Isaiah 62:1-12; Luke 1:26-38
4th Sun of Advent
St Barbara’s 24.12.17
Rev Tulo Raistrick
On our TVs and in our newspapers this is the time of year when there are reviews of everything. Reviews of the best films of 2017, the best TV dramas, the best comedy shows. There are reviews of the sporting year, and reviews of the political and world events that have shaped our year. Over the next few days there will be plenty of opportunities to look back on this year of 2017.
Well, in the company of Isaiah, this morning we will do a bit of reflection ourselves, revisiting some of the themes of our sermons over the last twelve months.
Our reading from Isaiah begins with these wonderfully determined words: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her righteousness shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.” If you remember from last week, Isaiah was proclaiming a message of hope, of transformation, amidst the rubble and ruins of Jerusalem. The exile was over, God’s people had returned, but now the challenge of re-building the city lay in front of them. Isaiah will not be daunted by the task. He will hold steadfast to calling the people on. He will pursue Israel’s recovery with all his strength.
Such determination brings to mind those words from the Beatitudes that we explored in September this year: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Blessed, happy, you are in a good place, when you pursue and long with all your being for justice and mercy and those things which are right. Isaiah’s passion for justice, for restoration for the people, is one that Jesus urges us to share. And we saw how in our series on Paul in June and July, how the apostle took up that challenge, tenaciously persevering despite the beatings, the imprisonments, the shipwrecks. Not giving up. Longing for God’s kingdom.
It won’t take many minutes into a review of the events of 2017 to be reminded of how much our world needs justice and transformation. The plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the starving in Yemen, the refugees still fleeing from Syria. The polarisation and divisions in Spain, in America. Terrorism. The inadequacies of the universal credit roll-out. The explosion of allegations of sexual abuse by the rich and powerful.
And our response should be like that of Isaiah: “I will not be silent; I will not rest.” I will hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Isaiah’s persistence is not just in action; it is in prayer too. “You who remind the Lord, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem.” In other words, don’t ease up on God. Keep praying. Give him no rest until his kingdom comes. It brings to mind Paul’s tenacity in prayer for the church in Thessalonica, that we looked at in October. He wrote to the church there saying: “we are always praying for you… we mention you in our prayers to God constantly”. In other words, we don’t give God rest until we know that your faith is firmly rooted in him.
And going right back to February, you may remember that we looked at what such persistence in prayer may look like through our series on Praying with St Benedict and with the Russian Orthodox church. From Benedict we explored the value of regular, persistent daily prayer, of creating the space each day to pray. From the Russian Orthodox we learnt the words of the Jesus prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” and the inspiration to pray without ceasing.
Isaiah gives us the example, that we see taken up throughout Scripture and the history of God’s people: “pray without ceasing – give God no rest.”
If persistence in action and prayer is one theme from our reading from Isaiah, a second is that of intimacy with God. The people of Israel had long felt estranged from God. They felt their past unfaithfulness had put up huge barriers to ever being able to enter into a relationship with God again. Their exile to a country hundreds of miles away acted as a metaphor for how distant they felt from Him. And yet here Isaiah shares images of startling intimacy. “You shall no more be termed Forsaken… instead God will call you “My delight is in you.”” God rejoices over them as a “bridegroom rejoices over the bride”. It is difficult to think of a more intimate image: God, the bridegroom, loving, delighting in his bride.
And that intimacy leads to transformation of their identity. They are no longer forsaken but are now called “the holy people; the redeemed of the world.”
That intimacy of God’s love is what transformed the life of Paul. We saw in the summer how Paul went from being one of the main persecutors of the Christian church to its greatest proponent; how his life was turned around by an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. And we saw in February how it was true too of John Wesley, how his “heart was strangely warmed” as he realised that Christ had died for him.
We can have the temptation to be quite reserved in our faith, keeping God at arm’s distance. But the God of Isaiah, the God of Paul, the God of John Wesley, the God who took the little children in his lap and embraced the grieving and the leper, this God calls us to intimacy with him, a genuine desire to share all our life with him, to be open and vulnerable before him. As we were reminded in September, Jesus said, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” Blessed are those who recognise their need of Him.
A final theme for us to reflect on today (though there are many more, and as no doubt those of you who have just completed the daily reflection series on Isaiah will have found, Isaiah is someone who is worth going back to time and again).
Isaiah tells the people of Israel: “The Lord has proclaimed to the end of the earth: “See, your salvation comes.”” It was always God’s plan that the people of Israel should become a blessing to the whole world. They were blessed not so that they could form a happy, holy huddle, cutting themselves off from the rest of the world. They were blessed so that they could be a blessing to others, so that they could be the messengers of God’s salvation to the whole world. We saw on Pentecost Sunday this year how, when the people of Israel repeatedly failed to look beyond their own parochial horizons, God instituted a whole new community, the Church, to do his work. Bursting out into languages of every tongue, people from all nations were invited into the great banquet of the kingdom.
When the church itself began to doubt the bounty of God’s grace, the all-inclusiveness of his gospel, we saw how Paul wrote to the church in Galatia in the strongest terms, reiterating this wonderful truth: we are all one in Christ Jesus – Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. The invitation of God’s love is for all.
And so we too should take up that refrain. For as we will celebrate later today and tomorrow, the wonderful words of the angel to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people…. a Saviour has been born to you.”
Let us live in such a way that all may know that God came for them.