A sermon preached at the Evening Eucharist at St Mary’s Iffley by David Barton on 6 December 2020.
Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8.
Christmas approaches. And I always find there is a kind of disconnect between what is on the mind at home, and what we think about here in Church. At home its getting the presents ready, and doing the cards and, this year, generally looking forward to whatever kind of Christmas we can have. And that is something of a contrast to Advent here in church, with its un-Christmassy themes of Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. And today, on Advent 2, John the Baptist, this severe, rather uncomfortable man. It seems we can’t reach Christmas without going past him – a fierce border guard on duty at the gates of Bethlehem. You don’t get to see the sweet baby in the manger unless he approves your passport. And fierce he is. “Brood of Vipers,” he says in Matthew. “Even now the axe is being put to the root of the Trees.”
There is something going on here that Advent wants us to think about. These readings ask us to hold together two things we find difficult to hold together: on the one hand, the awesome majesty of God, the God we inevitably think of as judge, and on the other, God’s closeness, God’s intimacy. On the one hand the creator, the maker of heaven and earth, immense of being, and on the other, the child in the manger.
That first reading (from Isaiah) is the opening of what we think of a different book of prophecies from what has gone before in the Book of Isaiah, by a new prophet, who we call Deutero or Second Isaiah. The people this Isaiah is addressing are the ones who have been deported from Judaea to Babylon – essentially the survivors of the long march round the edge the desert, along the Fertile Crescent into captivity. There would have been many casualties and deaths on the way. Traumatised, tired, utterly dispirited, they arrive in Babylon and begin to wonder whether they should now follow the local Gods. And this Isaiah’s prophecies are a response to that: Look beyond the disaster, he says. Our God is the God who made heaven and earth, and he will bring you back. What’s more he will do it by the short way – straight across the desert, levelling out the mountains and filling in the valleys, making the rough places plain. The word of the Lord has spoken it,
We think of “Word” as something written in a book, domesticated almost! But God’s Word is God’s self expression, God’s very being in action, bringing order out of chaos, making all things new, bringing forth new creations, new worlds. We easily miss the immensity, the utter otherness of God. God is not limited. Nothing is impossible with God. It’s something we should ponder more than we do. But then look at the way Isaiah ends this: this mysterious great God feeds his flock like a shepherd and gathers the lambs in his arms. Second Isaiah holds together Immensity and intimacy.
Mark puts John firmly in the shoes of Second Isaiah – quoting him as the introduction. John emerges from the desert and finds a people who have nothing on their minds but to plot and plan and dream of doing the utterly impossible: defeating the Romans, the world’s greatest superpower. The folly of it, and their forgetfulness of the God who called them into being as a nation, and rescued them from Babylon – all of that appalls him. That’s why they are a vipers brood. And clearly he touches a chord. People flock to hear him.
But then, after the fierce words, notice what happens next. Just as Second Isaiah sees this all powerful God, tenderly picking up the lambs in the field and caring for his flock, so John does an infinitely tender thing: he baptises. Baptism is an extraordinarily tender act. Whether of a child or an adult its intimate, and gentle. Just as water is life giving, so baptism is life giving, every time. Standing there in the Jordan, John, this clear sighted prophet becomes almost an incarnation of the Divine Word, the caring God of Isaiah, immersing us one by one in life giving water, offering new hope, new possibilities. God, gathering the lambs in his arms. And there is no disconnect between the immensity and the greatness of God, which saw the waywardness of the nation, and this gentle creative act. The God who sees our folly, tenderly gives us strength and hope. It’s all one thing in the greatness of God. And its when we have had our eyes open to that, that we can see the significance of the baby in the manger.
And notice something else: that God’s response is always more human and ordinary than we might expect. Fifty years later they did return to Jerusalem from Babylon. It was not many, and it was tough, but from those few the nation was born again. With John, after the Judgement, its just the water, plain everyday water from Jordan. And of course – the baby. That’s the way of God with us. Humble in a way we are not.
Advent and Second Isaiah and John, standing here at the gateway to Christmas, this year seem to me to say something important about the way we pray, you and I.
Prayer is not a retreat from the world. When we pray we bring everything with us. And so we should. At this moment we bring with us the pandemic and its suffering, the chaos of our politics, the refugees at the borders of almost every country of the world, the Climate crisis, the uneasy prospects for peace in so many places. And all our personal cares. All of this is under the judgement of God. And, in our prayers we place our trust and faith in the God for whom nothing is impossible, and of whose compassion we have heard. That’s the context of prayer.
It’s not easy to pray in the middle of all of this. We face darkness, doubt even, (as well as wandering minds!) But faith and trust is about going on, penetrating the darkness with our longing for God’s light. This is the heart of what it is to be the followers of Christ that we are. In the end prayer always does come down to this central core. God is always a mystery, reaching far, far beyond our understanding. We have no words to say, our minds cannot grasp so vast a being. And yet….in the silence, in the darkness we begin to sense something else: that God is present too, close even, deep within the darkness. Slowly we understand that God does indeed feed his flock and gather his lambs in his arms, washing each of us with his love.. This kind of prayer is I think rather urgent for us now. We may not spend long praying like this, poised between the mystery of God and the troubled world we have created, but those five, ten, twenty minutes are rich, fertile ground. Wordlessly, they draw us more deeply into the love of God than we ever realise.
This is a crucial time for the world, and crucial time for the Church and each of us too. Many difficult choices lie ahead of us. What matters is that we should, each of us, be inwardly aware of the God who overflows with love for us, and who will never fail us. Knowing that, in our hearts, is what Christian hope is. And that grounded hope is what matters for the months ahead.