Sermon at 0930 service on the second Sunday in Advent, 9 December 2018
Reading: Luke 3:1-6
Spending time with the prophets
On this second Sunday in Advent our focus is drawn towards the Prophets. Last Sunday it was the Patriarchs, next week it will be John the Baptist, then Mary on the Sunday before Christmas.
I don’t know about you, but when I first think about prophets in the Bible, my mind goes to the famous Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah or Amos, to name just a few. But, of course, we find prophets throughout the Bible. In the New Testament, they’re the crucial backbones of the Early Church. Paul tells us how the Early Church is built on apostles and prophets, and he names particular people like Silas and Barnabas.
But especially at the start of Luke’s Gospel, shortly before and around the time of Jesus’ birth and early life we get a whole cluster of prophets and prophecies: do you remember Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin; her husband, Zechariah; and when Jesus was presented in the Temple, the faithful and patient Simeon and Anna. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that there is this particular emphasis on prophets at the beginning of Luke’s account; it’s through such New Testament prophets that he makes it absolutely clear that Jesus is our Saviour, and he’s here now.
And so homing in on today’s Gospel, this reading from Luke gives us possibly the clearest prophetic message of all, that delivered by John the Baptist. The scene is set, isn’t it, with all those specifics locating this proclamation in history – which year, who was ruling and so on. This isn’t any ordinary message. It’s a moment of importance. Luke wants us to notice that what John has to say should be taken as seriously as any of the big prophets from the Old Testament.
Because although John is a New Testament prophet, what he has to say comes from an earlier prophet, Isaiah, in chapter 40 of that book. John is merely a voice, you might say, calling out and echoing the crucial nuggets of what has gone before. But what nuggets of gold! Words of encouragement and anticipation: there’s something exciting about a call to prepare the way of the Lord. So what is he saying?
Well, if we go back to find those words in Isaiah, they’re presented there as words of comfort and consolation. In the chapter before, chapter 39, God’s people have just heard a message of disaster, a promise of exile and captivity in Babylon. And then immediately afterwards in the next chapter comes the comfort and consolation. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God,” it starts, before going on to our bit: “A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,” and so on. And I think what’s so important here, is that in these comforting, consoling words of reassurance there is reality as well. In the midst of their Babylonian exile, the lowest point of the low in Israel’s history, the Lord really will come to their aid and rescue them. These aren’t empty words. It’s a given. And this rescue is not actually dependent on God’s people clearing the way or not – and how well they do it – because he will come. It’s just that by having clear paths, God’s people have smoothed his way, it’s about helping him travel without difficulty and minimising delay. And when he comes, God’s people will see God’s glory – but not just see it, experience and live it!
How fitting, then, for a later, New Testament prophet, John the Baptist, to utter those words again in the context of the coming of Jesus, and for us to hear it in Advent. But this time, in the words that he has John speak, Luke makes a slight change: he specially emphasises God’s glory so that John speaks of the salvation of God (v6). The universal salvation on offer to the world through the coming of Jesus. It’s not merely the glory of God’s presence, but the glory of God in human form – the incarnation – God’s gift for every one of us of saving love for the world in Jesus.
But why spend time in Advent with the prophets at all? Let me highlight three possible reasons:
Firstly, prophets help us prepare for the coming of Christ by maintaining an expectation of the presence and action of God. Even in situations where God seems so far away, the prophets continued to hear him and discern him at work. This is Isaiah speaking to the people of God. But I wonder in our own situations, who do we know who keeps us expectant of God’s presence and action? A lady I know who has served faithfully at very senior levels in the charitable world was described to me the other day as an “inconspicuous giant.” Very unassuming, modest, not very tall, the sort of person you might just so easily overlook – yet has been the lynchpin, steering a number of charities through difficult times. Someone of great prayerfulness, she helped people see that God’s work – whether or not they recognised it as such – would resume. There was expectation.
Secondly, the prophets demonstrate a kind of faithfulness that will never give up on God, come what may. Isaiah knows that his particular relationship with God is what he was born for, as one of so many witnesses to the truth across biblical history, and he keeps faithful to that. Of course, we see this faithfulness at its ultimate expression in Jesus, who always chooses to put God first, even in the garden of Gethsemane on the night before his death. But this faithfulness is nothing new; it has been there since the very beginning, as the writer and theologian Jane Williams writes: “The world is son-shaped” – by which she means ‘Jesus-shaped’ – “from before its conception, all of us longed into being by the love of God.”
The third reason for spending time with the prophets in Advent revolves around us, I think. It’s so easy for us to desire a ‘god’ who operates in the way we want, giving things on our terms, maybe not demanding too much of ourselves. And so in the same vein we reject a God who loves us, loves to shape us and expects to shape us. It’s true throughout human history, so often because we believe in the supreme power of humanity before all else. Do we not quite trust God enough to take full control? And so what the prophets do, I think, is remind us of a time and space beyond the complexities of the current situation, showing God’s people – showing us – that they and we have not been abandoned by him.
And this reminds us, too, that each one of us has been chosen by God, called by name as a later verse in Isaiah has it (chap 43). Just as Mary was prophetically told not to be afraid, so we can rest in the same knowledge that God has chosen us, too. And in our own way we point to the truth of God in Jesus – as prophets ourselves.