Todays readings for the 2nd Sunday in Advent Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 Psalm 126 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28 John 1:6-8, 19-28
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton.
There is, so they say, an old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”. It appears that this was really coined by Joseph Chamberlin at the end of the Nineteenth Century, but whoever said it, it seems to reflect a common human sense that it is much better, and easier for humans to live in uninteresting times.
Unfortunately for Isaiah in the C6th BCE, and John the Baptiser and Paul of Tarsus in the C1st CE, they lived in interesting times just as we, at this precise moment in history can be said to.
Our times are interesting because in terms of our society there is much conflict and controversy. We have had the recent plebiscite and resultant legislation concerning Same Sex Marriage, which has caused quite a lot of angst in our society at large. And at the same time we are hearing about experiences of sexual harassment and abuse, and domestic violence, all of which are issues of oppression or repression. We have questions about housing affordability and homelessness. These and other things that affect our indigenous brothers and sisters, are issues of equality and inequality. We have hidden slavery even in our nation and in other countries with whom we trade. We have concerns about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees even while we are signing the UN treaty on torture. These problems are local but also global. They are the problems that Isaiah was talking about right back then.
On the world stage there is conflict, which make these very interesting times. We have the ongoing battles in the Middle East and the so-called War on Terror, which has been ineffective to say the least, and seems to be never-ending. We have the situation which is unfolding between the US and North Korea, which is certainly interesting, and a bit unbelievable for people who remember Hiroshima. We have tension between both Russia and China and the US, the situation of the Rohingya in Burma, and the increasingly acute situation in Israel and Palestine. These are not the same as the problems of the Israelites being carted off first by Assyria and then by the Babylonians, but there is commonality. They are interesting times.
Then, of course, we have the overarching and world wide problem of global warming, and other environmental issues, and the contingent human impacts which are also addressed in the bible’s teaching on stewardship of creation. These certainly are interesting times.
And for many of us, myself included, the approach of Christmas highlights stresses and tensions on a personal level.
John, the witness to the light, not referred to as the Baptist, in John’s Gospel, is a voice crying out in the wilderness, just as was Isaiah in his particular wilderness of the experience of exile. John is not the light but bears witness to the light, he shines a light, if you like on the hypocrisy of his times. The light is the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us full of grace and truth. John is a confrontational figure. He cannot help but confront the powers that be in his time, just as Jesus in his turn will confront them and just as had Elijah to whom he is likened. And this is the prophetic message, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!’
But what does it mean to make straight the way of the Lord? Isaiah seemed to have a pretty good idea of what the Lord God wanted him to do in his turn. And it is very interesting that this exact passage is the one that Jesus quotes on his first visit to the synagogue, at least according to Luke in his gospel account, and it seems to have formed the foundation of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.
So what does Isaiah say? He has been anointed for a purpose which is to bring Good News, or ‘gospel’ to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release for the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, which is Jubilee, the year when all debts were forgiven and lands restored to those who had lost them. A year when the land lay fallow to recover just as did the people, This is the year of rest and replenishment, and the year of freedom. Then Isaiah adds the day of vengeance of our God. Now, I am not sure what the day of vengeance of our God looks like but I do know that when Jesus quoted the Isaiah passage, according to Luke, he stopped short of adding that line. But perhaps it is about God taking vengeance on the oppressors by removing their power. On the positive side, God is going to comfort those who mourn and give them a garland instead of ashes- again a bridal image, the oil of gladness instead of mourning and the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
It is this last clause that I want to bring to your attention today. When we as the Christ light bearers for our world struggle with all the injustice and inhumanity that our world dishes out for the poor and the oppressed it is easy to lose sight of the wedding banquet. We, who are the bride of Christ, have to exult in our God. We have to deck ourselves in the garlands and jewels of the wedding celebration and rejoice in our God.
We, the prophets of our age, just like John the Witness, have to name truth and encourage repentance. However, in the midst of the naming of truth, as John himself discovers, it can be difficult to rejoice. I can testify to that myself, I feel overwhelmed with grief as I mourn for what we are doing to human beings on Manus and Nauru, or when I think of the abuse of children by the church, but God promises me comfort- a garland instead of ashes. And while that is a future reality it is also a present reality.
Paul speaking to the Thessalonians, who are also facing great difficulties, encourages them to give thanks and to rejoice. This is part of the work, it is also part of the reward because it is thankful people who are happy people. Those who can rejoice in whatever their circumstances are those who are content.
We are called to bear witness in our world, but we must bear witness to the great gifts and provisions of God as well as to the things that are in need of change.
We need to rejoice whenever we see an injustice righted, and I encourage you to rejoice at the Same Sex Marriage legislation. And perhaps we should all, as a church, rejoice at the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, because finally the churches, ours as well as others, has had to change its practices. And many hurting people have had a chance to tell their stories, and will now be recognised as people to whom some form of reparation is due.
We should rejoice that the matter of domestic violence and particularly its links to certain teachings in the church, is finally being addressed and we should rejoice that the church by means of its caring agencies is doing what it can about homelessness, domestic violence and other forms of inequality.
We are called on to bear witness to the changes that God has wrought in our lives as individuals, as well. We are so loved by God, and when we allow that knowledge to seep into our very beings we become people transformed by the Holy Spirit’s amazing power. Certainly our transformation is a work in progress but we must learn to give thanks for every small grace in our lives. As we approach Christmas through the season of Advent we rejoice that the Word has been made flesh and that God has dwelt among us. The knowledge that God was prepared to embrace humanity and be Emmanuel, God with us, is the greatest gift that we will ever receive. This is because it shows us that God didn’t just make us for God’s purposes, but that God created us to be beings that God loves. More than that, we are liked by God, we are God’s precious children. And this is the message that we need to take to our world. That we are loved by God, and even liked by God, regardless of who we are in the scheme of things, our power, or wealth or personality or talents cannot make God love us any more, and nor can they make God loves us any less.
We look to the Lamb of God, just as John the Baptiser did and we bear witness to his desire for justice and righteousness. ‘I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.’