If I were ever to be on a TV show, I think Grumpy Old Men might suit me. Not that I would ever be famous enough to be invited, but I can be the sort of person who thinks that Ebenezer Scrooge was given an unfair press. It’s not simply that this is the time of year when Debbie gets out all the Singing Santa toys that she and the children love (and which can drive me mad), it’s this Second Sunday in Advent.
You see, the grump in me wonders why it got changed in the current Lectionary. You used to know where you were in the four Sundays of Advent. The first Sunday was about the Advent Hope – not just Christ’s original coming but the promise of his appearing again in glory. The second Sunday was about the promise of the Messiah in the Old Testament prophets. Sunday number three introduced you to the man with the extreme diet, John the Baptist. Then on the fourth Sunday it’s the Annunciation by Gabriel to Mary.
What went wrong? How come we now get a reading about John the Baptist this week as well as next week? Some of it has to do with the moving of Bible Sunday into October, although I’m not sure which came first. Perhaps a grumpy old man like me should appreciate two weeks’ worth of his fire and brimstone preaching, but actually I miss the emphasis on the prophets.
And no, it’s wrong to see the prophets as a job lot of grumpy old men. In the short term, they did warn people about the consequences of sin. But in the long term, they held out the hope of God’s future. In Isaiah’s case, that included the hope that God would send his Anointed One, that is, the Messiah.
So, then, what does this passage from Isaiah point us to in the hope of the Messiah’s coming? I want to take Isaiah’s original intentions and give them a distinctively Christ-centred flavour.
Firstly, let me take you to the manse Debbie and I had in the circuit before last. Known among local Methodists as ‘the Frost manse’, because David Frost famously lived there as a boy when his father was the local Methodist minister just after World War Two. The house had begun life, though, as the admiral’s house for the nearby Chatham Dockyard. Thus, although it was terraced, it was a large house. The downstairs study which Paradine Frost, David Frost’s father, had used when he was there, had by our time been converted into a huge kitchen. There was ample space not only to cook but also to seat several people around a dining table for meals.
There was a large window from the kitchen looking out onto the garden. Unfortunately, it didn’t let in much light, and we had to turn on the lights earlier and more frequently than might have been expected.
Why was this so? Because a large tree stood not far outside the window. Far enough away for the roots not to affect the house, but near enough to darken the kitchen. Eventually, we asked the circuit if they could send in a tree surgeon, which they did, and we gained more natural light when he had reduced it to a stump.
Isaiah begins by talking about a stump:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. (Verse 1)
‘The stump of Jesse’ is a tragic statement. You will remember that Jesse was the father of David, and all Israel’s hopes had been in him. Yet this seems to suggest that David’s line has failed, even to the point where his father is named instead of him. The great tree has been cut down to a stump. ‘The stump of Jesse’ implies human failure and sin. Time after time, Israel and Judah had been let down by her kings.
Yet, says Isaiah, ‘from the stump of Jesse’ shall come ‘a shoot’ ‘and a branch shall grow out of his roots’. From a long line of human failure, God will grow his purposes. From generations of sinners, God will bring his Messiah. From iffy patriarchs whose morals crumbled under pressure, to Rahab the prostitute, to King David the adulterer and murderer, the ancestral line of the Messiah is filled with broken sinners. Within the purposes of God you get Moses who murdered a man and ran away, then protested when God called him that he couldn’t be a public speaker. You have Gideon, who was fearful and full of doubt. There is Jeremiah, who may well have suffered from depression, yet only Isaiah exceeds him among the prophets.
And so that is the first theme I want to take from Isaiah – the hope of the Messiah is one of God working through sinners. God’s purposes are accomplished through a people that one video clip I saw the other day called ‘The March of the Unqualified’.
This Advent, then, be encouraged by the prophetic hope that whatever your failures, whatever your weaknesses, whatever your disappointments, God is capable of working his purposes out through you. If you think that your sins have disqualified you from God and that you have shrivelled from a tree to a stump, then know that God is able to develop a shoot from your stump and a branch from your roots. The God of grace and mercy has come to shine his light into the world even through a cut-down stump.
Secondly, if there’s one thing I get very little of as a parent of young children, but which I would like to have more of, it’s rest. While – as I told Knaphill last week – I begrudgingly rely on an alarm clock in the morning, there are times when it’s not needed. We have two small human alarm clocks, and one in particular. Rest is something Debbie and I envy in others.
