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:
Joel Part 4 – 3:1-18
Joel Part 3 – 2:18-32
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Advent Sunday – Isaiah 64:1-9
Sorry to begin Advent on a downer, but this passage is all about disappointment. I wonder if any of us are feeling that as we look back over the Year of Our Lord 2020? As part of a longer Psalm of Lament (63:7 – 64:12), it is the nation’s cry of anguish because things hadn’t worked out as they expected. Situated after the return from exile in Babylon, as promised by the middle section of the Book of Isaiah (chapters 40-55), this section, part of what is known as Third- or Tritio-Isaiah, is the response of the people to the fact that the glowing predictions of Deutero-Isaiah about Jerusalem being returned to its former splendour and prominence hadn’t quite come to pass, and that in fact life was all about hard slog and discouragement rather than triumph and glory.
It begins with a cry for God to do something, and preferably something dramatic, to show Israel’s enemies who’s boss (v.1-3). It moves onto an accusation: we have sinned because you have been absent. Like cheating spouses who blame their infidelity on a lack of attention from their other half, they tell God that if only he had been there for them they would have behaved (v.5-7). Then there seems to be a recognition, perhaps dawning gradually, that actually it is them, not the nations, which need God to turn up and make a difference. This leads to an admission that they were powerless to shape their own destiny, as powerless as a lump of clay, but nevertheless ‘we are all your people’ (v.8-9), so there ought to be hope, surely? It’s almost as if, in the composition of this passage, the prophet was coming to a dawning recognition of the real state of affairs.
So why had God apparently absented himself with such disappointing consequences? The clue, I think, lies in v.4: God acts for those who wait. As Christians I expect we know that most of our disappointment and frustration with God comes not because he hasn’t done something or other, but because he hasn’t done it yet. As believers in the resurrection, the new heavens and the new earth we know that in the end things will pan out fine; we really do believe that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purposes. But O my goodness isn’t it taking a long time? And there we have the absolute heart of Advent: it teaches us to wait. We know what’s coming, we believe it’s coming, so why on earth doesn’t it come? That’s the agonised cry of the Church for 2000 years: that’s the at times despairing cry of Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.
Of course we don’t really do waiting nowadays. Ever since the launch of the Access Card in October 1972, with its strapline ‘Taking the waiting out of wanting’, we have increasingly grown to expect everything instantly. If a web page doesn’t load within two seconds we don’t bother, and any social media post more than a few lines long is greeted with ‘tldr’. The charismatic renewal movement has been accused of ‘triumphalism’, which I define as ‘wanting our triumph now rather than later’. Yet God is definitely a God who makes us wait, and who promises to reward those who wait – eventually.
This year we have learnt a lot about waiting: for many there hasn’t been much else to do during lockdown, furlough or even redundancy. As I write we’re waiting to be told if and how we might celebrate Christmas this year, within our families and within our churches. We’re waiting for the magic vaccinations which will make this horrible thing go away and put life back to normal again. We’re waiting to see how the wonderfully prosperous life outside the EU we were promised will actually pan out. And yes, as we look back, we’re disappointed. Disappointed about our jobs, our livelihood, those cancelled holidays, marriages and get-togethers, and some of us above all are disappointed that those we love have died, sometimes without us being able to hold their hands as they went.
So what does this text tell us about our disappointments? The same as Advent tells u every year, although this year with much greater poignancy: wait. We’re powerless, ultimately, so all we can do is recognise that we’re in the hands of a skilled potter who is making something both beautiful and useful, but who is certainly taking his time to do it. Our job, yes, is to cry out in anguish ‘for goodness’ sake get on with it!’, but it is also to discern, see and wonder at what we’re becoming as we wait. It’s also about proclaiming triumphantly, but sometimes through gritted teeth, with v.9 ‘We are all your people.’
Joel Part 2 – 2:1-17
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Christ the King – Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
1 Timothy 2 urges us to be constant in prayer for our earthly leaders, and you can’t argue with that, although at times I find myself very tempted about what exactly to pray for them! Every night’s news brings further reports of our government’s failures, incompetence, downright lies, and internal warring. Even those who voted this lot in in order to get Brexit done seem to have grown quieter and quieter about its promised merits as we seem no closer to any kind of a deal which will lead to a prosperous future. Today, the Feast of Christ the King, reminds us that beyond fallible human leaders there is a real King who is both reigning and also getting ready to reign. Ezekiel 34 provides a helpful link between the reality of 2020 Britain and the coming reign of Jesus.
The chapter as a whole is an oracle of judgment against the rulers of Judah, and verses 1-6 list their shortcomings every bit as clearly as Laura Keunssberg does every evening with ours. The text is strangely up-to-date: they look after themselves while neglecting their duty of care for the poor; they have done nothing to heal the broken or comfort the sorrowing. They have ruled harshly and brutally, so that the people were lost and scattered, and they did nothing to bring them back together. For those reasons, says Ezekiel, God is against them. So what is he going to do?
Our reading starts here, in v.11: because of the failure of human rulers, he is going to come and do the job properly himself. Ezekiel then goes on to give us four characteristics of the reign of God as opposed to the current human rulers.
The people, not themselves.
The picture used throughout the chapter is of shepherds, those whose job is to care for, nurture and protect the sheep in their care. OT Kings are often seen in terms of shepherding, and it is no mere chance that the greatest king ever, David, began as a shepherd boy. When the Good Shepherd comes, he will not be interested in feathering his own nest (forgive the change of metaphor!) but will do what shepherds are meant to do: care for the flock, rescue them from danger, and bring them to good pasture. The lovely picture of them lying down in v.15 is reminiscent of Psalm 23, and provides a great picture of a nation at rest, free both from external oppression and internal anxiety.
Active, not passive.
God the King will actively seek out those who are lost and scattered, those who have lost their way or become excluded. Rather than not caring, like the earthly rulers, the new King will take the initiative and the lost will be found and the broken healed.
The community, not just individuals.
If there is one difficult or politically incorrect motif in this chapter, it is the words of judgement (which, surprise surprise, have been filleted out). But they have to be there, because the Shepherd King, who is totally committed to the flock and its wellbeing, has no choice but to deal decisively with anything or anyone who threatens their safety, and tragically it is the rulers who have become a danger to the people. Our King is paradoxically committed to each individual, but he is against anyone who threatens the life of the community. As I have said many times in preaching, God is not tolerant! He has to stop those who would harm his people, and he will.
Unity, not division.
Our reading ends with the vision of a united people, yes, brought back from exile to their own land, but also under the reign of one King who will bless them, not harm them. Under his reign there will be no Leavers and Remainers, no North/South divide, no Democrats and Republicans, nor any of the other divisions which have been allowed to wreck our world.
Historically this chapter marks the turning point on Ezekiel’s prophecy. Before chapter 33 he has written only in warning of the coming judgement, in the shape of the Babylonian exile. But the mood changes here as he begins for the first time really to talk about restoration. The coming of the new King, whom we know to be Jesus, and for which we are still waiting, holds out hope for healing and restoration, not just for poor and broken people, but also for a sick and divided world. What a hope! And, as we head into Advent next week, what a stimulus to prayer. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!
Joel Part 1 – 1:1-20
Galatians Part 8 – 6:1-18
Part 7 – 5:1-26