John’s Nativity – John 1:1-14
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Advent 4 – 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
It has been said that it was a bit of an embarrassment to the OT writers that it wasn’t David who had built the Jerusalem Temple – after all, as the greatest King Israel had ever known that would be highly appropriate. But the historical fact is that it was Solomon, so the very least they could do was paint it as David’s idea, and explain why he hadn’t actually followed through. The reason for that, according to this passage, was a prophetic oracle from Nathan. But there is a deeper level at which this story can be read, and one which is highly apt as we prepare to move from Advent into the Christmas season.
In the few chapters before this pericope, David has been anointed King over the tribe of Judah, been crowned in Hebron, conquered Jebus and established it as Jerusalem, the City of David, been crowned there as king of all Israel, defeated the Philistines once and for all, and brought the Ark of the Covenant into the City. Happy days! Now he is settled into his fine new palace and at rest, except for one nagging doubt – why should he have a house like this when God was still making do with a tent? So he decides to build him a house. Great idea, but God has other ideas – he doesn’t want David to build him a house – he wants to build David a house.
There’s a lovely picture in v.7 – ‘Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites …’ God doesn’t live in a house – he lives with his people. He walked with Abraham from Ur to Canaan; he walked into Egypt with Joseph’s family, and out again with Moses; he crossed the Red Sea with them, and even wandered around for 38 years in the desert with them. And all that time he was content to live as they lived. As we gaze again this year with adoration at the baby in the manger, what a picture of the incarnation that is to take with us! As we look back over the troughs and peaks of our own lives, God walked alongside us, even when we could only see one set of footprints. He never once demanded royal status, or a place to stay – he just wanted to be with us. And of course he’s with us now, in lockdown, in whatever Tier we happen to be stuck in, in our sadness this Christmas not to be with everyone we’d like to be with, in the anxieties (or joy) of stepping into an unknown Brexit … Emmanuel really is God is with us.
But for David there was still more. A play on the Hebrew word beth means that rather than David building God a house, a physical building, God planned to build David a house, a dynasty. The nation had just emerged from a turbulent period in their history, and the God who had walked with them through it all knew exactly what they needed: a home, roots, peace and justice, and above all rest. How is this going to become reality? Through David’s house, his dynastic line, which will be established forever.
We’re still waiting, of course, for the total establishment of God’s kingdom, which is both here but also not yet here, which breaks in now and then but is still only partial and provisional. But Advent hopes for, and Christmas promises, that great David’s greater Son will come and take up his reign in all its fullness, and that yearly remembrance should inspire our hopes and prayers, because after all, don’t we need a home, roots, peace and justice, and rest right now? We are called to live in the excruciating tension between the present reality and the future hope, and it is the job of the Holy Spirit, according to Ephesians 1, to keep us in that tension, like prisoners on a mediæval rack, stretched between hope and exhaustion. But the God who walked through the wilderness with his people walks with us today and into what we all hope and pray will be a better year ahead. May God’s hope, and even his joy, be yours this Christmas.
[I’ll be taking a rest myself from blogging over Christmas, so we’ll meet again in January.]
Advent 3 – Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
This well-known passage immediately presents us with a question which is not easy to answer – just who is ‘me’? Who exactly has been anointed by the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord? The obvious answer seems to be the prophet, but a closer look at the language makes this a bit less certain. In fact there are several allusions which suggest that it might be more complicated than that. First of all the term ‘anointed’ is a royal term. So is the speaker a new King David, coming as promised in Is 11 to bring healing to a divided nation, and to rule with equity and justice? Or could it be God’s Servant from Is 42 – 53 who is coming to bring justice and care to the broken? Or maybe the reference to the Day of Jubilee from Lev 25 indicates that someone will be sent by the Spirit to sort out the economic imbalance within society – a financial as well as spiritual fix? Or does it all point to Jesus, who in Lk 5 quotes this passage as the manifesto for his ministry?
All of this points to a second question, which is much easier to answer – When? What is the context for this prophecy? The answer is almost certainly post-exilic Judah, a time and a place riddled with disappointment. Yes, they had been sent back to their homeland from exile, but things were very far from the glowing outcomes promised by earlier prophets. They may have rebuilt the city and the Temple, but they had signally failed to rebuild society, with its justice and respect and its economic stability. They may not have been prisoners any longer in Babylon, but they certainly felt trapped in their disappointment at the way things had turned out.
So the third question is this: what exactly was it that whoever had been anointed was coming to do? Interestingly the language is predominantly that of restoration of self-image. The current imprisonment, no doubt within living memory of the nation’s physical imprisonment in exile, had served to make the people feel miserable, ashamed and despairing. It is these feelings that the deliverer addresses, swapping comfort for mourning, beauty instead of dowdiness, joy for grief, and praise for despair.
Our nation might well be thought to be in a similar position as we approach the end of 2020, a year which will go down in history as one of the worst we can remember. We have been imprisoned by Covid, humiliated by Brexit, ruled by those who are generally considered to be at best incompetent and at worst thoroughly corrupt, riddled with shame at what our nation has become, and with fear about what it will become. Many people have been heard to say that they have become ashamed of being British, and whatever political views you may hold, it seems clear that no good is going to come from the downright lies which convinced people into isolationist policies four years ago. So what does Isaiah say to 2020 Britain?