But the trouble with words is one of multiple meaning. Think of how you look up a dictionary definition for a word, only to face a range of options. And ‘rest’ is one such word. In the way I have just used it, the connection is with sleep. But ‘rest’ can also mean ‘stay’. I’d like to combine the two meanings of rest into one, of course: stay asleep!
But it’s this second meaning of ‘rest’, that of staying, which Isaiah uses here:
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. (Verse 2)
It’s not simply that the Messiah will have the Spirit of the Lord, it’s that the Spirit of the Lord will rest – that is, stay – on him. Generally in the Old Testament when the Spirit of God comes upon someone it is a ‘tumultuous and spasmodic’ experience. The Spirit usually comes dramatically, but only temporarily.
Therefore it’s a big thing for Isaiah to speak about the Spirit resting on the Messiah. Here is the one on whom the Spirit will come and remain. The Messiah will have God’s Spirit permanently. And when John the Baptist says that Jesus is the one on whom he saw the Holy Spirit come and remain, he is making a big claim – a claim that here indeed is the Messiah.
What does this resting of the Spirit upon Jesus mean for us? It ushers in the New Testament era of faith, where the people of the Messiah may receive the same gift. The coming of Jesus the Messiah is the coming of a new age, the age of the Holy Spirit, where Jesus, who received the Spirit permanently, gives the Spirit to his followers in the same way. There may still be dramatic experiences of the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit does not generally depart from a person any more. The Spirit may become distant when we grieve him by our sin, but the intention of Jesus in the messianic age is to give the Holy Spirit as a permanent endowment. In this way, Advent and Christmas look forward to Pentecost!
So be encouraged. Just as the Christ child is called ‘Immanuel’, God with us, so he comes with the promise of God being with us – ‘even to the close of the age’ – because he who receives the Spirit permanently gives the Spirit in the same way. Do not think that God has deserted you. As one Christian scholar puts it, even doubt ‘is a time of “disguised closeness” to God’. Or as the liturgy puts it, in a dialogue between minister and congregation: ‘The Lord is here.’ ‘His Spirit is with us.’
So far, then, we have good news twice over: firstly, that God works even through sinners and failures to bring his messianic purposes to fruition. Secondly, that the Messiah receives the Spirit permanently and gives the Spirit in a similar way to his disciples, so we may know that God is always present with us, even when we can neither see nor feel him. I want to draw out a third strand of this messianic hope before I close.
Just as we’ve thought about the word ‘rest’ as having more than one meaning, this third thought also depends on a double entendre. Not in the sense of a rude joke, but because biblical words are often so rich they convey multiple meanings.
There is one such word in our passage, and Isaiah uses it more than once: righteousness: ‘with righteousness he shall judge the poor’ (verse 4); ‘Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist’ (verse 5). Isaiah uses the word ‘righteousness’ of the Messiah here in terms of who he is, and what he does. Isaiah uses ‘righteousness’ for the Messiah’s dealings with people, and for the society he creates.
It’s a many-layered word, and at the heart of God’s righteousness in Christ is God’s covenant faithfulness. In covenant faithfulness through Jesus, God will make people righteous with him. Ultimately, we know he will do that through the Cross. But this righteousness is not just a ‘get out of jail free’ card for the Day of Judgment. God’s righteousness is also about the transformation he wants to bring to people, to societies, to the world and even to all creation. God’s righteousness is about personal and social salvation, personal and social transformation.
If this is what Jesus the Messiah came to do, it crosses the boundaries we sometimes erect in the church. On the one side we have those who say personal conversion to Christ is the be-all and end-all of faith. They say that society will not change until people are changed by God. On the other there are those who are almost cynical about personal conversion and say the big thing is social justice. Yet the righteousness of the Messiah doesn’t allow us to split personal conversion and social justice and play them off against each other, supporting our particular favourite. Jesus has come to call people to personal faith in him, and to share in his project of transforming the world.
And if that’s the case, woe betide us if we reduce Advent or Christmas to gooey sentimental thoughts about a baby. The baby who came did so through God’s purposes of using weak, sinful people. The baby who came would receive the Spirit in full measure and permanently, and came to give the Spirit permanently to those weak sinners that God delights in using. And the baby who came gave the Spirit to weak sinners to bring them to faith in him and to empower them to work for God’s kingdom.
