Wednesday 26 December 2007

Angel voices at Christmas

'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men & women'!
  • This is the great song of the heavenly host, which Luke tells us the shepherds heard, when the angel announced the birth of the Messiah. It is a song of joy and exaltation, echoing the song of Isaiah’s sentinels. It is a song which we echo in so many of our Christmas carols.
  • Have you heard the heavenly host sing? I certainly have, in not so different circumstances, and you may have too. I can remember my joy and exhilaration after the births of my own children. I can remember literally dancing down the wet deserted streets of Guildford at 4am, on the way back home from the hospital. It was as if the whole universe was laughing and crying and singing with me. And everyone I met over the following days shared my joy. Angel voices – a memory to treasure!

What exhilarating joy the shepherds must have felt at the birth of this very special baby!

  • They went with haste’, we are told, ‘and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger’.
  • Not just the shepherds, but Mary and Joseph especially will have felt joy and wonder: when they looked adoringly at their beautiful, helpless baby, their first-born son; when they felt the smoothness of his skin, the strong grip of his tiny perfectly formed fingers; when they caught the scent of his new-born baby hair, and heard his insistent baby cry.
  • And although we’re not told of them, I feel sure that there were others there to share the joy, perhaps staff and visitors at the Inn in which there was no room, perhaps a local midwife there to help Mary with her birth.
  • But not one of them could have realised just how special this baby was to be, whatever inkling the angel Gabriel may have given Mary and the shepherds.
  • This baby grows up to be our Lord Jesus Christ - in John’s mystic vision, the Word of God, the true light that enlightens everyone - through whose life and teaching, and death and resurrection, we are shown the way to God.

Of course, every birth and every baby is special.

  • Every baby ever born is made in God’s image, including you and me.
  • And we can all call ourselves sons and daughters of God, because that very special baby, Jesus, as a grown man, teaches us to pray to ‘our Father in heaven’.
  • In celebrating Christmas – in sharing the joy of Jesus’s birth - we also celebrate the miracle that every child is born with a soul which reaches naturally toward God.

There was no place for Mary and Joseph in the Inn, so Jesus was laid in a manger, so Luke tells us.

  • Mary and Joseph were far from home for the birth. And soon they were to become refugees, fleeing to Egypt to avoid Herod’s persecution, far from their families and friends.
  • Far too many millions of God’s children are also born far from home, as refugees. We must ask God to show us what we can do to help them. But not tonight, I think, not tonight.

Tonight we are here to share with the shepherds, and with Mary and Joseph, in joy and exaltation at the birth of Jesus, to join our hearts and voices with the heavenly host in singing:

'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men & women!'

Sunday 9 December 2007


1. If there’s a common theme to the readings set in the Lectionary for today, the 2nd Sunday of Advent, it is prophecy:

  • Isaiah announces (Isaiah 11:1-10) that a shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse’, on which the spirit of the Lord shall rest’. Christians traditionally take this as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus.
  • St Paul in his epistle to the Romans (Romans 15:4-13) quotes no fewer than 4 Old Testament prophecies, to support his case that Christ came to save gentiles as well as Jews.
  • Matthew (Matthey 3:1-12) declares that John the Baptist fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy as the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’’.

What I shall try to do today is to tease out what lies behind these three prophetic readings, and to explore what relevance they have for us today.

2. But first, what do we mean by a prophecy?

For me prophecy is more than just prediction, like a weather forecast or a racing tip. It is a much wider theory about the way things are, and the consequences this has for the future. And then there is the key question of whether any particular prophecy is true or false – has it been, or will it be fulfilled.

I don’t know about you, but I feel a little queasy about the notion of biblical prophecy. It makes me uncomfortable, because it doesn’t seem to fit with the rational, scientific world view I was educated in. I am also afraid that irrational belief in prophecy may cause people to do bad things – to sin, in other words. As I believe, for instance, that so-called Christian Zionists sin, when they use Bible texts to justify dispossessing Arab Palestinians. Yet I can’t doubt that prophecy can have, and has had, immense power. Prophecy can change history!

Prophecy doesn’t stop with the Bible, of course:

  • Karl Marx prophesied 150 years ago that the conflicting interests of capitalists and workers would lead inevitably to revolution, ushering in a new communist era of equality, peace and plenty. Marx certainly inspired millions of people, not always to the good – think for instance of the suffering caused by Stalin’s collectivisation, by Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and by Pol Pot’s evacuation of Cambodian cities. All equally good candidates for sins, I think. The collapse of Communist states in the last 25 years suggests that Marx’s prophecy was false – but it may still be ‘too early to tell’, as Zhou Enlai said of the French Revolution!
  • And Jim Lovelock is actually prophesying today, when he says that human lack of respect for Gaia – Earth’s evolving ecosystems - threatens the extinction of species including our own, unless we mend our ways. I am inclined to believe Jim Lovelock, myself. But we must take great care that our actions in response to his prophecies, and other prophecies, work for good and not for evil.

