A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison on
the Second Sunday of Advent 2020
We get to hear a lot from the prophet Isaiah at this time of year. Readings that appear during the Advent and Christmas seasons include:
‘’O LORD … we are the clay, you are the potter.’ (64:8)
‘The spirit of the LORD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed.’ (61:1)
‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light …’ (9:2)
‘How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news.’ (53:7)
And of course, ‘For a child has been born to us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ (9:6)
Today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah includes, ‘Prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God … the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.’ (Isaiah 40:3, 5) This was one that the Gospel writer, Mark, decided to reference it in his Gospel. The first thing Mark writes is that his book is about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (1:1) The next thing is a quote from Isaiah: ‘As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.’ (1:2, 3)
Since we’re going to be hearing to so much from Isaiah over the next few weeks, maybe we should remind ourselves what a prophet is and what are they are for. Basically, a prophet’s job is to point out what God has to say about a situation: to proclaim God’s Word for people today.
In Isaiah’s day, the situation that dominated everything for Jewish people was their nation’s destruction by a hostile empire, and the shipping off into exile in Babylon of much of the population: ‘By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion’, as it says in Psalm 137:1 – though I always find it hard to read that without thinking of Boney M! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ta42xU2UXLA
What we need to be clear about is that prophecy is mainly about what’s going on here and now, less about predicting events that will take place in the future. When, in today’s reading, Isaiah declared, ‘A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’ (40:3), Isaiah was not predicting the future existence of John the Baptist; the one who appeared ‘in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,’ and the imminent arrival of one who ‘will baptise you with the Holy Spirit’ i.e. Jesus Christ.
What Isaiah was doing was commenting on the current plight of his people in the light of the conviction that God had forgiven them for choices they had made, which led them into their current situation. God was now going to bring them back home: ‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she her served her term, that her penalty is paid … the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.’ (40:1, 2, 5) And, with when the Babylonian empire collapsed, they came back from exile to live in Jerusalem once again.
Centuries later, Mark writing his book about the ‘the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ (1:1) was convinced that God had come to earth in the person of Jesus, acting through Jesus to free all the people of his day from the attitudes, actions and lifestyle that had entangled them; alienating person from person, people from the world, humankind from God, their creator.
Mark realised that God has been consistently at work, both in the past in the present. The God who rescued Israelites from their exile is the God who rescues humankind from our alienation from God. Mark expressed this insight is by connecting two prophets: Isaiah and John the Baptist. Maybe John the Baptist had that in mind. Remembering his people’s past, recalling this prophecy from Isaiah, John decided to embark on a wilderness-based preaching ministry. And maybe, ‘the people of Jerusalem … going out to him and … baptised in the river Jordan, confessing their sins’ (1:5) also made that connection. We can’t know that, but it seems plausible to me.
And we are part of the continuing story that Mark told about how God enabled the world to find true freedom. Connecting Isaiah with John the Baptist, Mark proclaims Jesus Christ as the person through whom we find God at work to bring true freedom. God is consistent in God’s love and action across different times and places in this world. God is at work to rescue us from the things that imprison and oppress us today, and God is doing this through Jesus Christ. That’s our prophetic message for Advent 2020; it’s the reason we celebrate Christmas.