The prophets don’t let us settle for a half-hearted, diluted hope. Let’s make sure we drink their hope neat.
Hope is in short supply right now. Increased unemployment. Home repossessions threatening to hit 1991 records. Banks, the backbone of our economy, in turmoil. Many suffering fuel poverty as gas and electricity prices stay high, even when petrol prices have reduced. You know the rest. We could do with some hope.
In the time of John the Baptist, Israel could have done with some hope. You’ve heard it enough times. In their own land, yet feeling like exiles, because they were occupied by Rome. Every now and again, someone popped up to offer hope in terms of an uprising. Every time, Roman legions quelled the rebels and executed them publicly.
Well, you root yourself in another time when the people of God needed hope. The time addressed in Isaiah 40. Most of God’s people had been deported to Babylon, and had been there a few decades by this point. A handful had been left in Jerusalem.
Then, a prophet in the Isaiah tradition turns up in Babylon, addressing the dispirited exiles and the desolate residents of Jerusalem. Using three metaphors from the physical world around him – wilderness, grass and mountains – he offers God’s hope to those lacking it and most needing it.
And this theme of hope complements what we thought about last week, on the first Sunday of Advent. Then, our theme was waiting. Today, it is hope, which is the content of Christian waiting. Had we read to the end of Isaiah 40, we would have heard – depending on which Bible translation we used – about those who will renew their strength by either ‘waiting’ or ‘hoping’.
So – without more ado – how does the Isaiah prophet help us to hope, using these images of wilderness, grass and mountains?
Last week, as we considered the theme of waiting, we wondered how we live when it feels like God is absent. Isaiah 40 is bold in response to this: you may feel that God is not here, but God is coming! He gives us a picture that is a bit like the building of a new road (hopefully without the environmental concerns we have about such a project in our society). Prepare God’s way in the wilderness, make a straight highway in the desert, raise the valleys, lower the mountains, and smooth out the rough terrain, and you will see God’s glory (verses 3-5).
So – in a time of God’s apparent absence, the good news is that God is coming. In a time of spiritual darkness, the good news is that you will see God’s glory. Music, surely, to the ears of disillusioned exiles in Babylon, and beaten-down people in Jerusalem. This is a message of comfort. Your punishment is over. Enough is enough (verses 1-2).
We may not know when things will change for the better for Christian witness in our culture, but we can hear similar echoes of hope in Advent. Our waiting and hoping is for Jesus who is called Immanuel, God with us. God is coming. We are not alone. Christ is coming. Christ came. The Father sent the Spirit of Christ. Our sense of aloneness is only apparent. It is not actual.
Of course, we must be careful: proclaiming that in Christ, God is with us, can make us sound like we have a religious superiority complex. This is not a matter of our deserving special rank. It is a matter of grace, God’s undeserved favour to sinners. The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Jesus, God with us, came for lost and sick people – including us. Yes, God is with us in Christ. But we hold that knowledge humbly. And as we share it, we do so as one beggar telling another where to find bread.
And the wilderness was specifically to be a place where God’s glory would be seen. Would God’s glory be seen in raining down fire and brimstone? No. It would be seen as he led a raggle-taggle bag of exiles back home.
Similarly, Advent is a time when we wait in hope for the glory of God. His glory will be seen and sung about in skies over Bethlehem. His glory will be seen, in the words of Bruce Cockburn,
Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe
It’s a different kind of glory. It’s wilderness glory, a manger at the back of a house in Bethlehem, not a palace in Jerusalem. It’s the glory of God humbling himself into human flesh, one who later as an adult would not grant the wish of two disciples known colloquially as the Sons of Thunder, who wanted to unleash damnation on enemies.
Yes, come to unexpected dry places like a wilderness – like a manger – and find that God is present in strange glory. Come to Broomfield and find him? Why not?
When the prophet speaks about the people being like grass, I think he has wilderness grass in mind. It withers and fades in the heat of the wilderness, so when we hear about that happening when the breath of the Lord blows on it (verse 7), I think we’re meant to imagine that the Lord’s breath is hot and intense. The breath of the Lord, the Spirit of God, is not here life-giving but life-taking. The judgment of God had fallen upon the people with the Babylonian invasion and exile; now, like grass in the hot sun, they are withering and fading.
