his throne and to begin to change their self-image. He encourages them to think differently about the empire which has swallowed them up. He makes hope possible. He makes a way out of the empire possible. Not by giving them a map and set of instructions but by looking to change the way they think. In the chapter before this one he taps into the stories of the past and reminds them of the joy of Sarah who became pregnant after so many years of waiting. And of Noah as the chaos of the flood waters subsided. And earlier in this chapter he invokes the example of David living his life out in promise.

Grass withers

Our poet bookends the whole of this section with thoughts about ‘the word’. At the beginning, in 40:8, ‘The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever’. The seemingly all-powerful Babylonian empire was in fact just transitory despite all its posturing. Then, in chapter 55, the poet returns to his theme: ‘So, shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth. It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.’

Yahweh is a God who speaks words, because he has something to say. The same Word that spoke the world into being at creation, now says that Israel shall be free. Our verses, with mountains breaking forth in song and so on, envision a transformed creation not just a change of human history. We would do well to also see here that nature is not a commodity for humans to use and exploit but has an inherent value and standing before God in its own right.

Rain and snow

Metaphors of rain and snow would have been well understood by people who knew the importance of it to transform dry land and secure food for next year and well as seed for subsequent crops. It was the difference between life and death and a particularly effective way of describing the ability of God’s word to change their lives and their circumstance.

The poet is not content with just describing reality though. By force of speech, he’s looking to shape a new reality by articulating an alternative, imaginative way of being. The people were in despair because they were under Babylonian control. The poet liberates them to think and act and speak and sing differently. His poetry undermines the authority of the empire and hints at new realities. At first, they are just in the heart and mind of the poet – but they begin to give energy and freedom to a people ready to listen.

Dared to dream

In our Gospel reading, God appears to be either irresponsible or exceedingly generous as he scatters the seeds of redemption even where they seemingly don’t have a hope of sprouting. For Isaiah, the situation in Babylon might have seemed hopeless too – but he dared to dream something different and, ultimately, they did indeed leave their place of exile. Both passages should give us cause to rejoice as well as to be humble at the undeserved grace of the generosity that God shows us in his desire to bless and re-create in our lives.

By harking back to their past, the poet was looking to break the narrative of the Babylonians. The empire had given them different sets of truth and ways of thinking – because a people who are captured are easier to manage and control that way. People become all alike and easily replaceable. Reminding them of the past gave a new sense of their own identity whilst still in the midst of exile.

Through the waters

But change can be scary and frightening. We can easily get used to living a certain way, even if it wasn’t our choice in the first place. The poet tells us to fear not. ‘When you pass through the waters I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.’ 43:2 When you pass through the waters, through the danger points, when you are called to give account, you will not be alone. You are not theirs, you are mine.

I hope that we’re not missing the parallels with our own situation:

  • Exile is a sense of not belonging, of living in an environment which has a different set of values.
  • Babylon is wherever power is concentrated and seeks to impose or oppress anyone who thinks differently.
  • Homecoming is a decision to break with what we’ve become used to and embrace a place where our values have credibility.


As we look around, do we sometimes think that we’re exiles in some alien culture? That the society in which we live is obliging us to think and live in ways that we would rather not?

There’s a saying that ‘if you cannot imagine it, you cannot live it.’ If you had a dream, what would your dream be? If you were Isaiah today, what picture would you be painting for others? What prophetic, poetic, imagination would you use to give a vision of a new future for our society, our community – and by the mere act of dreaming it you set something in process, helping to make it a new reality?

Make it happen

For a few weeks we had post-it notes at the back so that we could describe the kind of priest that we wanted next – and hence the kind of church, the kind of people, that we wanted to be. Perhaps we need to start imagining how that future might come about and not just expect someone to deliver it on a plate for us. We’re in interregnum. A time of transition. An in-between time. A time for us to imagine – and, by imagining it, we might just help make it happen.

Oh, and best not to tell the Sunday School that we’ve been doing Peppa Pig whilst they’ve been doing the sower and the seed… Amen

‘Isaiah and Peppa Pig’ was delivered by Ian Banks at St John and St Mark’s on 16th July 2023. It was based on Isaiah 55:10-13 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.



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