Advent 2 (Isaiah 11.1-10 & Matt 3.1-12)

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.




What do those words look like in real life?

A sermon for Epiphany 4 (C) 2013: Luke 4.14-21 & 1 Cor 12

I wonder how many of us have ever had that feeling after reading or hearing a Bible passage, that it was ‘all about me’ – you know, that feeling that it was somehow either fate or God’s plan that that particular reading was read on that particular day, with you sitting there hearing it, and realising how much it applied to you? That it challenged you in just the way you needed to be challenged? That it brought you the exact words of comfort that you most needed to hear? That it gave you that bit of guidance that set you on the path that God had in mind for you? Often it’s bible passages that are very familiar to us that can strike us differently and unexpectedly at such moments. We may have heard a verse a hundred times, but the hundred and first time  it hits us between the eyes, and we think, ‘That verse was written for me, today.’

Jesus must have had that feeling a lot. While he was in the wilderness he had relied hugely on scripture – as a witness to God’s enduring love and faithfulness – to withstand the temptations of the Devil.  Now, he’s back in civilisation, in fact, he’s back in his home town, and it’s another well-known passage from the Hebrew Bible that happens to be set for that day, and Jesus is the one whose turn it is to read.

Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit – still from his baptism, and then again from his wilderness experience. And he reads Isaiah’s words ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me’ and knows at once that this passage doesn’t just feel like it’s written for him. It really is for him, and about him.  It’s another of those moments (and those moments are now coming thick and fast in Jesus’ life) when his sense of identity as the Messiah is deepened, strengthened, broadened.  Those words from Isaiah are for him. They are part of what will help him set the agenda for the next three years  – for the whole of his earthly ministry.

So what Isaiah goes on to write next is of crucial importance, because it’s Jesus’ manifesto, it’s his vocation.  He is to be one who brings good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed, and who is to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

So, Jesus reads the words of Isaiah, and already as he reads it seems as if some of the congregation realise that there is more going on here – that this is more than just another reading, this is something else. He confirms it – his first sermon begins by telling the people that Isaiah’s prophecy is now being fulfilled . In him.  No wonder all their eyes are fixed on him.

These are the words that turn Jesus turns from carpenter’s son to Rabbi, from local boy to itinerant preacher and healer, from ordinary man to Son of Man. These are the words that set him on his way. These are the words that must have reminded him, again and again, of the nature of his calling: freedom, healing, the favour of the Lord, good news…. These are the words that come to life in Jesus’ own life, and these are the words that he uses to start his work of transforming the world. It was as if he said to the people gathered in that Nazareth synagogue, “You’re about to see what Isaiah’s words look like in real life.”

It seems right that Jesus’s ministry begins in his own home town, especially since Nazareth wasn’t a particularly important or nice town, it was no Jerusalem, it had no track record of producing great leaders and teachers. It was ordinariness itself.  It is in keeping with the God who chose to become a human being that he also chose to set out the manifesto of the Messiah in a downmarket provincial town, and that the people who heard it were just those faithful gathered that particular Sabbath.

There are Nazareths all over the world. Certainly all over England. Ordinary places, full of ordinary people, who know that all the exciting things happen Somewhere Else, and who do not expect the Messiah to appear in their midst.  If that’s us, then this gospel reading should stir us up a bit.  Especially if we put it together with today’s epistle, which speaks of the church as the Body of Christ.

Why? Because in the gospel reading we start to see the first stage of Jesus’ transformation – the body of Christ gradually turns from being the physical body of a carpenters’ son and eventually becomes the metaphorical worldwide body of the church, who meets in Christ’s name and undertakes to continue his work.  There is absolutely continuity between the work of God that Jesus started and the work of God that we are supposed to be doing, right now. If Isaiah has set out Jesus’ manifesto, then he’s also set out ours.

And that’s another reason why it’s good that all this happened in Nazareth.  Because Nazareth is here. It’s Huntingdon, it’s St Neots.  It’s all the places that most people would say probably aren’t the centre of the universe.  An ordinary place is where Jesus started his work, and this ordinary place is where we are to begin our work.

Jesus went out from that place and spent three years seeking out those who needed healing, three years proclaiming the good news, three years helping people find freedom from the many things that were oppressing them, and ultimately on the cross, enacted the good news of the sacrificial love of God in his own body, experiencing death so that we could might never be captive to it again.

But it starts here.  In the place that we are. In these familiar streets, with these familiar people.  So it is also our calling to proclaim the good news we have heard, and not only that but to live it out, as Jesus did. To be people, and to be a church, which will bring healing, peace and reconciliation, that will fight for justice and freedom for those who are oppressed in any way, or held captive by their own condition or by the actions of others, that will show by how we live that this is the year of the Lord’s favour, that God’s love for the world is real and active, and that his blessings are manifold.  We, too, need to show the world what Isaiah’s words look like in real life.

This is what it means to be the Body of Christ.  No less. But crucially it is by being who we are, in our ordinary situations, that we can do this best.  Jesus’  manifesto was made public in the most ordinary place. So, in whatever ordinary places we find ourselves today and tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year, let us pray that God would help us to see how we might be the Body of Christ and continue Christ’s work of transformation, healing, renewal and love in our ordinary corner of the world. For when we do that, there are no ordinary places, and there are no ordinary people.