Tuesday 13 December 2022

Rejoice! Gaudete!

Reflection given at Morning Worship for the Comunity of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 13 December 2022

‘The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.’

Today’s reading from Isaiah begins with these beautiful images of a parched land rejoicing. It is a great hymn of rejoicing, set for last Sunday, the 3rd Sunday of Advent, traditionally called Gaudete Sunday - ‘gaudete’ in Latin is an imperative meaning ‘rejoice’ in English. It is right for us to rejoice as we approach the joy of the incarnation of God as a human being at Christmas.

‘Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees’. These words jump out from the reading for me, because my hands are increasingly weak, my knees feeble, and I fear for the future.

There is good reason to be fearful today. We can all see the damage that is being done to our beautiful, fruitful earth by wars, by climate change, and by loss of biodiversity. They threaten to turn the earth into an uninhabitable, barren desert. Their cause is the collective greedy behaviour and hatreds of human beings like you and me.

Yet Isaiah urges us all,

Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.

He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense”’.

Now, I do not believe in Isaiah’s vengeful God – I believe in the God of love that Jesus reveals to us. But the uninhabitable, barren desert we fear would indeed be a terrible recompense for our collective human greed and hatred. If that is to be the future, it will be our doing, not God’s – the world is as God has made it, and we shall reap what we sow. God incarnate as Jesus would weep with us to see it.

But such disaster is not inevitable. If you and I and enough others are strong and overcome our fears, ‘(God) will come and save (us)’, as Isaiah says. If we repent and believe the Good News proclaimed by Jesus, we will see that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. In Isaiah’s words:

‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.’

By changing our own behaviour, we can persuade others to do so too, and together we can bring about a cascading change for the better. As a result, the earth will again be a place where all God’s creatures, including ourselves, flourish as God intends. As Isaiah writes:

‘Waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;

the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water’.

As those redeemed by Christ, let us be strong, let us be fearless, and let us rejoice, as we work with God to redeem his world.


Sunday 4 December 2022

Remembering the Prophets

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 - people who merely foretell the future without engaging in it. Rather a prophet is someone who tells things how they are and expresses a vision for how things should be. This powerfully influences those who listen, so that they act to make that prophetic vision a reality. Prophets actually change history through their vision!

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.’

Such 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 God 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 Jesse, the ancestor of Judah’s kings, a new shoot will rise up. From the ruins of Jerusalem, from the ruins of the kingdom of Jesse’s son David, a new kingdom will arise. It will be a kingdom of justice and peace, 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, even if it does in nature.

Isaiah was wrong in his belief that Judah would fall to the Assyrians.

The Assyrians mysteriously abandoned their attack. 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 the time of Jesus, 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,’ – that is, 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 realised that they were to be fulfilled in him. But God gave Jesus the insight that he must come as the Messiah, not in physical power and glory like a secular king, but as a suffering servant to lead his people – all people, Jews and gentiles alike – 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? Can we believe in Isaiah’s vision?

In our own time, as in Isaiah’s, we are faced with danger and uncertainty. The prophets of today are the climate scientists and ecologists. They not only proclaim the consequences of not caring for this beautiful planet as we should, but they also show us a path forward to a sustainable future in which all creatures may flourish, including ourselves.

We must never give up hope. We must hold on to Isaiah’s vision – 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 the Holy Spirit to lead us, and fire to drive us forward, just as John said he would. Our calling 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 – it is a vision of the kingdom that God wants for us all. And Jesus has shown us how to make it a reality.

I shall finish with a Collect of the Word:

God of all peoples,
whose servant John came baptising
and calling for repentance:
help us to hear his voice of judgement,
that we may also rejoice in the word of promise,
and be found pure and blameless in that glorious Day
when Christ comes to rule the earth as Prince of Peace;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever. Amen