Sermon given at Matins on the Second Sunday of Advent: Sunday 6 December 2009

6 December 2009 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon in Residence

Readings: Isaiah 64:1-7; Matthew 11:2-11

From now until Christmas, the first reading at Morning Prayer on Sundays comes from different parts of Isaiah.  These readings have been chosen for their Advent themes.  The word ‘Advent’ is taken from the Latin and simply means ‘coming’: ‘Advent’ is the time when we prepare ourselves to celebrate the coming of the Lord in human flesh at Christmas; but it is also a time when we look forward to the coming of the Lord at the end of time as our merciful judge. The images in the Bible are of the coming of the Lord to us, and we should always be prepared to be surprised by God, but we must also as Christians be prepared for our coming to God when we die, and our coming under his merciful judgment for the way we have lived our lives.  Advent is a time when we think of God’s coming to us, and of our coming to God. Today I want to reflect on the passage we heard from Isaiah as our first reading and of our coming to God when we pray.


In the first reading, we heard how the prophet related to God in his time, perhaps five hundred years before Jesus.  Most scholars think the Book of Isaiah contains the words of one or two prophetic writers who developed the tradition of an earlier prophet known as Isaiah of Jerusalem.  What we heard this morning were words from the third of these writers, writing at a time when those Israelites who had returned exile in Babylon to a devastated Jerusalem had pretty much lost hope.  The religious life of the city was at a very low ebb.  The writer says:


There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. (64:7)


It’s as though the people have given up on God, and this has come about because God seems to have given up on his people. Isaiah blames not God but the people. He says it is the fault of the people, because they have given up on God, and now God has taken offence at them, hidden himself from them, and left them to their own nasty devices. As he puts it in his prayer:


But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed. (64:5)


Yet, in some ways what has happened is also God’s fault: ‘because you hid yourself we transgressed’.


All of this, we should note, is addressed to God. Isaiah makes his complaint directly to God. This is perhaps the key thing we can take from this morning’s reading. The people have given up on God, and God’s ways, and do not call upon his name.  Isaiah has not given up on God, so in anger and distress he prays:


O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence! (64:1-2)


In the early books of the Bible, which reflect early Israelite religious belief, God is often thought of as dwelling on top of a mountain, and making himself known with thunder and lightning, so that the earth shakes and fire descends from heaven. Earlier this year I spent several weeks in a room that looked out on hills where there were frequent storms. As I watched the lightning flash across the sky and listened to the rolling thunder, I could see exactly why such storms seemed to ancient peoples to be like the coming of God. When Moses went up Mount Sinai and God descended to meet him, there was thunder and lightning (Exod 19:16,19; 24:17). When Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel to a contest about whose God would answer prayer with fire from heaven, the prayers of the prophets of Baal were not answered but Jahweh, the God of Israel, answered Elijah’s prayers with fire (1 Kings 18:38) – so God’s name was made known to his adversaries, and the prophets of Baal trembled for what would happen to them next.  Isaiah hasn’t forgotten stories like these - though the people seem to have done so.  He reminds God about what has happened in the past:


When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. (64:3)


Isaiah reminds his God about the past because he is impatiently waiting for what he will do in the future. Others may think God has gone away.  God’s prophet believes he has turned away. Isaiah is passionately concerned for God to turn back towards his people – and he’s not going to go away until it happens:


From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him. (64:4)

This waiting is not the kind of passive, resigned waiting you get in a bus queue when the bus doesn’t come.  This is an active waiting, where Isaiah recognises that God will respond - and if he doesn’t respond now, when Isaiah wants him to, there must be some reason Isaiah can’t yet see. The waiting may change Isaiah but it doesn’t change God.  This is the kind of waiting Christians experience during Advent as we pray for the coming of God 


There is one point at which Isaiah positively expresses what he believes about God, and why he waits with such hope. He says:


You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways. (64:5)


For Christians, these words take us to Easter morning.  The foundation of our faith is the meeting of the Risen Christ with Mary Magdalene and then with the disciples who had followed him for three years, learning what it meant to accept and rejoice in the coming of the Kingdom of God. Doubtless, during the three days between Jesus’ death and his resurrection they remembered him in his ways, and they remembered God in his ways, and they tried to make sense of it all. This is what we are told that two of the disciples did as they made their way to Emmaus on the evening of the first Easter day (Luke 24:13-35): they were talking about all that had happened in Jerusalem, when a mysterious stranger drew near to them and showed them how God’s ways are consistent through all the Hebrew Scriptures. In the end, their eyes were opened: they saw how God had not deserted his people; how in Christ he had torn open the heavens and come down, making his name known to all the nations gloriously through his death and resurrection. These days, certainly in this country, we may feel at times ‘there is no one who calls on God’s name’ - though that would be an exaggeration. As we pray in Advent, what we remember is the coming of God in Jesus Christ, both as a baby and as Risen Lord, and what we hope for is the coming of Christ at the end of time. And in between, as an Advent people, we wait, like Isaiah confident that:


You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways. (Is 64:5)

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