The answer, I believe is threefold – wait, hope and praise. If the people were disappointed in the immediate aftermath of the return from exile, that was nothing to what was to come, as the nation was to be ruled over the next few centuries by one world power after another, and Jewish fortunes continued to decline. It was to be at least 400 years before Jesus the Messiah stood up in the Nazareth Synagogue and claimed these words for his own, and two thousand years on we are still waiting for their complete fulfilment. God lives in a completely different timescale from ours, the Psalmist tells in (90:4), and my goodness don’t we know it? The cry ‘How long, O Lord?’ is a frequent one in Scripture, and probably in our own lives too. Waiting in the darkness, in the words of Maggi Dawn’s song, is not an easy skill to cultivate, but actually we have little option. Keeping hope alive is not based on evidence: it is based solely on what God has said, and what we choose as an act of will to believe.
Waiting, hoping, but how do we pass the time while we’re doing those? It is interesting that although the fulfilment of the prophet’s words was not to come in the foreseeable future, the response is immediate. Verse 10 begins a song of praise which reads as though the promises of the first bit of the chapter have already come true. God has reclothed me, he has beautified me, new things are beginning to grow. That is faith in action, praising God for what he has said will happen before it does happen, as though it has happened. I love these words from Morning Prayer during the Kingdom Season:
Blessed are you, Sovereign God,
ruler and judge of all;
to you be praise and glory for ever.
In the darkness of the age that is passing away,
may the glory of your kingdom
which the saints enjoy
surround our steps as we journey on.
May we reflect the light of your glory this day
and so be made ready to come into your presence.
Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
Blessed be God for ever.
‘The darkness of the age that is passing away’ is a powerful symbol. We might still feel shoulder deep in the muck of 2020, and we may yet sink deeper still, but to praise God for what he has promised, and to wait and hope for its fulfilment, is deep spirituality indeed.
Luke’s Nativity – Luke 1 – 2
Matthew’s Nativity – Matthew 1-2
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Advent 2 – Isaiah 40:1-8
It is not surprising that when Mark wanted to find an OT reference for the ministry of John the Baptist he turned to this passage from Deutero-Isaiah (the second of three sections of the book which we call Isaiah). Like the exiles to whom Isaiah wrote, Mark’s contemporaries were under foreign domination and longing for a deliverer to set them free. Like Isaiah John came to announce the coming rescue. But there is so much more for us in the Isaiah passage, which we miss easily if we only ever think of John the Baptist.
Imagine you were a Jew living in Babylon, sent there, so the prophets had told you, because of your own sin and idolatry. Before it happened, you may have joined in with the crowd, nodding in the direction of Yahweh but not letting your religion get too carried away. There were all those annoying prophets who kept telling you that punishment was coming, but, well, nobody likes a killjoy, do they?
And then it happened. King Nebuchadnezzar swept into town, and suddenly you were a few hundred miles from home, hearing news that your city had been smashed to pieces, and even the Temple, the very place where people went to meet with God, had been destroyed.
At first it was tough, but the first ten years were the worst. Another prophet had told you to dig in for the long haul, and to work and pray for the welfare of your foreign oppressors. There was talk of home, of course, but little hope. After 60 years, it felt like this was the new normal. It was hard to keep believing in Yahweh: some turned to the Babylonian gods now that they were living in their patch. Others believed that if there was a Yahweh we had completely blown it this time. If only we had listened to the prophets! Surely any relationship between us and God was well and truly over.
No doubt all kinds of thoughts like this would have gone through your minds. Imagine your surprise, then, when a new prophet arrived in town. You were probably expecting more telling off – that’s what prophets are for – so imagine your shock when you first heard the words which came to be written down for us in Isaiah 40. In fact you would only have to have heard the first six words to get the entire message of the next 15 chapters: ‘Comfort my people says your God’. Great – we could all do with a bit of comfort – but actually the message was far more profound. The key words were ‘my’ and ‘your’, and the people would have heard them open-mouthed with shock.
Centuries ago God had appeared to Abraham, and set up a deal with him, a covenant, or relationship. The deal; is first spelt out in Genesis 17, and then reappears regularly throughout the OT: ‘You will be my people, and I will be your God’ – that was the deal. So imagine the surprise when the prophet used those very words to a bunch of people who thought they had gone beyond the pale with God, never to be welcomed back. He was saying, in effect, ‘The deal is still on!’ despite all you have done, and not done, it’s as though nothing had happened, nothing had come between us.
Amazing news though this is, there is another word which is really important. You may have wondered about it yourself. The word is ‘double’ in v.2. it reads as though God has punished them twice as much as they deserved, just to make his point. But the Hebrew word kiphlayim doesn’t mean double as in twice as much, like a double helping of pudding. It means the exact equivalent. In one church in which I worked in the past we had my double in the congregation. Poor chap, he looked so much like me that my toddler son used to run up to him for a cuddle thinking he was his dad. That’s what the prophet means here. You have received for your sins the exact amount appropriate as punishment, not twice as much as you really deserve. What incredible good news! Your sin has been paid for – exactly! Your punishment is over! There’s no more to pay.
As Christians we know about God’s forgiveness, of course – goodness knows we need to! But many of us go through times when we feel we’ve gone just one step too far this time, so that there’s no way back. Or we feel that we still deserve more punishment, which God is waiting for an opportune moment to smite us with. Like the returning Prodigal Son we call God ‘Father’ but actually mean ‘Boss’. We might be let into the servants’ quarters of heaven, but our place in the family has gone for ever. If you’ve been there, listen to Isaiah’s words once again – ‘Comfort my people, says your God’.
I absolutely love this setting of those words, but you may prefer the original: