Sermon - 8th December 2013
Visions of Hope
Scripture - Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Years ago, when I trained as a minister I read a book by Methodist minister Collin Morris who said that preachers should be careful what they preached about. I was reflecting on this in the week. Last Sunday I preached on the Gospel reading where Jesus talks about his return and says he will come “like a thief in the night.” In the early hours of Monday morning we were burgled. The thief came in the night showing that our preparations – alarm, warning notices about our dogs, locks on the windows etc weren’t enough to deter this particular gentleman. I must say that my feelings about the incident were rather more Old Testament than New but there is some commonality in my response to the burglary and some of the themes that we consider in Advent – ideas of judgement and hope in particular.
The passage from Isaiah is firmly rooted in hope for the future; the Spirit of the Lord shall rest on the Lord’s anointed, he shall delight in the fear of the Lord, he shall judge justly, wolves and lambs shall dwell together in harmony. It is a vision of hope in a future age where all shall be well. This vision of hope was in stark contrast to the political reality of Isaiah’s time.
Isaiah despaired of the political leaders of his age who put their trust in foreign policy rather than God. At the time these words were first proclaimed the Jewish people were divided into two Kingdoms: Judah in the south and Israel in the North. The superpowers of the age were Egypt to the south of the two Jewish realms and Assyria to the north of them in what is now Iraq. Other nations existed but had to tow the line that Assyria led – in much the same way that various former Soviet republics have to be careful now in their foreign policy in case they upset Russia. Israel, the northern kingdom, joined in an alliance with the kingdom of Aram – in what we’d now call Syria – against the Assyrians. They wanted Judah and its king, Ahaz, to join them in a revolt against Assyria. Isaiah advised Ahaz to keep out of the schemes and whilst Ahaz didn’t join in with the revolt he did tell the Assyrians about it. This meant that the Assyrians invaded the Northern kingdom and destroyed it – a disaster for the Jewish people in the north.
Isaiah despaired of Ahaz’ policy and longed, yearned and hoped for a better future. We don’t know if when Isaiah proclaimed his vision we heard in today’s passage he had in mind the next king, Hezekiah, or if he saw in this the coming of the Messiah. Christians read this passage and read in it a prophecy of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Jews read it and struggle to see the words applied to Jesus as, they point out, the Messianic age that Isaiah foretold isn’t here yet.
Isaiah boldly saw that the Assyrian superpower would fall like a rotten tree and nothing would replace it. He also saw that the House of David – code for the Jewish people – would also fall (perhaps an easier thing to prophecy after the devastation of the northern Jewish kingdom of Israel) but he had hope that something would spring from the stump of the tree. The tree which was the Jewish kingdom would fall, but new life would spring from it. He saw that new life as an anointed king who would live in fear of the Lord, who would obey the Lord’s precepts and who would usher in an age where creation would be at peace with itself – that amazing vision of animals who are normally predators and prey living at peace. The peace that was hoped for included humanity, animals and the very land itself. It’s hope for the reconciliation of all things and for the restoration of God’s creation.
Now this vision is powerful but to some of us it sounds more like a fairy tale than a vision of hope. After all it’s often hard to have hope in our world. His vision of hope stands in stark contrast to the terror, war, violence and crime that we live with and which some of us know more acutely than others. We live in an age where whole countries have failed, where dictators and despots rule much of our world, where there is economic collapse and uncertainty effecting our pensions and provision for our old age. We know the power of violence, war, terror and crime to blight lives. This week the papers have been full of stories arising from the trial of two of Nigella Lawson’s staff. The marital fall out between Ms Lawson and Mr Saatchi have been at the heart of this trial and her account is one that sounds like the marriage was marred with a fair degree of cruelty and unhappiness.
Sadly violence and cruelty in relationships isn’t as rare as we’d like, sadly too many of us have suffered from the lions of violence in our lives and the snakes of injustice. We have also, this week, reflected on Nelson Mandela’s life and have been amazed, again, at the grace and forgiveness he offered to his own jailors and, through is government, in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We are filled with wonder at how Mandela dealt with the lions of violence in his life and the snake of injustice which affected him and his people. We can be afraid, in our own lives, of these lions waiting to strike, of these snakes coiled and waiting for us.
