Sunday 5 December 2010

Remembering Prophets

An address given on the 2nd Sunday of Advent 5th December 2010 at Nenagh (it would have been given in Templederry too, but the service there was cancelled due to the icy conditions).

Today we lit the 2nd candle in the advent wreath to remember the prophets.
And today’s readings are concerned with two of the greatest of them: Isaiah in the Old Testament (Isaiah 11:1-10) and John the Baptist in the New (Matthew 3:1-12). Christians see their prophetic words as referring to the incarnation of God in Jesus, and the coming of Christ’s kingdom.

We shouldn’t see prophets, I think, as being like weather forecasters, or racing tipsters, who foretell the future without engaging in it. Rather a prophet is someone who expresses a vision of the way things are, and the consequences that flow from this, which powerfully influences those who listen, so that they act to make that prophetic vision a reality. Prophets change history through their words!

Let me try to tease out what these prophets’ words say to me.

Let’s start with Isaiah’s vision of a world of peace and justice.
‘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.’

A beautiful image - but we all know, don’t we, that the strong prey on the weak; the natural world is all about survival of the fittest. ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’ – the phrase comes from Tennyson's long poem ‘In Memoriam’ (canto 56). In it the poet contrasts the idea of a good and loving God with the terrors of an uncaring Nature. He talks about a person of faith,
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law-
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed

Surely Isaiah’s vision of predator and prey at peace together can be nothing more than a fairytale? That’s not the way the world works. What’s going on here?

The context is important, I think.
Isaiah is writing in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, at a time of great danger. The Assyrians have just conquered Judah’s twin kingdom of Israel and carried the people off as captives, and now they threaten Judah. Isaiah 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 sees the same thing happening to Judah. Isaiah has just prophesied that Judah too will be overthrown, but he can’t believe that a God who is faithful will desert his chosen people completely – once the Assyrians have purged those who have broken the covenant, surely a faithful remnant will be left.

So in today’s reading Isaiah prophesies that from the root of Jessie, a new shoot will rise up. From the ruins of Jerusalem, of the kingdom of Jessie’s son David, a new kingdom of justice and peace will arise, worthy of God’s favour. It will be marked by ‘the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord’. Its ruler – from the stock of Jesse – ‘with righteousness … shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth’.

It is a vision of the kingdom of heaven. In such a society the powerful will not prey on the weak. Isaiah’s vision is about people, not nature. Survival of the fittest should not – must not - apply in human society, however much it does in the natural world.

Isaiah was wrong in his belief that Judah would fall to the Assyrians.
The Assyrians mysteriously abandoned their attack on Jerusalem. When destruction came, 100 years later, it was the Babylonians, not the Assyrians who laid waste to Jerusalem and carried its leaders into exile.

But Isaiah’s vision was not forgotten. His words were remembered by the exiles. His vision inspired them to hold firm in their traditional 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 and elaborated. By Roman times, religious Jews felt quite certain that God would send his Messiah – his anointed one – of the stock of Jesse, who would rule over the Jewish people, as Isaiah had prophesied, with righteousness and faithfulness.

John the Baptist believed in Isaiah’s prophecy and expected God to send his Messiah.
As Matthew reports, he told his followers ‘one who is more powerful than I is coming after me, I am not worthy to carry his sandals’. Matthew also believed that John himself was the messenger that Isaiah said would announce the Messiah, ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”. John called the people to, ‘Repent,’ – to make a new start, to change their lives – ‘for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ – the kingdom of Isaiah’s vision.

Jesus surely pondered Isaiah’s words too. I believe he came to the conclusion that they were to be fulfilled in him. But God gave Jesus the insight that as the Messiah he must come not in physical power and glory like a king, but as a suffering servant, leading his people – all people, Jews and gentiles – by his example, to the kingdom of heaven which his loving father God willed.

The early Christians, steeped in the Jewish Messiah tradition, were convinced that Jesus is the shoot from the stock of Jesse in Isaiah’s prophesy. The spirit of the Lord rested upon him. He preached the kingdom of heaven. He died that we might be saved, he rose from the dead, and he ascended to God. Surely, they said, he will return to rule with righteousness and faithfulness over God’s kingdom of justice and peace.

So what of us today? Do we believe in Isaiah’s vision?
In our own time, as in Isaiah’s, we are faced with danger and uncertainty. But we must never give up hope.

Isaiah’s vision is in front of us – the world can be like the kingdom of heaven, filled with justice and peace. John’s call echoes in our ears, to make a new start because the kingdom of heaven has come near. Jesus has shown us the way as God incarnate. He has sent us the Spirit to lead us, and fire to drive us forward, just as John said he would. Our task as Christians is to do our bit to make his kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, a reality.
God is faithful to his faithful people.

‘They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.’

Isaiah’s vision is not a fairytale, because for God all things are possible!