A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 11 December 2022
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.
It seems that Jesus may have felt similarly about the significance of this book of the Old Testament.
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 used 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 from again in the gospel passage this morning, and he did 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.
In the New Testament it’s not so much a book that we turn to during Advent, as two key Advent people – John the Baptist and Mary. And the sense that comes across from both John the Baptist and Mary is clear, contained in the word ‘expectation’.
That’s obvious with Mary – she was expecting. But so too, in a different sense, was John the Baptist – he too was expecting.
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.
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. Something’s up.
This sense of expectation is a key theme in Advent that we return to each year. It’s relevant at all sorts of levels and it’s summed up in the Advent cry ‘Come, Lord Jesus’.
When thinking about the climate crisis or the war in Ukraine, or the refugees and asylum seekers coming to these shores, the cry ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ is a cry for the healing of the earth, a cry for peace between nations, a cry for justice for the poor and oppressed. Come, Lord Jesus.
When thinking about the church and our future as a congregation, the cry ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ is a cry for confidence in the future and an openness to the Spirit’s leading. Come, Lord Jesus.
And there’s an important insight that we can take from this for our own personal lives too.
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 wonder of God’s presence and love, 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’s attracting us may not be easy to work out – but it’s like some hidden magnet drawing us beyond ourselves.
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 in Word and Sacrament, he will do so at the consummation of all things:
‘Come, Lord Jesus.’