It’s not difficult to find similarities in later generations. In the days before Jesus was born, Israel was withering under oppression from Rome. In our day, we in the western church (especially in Europe) feel like we are withering and fading. What word of hope do we find here? It comes in verse 8:
The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Whatever happens to us, the purposes of God are not thwarted. Whether we wither due to divine judgment on our faithlessness or whether it is general oppression or persecution, hear the promise that ‘the word of our God will stand forever’.
A story was told during the time when Russian communism ruled Eastern Europe. Soldiers raided the home of a Christian family and made some arrests. To humiliate them, they threw the family Bible on the floor. But a soldier noticed that one page didn’t burn. It contained the words of Jesus: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.’ That incident was key in the soldier’s conversion to Christ.
There will be many attempts to destroy God’s word from its place in our society, and some of those attacks will focus on the church. But we are in Advent, the season of hope. The word of the Lord stands forever, and the gates of hell will never prevail against the church of Jesus Christ.
None of this is a reason for complacency, but it is a reason for hope. Therefore, it’s here to boost our faith and fuel our prayers for God to renew his wonders in our day.
So God is present in his strange glory, and he is speaking and will not be silenced. Those are grounds for hope, but they are not very specific. We need a vantage point. The herald, the preacher (who by the way is female in the text), needs to ‘get up to a high mountain’ to see things as they are and be several hundred feet above contradiction in preaching good news to discouraged people (verse 9).
What good news? That God is victorious over the enemies of his people, that he comes in conquest, with his people as his booty, and with the gentleness of a shepherd caring for ewes and lambs (verses 10-11).
Israel’s hope was the end of captivity in Babylon. The hope in Jesus’ coming was in his resurrection from the dead. Our hope, based on that resurrection, is that of God’s final victory when he appears again, not only to claim his own, but to renew all of creation, with a new heaven and a new earth.
There are always reasons in the world to make us gloomy. At present there is a plethora of reasons. There are also reasons to be pessimistic about the western church. You would think there were few grounds for hope. But when you get up the mountain to see things from God’s perspective, the situation looks different. You see hope in the promises of God, who has acted decisively in the past, who will do so again, and who one day will make all things new.
It’s rather like the old story told by Tony Campolo. People give him all sorts of reasons to be negative about the state of the world and the church. But his standard reply is, “I’ve been reading the Bible. And I’ve peeked to see how it ends. Jesus wins!”
So let the world write us off. Let our friends regard our faith as irrelevant. Let Richard Dawkins describe religion as a virus. But see God’s view from the mountain: Jesus wins. Let that fill us with Advent hope.
And while we’re on the mountain, let us – like the female herald in Isaiah 40 – proclaim it to all who will hear. Let us encourage one another in the church. Don’t be dragged down by the lies and limited perspectives of the world: Jesus wins.
And let us also proclaim it to a world sorely in need of hope. To people who thought they could trust in money, until the banks blew up. To people who gained their sense of identity from their job, until redundancy hit. To people struck down with disability or chronic or terminal illness, whose lives had been based on the vigour of their bodies. To all these people and many others, proclaim that Jesus wins. It is promised in the actions of God and especially in the Resurrection. We have a hope worth trusting in. Why be afraid? Why be dismayed?
You may recall I’ve said that my first circuit appointment was in the town of Hertford. There, the Methodists regularly quoted John Wesley’s Journal regarding several of the visits the great man made to the town on his preaching travels. They were fond of quoting one entry in particular, where Wesley was utterly discouraged. It said, ‘Poor desolate Hertford.’ Those words hung like a curse over them.
But you may also remember how I have talked of being involved in ecumenical youth ministry in the town. Somebody gave me the complete set of Wesley’s Journal, and I looked up all the entries on Hertford. They weren’t all doom and gloom. Some were, but one in particular wasn’t. In it, Wesley recounted coming to preach at a school in the town. To cut a long story short, he saw a revival break out among the children.
You can imagine the impact that story had on us as we gathered to pray about youth ministry. Never mind ‘poor desolate Hertford’. There was a heritage of Holy Spirit work among young people in the area. God had not been absent or silent. He had been gloriously present, proclaiming Good News.
So I want to say that the Advent hope is like that. It is time to cast off the darkness. The great Advent text in Isaiah 60 says, ‘Arise, shine, your light has come’. This Advent, might we just dare to believe and to hope in our God?
And might we find that in this hope we have something beyond riches to share with a world, whose own versions of hope have plummeted in value?