Sunday, 7 December 2014

'Prepare the way of the Lord': A sermon for Advent 2B

Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8
Communion Sunday.

Let us pray: 
may the words of my mouth 
and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, 
O God our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

By now you will have worked out
from our service,
that today is the second Sunday
of this season of Advent:
our season of waiting and watching for the Lord to come.
It’s a time of anticipation
of preparation -
of putting out the welcome mat:
getting our church,
our homes, ...
our hearts
in order...
all better to  welcome into the world
God’s love revealed:
the child in the manger;
Prince of Peace,
the King of kings
...the Son of God.

Our two readings this morning reflect that theme
of anticipation and preparation.
We hear the plan of God revealed through the voices of his prophets -
Isaiah and John the Baptist.
Two prophets,
separated by many centuries
but both proclaiming good news
to the people of God.

We talked a wee bit about the background to the book of Isaiah last week:
of the kingdom of Israel being overwhelmed 
by the might of the Babylonian Empire,
and of the exile of the Jewish people
to the heart of that empire:
to the great city of Babylon itself.

Isaiah’s good news to these captives?
That the time is at hand -
freedom is coming
the return to the Promised Land is imminent -
God    has heard     their cry
and offers words of comfort to his people:
Isaiah is bidden to ‘cry out’ as God’s messenger...
and the message?
‘all people are like grass...
all their glory is like the flowers of the field...
the grass withers, the flowers fall:
for the breath of the Lord blows upon them...’
and while the grass may wither and flowers fall,
Isaiah reminds his listeners that the one thing that does remain,
that endures for all time...
is the word of the Lord:
‘the word of our God stands for ever’

An oppressed, defeated, people are reminded
of their mortality by God:
they, like the grass will wither...
How, exactly, is this good news?
Implicit in the reminder is that what they face
is common to all humanity -
from the least to the mightiest:
yes, they’ll eventually wither and fall,
but, so will the great and powerful Babylonians:
their empire will also fall like the flowers
and disappear in the dust of the desert.
But there’s more:
whether Israelite, or Babylonian,
the breath of the Lord blows upon them all -
the real power here is not Babylon,
it’s God -
the God who comes with power -
and there’s a military allusion here -
God is strong and powerful - his arm rules for him - 
an arm that is weapon-bearing:
this is an image of warrior-God.
But it’s followed almost immediately with a different kind of power -
a different image:
the power of God is seen in both might
and   in tenderness:
the arm that carries the sword, or the spear,
is also the arm that will gather his
his people - his flock -
like lambs
and that beautiful phrase:
‘he carries them close to his heart’.

Good news indeed:
the path will be made straight -
there will be no obstacles,
no stumbling stones:
less of a path - rather, a wide and open highway -
where God’s glory will be revealed
God’s love, will be made known
to the whole of humanity...
not just the Israelites:
all will see and marvel
at the God who loves his people so.

It’s this message of Isaiah -
written to the people of God under
the yoke of a powerful empire -
that the writer of the gospel chooses as his starting point to tell
‘the beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God’.
To the people of God, now living under the yoke of the Roman Empire -
dispossessed in their own land -
the words of the prophet Isaiah are intended to remind them
that God has not abandoned them:
that God will rescue them,
that God is still speaking.
And so, within a breathtaking two verses,
we are suddenly confronted -
introduced -
to John the Baptist,
the last and greatest of all the prophets of God.

John of the wilderness:
wild and strange.
His costume and countenance intended
to reflect the prophets of old -
dressed in camel hair, and leather belt;
existing on locusts and wild honey.
His message: one of repentance - no light and fluffy stuff for John.
The message of repentance is tied into the bigger theme 
of anticipation and preparation -
repentance, and the washing away of obstacles 
that get in the way of a relationship with God,
is part of getting ready to meet the one more powerful than even John:
the One who comes to rescue his people once more.
God, in love, made human;
modelling a life lived in love;
demonstrating that love in his death;
and, in and through the power of love -
overcoming death for us all.
Love - in life, in death, in resurrection...
but love that starts simply, humbly,
and overturns our understanding of power -
power shown in the utter vulnerability and helplessness of
a baby, in a manger.
God’s mighty and powerful love shown
in frail flesh and blood and bone.

‘Prepare the way of the Lord!’ the prophets cry.
And here, and now, that is our task to do -
today, and every day.
As Christ’s body here on earth -
we are called to tell of that 
'love divine,
all loves excelling -
joy of heav’n to earth come down.'
Called to proclaim the good news:
that God is still speaking
that we are loved.
And that, whatever those who have power over others may think -
the grass withers, the flowers fall...
their power,
their empires will diminish -
for it is not they who get to have the last word -
it’s God - in Jesus - the Word made flesh...
the embodiment of love:
through Him, all things were made,
in Him was life,
and that life was the light of all humanity -
the light setting us free.

That is who we prepare for
that is who we proclaim
until He comes again to fulfil all things.
That is who we remember in the meal
that we share in this morning.

In this season of Advent
as we prepare and anticipate
God’s coming among us as one of us,
let’s pause, and close our eyes just for a moment and as we do,
let’s make our own paths straight -
let’s lay aside those things in our own lives that get in the way of
loving God...
... ... ... ...
In bread,
in wine,
love is made known;
we are restored, renewed,
refreshed by His love -
a love that never fails.
for the Word of God stands for ever:
And so, as God’s beloved people,
let us rejoice in the good news
that frees us
to proclaim His love
and to prepare for his coming again this Advent and at the end of all things.  Amen.

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