I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit confused about Advent themes. In the good old days it was all about death, judgement, heaven and hell, but there’s also that stuff about prophets, patriarchs and the rest. The ASB helpfully gave us weekly themes, and Bible Sunday used to be around here somewhere too, but then in reaction to the ASB themes Common Worship is a bit shy and prefers us to see what we hear as we meditate on the readings, rather than telling us what we’ve got to find in them. Confused …? However, from the gospel for today we’re apparently supposed to be thinking about John the Baptist, so what does Isaiah have to say about that?
The first thing which strikes one is the similarity of this passage to the ‘Servant Songs’ from the middle chapters of the book. The Spirit of God had anointed someone or other (discuss!) to bring redemption to Israel through sacrificial suffering. Indeed the nation had suffered in exile, but now they are back in their homeland and have the task of rebuilding not just the physical city but also the national life. So now a new ‘servant’ is being called and anointed, like the previous one unidentified, but probably in this case the prophet himself. His message is one of hope, new life, restoration and redemption, and he speaks to a people whom one might imagine literally standing in the ruins of the city, among the broken and scattered stones of the once great buildings, hearing his good news of a new start. It’s not difficult to see how the ministry of John was foreshadowed in this passage.
But what is interesting is the hints we get here about the foundations of this renewed community. In v 8 we get a glimpse of God’s values, the things which are important to him: he loves justice, and he hates robbery and wrongdoing. And then again in v 11 God promises to make righteousness and praise spring up. This, I think, helps us to deal with the question prompted by all the lovely stuff in this chapter ‘Well where is it then?’ The ongoing history of Israel after the return from exile was anything but as rosy as this text paints it. We’re still waiting today for the glorious future of Israel as they fight within their own land and as a mosque occupies pride of place in Jerusalem.
Righteousness and praise, robbery and wrongdoing. We know clearly what God likes and doesn’t like, but, as with the people in the time of John the Baptist, we have a choice as to how we live. Choose the right things and we choose life, hope and a future. Choose the other way, and there is no certainly of God’s best will becoming reality. God never forces his blessings on us, and the story of the Bible as a whole is the story of God’s plans for blessing and prosperity being thwarted again and again by twisted human rebellion. There is hope, there is a future, but as a human race we need to hear again, more urgently than ever, John’s cry to repent.