Sermon: Sunday 7 December 2014
The Revd Canon Rosy Fairhurst, Canon Chancellor
Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-15, Mark 1:1-8
So, we were just about to go into the Christingle, Rachel the Methodist minister and I – cassocks on, miked up, about to say our prayers, about to negotiate the ‘herding cats’ factor of 12-foot puppets and a horde of children with lighted candles in their hands – and suddenly, ferocious cries from the street. We go out and find ourselves in the middle of a street fight, bare chests, bloodied mouths, two frenzied young men. All we can think to do is to take up our space and place in the narrow passageway between them. Lorraine rings the police. And something – probably the strangeness of sight, and a practically subconscious sense that you can’t hit a woman or a Vicar – means that they don’t burst past us. After quite a long stand-off they shrink back with their friends. As Rachel said, we weren’t expecting to be given our first experience of conflict resolution in a war zone.
Last week, we began Advent thinking about how we live with uncertainty, where we can find the rootedness in God, the stability that we need. We heard the voice of Isaiah speaking God’s hope into the situation of Israel, newly returned, battered and bruised, from their exile. The disappointments and loss of the past still raw, and the future deeply uncertain, as their lives needed remaking. We heard the voice of Mark speaking to the uncertainty of whether Christ would come back quickly or slowly. And Paul trying to prise open the certainties of the Corinthians so that they could learn to live by faith in this time of the now and the not yet… We introduced the blue Advent candles as ways of helping all of us with the watching and waiting. I wonder how you’ve been using them – and I wonder what it tells us – one minute’s silence at the meal table, as the Dean suggested for those with children, or 30 minutes silence, having it lit during a difficult conversation…
This week, magnificent words of comfort come tumbling out at us. Anyone who knows the Messiah has a head start in keeping up with Isaiah’s power to imagine, to bring into being the present reality of the promises of God.
‘Comfort ye…’ You wondered where God was. Here God is – speaking tenderly to Jerusalem, telling her that she is off the hook. Finally she is out of jail, returned from exile, she doesn’t have to live any longer with her guilt and shame. No longer will she be dogged by the memories of her past. She has served her term, her penalty is paid. Wiped out, obliterated, completely out of the picture. God speaks with tenderness to his chastened children. And not just with tenderness, but with a route map for renewal. A new future.
Has God acted in history? Does God act in the story of our lives? What is our testimony? I know it for myself, I’ve heard it in the stories of several people here. Being completely at our wits end and, surprisingly, God making a way through for us, one we couldn’t have imagined.
Can we learn to accept the message of God’s forgiveness? Can we really believe that our hard labour is past – or are we people who constantly go back in our hearts and minds, with regret, with self-flagellation, worrying at the what-ifs, living with the shame and picking at the sores?
‘A voice cries out in the wilderness. Prepare the way of the Lord.’ This wilderness is the very place where God can fashion us into his people. The place where we are without all the props and bulwarks to the identity we’d like to present to the world, where we are just left with ourselves and our awareness of all our failures. The wilderness. This is the very place where the glory of God will be revealed.
‘Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ What kind of picture does this present? The first one which comes to my mind is the experience of being driven through the Sinai desert. An enormous juggernaut coming hurtling past us. Startled by an enormous crash a little way afterwards, and then, on the way back out of the desert after we’d made our pilgrimage up Mount Sinai, passing the carcass and the wreckage of the lorry, strips of the huge wheels rubber and metal sticking up into the air.
Making a highway through the desert is a difficult thing. Travelling through the desert is highly demanding. The people of Israel knew all about this – first from journeying from Egypt in the exodus, on their way to the promised land, and now again, back after the long march from Babylon.
Of course this was a critical highway, not just for them. It was The King’s Highway – the big trade highway for the Middle East, where gold, spices, camels, precious stones, valuable cloth, perfumes – all this booty made its way up and down. This is one of the things which brought Israel into conflict with its neighbours of course, the question of who would control the trade routes.
And now the picture of a highway came freighted for the returned exiles with another set of images. During their exile in Babylon they had seen another kind of highway – the great processional highways of Babylon, designed as a symbol of empire, where images of gods and kings would be carried up and down, along with great displays of military might.
Yet this highway which they are to build, is to be one where the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. Valleys will have to be raised up and hills will have to be flattened. The uneven ground levelled and the rough places smooth. Effectively those who make a highway for the Lord have be the construction site themselves. Israel will need raising up in their lack of trust and confidence in God and themselves in God. Their egos, grandiose ideas about ourselves, self-obsessions which get in the way of seeing others and a vision of God’s glory will need flattening. What needs raising up and what needs flattening in our lives? What needs levelling and smoothing? These are good Advent questions.
The glory of the Lord shall be revealed. As the great Claus Westermann says, ‘Yahweh is not impressive through graven images, but through his action in history.’ As we work on the highway we start to realise that the focus not on us and our individual lives, but on the glory of the Lord, which is revealed among all of us. It’s not that the individual stories don’t matter, but rather that we start to look up and notice that God is at work in those transformations among the navvies on the road building aka the whole nation or for us the whole church. Or to change the metaphor, that we are one twig of one branch blossoming on a whole tree. Each twig and branch helps makes the shape but it is one organic whole.
The sudden shift from the language of divine warrior to the tenderness of the shepherd gives us the clue. The promise is for the whole nation – and therefore has to be worked out in every single person. Mother sheep and stray lambs get special attention. They belong to the flock. After the heartbreaking CCTV footage this week of the young mother with no coat and ward flip flops carrying her baby in a single blanket out of the hospital to their deaths, as it turned out, perhaps we can see more clearly how we need to re-find the tenderness of the shepherd in our society. Sometimes we can even forget it within the church – can we hold in mind that all the others, even the ones that annoy us, are on journeys too?
Israel had lost everything. But there she was, land, temple, government. She was still left with the word of God committed to her keeping, a word far more enduring than her own mortality. The Prophet’s call to voice that word points to the calling of the nation very quickly, and then on to the voice and to the word of God. That’s the thing which endures for ever.
What’s the thing to do when you’re stuck in the wilderness, stranded in the desert? Start building a highway. And to do that you need to know what kind of highway you are building and how it relates to the others. We know that the other highways are there, and that we interact with them all the time. The realm of commerce and money, the trade route is part of life for all of us. But do we know how to build the King’s Highway so that it connects with it rather than taking it over with the destination of consuming material things. There’s plenty of evidence of Empire Road around us. Can we see how the King’s Highway takes us beyond the threats and seductions of political power and celebrity culture? As we thought about last week, we’re in the world, the question is will we be rooted in God as well – this week seen as the highway of God – and able to see the other roads and juggernauts in their right perspective?
The voice of Mark, which we heard last week as well, shows us John the Baptist hard at work preparing the way in the wilderness for Jesus. More about him next week. But the message from God is exactly the same. There is nothing you can do. You need God to bail you out, to forgive. But receiving that forgiveness – living into it, dying to our old lives lived independently – that is the key to being ready for what God wants to do next preparing the way. It will almost certainly surprise us – and I strongly suspect it has something to do with Jesus.
© Canon Rosy Fairhurst