Dec 22nd Advent 4 Isaiah 7:10-17

Christmas and Easter are par excellence the times when OT ‘scriptures’ are invoked as prophecies about the circumstances of the life of Jesus, thus proving that God knew all along what he was going to do, and felt the need to give little hints to people which one day long in the future they (or rather their great great great … grandchildren) would suddenly ‘get’ when they saw Jesus. I blame Handel’s Messiah, which is full of the stuff, and makes it impossible for us to hear certain Bible passages without running the danger of bursting into song. Especially that ‘wonderful counsellor’ one. I once got myself into trouble speaking to a group of trainees at one of these youth gap year projects by daring to suggest that Is 7 isn’t actually a prophecy about the virgin birth, but might have had a relevance to the people to whom it was actually spoken. In context it is about God saying to king Ahaz, who feared a united attack from two enemy kings, that God knew exactly what was going on, had his hand on the situation, and was planning to do something about it. ‘But when?’ the king might have cried, knowing as we do that God’s next-on-the-list might take up to a thousand years. So God reassured him: this young girl you’re planning to marry and have a child with? Well before he’s a couple of years old these two kings will have been destroyed. It’s a message of deliverance, of hope, of assurance that God really is in control.

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And that, it seems to me, is the real point of this passage, and of its use just before Christmas. Apart from in Matthew 1:23 Jesus never once does get called ‘Immanuel’ , although we know that in a real sense he was ‘God with us’. Whether Is 7 does ‘prove’ the virgin birth or not I’ll leave you to decide. I have no trouble believing that a virgin could conceive, but a lot more in believing that this verse has very much at all to do with it. But Advent and Christmas are all about a God who knows, who cares, and who eventually will act. If we feel under siege, God knows. If we worry about what the world is coming to, we can be assured that God is in control and nothing humans can do will faze him. And if we despair of ever seeing change, God reassures us that the time is coming when he will act. So the message to us as Advent gives way to Christmas is to hold on, to stay hopeful, and to wait faithfully. And God, after all, is with us.

And now for something completely different … Preaching the OT

In a gathering of Anglican clergy I was mentioning that I tend to sit quite lightly to the lectionary for my preaching. One priest was indignant: at her church they stuck rigidly to the lectionary come what may because otherwise you only preached on purple passages, whereas with the lectionary people got the whole counsel of God. The conversation continued and within about five minutes someone said something about preaching from the Old Testament to which the very same lady replied ‘Of course we only ever preach on the Gospel reading for the day, and never the OT, Epistle or Psalm’. No-one even laughed, but that story demonstrates the idea that the only bits of the Bible worth giving time to are the Gospels.

So I thought it would be a good use of my blogging time if I were to attempt to put down some thoughts each week on the lectionary readings for the following Sunday, lest any preachers might find it helpful, but to concentrate only on the Old Testament, which, as my lecturer used to say at college, is the real Bible after all. I’m not intending to give an academic commentary, nor a devotional ‘blessed thought’, but rather to ask myself the question ‘If I were preaching on this, what might I say?’ so what better time to start than with the new year on Advent Sunday. My blogs won’t come after hours of learned study (not least because all my books are packed in boxes waiting to move) but as quick off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts. I hope, though, that they might be useful and inspirational for all that.

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Advent Sunday    Isaiah 2:1-5


Advent is a time for the future to become more real for us. In pastoral ministry I have seen terminally ill people go both ways. Some have a well-developed sense of heaven and the future, and can’t wait to get there, while others, although Christians, seem terrified of death and cling on to this life as though it were all there is. Today’s OT reading points us to a future, but not in a pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die way. It shows us something real and then calls us to action.

I’m a big fan of the Myers-Briggs psychological typing system. I can remember when I was first ‘done’ being put into groups of people with the same four letter type, in my case INTP. It was one of the most instantly comfortable groups I’ve been in, and when we were given the task of writing down what we would like the world to say to us it took us all of 10 seconds for us to agree ‘You were right all along!’

This reading, part of a vision of the future given to the prophet, is about the world saying to God ‘You were right all along!’ People and nations who were once hostile will now come streaming into God’s presence to learn from him, and the result will be a better world, free from conflict and hostility, violence and warfare. It’s a great vision. I can remember being excited at a conference years ago by a speaker telling us he was praying for the time when the Prime Minister would ring up the Archbishop of Canterbury and say ‘Tell me what to do, O man of God!’ Something in that caught my imagination, and Isaiah’s vision resonates with that.

But the real question for any sermon is ‘So what? What do we do about that now?’ Isaiah tells us two things: learn and walk. Take time to get to know God and his ways better now, and make sure you put into practice what you’ve learnt. One of my favourite church straplines is ‘Meet Friends; meet God; live life better’. That seems to me to sum it all up: that way we’ll be part of the solution, not the problem.