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.
Just the other day I came across a spoof news report from two years ago which claimed that the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith wanted people to use their loyalty cards more, and for stores which didn’t have them to introduce them. This was to combat terrorism, in the light of the Glasgow bombers having bought their supplies from B & Q, which didn’t at the time have a loyalty card. According to the article, she wanted loyalty cards to replace the unpopular idea of identity cards, and for the data collected by loyalty cards to be used in intelligence gathering operations. In the article, these words are put into Jacqui Smith’s mouth:
Identity. It’s a big theme today. Identity cards and identity theft are but two major areas of concern and controversy about the identity of individuals in our society.
And identity is a central theme of our Gospel reading. It’s about the identity of Jesus, and the consequent identity of his disciples. I see this revelation of identity coming in three phases.
Firstly, we have a confession.
If you like reading stories, I wonder what kinds you prefer. Thrillers, romance, epics? If you enjoy whodunits or mysteries, you will be somewhat disappointed by Mark’s Gospel. In the very first verse, he tells us it is the Gospel of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus is both the Christ (or Messiah) and the Son of God. At the Cross, the Roman centurion confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, and here, Peter says ‘You are the Messiah’ (verse 29), when Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, as opposed to the opinions of people they know.
This, then, is one of the high water marks of Mark’s Gospel. Here, after all the build-up, with Jesus’ popularity among ordinary people and the opposition starting to rise from those who feel threatened by him, is a decisive confession by Peter. ‘You are the Messiah.’ Lesser options, like the ones proposed by others, will not do. Jesus is more than ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets’ (verse 28).
And it’s similar today. Lesser confessions will not do. Around the time I first became seriously interested in faith for myself, musicals like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar had been popular. Both contain elements that are worthy of appreciation by Christians, and it’s interesting to see how people without a clear Christian faith perceive Jesus, but both fall short. Godspell is ambivalent about the Resurrection. Jesus is dead at the end, and you simply have the ambiguous song ‘Long live God.’ And Jesus Christ is more than a superstar. Indeed, his whole approach to life would critique attitudes to stardom and popularity.
Do we run the danger of making a lesser confession in the Church sometimes? Possibly. Might liberal Christians be so enamoured by the social justice implications of Jesus’ teachings that they forget the importance of salvation from our own sins? Might catholic Christians be so entranced by the power of the sacraments in remembering Jesus that they overlook the personal responsibility we have in embracing faith? Might evangelical Christians be so caught up with the personal blessings of salvation that they pass over the social implications of his message and ministry?
These are all over-simplifications, I know, but I hope I make this simple point. Encounter with Jesus leads to a full-blooded confession of him as Messiah. It involves the blessings of forgiveness, new life and salvation for us. It starts with God’s initiative towards us, and we need to respond. And it isn’t merely for our own benefit, but for sake of God’s love for the world. All these things are implied in confessing Jesus as Messiah.
So let’s make sure our confession of Jesus is not a truncated one, not restricted by the vision of the world or by our church tradition. Let’s accept that confessing Jesus as Messiah leads us to a big, inspiring vision of who he is, what he does, who he blesses and what he calls us to do.
Secondly, there is confusion. Early in my ministry, I asked a congregation how they might have imagined their new minister before I arrived. Perhaps I was married with children, with brown eyes and right-handed. At the time, I was single (without children!). My eyes are blue (please don’t say ‘red’ after the service!) and I’ve always been part of that elite minority of people who are left-handed.
Similarly, when I moved from that appointment, I obtained a profile from one circuit I was interested in, only to find buried in it a description of their ideal minister as being married with children. At the time, I was still single (and still without children!). I found it sobering to talk the other morning with our Chair of District about our move from this circuit when she said I would be a more attractive option to some circuits because I was married with kids.
