Today’s readings treat us to some wonderfully resonant words about what, or rather who, is to come.
It is likely that Isaiah spoke, or wrote his words over seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, while John the Baptist spoke his in the months immediate lead-up to Jesus’ own ministry; Isaiah speaks of hope, reconciliation and renewal, John’s words emphasize repentance and judgement, but these are just two sides of the same coin. The ‘Day of the Lord’ that many of the prophets promise inspires both hope and fear; the promise of judgement brings both hope of justice and restoration, and fear of condemnation. As a friend of mine once put it, The Wrath of God is what the Love of God looks like from Sin’s point of view. Thus, John stands as the last in the long and honourable (though rarely honoured) line of prophets who, each in their own way, ‘prepared the way of the Lord and made his paths straight’.
As Christians, we hear their words and we think of the person of Jesus as the promised Messiah, the shoot from the stock of Jesse (as we can read in the gospel genealogies), the one whose sandals John was unworthy to carry. We see in Jesus’ life and ministry, his death and resurrection, and his promised second coming, the fulfillment of the prophets’ dreams, the culmination of everything they hoped for and promised. During Advemt we re-live that ancient hope, fulfilled for us in the Christ-child, and we re-kindle our present and future hope, for the renewal of the earth the the purging away of all that is broken and polluted and destructive in God’s world.
But for me it always comes down to this: what is our own place in the hope that we cherish, what is our own role in creating the future that we long for? I have preached many times about the need not only to long for the kingdom of God, but also to work for the kingdom of God. And it appears that John the Baptist agrees: ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance’, he tells the Pharisees. In other words, when you place your hope for renewal in God, do not forget your own part in making that hope come alive; for repentance to have any integrity, and indeed any lasting effect, it must be lived out in a life that is transformed and renewed, and John doubts whether the Pharisees are ready for this level of engagement with what he is offering.
It would have been easy, too, for the first hearers of Isaiah’s words to sit back and say, ‘One day God will send such a person, a Messiah, who will be all these things – full of wisdom and understanding and full of the Spirit of God – and our job is simply sit here and wait for that day’. But Isaiah, and all the prophets with him, were at pains to point out that the justice that the Messiah would bring, and the peace, are also the work of every single one of God people. The prophets are constantly pointing out the inequalities that pervade even the chosen people, urging both the leaders and the people themselves to act with justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God. Undoubtedly, the living out of the covenant in the Old Testament and the building of the Kingdom of God in the New Testament, are two sides of the same coin as well.
Working hard to establish the values of God’s Kingdom on earth, as well as praying for that end, does not in any way undermine the centrality of God’s free grace; rather it is about allowing that grace to work through us to bring about God’s purposes in this broken world.
This week we have been celebrating the life of a man whose who life’s meaning could be expressed in the words of Isaiah. Nelson Mandela has been acknowledged as a man upon whom the Spirit of God rested, a man full of wisdom and understanding, a man who did not judge by appearance, but who strove his entire life for justice, for equity, and who, ultimately witnessed the reality of the miracle that he had prayed and worked for: a South Africa in which equality was possible, and in which the lion could lie down with the lamb. A man who, like John the Baptist, preached repentance, but who, even more remarkably, preached forgiveness.
He was also a man who embodied the wideness of God’s mercy for humanity. John talks of bringing forth children of Abraham from the very stones underfoot, and Isaiah speaks of a radical peace between diverse and conflicting creatures. The sheer scope and generosity of God’s desire for the earth’s renewal is astounding, and we have heard again this week of the many ways in which Mandela’s legacy has had a profound impact not only on South Africa but on the whole world.
Nelson Mandela strove to be what Isaiah promised. And if we find ourselves uncomfortable with anything that looks like a comparison between Jesus Christ and an ordinary human being, then we can remind ourselves both that Jesus came to earth as an ordinary human being at least partly to show us what true humanity looks like when it is lived out as God intended; and also that we, as the body of Christ, are called (both individually and communally) to be Christ-like, to continue the work of Jesus in the world. If Isaiah describes our Messiah, then he also describes us, and every community that models itself on Jesus.
Thank God for those who show us that hope is not just an idea for the future, but a present possibility, something worth working for. Thank God for those whose lives mirror that of Christ: risking everything, giving everything, forgiving, bearing, enduring so much. Thank God for the million and one small opportunities (and perhaps some big ones) that we have in our own lives to be all that Isaiah promised, and all that John asked for as fruits of our repentance. Thank God that he still uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things in his name. And as we pray for the coming of the Kingdom – God’s kingdom of justice and joy – let us also pray that we may be the means by which that Kingdom comes and play our part in drawing heaven and earth that bit closer this Advent and Christmas and beyond.