A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 30 November 2022
During Advent and Christmas many of our Old Testament readings come from the book of the prophet Isaiah and often from the middle chapters, chapters 40-55. They’re wonderful chapters that date from the time of the Jewish exile in Babylon, when the nation had lost everything, their homeland, their temple, their king, all the key markers of their identity, and they were now living in a foreign land.
Some wondered whether they wouldn’t be better off settling down in Babylon, accepting their fate, marrying local people, and perhaps even worshipping the local gods – after all they’d clearly triumphed over the God of Israel.
The well-known opening words of Psalm 137 capture the mood of the nation at the time:
‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept…’
The prophecies from the book of the prophet Isaiah that come from this time are all the more remarkable when you know their context. What possible ‘good news’ could there be in exile in Babylon? Yet that’s just what we heard being announced this morning:
‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of
the messenger who brings good news’.
Good news was just as important then as it is today even if the means of communication was very different.
It was the job of the messenger, often a solo runner, to get the news through as quickly as possible. Up on the walls of the city were sentinels who looked out for the messenger, working out whether they brought good news or bad.
And when the sentinels saw that the messenger was bringing good news they shouted to the people in the city who responded with singing and dancing:
‘Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem’, we heard.
It’s heady stuff!
‘Good news’ is what the word ‘gospel’ means. It was the word used in the ancient world to describe an announcement about a significant public event that had happened: the emperor’s had a son or a battle’s been won. It was the word used to tell the world that life was about to change and for the better.
So it was bold of the early church to take this word and use it to summarise Jesus’ life, death and resurrection – this was ‘gospel’, this was good news that had changed the world for the better. Saint Mark who wrote the first of our four gospels, has as his opening words:
‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.’
And at the heart of this good news is a simple invitation: ‘Follow me’.
From the calling of the first disciples through to Christ’s meeting Peter at breakfast by the lakeside, time and again Jesus invites people to follow him.
Nets were left behind, relatives ignored. And what’s particularly striking is how open-ended this invitation is. To follow Christ gives us no obvious programme for a way of life, no goal or ideal to strive after. Christ calls, the disciple follows.
I think what this disconcerting invitation expresses, is a profound and simple attachment to Christ.
The nearest equivalent I can think of is marriage, where a commitment is made, an agreement entered into, a covenant signed with no guarantees as to how it’s going to work out. Two people give themselves to each other ‘for better, for worse’.
Why do it? The only reason is this – a profound attachment to each other that marriage alone expresses.
And the same logic (if you can call it that) seems to lie at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ – a profound and simple attachment to Christ.