3. So let’s turn to Isaiah’s prophecy.

Scholars believe that the book of Isaiah was written in two periods separated by about 200 years. The Jesse prophecy comes from the first, dated to around 700 BC. The Northern Kingdom of Israel has just fallen to the Assyrian conquerors, and the population have been carried off into captivity – they are the lost 10 tribes of Israel. The Southern Kingdom of Judah, with its capital Jerusalem, is under threat.

Isaiah recognises the threat from imperial Assyria. He believes that the social and political collapse of Israel was caused by its failure to live up to the spirit of the law given in Sinai, and he can see the same things happening in Judah. If God’s chosen people break their covenant with God, the only result can be destruction, he reasons. So Isaiah prophesies that Judah too will be overthrown, along with Jerusalem and its Kings descended from David.

But Isaiah also believes that God would not desert his chosen people entirely. Once those breaking the covenant have been purged by the Assyrians, a remnant of faithful people will remain. In our passage today, Isaiah prophecies that a descendent of Jesse will be their righteous and faithful leader. He describes poetically, and beautifully, what society will be like under such a leader’s rule:

‘The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.’

Jesse was the father of the great King David, whose descendents the prophet Nathan had said would succeed him in perpetuity. I suppose Isaiah, following Nathan, must have believed that only someone from this royal family could lead the remnant, even after the downfall of Judah’s Davidic kings. And no doubt Isaiah expected the downfall to happen very soon. But if so, Isaiah was wrong. The Davidic dynasty continued for another 100 years. When destruction came, it was the Babylonians, not the Assyrians that laid waste to Jerusalem and carted the leaders off to exile.

4. But prophecy can change history, even when it seems to be wrong!

Isaiah’s words were not forgotten. They were remembered by the exiles, who were inspired to hold firm in their faith, to keep their identity as a people, and to return home when conditions allowed.

Over the centuries that followed, Isaiah’s words were studied by religious thinkers and elaborated by prophets. By Roman times, religious Jews felt quite certain that God would send a Messiah – an anointed one - of the stock of Jesse, who would lead Israel back to the glory days of David, and rule over the gentiles. The prophets said it - it must be so!

John the Baptist believed it. Matthew reported he told his followers ‘one who is more powerful than I is coming after me, I am not worthy to carry his sandals’. Matthew believed that John himself fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah would be preceded by a messenger.

Jesus surely pondered the prophetic words too. I believe he came to the conclusion that they were indeed to be fulfilled in him. But God gave Jesus the insight that as the Messiah he did not come in physical power and glory like a King, but as a suffering servant, leading his people by example – all people, both Jew and Gentile - to his loving-father God.

Mathew’s Gospel in particular, more than the other Gospels, locates Jesus firmly in the tradition of Jewish Messiah prophecy. He announces at the very start that Jesus is the Messiah, and traces Jesus’s ancestry back to David and Jesse to show that Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled. In his Gospel, Matthew helped the primitive Church remodel the Jewish Messiah tradition into our Christian Messiah tradition. Our tradition is encapsulated in the Apostles Creed: Jesus, the Son of God, our Lord and Saviour, was incarnate, crucified and rose again, ascended into heaven, and will come again in judgement. It’s worth saying that again: it is our tradition that Christ will come again!

5. Paul perhaps did more than anyone else to develop this Christian tradition.

As a Jew, he was steeped in the Jewish Messiah tradition, but he saw clearly that Jesus was a Messiah for all, Gentiles as well as Jews. In today’s Epistle, Paul quotes four passages from scripture to demonstrate to his readers in Rome that this isn’t just his own idea, but is inherent in the ancient tradition. It seems that there was a split between Jewish and Gentile factions in the Roman Church. Paul argues that just as Christ is an inclusive saviour, so his church must be an inclusive church.

  • Most Bibles will give you a footnote, showing where Paul’s quotations from the OT come from. But if you go to those verses in our translation you will see that they look rather different to Paul’s words. Why is this? The reason is that Paul himself used a Greek translation of the OT known as the Septuagint, not the original Hebrew. This sometimes differs quite a lot from our modern translations from the Hebrew. It must take a lot of faith to believe in the inerrancy of scripture!

6. So what relevance does all this prophecy have for us, on this 2nd Sunday of Advent, 2007?

While I can’t myself believe in the predictive power of ancient scripture, I can understand some of the blessings the Jews have received from their Messianic tradition of prophecy.

  • Firstly, the tradition has held their community together. Without it, there would be no Jewish people. Even today, more than 2,700 years after Isaiah, Jews still await the promised Messiah.
  • Secondly, it has kept their eyes fixed on the future, on an ideal future, marked by equity and justice and peace, where in Isaiah’s words the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’.

I think that we, as Christians, receive much the same blessings from our own Christian Messianic tradition, growing out of the same root as the Jewish one.

  • By looking back to the ancient scriptures and prophecies, both in the New and the Old Testaments, we bind ourselves together as the Church with Christians in every place and age.
  • By looking forward to Christ’s return, we are led to try to make this world more like the ideal Kingdom that God means it to be. Christ will hold each one of us answerable for our stewardship.

So in this Advent season:

  • Let us celebrate the prophecies and stories of Christ’s 1st coming as the helpless baby, Jesus.
  • And let us also reflect on what we can do to make this world good enough for Christ’s 2nd coming.