A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 11 December 2016
Throughout Advent there’s really only one place at church that we read from in the Old Testament and that’s from the book of the prophet Isaiah. During Advent we largely ignore the rest of the Old Testament!
It seems that Jesus may have felt similarly about the significance of this Old Testament book.
When Jesus preached his first sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, it was to the scroll of the prophet Isaiah that he turned, where the prophet refers to bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, all summed up in the evocative phrase to describe the purpose of Jesus’ ministry as being to ‘proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’.
Jesus chose verses from Isaiah to quote again in the gospel passage this morning, and he does so because they tell us not just who God is for Isaiah, but who God is for Jesus too:
God is the God who brings good news to the oppressed, and binds up the broken-hearted;
God is the God who gives the oil of gladness instead of mourning;
God is the God who will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
There’s an extraordinary sense in Isaiah of God bursting out like a river bursting its banks.
We heard it in this morning’s passage from Isaiah that we read:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad…
the desert shall rejoice and blossom…
the lame shall leap like a deer…
the tongue of the speechless sing for joy…
waters shall break forth in the wilderness…
the burning sand shall become a pool…
the thirsty ground springs of water…
It’s heady stuff, summed up near the end of the book that bears this prophet’s name, where the prophet cries out to God: O that you would tear the heavens and come down!
It’s remarkable language to use – that God is not content to live in heavenly bliss but instead bursts the boundaries of the divine sphere!
When Christmas comes, whenever it is that you come to Church, listen for that bursting, that sense of overflowing, of fullness.
You’ll get it when we sing, as we shall, ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ – there it is said quite explicitly at the beginning of verse two:
Our God, heaven cannot hold him…
Or again, perhaps more prosaically, when we sing, as we shall, ‘Once in royal David’s city’ – verse two begins:
He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all.
Or again when we shall listen to the prologue to Saint John’s gospel – there’s a cumulative sense that builds up there of God’s overflowing nature, until near the end of that magisterial prologue, comes the phrase: From his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace.
If this is indeed Isaiah’s God, and the God whom we meet in Jesus Christ too, how should we respond to this God who comes to meet us with such abundance?
As I’ve said, Isaiah is the book in the Old Testament that the church turns to every Advent. In the New Testament it’s not so much a book that we turn to, as two key Advent people – John the Baptist and Mary. This week and last we heard about John the Baptist, next week it’ll be Mary’s turn.
And the sense that comes across from both John the Baptist and Mary is clear, contained in that word ‘expectation’.
That’s obvious with Mary, after all she was expecting! But so too, in a different sense, was John the Baptist!
This morning we heard how when he was in prison he sent his disciples to ask Jesus whether Jesus was the one who was to come, or whether he, John the Baptist, was to expect someone else.
On an earlier occasion priests and Levites from Jerusalem come to John the Baptist to ask him whether perhaps he was the prophet they were expecting. John the Baptist doesn’t get caught up in this but says that he is simply a voice, the voice of Isaiah, speaking on behalf of the whole Old Testament, crying out:
Make straight the way of the Lord.
Think of a magnet and how it interacts with iron filings. As the magnet begins to come near, you may not be able to see it but you know it’s getting close because the iron filings start moving, they’re being drawn in a certain direction – so with John the Baptist, the priests and Levites from Jerusalem, the crowds being baptised – they too are being drawn in a certain direction – but towards what? Towards who?
There’s an important insight that we can take from this for our own spiritual lives.
Thérèse of Lisieux, in her extraordinary autobiography ‘Story of a Soul’, wrote that the more God wants to give, the more he makes us desire.
So the more we open our hearts and lives to the mystery of God’s presence in our midst, what we perceive within us, is a stirring, a deepening desire, a growing sense of expectancy.
Like those iron filings, there’s movement within us, we’re being drawn by something beyond. What it is that is attracting us may not be easy to work out – but it’s like some hidden magnet drawing us beyond ourselves towards another.
And what the gospel tells us, and John the Baptist in particular embodies this, is that this is the action of God drawing close to us.
He did so in Jesus Christ, he does so now – and always with grace upon grace.
For our part, we must try and be faithful to our heart’s desire, taking for ourselves in prayer that Advent word ‘Come!’