This Sermon was delivered at St Mary’s Diss at the Eucharist on the 2nd Sunday of Advent, 8th December 2019. This is part two of the advent sermon series. Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Each of our readings today have drawn heavily on the prophecies of Isaiah. Our Gospel reading opens by saying that John the Baptist is the one of whom the prophet isaiah spoke when he said:
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
Our Old Testament reading is cheating – it is in fact a reading from Isaiah! And a specific portion of this reading is quoted verbatim by Paul in our Romans reading.
This is not just the case for today’s readings. You might remember that last week we heard Isaiah’s voice calling out: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established… many peoples shall come and say “come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord… that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths…” inspiring us as we enter this advent season.
Although the New Testament readings will vary over the coming Sundays, our Advent Eucharist services and our Christmas Day Eucharist will all feature readings from Isaiah. More than this, Isaiah is also a key feature at both morning and evening prayer throughout most of Advent.
Clearly this is no accident. This advent is a time to for us the Church to breathe in deeply from Isaiah, to allow it to fill our hearts and nourish our faith during this season. If you would like to come along and join us for Morning or Evening prayer it’s at 8:30 each morning Monday to Friday here in the St Nicholas Chapel, or at 5pm in the St Nicholas Chapel Monday through Thursday. I would heartily commend it to you as being a good way to set the day up or to bring it to a close. There’s no pressure to come morning and evening each day. Some of those who come, come once a week on a particular morning or evening; and you would all be most welcome to take advantage of this opportunity to spend more time listening to Isaiah this advent.
What, then, are we to hear from Isaiah through our scripture readings this week?
Well in the passage from Isaiah we find him expanding on those days which are to come. We hear once again about the Mountain of the Lord but rather than the Mountain being the only place to meet God it says that the whole earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
More than this we are offered a glimpse as to the one who will bring all this about, one whom is described as a shoot coming out of the stock of Jesse. One upon whom the Spirit of the Lord shall rest, one whom shall judge the world with righteousness and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
There is a clear sense of hope and expectation for Isaiah that someday this future hope will become a present reality. This reminds us again of the sense which Advent carries with it of patient urgency. The anticipation is almost tangible, there’s an excitement here which leads Isaiah to describe it as being glorious. Yet Isaiah must be patient, even as he glimpses what is to come.
Isaiah was writing some eight centuries before John the Baptist arrives on the scene. Yet Matthew describes John as being the one of whom Isaiah was writing when he spoke of ‘the voice of one calling in the wilderness: “prepare the way of the Lord”. It’s been a long time, yet the words of Isaiah having patiently waited now find themselves breathed into life by the ministry of John the Baptist.
“Prepare the way of the Lord”.
This was John’s task, and even here it has two elements to it; that of the present and of anticipating what is to come. This remains the case for us today when we hear him proclaim:
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
When we hear this we are confronted with a question. The same question which we so often procrastinate from: Are we ready to meet God, whether when we die or when he comes again?
This is a very serious question.
Are we prepared to encounter God?
When John says “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” he is saying “Turn away from Sin because the Holiness of God is approaching”. This is a holiness which shall judge the world, including us, with righteousness and which shall dispel the wicked with a breath.
Are we prepared to not just acknowledge our wrong doings, our flaws and our sin but to also turn away from them? To repent of them and seek forgiveness from not just God but also from those whom we have wronged, upset and offended?
The people of Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region along the Jordan heard this called to repentance and came to John to confess their sins and be baptised. I wonder if saying all of Jerusalem, Judea and all the region along the Jordan means anything to us? It can be hard for those of us who haven’t been to Israel, and I myself haven’t been, to imagine the sense of scale. So I looked it up and if we were to take the same distances and put them between English places the river Jordan would stretch from Cromer to Felixstowe, with Jerusalem being roughly where Lavenham or maybe Stowmarket are. If we imagine that, then we could imagine some people from Diss hearing about this John the Baptist person and his message of repentance and deciding to walk, yes walk, to Felixstowe to be hear John and be baptised.
Would we be prepared to make that kind of an effort to try and be ready to meet God?
Or are we happy to trust that we’re alright as people and to reckon that God will understand and accept us for who we are?
That’s a question we each have to reflect on and answer for ourselves.
It’s striking that at this early point in the Gospel the beginning of the life long journey of faith is marked symbolically by baptism. We have heard of John’s baptism for repentance, but we also heard him say: one who is more powerful than I is coming after me… he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
In baptism we take our place within Christ’s death and resurrection. Baptism is a wonderful symbol because it combines both the movement of humans turning from Sin towards God and of God drawing near to us in his holiness, and purifying us so that we might begin to live in his presence and to share in his life.It’s always a valuable action to remember our baptism, and in our evening services throughout advent we begin our service by dipping our hands into the font before heading to the chancel. During ou offertory hymn myself and the deacons will do the same and I would encourage you to consider doing the doing likewise before you come up to receive communion because, afterall, we believe that in the Eucharist we do truly come to a place of encountering the holiness of the living God.
I began by highlighting the exuberant presence of the words of Isaiah with us through this advent season. Today Isaiah has given us a glimpse of the same one whom John hints at. The is one who is coming who is more powerful than any of the prophets of the Old Testament. One on whom rests the Spirit of the Living God who will bring a peace found in the knowledge of God made known to the whole world. He shall be the one to rule even the gentiles, in him the gentiles will have hope.
We are the gentiles, those who have not inherited by birth the right to be counted amongst the people of God, that is of Israel. But nonetheless, the one who is going to be revealed (whom we remembered and celebrated just two weeks ago as King) will offer us hope.
Having heard the call to the mountain of the Lord last week, let us now prepare ourselves for our advent pilgrimage to the celebration of the nativity even as we keep our eyes fixed on the hope of the future.
And so let us end with Paul’s prayer:
May the God of Hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.