Sermon - 4th December 2011
Advent 2 - Waiting with patience
Scripture - Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Our readings today continue our journey of Advent waiting. In the passage from Isaiah we hear of the comfort that God brings to his people, in the Gospel reading from St Mark we see that the Good News was presented on the margins of society to those who wait and long for justice to come. We wait and long for justice, often we are relegated to the margins of the interests and concerns of others and often we see the need to have words of comfort and tenderness spoken to us about our lives and loves in a world which is often brutal and unfeeling.
The passage is familiar to anyone who has listened to Handel’s Messiah and anyone who has attended church in Advent as this reading is one of the key Advent passages.
Handel’s piece gets the sense of this passage right by dwelling on the first word “comfort”. In the passage the we have this twice with the following line “speak tenderly” to Jerusalem. There is a deep human desire to have comfort and tenderness, it’s a basic human need to have that sense of peace and intimacy which comes from tenderness.
In the Old Testament consolation and care for the victims of calamity, for parents whose children have died, for people without the means to sustain themselves and for those vulnerable to physical threats and bodily harm are always praiseworthy. In the Old Testament enemies and oppressors are those who fail to extend comfort.
So given this great history of comfort in the Old Testament what is going on in this passage? There is no clamour from an oppressed group demanding comfort and tenderness, instead it’s God’s own sovereign action which commands the comfort.
But the command is surprising as it’s a command of comfort to Jerusalem which as a city gets a very bad press in Isaiah. It’s a city that is condemned over and over again because it’s prospered on wickedness, oppression, lies, injustice, and has refused to heed prophetic calls to repentance.
The huge rupture which was the exile of the Jewish elite in Babylon was seen by the prophets not as a political and national disaster (which it was) but as God’s just punishment on the people who had fallen away from God.
But now the exile is over, and God commands that tenderness and comfort are given to Jerusalem. Her punishment is over. She is not deserving of comfort and tenderness – after all prisoners on release from prison may have paid their debt but they need to earn trust again – and the re-offending rate is high.
There are six striking things in this short passage:
Despite everything the Jewish people are still described as “my people”
There are no words of condemnation – God speaks tenderly to the people.
They are released from the debt of sin
They are told to tell others of this good news
There is an announcement of God’s coming
God chooses to be part of their futureeaerHear
These six themes have great meaning and promise for us as we wait patiently for our Lord.
One of the interesting things about our contemporary society is that most people are not bothered if we are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered. It may attract a little interest – as might announcing you are a vegan or that you vote Green – but generally people aren’t bothered. Similarly, people aren’t really bothered if you announce you are a Christian. In a diverse society a range of lifestyle choices are tolerated. Even Christians have little problems with lgbt people unless, of course, they realise that we claim to be both Christian and lgb or t. Then all sorts of interesting debates and viewpoints come into play. For many evangelicals their reading of the Scriptures associates us with the general moral degeneracy of society but when we claim to be part of God’s people all hell is let loose – ironically from the Church!
God’s insistence to the Jewish people that despite their ignoring of His commandments, despite their oppression of the poor and disdain for the prophets they are still his beloved people gives us comfort as we realise that we are God’s people despite what some of his followers might like to believe. We are God’s people and nothing can change that – certainly not the way we love nor the gender in which we exist.
None of us like to hear words of condemnation – many of us have heard too many of them. In our Bible study on Romans chapter 1 this week I was moved as people spoke about how that passage had been used against them. One told of how her illness was blamed on her homosexuality – because of an odd interpretation of this passage, another spoke of how – even though he understands what the passage is about – it makes him angry and he prefers not to read it. Yet God speaks tenderly to us, offering words of love not hate, comfort not fear. Just as the Jews of old needed to hear these words of love so our communities need to hear more tender loving words from the Church.
Release of Debt to Sin
The wonderful film, The Mission, follows a group of Jesuit missionaries to Southern America and how they fought for the rights of the natives. In one powerful scene a man is freed from his dreadful penance by a native convert to Christ. The man had killed his wife and her lover and had tied a huge net full of metal and heavy objects to his back and he carried this around as a penance. The native, who understood forgiveness, released the man from his burden.
Often we carry our burdens around with us and don’t let them go. We torment ourselves with our wrongdoings even though we’ve asked God to forgive us. The issue, it seems to me, is really believing that we’re forgiven and having the courage to forgive ourselves.
These words of comfort and tenderness are not just a personal therapy session for the Jewish people. Jerusalem is told to do something, to tell the other cities of the good news. As a child I was told to “keep the faith” whereas the task is to spread it!
We live in a world where people need to hear of a God who loves them radically, who doesn’t discriminate and who desires to speak words of comfort and tenderness to those on the margins. Yet God needs us to do the telling – with our lives, our actions and our words. If we don’t go to our people with the news of God’s love who will?
Announcement of God’s coming
The Isaiah passage announces that God is coming to live with His people. It is this aspect that John the Baptist picks up on in St Mark and which we ponder anew each year in Advent. We prepare in Advent to celebrate birth of God amongst us and we wait for his coming again to set all things right.
The hope of God coming to live with us, to establish his Kingdom of justice, equality and peace is the hope of the Church and the thing we wait for until the end of the age. We see so much injustice here on earth, knowing that those who brutalise, maim and dictate so often don’t face real justice here so we hope for the justice which is to come.
God Chooses to be Part of the Future
Finally we see that God chose to be part of His people’s future. We claim that promise for ourselves to and see that God wants to be and is part of our future – as individuals, as a church, and as a community. The message of Advent and Christmas is that God became intimately involved in our world and in our lives through the babe of Bethlehem.
It’s up to us to let God into our present and our future. How do we make time for God in our daily lives? How do we involve God in the major decisions we make? How do we let ourselves be influenced and guided by God in our daily live and our daily values. Do let God be a part of our present and our future as that is what God yearns for?
God yearns to speak tender comfort to us, His people in a world which is often harsh and brutal we find tender loving kindness with God. Despite our failings and faithlessness God still claims us as His own. God forgives us and releases us from the burdens of sin we so often choose to carry around with us and He tells us to take the news of His loving kindness to others. God is coming and wishes to establish his presence in our lives and in our future. Will we let him in?