Isaiah’s vision is for us all; it’s a vision of security written from a world of great insecurity, where destruction, violence, and warfare had brought untold destruction to the boarders of Isaiah’s country. In the midst of his own insecurity Isaiah found hope in a vision of a future age where all would be well. Out of the lifelessness of his current situation, Isaiah saw God bringing forth new growth and new life.
This is how hope starts – it emerges as a small shoot in unexpected places, often near stumps we long thought dead. God is at the business of nurturing hope in our hearts and lives until the time when it can spring forth and surprise us.
Of course Isaiah’s vision isn’t just about personal hope, it’s about a world transformed, made new again, made right with God and with each other. It’s this that John the Baptist tells us to prepare for in our Gospel reading, but as with anything with John the Baptist, he does so in dramatic, and perhaps rather scary fashion!
John the Baptist isn’t one of those Biblical characters that we feel comfortable with – he’s probably not someone we’d invite around for tea. He reminds me of those street preachers that wander up and down Market Street in town shouting at people. John preaches the judgement to come. We don’t want what John promises – judgement - yet we don’t need what we’re offered at this time of year – nostalgia.
If you ask people outside of the Church what it’s about they will tell you that we’re about prejudice, discrimination and judgement. There was a wonderful line in Last Tango in Halifax a couple of weeks ago. Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid are waiting at the hospital for the girlfriend of Jacobi’s grandson to give birth. She hadn’t told anyone she was pregnant and it’s all a bit of a shock. The girl’s parents aren’t there and don’t seem to be interested. Anne Reid muses “perhaps they are Christians”. It’s both a very funny line and a very tragic one. Christians who feel they want a legal right to discriminate go to court to defend their prejudice and we all get painted with the same brush. Many of us have been at the harsher end of judgement from our co-religionists; anyone who has been or knows someone who has been divorced and remarried will know how difficult some churches find that to deal with. The Church of England still struggles with whether women can occupy senior leadership positions and all the churches seem, somehow, out of touch.
But we’re more than out of touch, we’re seen as being as judgemental as John the Baptist was. There is a difference, however, John’s ire was directed at, not from, the religious leaders of his day. He held up a mirror to them and showed them what they were really like. That made him popular with the crowd but not with the religious establishment. We see a bit of this in the ministry of Pope Francis who seems to be going to great lengths not to become part of the Vatican establishment and who seems to want to reach over the heads of his officials to promote a more gentle type of faith. Lapsed Catholics across the world are returning to Mass in droves, in part because they see within Francis an authentic spirituality which isn’t about judgement.
Judgement is a theme of Advent but it’s not something we like very much – possibly because the Church has concentrated too much on it in the past. John’s words serve as a reminder to us not to take ourselves too seriously, to remember how easy it is to get self-righteous and fall into the traps of the Pharisees all those years ago.
Perhaps we find it easy to turn to nostalgia at this time of year to distract ourselves from some of the harder Gospel passages that are set for us to reflect on. The music and the decorations always take us back to the past – possibly our own childhoods, or to Christmases and Winters past. It’s not surprising as much of Advent and Christmas is about looking back to the birth of the baby in Bethlehem – but it’s also about looking forward to Christ’s coming again. We know we have to be prepared but, like my household last Monday morning, we may find that we’re not as prepared as we should be.
So if we want to work for Isaiah’s great vision to come true, if we want to truly mean it when we say “Christ shall come again” we need to prepare ourselves through regular prayer, worshipping together, and seeking to live lives which are just. We also need hope which isn’t the same thing as optimism. Mandela had hope: he had to believe that one day he would live in a democratic society where everyone would be free. He wasn’t optimistic – especially in the 70s and early 80s – that he’d ever live to see it, but he knew that it wasn’t possible to oppress 47 million people forever. He had hope and that hope blossomed into one of the most interesting experiments with democracy and with a transition to democracy ever seen.
We have hope that the world will one day be righted, that we will live in harmony, that creation will be healed and God will live in our midst. That is the hope that we proclaim in Advent knowing that in that little babe of Bethlehem the fullness of God was pleased to dwell who gives us hope for the future.