Canon Elizabeth Sewell, sermon preached at Ripon Cathedral, 14th Dec 2014 – Advent 3
Isaiah 61:1-4 & 8-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 and John 1:6-8 & 19-28
Have you noticed how Christmas seems to come well before the 25th? I don’t mean in terms of being able to buy Christmas Cards in September (I didn’t!) but in the way now, with a fortnight still to go Christmas seems to be all around us. There are Santa’s Grottoes, lights and Christmas trees and carols in the supermarkets. There are Christmas Fayres and Concerts, Christmas Parties and Lunches to go to, Christmas cards to write and send. There is, in shops and schools, homes and families a growing sense of urgent preparation and excitement. Christmas has come but it is still 2 weeks away.
That is a bit how it was for the Jews who waited for the coming of their Christ. Old Testament prophets like Elijah and Isaiah looked forward to a day when God’s rule would be complete over the whole world. Yet they also called God’s people to live within that rule, even when the world around them did not. For God’s people the kingdom had come in their own lives but was yet to come in the wider world.
We heard this morning part of God’s promise through the prophet Isaiah. The promise of a kingdom of justice and peace. If the words sounded more familiar than other parts of the Old Testament, that may be because they are the words used by Jesus when he ‘comes out’ in Nazareth. In Luke’s Gospel, after the Temptations, Luke records how Jesus, in his first public sermon, reads that passage and then tells the synagogue congregation ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ So for Jesus, as for Isaiah, the kingdom has come and the kingdom is still to come.
What does that actually mean for us, here in 21st century Ripon? In what way do we know that ‘These words have been fulfilled’? What does God want us to hear and to do about that Kingdom, as we prepare to welcome again it’s King?
I want to give you time to answer those questions for ourselves and to hear what God is saying to you this morning, as you pause amongst all those preparations. We’re going to use a way of reflecting upon the scriptures that is based upon the Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina, a method of scripture reading, meditation and prayer intended to promote communion with God and to increase the knowledge of God’s Word. It does not treat Scripture as texts to be studied, but as the Living Word to be known.
In a moment Nick will come and read that Isaiah passage again. I would encourage you not to read along in the pew sheet but to sit and listen. Listen to both the passage and to what God is saying to you through it. Allow the Holy Spirit to draw your attention to one phrase or sentence, then stay with that phrase, turning it over in your mind as you meditate on it.
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness
and praise to spring up before all the nations.
Now Susie will re-read the passage. This time notice how ‘your’ phrase fits within the whole and wonder with God what that phrase might mean for you this week as we continue our Advent journey.
[the above passage is read once more]
Let’s now pick up on how that Isaiah passage fits in with the rest of our readings this morning.
Old Testament prophets like Elijah and Isaiah looked forward to a day when God’s rule would be complete over the whole world but Elijah was also significant in another way – for he is the prophet who did not die but was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. Jews believed that Elijah would return as the herald of the Christ – hence the question to John the Baptist – are you Elijah? Just as it is for us, in our preparations for Christmas, so it was for those Jews, eagerly looking for the Christ. After years of preparation, of warnings that the coming of the Lord is not something to take lightly or to meet unprepared, now the excitement begins to mount.
And it begins with John the Baptist. With those questions about who he is and what he is doing. You could read his self-description as humble and self-effacing, but I’m not sure that it is. Rather the words ring with certainty. John knows exactly what he is and what he is not. He knows that he is a necessary part of God’s unfolding plan; the first actor on the stage; the narrator, who sets the scene, and lets us know what is to come.
There is barely suppressed excitement in his voice as he scans the crowd, waiting for the face that he knows he, and only he, will recognise. He does not mind that his work will be done. He understands the job of the herald, both its importance and that it is, by definition, transitory. He knows that the prophets of old foretold his coming, and longed to see what he is about to see. John is utterly content to be where he is and what he is. Content to be ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’
John calls the people to ‘Get ready’. The Thessalonians to whom Paul writes, are already there – they are living what the prophets longed for and John pointed to. And they know it, or, if they don’t, it’s not Paul’s fault. Paul is clear that joy is the natural condition of Christians, quite independent of the outward circumstances. This joy is not dependent upon wealth, health, luck or anything external. Joy is the gift of the unquenchable Spirit, whose job it is to keep Christians connected at all times to the life of God, offered in Christ.
So, like most of God’s gifts, it has a purpose. The Spirit sanctifies us so completely that we reflect and live the kingdom that has come. So, in joy, we turn back to the world God has made, and we become God’s heralds to it.
Like John the Baptist, we should shout aloud about the coming of Christ, who will bring joy to those who have never experienced it before. We should ‘cry out’ about the faithfulness of God; Creator, Redeemer and Bringer of Joy. With Isaiah we look for the good news of a kingdom that brings gladness in place of mourning, praise instead of a faint spirit.
Rejoice evermore! Pray without ceasing! And make straight the way of the Lord!
What a brilliant way to use this next week of Advent. Amen