Advent? A weary prophet… and a people too far gone to listen?

Our Old Testament reading this morning was a passage from the Prophet Isaiah. It was the announcement that God would bring His people home from exile- at long last- and the Prophet is called to tell the people the good news; to announce this new and long awaited work of God. You`ll might recognise that passage as part of what John the Baptist picked up in Gospel Reading this morning and when you make that connection what you get is the sense that part of what John the Baptist saw himself as doing was announcing the fulfilment of what Isaiah had promised all those years ago. In Jesus the Messiah at last they would see the peoples` liberation, salvation and vindication.

So it`s clear from the start that both of these men saw themselves as if you like `Heralds`; people who are called to make an announcement… and just like the medieval heralds in our own history the subject is the coming of the King… so make ready! But what stands out for me in the case of Isaiah in particular, is that he doesn`t seem too impressed by his task. The passage reads, “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry? All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field”.

What we see happening here is Isaiah taking one look at the people and he`s quite convinced they`ll never believe him; he knows only too well how fickle they are and how much they blow hot and cold in their devotion to God; and they are so wrapped up in the alien, exile culture in which they have lived for so long that they cannot conceive of anything different happening. Just to underline this some Biblical scholars suggest that the next line was inserted by a scribe many years later. Those words “surely the people are grass” seem to come from the margin; as if to say, “Yes, I know what you mean… it`s always been like that”. After a while people just don`t know any better.

Now, I hadn`t noticed this before; I hadn`t registered this rather depressed and unpromising tone and this image of Isaiah as the rather jaded prophet. He`s given the task of delivering some really good news but it`s clear that his heart just wasn`t in it. He thought he knew the people and their frailty all too well. But what I like about this passage is the way in which his concerns are accepted but then contradicted. In his inner dialogue with the Lord it seems he`s told “Yes, the grass does wither, the flower does fade….. the people ARE just like that” but then he`s told “but the word of our God will stand for ever”. In other words, don`t suppose for a moment that the Lord is put off or cowed by your lack of morale or indeed their stubbornness of heart… So get to it ……

He`s told, “Get you up to a high mountain, (You are the) herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength….. lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him”. This is a stirring repost isn`t it? So how might it speak to us?

Well two things. Firstly, let`s give thanks that it isn`t regarded as a crime that Isaiah should point out the challenge he`s going to face. It seems quite acceptable that he can acknowledge how jaded he feels and that for him the people seem too far gone to care. He`s allowed to articulate the truth as he sees it. Again the point is that HIS cynicism and THEIR apathy are not the final word in the matter. He`s called to deliver something new into this situation. What today some people call a `game changer`. He`s told “the word of our God will stand for ever”. In other words, there`s another element in the equation which Isaiah really hadn`t got hold of…..and we`ll return to that in just a minute.

So let this for a moment allow us to reconsider for instance, the guilt which many of us feel at the mere mention of the word `evangelism` or the challenge we face as the heralds of Good tidings at this time of year. I mean in the face of what is becoming a winter orgy of consumerism and hedonism it would be very easy wouldn`t it to become every bit as jaded as Isaiah and to think of the people as too far gone to notice or care? But those few words where Isaiah`s fatigue and the fickle character of the people is acknowledged serve to take away some of the angst. It`s as if to say, “Look, this is just how it is. This is the reality of sin. This is a disobedient world. BUT this is the world, the place and the time we are called to be faithful in….”

Where Isaiah got it wrong is that he seemed to think that the outworking of God`s purposes were somehow dependent on him and what HE regarded as `successful`. What he had to learn – and what he teaches us – is that our calling is to be bearers of something not of our own making… The Gospel is the Good tidings of what GOD is doing; we speak HIS word, HIS perspective, HIS promise into this world regardless of how things might seem to us; no matter how parlous or jaded. Little words mean a lot: The world may be apathetic and God`s messengers may be weary “BUT the word of our God will stand for ever”.

Ok, we might say, “Fine, but what difference does this make to you and me now?” How are we going to see this Word of God lifting me out of my sense of being jaded, cynical or weary? Well what seems to take hold of Isaiah (and indeed all the prophets) and lift them out of themselves is a very deep sense that they had been addressed personally. And the best way I can describe this is to go to the Book of Isaiah itself. In my own experience, for what it`s worth, if you want to really encounter our God then the Book of Isaiah is one of the best places to start because it is simply loaded with `purple passages` which simply leap out at you. There is something about the phrasing which draws you into a real sense that these are more than words on a page and instead words spoken directly to you and me. Now, this is one of the ways in which Scripture has always blessed God`s people …. It `works` if you will, when we allow it to become personal….and my point is that Isaiah really leads the way. Of course, you can`t legislate for this kind of thing. You can`t control it but you can put yourself in a place where you`re likely to hear and know yourself to be personally addressed in this way.

And what I really want us to get hold of this morning is that when we forget this; when we gaze at a piece of scripture without the sense that this is the living breathing word of God addressed to you and me…. And a word that we bear to those around us it`s hardly surprising that WE lose our energy; we assume the whole thing rests on our shoulders and capabilities and we just conclude others will never listen anyway. But Isaiah won`t let us do that. Let me give you an example. Last week I went with about a dozen of our number on a Quiet Day for the beginning of Advent. By way of preparation I gave them a short passage from Isaiah to reflect on. It was this…    (Isaiah 30.15-18)

For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved;

in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.

But you refused and said,

‘No! We will flee upon horses’— therefore you shall flee!

and, ‘We will ride upon swift steeds’—

therefore your pursuers shall be swift!

A thousand shall flee at the threat of one,

at the threat of five you shall flee,

until you are left like a flagstaff on the top of a mountain,

like a signal on a hill.

Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you;

therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you.

For the LORD is a God of justice;

blessed are all those who wait for him.

In these few lines the Lord is speaking to the peoples` restlessness and their determination to steer their own boat without reference to him. He points out their self-evident folly… but nonetheless the Lord waits `to be gracious` them. It`s great stuff and I`d like to think the parallels with our own behaviour are obvious. But that`s is the thing. Isaiah is full of passages like this, which when we stop long enough to reflect on them have the power to get very deeply under our skin. So we`re asked in our imagination how do we respond to the Lord saying “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength”?

A Bishop I once knew told me how he was really saddened by what he thought we had done to the Bible in the 1960`s and 1970`s. He said that so much really helpful scholarship had been twisted so that every time we came to read the Scriptures we approached them almost exclusively with the mind rather than the heart or imagination. He said we`d developed what he called a `hermeneutic of mistrust` which basically means `your immediate thought on reading this, is that someone`s trying to pull a fast one`! And the consequences of this attitude are lives lived as if God was mute.

One day Jesus got into an argument with some rather obtuse rabbis. Eventually he said to them, “You understand neither the Scriptures nor the power of God “. To my mind he was pointing out how they had lost any sense of being in conversation with God. Well, when we find ourselves in the same place, the antidote to our weariness and that sense that things are falling on deaf ears is to accept that yes… sometimes that`s how it feels; but that`s not the only story. And the Book of Isaiah is just one of many places you can turn to renew that sense that the Word and promises of God are as present and vital today as they have ever been. If you take the words of Isaiah personally you`ll soon have something good to shout about.



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