People can imagine all they like what someone is like, only for reality to deal a shock to them. that’s certainly what happened to Peter when Jesus explained that as Messiah he would have to suffer and die (verse 31). You’ll remember that Peter was shocked and began to rebuke Jesus (verse 32), only to earn the response
‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ (Verse 33)
Peter’s fantasies about the Messiah have to be exploded. No warmongering conqueror of the Roman occupying forces, but the suffering conqueror of occupying sin. We think of other Gospel stories, like James and John getting mad when a village doesn’t respond to the message of Jesus. They ask him whether calling down fire from heaven would be a good response, and Jesus declines their suggestion. No wonder they were nicknamed the Sons of Thunder.
All this is obvious to us with hindsight. We know that Jesus came as a suffering Messiah, not a military general or a freedom fighter. We know the way of the Messiah is the journey to the Cross. So you might think it would be easy for us to live without the confusion of Peter and the first disciples.
I am not so sure. We may know in our heads that the path of Jesus would take him to Calvary, but there are times when we want to call on a warlike Messiah, just like his first followers. Think about how we pray sometimes about evil. We may want God to sort it with a quick fix. We may ask God to zap evildoers, whether they are tyrants inflicting injustice on their people or folk we know who have treated us unfairly or even cruelly.
I wonder whether those are the kinds of prayers to which God answers, ‘No.’ I wonder whether heaven even says, ‘Get behind me, Satan’ to us when we pray like that. I wonder whether the way we need guiding out of our confusion about Jesus is to focus our thoughts and devotions much more solidly on the Cross. Having seen some churches ripped apart by bitterness and lack of forgiveness, I do suspect we have our fair share of Peters and Sons of Thunder in today’s church. But here, especially, and as always, the Cross is what unscrambles our confusion about Jesus.
Thirdly and finally, this passage presents us with a challenge. Many of us may find the world of the prosperity gospel preachers baffling and bizarre. If you’ve caught sight of any on satellite TV, you’ll know what I mean.
But it’s easy to understand their appeal. ‘God wants you rich’ is an attractive message in a materialistic society. ‘Jesus suffered so that you don’t have to’ plays well in a culture that spends all its time trying to avoid suffering. And while we might see through the ‘God wants you rich’ approach, I think a lot of us don’t so much think about suffering as attempt to avoid it.
But think about it we must, because the challenge of Jesus here is that just as he was to go to the Cross, so too his followers would have to face suffering because they are his disciples. ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,’ he says (verse 34).
It’s not that Jesus thinks we should go looking for suffering, but he calls us all to such an abandonment to his ways that it will bring us in the firing line of evil, just as happened to him. If that happens, then self-preservation is not an option. If I want to save my life, I will lose it, but if I surrender it for Jesus and the Gospel I will save it (verse 35).
Now that thought is one we need to apply not only to ourselves as individuals, but also to churches. How often I hear churches in these days of aging and declining congregations talk about how they are going to survive and keep open. ‘How are we going to keep our church going?’ people ask. I suggest that it is a question based on self-preservation rather than a concern for the Gospel. It’s about how we are going to save our lives, rather than a passion for other people to know the love of God in Christ. Maybe churches that talk like that are the very ones that will lose their lives.
Few people like the idea of embracing suffering head on – I certainly don’t! However, we need to remember that Jesus offers us hope with these challenging words: if we are willing to lose our lives for his sake, we will save our lives. That might be in this life, it might be in the life of the world to come. But Jesus keeps his promises. I recently read this story:
Bernard Gilpin (1517-1583) was a preacher who was taken into custody for preaching the gospel during the time when Queen Mary Tudor was persecuting Protestants. He was being taken to London to certain death, but to the amusement of the guards accompanying him he kept saying, ‘Everything is for the best.’ On the way he fell off his horse and was hurt, so they could not travel for a few days. He told the amused guards, ‘I have no doubt that even this painful accident will prove to be a blessing.’ Finally he was able to resume his journey. As they were nearing London, later than expected, they heard the church bells ringing. They asked someone why this was so. They were told, ‘Queen Mary is dead, and there will be no more burning of Protestants.’ Gilpin looked at the guards and said, ‘Ah, you see, it is all for the best.’
So let us embrace the challenge, knowing Jesus will give us life everlasting, whatever we lay down now.
 Ajith Fernando, The Call to Joy and Pain, p36, citing Tom Carter (editor), Spurgeon at his Best, pp323ff.