Sermon given at Matins on the Third Sunday of Advent: Sunday 13 December 2009

13 December 2009 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon in Residence

Readings: Isaiah 25:1-9; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Last week, the first reading at Morning Prayer came from the third part of the book of Isaiah, when the people had returned from exile but Jerusalem was still in ruins.  The writer was feeling pretty bleak, because ‘We have all become like one who is unclean’ and ‘There is no one who calls upon your name, or attempts to take hold of you.’  What the prophet wanted was for God to ‘tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence’ (Is 64:1).  One of the reasons he was feeling so down was because he knew about and remembered better days.  The reading we heard this morning is from the first part of Isaiah, written perhaps two hundred years earlier in a much better time for Israel.

The first part of the reading praises God for what he has done, and the second part praises God for what he will do.  So the prophet begins:
O LORD, you are my God;

I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure. (Is 25:1)

The plan formed of old is probably the plan for the conquest of the land of Israel.  The words we heard come from a time of victory:
For you have made the city a heap,
the fortified city a ruin;
the palace of aliens is a city no more,
it will never be rebuilt. (Is 25:2)

What we heard is a victory song.  It celebrates the way God has given victory to the Israelites - he has given a needy people shelter from their enemies:

For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress. (Is 25:4)

We don’t know exactly what historical events caused this song of triumph and praise; we don’t even know if it is referring to historical events at all.  But it comes from the period when the Israelites were first established in Jerusalem; when they attributed all their success to God.

The next few verses look forward.  They give a picture of what God is going to do on this holy mountain, the mountain where Jerusalem, the city of the Temple, the city of God’s peace, is built.  There is going to be a feast, to celebrate the triumph of God, perhaps to celebrate the enthronement of a new king, established by God in his holy city.  The prophet proclaims that this will be a feast for everybody, a feast ‘for all peoples’:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of  well-matured wines strained clear.
 (Is 25:6)

The richness of the feast will reflect the prosperity of the land.  If we think of a feast ‘for all peoples’ as being a feast open to all people, all of this is entirely possible within the normal course of events, but then the prophet’s imagination really takes off:

And [God] will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death for ever. (Is 25:7)

It’s hard to see what the prophet can have possibly thought he was saying when he said that the Lord would ‘swallow up death for ever’.  He goes on:

Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the LORD for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. (Is 25:9)

This is a vision for a future time in which God’ people celebrate God’s salvation, weeping has come to an end, and there is to be no more death.  Whenever could that be?

These themes are taken up and developed in a remarkable passage at the end of the Book of Revelation:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
 He will dwell with them;
 they will be his peoples,
 and God himself will be with them;
 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
 Death will be no more;
 mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
 for the first things have passed away.’

And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ (Rev 21:1-5)

This vision for the future is the vision of Isaiah but it has been changed.  Somehow, the writer, the seer of Revelation, has realised that what Isaiah hoped for was never going to come about without a radical new act by God.  What Isaiah hoped for could only come about if there is a new Jerusalem, and the new Jerusalem is a place where God dwells among human beings, or human beings dwell with God.  The words in Revelation are usually taken to point to the life after death in which ‘God himself will be with [his people]; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more.’  Some interpreters would say these words give all of us hope for life beyond death; others would say they give us hope for the transformation of this earth and this life into something much more like the life God originally intended for human beings.  Whichever way you look at it, these wonderful words give us hope that God is going to do something in the future which will bring to an end human suffering and pain, especially the pain of death.

But why should we believe any of this?  Why should we believe we shall see the very thing Isaiah dreamed of but never saw?  Why should we take seriously the words, ‘See, I am making all things new.’  For a Christian, there is one, great reason: because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  If God raised Jesus from the dead, he did indeed do ‘a new thing’ and if he did that one new thing, he began at that point to make all things new.  From then on, everything could be seen in the light of the resurrection of Jesus.  His death could be seen in the light of the resurrection; the mourning of the disciples could be seen in the light of the resurrection; the crying of Mary Magdalene could be seen in the light of the resurrection; the pain of the crucifixion could be seen in the light of the resurrection.  And Isaiah’s words could also be seen in the light of the resurrection:

It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the LORD for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

In Advent we celebrate not only the end of all things, when God will come to be with his people at the end of time, but that turning point in time, when God began to transform all things through the coming into this world of Jesus Christ, ‘God with us’, our Risen Lord, who invites all peoples to enter the gates of the New Jerusalem, where all things are ‘made new’.

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