Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-end (NLT)
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me,
for the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
and to proclaim that captives will be released
and prisoners will be freed.
2 He has sent me to tell those who mourn
that the time of the Lord’s favour has come,
and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies.
3 To all who mourn in Israel,
he will give a crown of beauty for ashes,
a joyous blessing instead of mourning,
festive praise instead of despair.
In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks
that the Lord has planted for his own glory.
4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins,
repairing cities destroyed long ago.
They will revive them,
though they have been deserted for many generations.…
8 “For I, the Lord, love justice.
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
I will faithfully reward my people for their suffering
and make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their descendants will be recognized
and honoured among the nations.
Everyone will realize that they are a people
the Lord has blessed.”
10 I am overwhelmed with joy in the Lord my God!
For he has dressed me with the clothing of salvation
and draped me in a robe of righteousness.
I am like a bridegroom dressed for his wedding
or a bride with her jewels.
11 The Sovereign Lord will show his justice to the nations of the world.
Everyone will praise him!
His righteousness will be like a garden in early spring,
with plants springing up everywhere.
John 1: 6-8,19-28 (NLT)
6 God sent a man, John the Baptist, 7 to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony. 8 John himself was not the light; he was simply a witness to tell about the light.
19 This was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders sent priests and Temple assistants from Jerusalem to ask John, “Who are you?” 20 He came right out and said, “I am not the Messiah.” “Well then, who are you?” they asked. “Are you Elijah?” “No,” he replied. “Are you the Prophet we are expecting?” “No.” 22 “Then who are you? We need an answer for those who sent us. What do you have to say about yourself?”
23 John replied in the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“I am a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Clear the way for the Lord’s coming!’”
24 Then the Pharisees who had been sent 25 asked him, “If you aren’t the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet, what right do you have to baptize?” 26 John told them, “I baptize with water, but right here in the crowd is someone you do not recognize. 27 Though his ministry follows mine, I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandal.”
28 This encounter took place in Bethany, an area east of the Jordan River, where John was baptizing.
A little over a year ago, I had the opportunity to visit Bosnia on a peace and reconciliation pilgrimage. For most of the time, we stayed in Sarajevo. I was in my teens when the bloody and brutal break-up of the former Yugoslavia dominated the nightly news. To actually land in the airport at Sarajevo, and to see the city encircled by mountains, suddenly brought back memories of the news footage of the long siege the city endured. It was easy to imagine the tanks sitting on the hilltops around Sarajevo while the inhabitants of the city were trapped and vulnerable. Twenty-five years on, the city bustles with life, yet evidence of the war is everywhere with shell holes visible in blocks of flats and shopfronts. The physical scars are an outward sign of the emotional scars the country still bears. Older members of our congregation today might not remember much about the second world war, but will remember growing up with gaps in streets where houses used to be and playing in old bomb craters. Such traumas take a long time to heal, both in the landscape and in human hearts.
I am talking about this because both Isaiah and John the Baptist were talking to profoundly traumatised communities. As Jo explained last week, the book of Isaiah was probably started by Isaiah son of Amoz, but continued at intervals by others over about two centuries. It’s writings cover the times before, during and after the Babylonian exile. Our reading today comes from the end of the book, when the exiled people of Judah had returned home. But it wasn’t home. Their temple was destroyed. Their city was rubble. And they didn’t have the resources, practically or emotionally, to restore all that had been lost. To them, Isaiah beings a message of hope: God has sent him to bring good news to the poor, comfort to the broken-hearted, joy to those who currently mourn. This isn’t the end of their story. There is hope. One day, their mourning will turn to celebration. Once again, they will be known as the people of God.
John on the other hand is speaking to a community who haven’t left their homeland, but are under occupation and longing for their freedom. His ministry is attracting the crowds and the religious officials want to know why. There is an uneasy truce with their Roman occupiers, but the religious leaders don’t want anyone rocking the boat and bringing the Romans down on them like a ton of bricks. Who is John, and what is he up to? He quotes Isaiah and says he is a voice calling in the wilderness, telling people to get ready for the coming Lord. Another message of hope. Another reassurance that God has not forgotten. Another encouragement to be God’s people again.
I have already spoken this year about Provost Howard, who stood in the ruins of his beloved cathedral the morning after the Coventry Blitz – 80 years ago this year – and spoke of peace. Just a few weeks later in a Christmas broadcast, he spoke of building a kinder and more Christ-child-like world in the days beyond the war. Of course, then, the end of the war was a very long way away. Britain was clinging on by a thread as Nazi forces occupied most of Europe. Provost Howard’s words must have sounded ridiculous. They certainly weren’t popular. But that is what prophets do. They stand in the wildernesses of the world, whether that is a occupied country or a ruined cathedral and speak God’s words of hope.
We are living in a profoundly traumatised country. Coronavirus has brought so much suffering – for those who got ill, for those who are vulnerable, for keyworkers, for those losing employment, for those unable to see loved ones and for those who are grieving. We are also a divided and hurting country in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum and many are deeply worried about what the future holds out of the single market. Our country is experiencing a wilderness time. What might it be for us as followers of Jesus to speak words of hope today?
Of course, the most important thing to remember is that the prophets, whether John or Isaiah or any of their colleagues, never dealt in twee platitudes. They didn’t say what people wanted to hear, but what they needed to hear. They were straight-talking about the peoples’ own responsibility to make things better, and were particularly hot on justice. That might be a challenge to us today. How do we best speak out on things like the fact that last month Nuneaton foodbank fed 338 people, including 141 children, because somehow as one of the world’s richest countries we haven’t worked out how to ensure people don’t go hungry? How do we best speak out about the fact that almost half of people on benefits, which aren’t much at the best of times, have money deducted to repay loans they needed to take out to keep them going until their Universal Credit kicked in? How do we best speak out about the large number of PIP assessments which are refused then overturned on appeal, but not before they cause huge suffering and stress for the people who need them and are entitled to them? Sometimes we need to stand in the wildernesses of injustice and SHOUT, however uncomfortable or unpopular that makes us.
But for the poor and the brokenhearted and the grieving; for those who are frightened and lost and struggling, our voice must be so gentle. It won’t always be like this. God has not forgotten. You are not alone. And by our words and our actions, we offer hope that things might change.
Today in the journey through advent, we think of joy. As a church may our joy in Christ be fierce in the face of injustice and tender in the face of pain. May we stand with Isaiah and John in the wildernesses of the world and help people know God has not forgotten them, may we get them ready to meet the Lord.
The heavens can no longer hold your abundant love,
So you pour out the gift of your embodied self
Relinquishing the beauty of your majesty,
To adorn the pale colours of our humanity.
Choosing to enter into this world in a place of scarcity and need.
Reveal to us this hidden world
As you choose this as the place of your birth
Let us choose this to be the place of our rebirth.
Make us anew.
We ask this through Christ our Lord,