Sunday, December 10, 2017

Coming Home (a sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11)

The word Isaiah speaks in our first reading for today is spoken to people who feel the situation they’re in is hopeless. I wonder how many of you have felt as if things are hopeless?

I think about the person who gets into debt so deeply they can’t see a way of ever getting their head above water again. Or the person in an abusive relationship in which they’re being hurt over and over again, and they can see no way out. I think about the parents who realise they’re in a negative rut in their relationship with their child and can’t see any way of changing it - or the teenager who wonders if his parents will ever understand him. These people are on the verge of giving up all hope - or maybe they’ve already done so.

Sometimes this is complicated by guilt; the situation’s hopeless and it’s my fault. Think of the alcoholic or drug addict who can’t see any way out, but he also knows all the suffering he and his family have gone through is his own fault. Think of the person who struggles unsuccessfully to control her temper and can’t see any hope of change, all the time being aware of the damage she’s caused to other people’s lives. “I’ve ruined it now and there’s no way it can ever be fixed”.

That’s the kind of situation God’s people were in when our Old Testament reading was written. They’d chased after other gods made of wood or stone and worshipped them. They’d abandoned God’s ways and oppressed the poor and needy. Over hundreds of years God had tried and tried again to call them back to him; he sent a long line of prophets to try to persuade them and warn them about what would happen if they didn’t repent. A few responded, but most ignored God’s call.

Eventually God allowed foreign armies to come against the land and defeat the Israelites; the leaders and educated classes were taken away as prisoners into exile in a foreign country and their land was given over to others. The temple in Jerusalem - which they saw as a sign that God was with them - was destroyed by the Babylonians. And the people who were taken away to Babylon thought God was so angry with them that he would never again accept them as his people.

Into this hopeless situation God sent a prophet to speak a word of comfort. We call him ‘Isaiah’, but he’s probably not the same prophet that wrote the first 39 chapters of the Book of Isaiah as we now have it; those chapters were likely written many years earlier. God gave this ‘Second Isaiah’ a word of hope for people who lived in hopelessness and despair. You can find it in our first reading for today, from Isaiah chapter 40. Let’s start by looking at verses 1-2:
‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins’.

The prophet brings the people an incredible message: despite all the sins they’ve committed, despite all the suffering they’ve been through, God still cares for them. And God is coming to them now with a message of comfort and hope.

That comfort and hope comes in the words of three ‘voices’ that the prophet mentions in verse 3, verse 6, and verse 9. We’re not told who the speakers are. Likely they’re just a poetic device the prophet uses; one of the things we know about Second Isaiah is that he’s a wonderful poet. Let’s explore what he has to say by listening to these three ‘voices’.

The first voice is a promise of homecoming. Look at verses 3-5:
‘A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”’

So this is a promise of a homecoming. For more than a generation the exiles had been living hundreds of miles away from their home. We can get a sense of how they felt in one of the most poignant psalms in the Bible, Psalm 137:
‘By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing Yahweh’s song in a foreign land?’

I can only imagine what it felt like for them. When I was seventeen my family moved from the U.K. to Canada. At the time I wasn’t too pleased with the move; I had good friends back home and I had no desire to start over again at the age of seventeen in a completely unfamiliar country. Making friends wasn’t easy for me in those days, because I was a pretty shy guy. Eventually, of course, things brightened up, and now, forty-two years later, I’m very happy in this foreign land!

But let’s change the illustration; let’s think of the children of the residential schools, taken away forcibly from their homes and their families, forced to live in a completely unfamiliar boarding school system, forced to forget their own languages and customs and learn a completely alien way of life. I can’t begin to imagine how awful that must have been for them.

But for Israel it was even worse, because they had a very strong belief that Jerusalem was the city of God and the Temple was the place in Jerusalem where God’s presence was strongest. If you wanted to meet with God, you went to the Temple; you could be sure he’d be there! But how could you ‘sing Yahweh’s song in a foreign land’?

How does this translate into our experience today?

I would suggest to you that the truest and most secure home any human being can have is the presence of God. God is our Creator, our rock, our loving parent. To live in God is to be truly at home in the most complete sense of that word. Every other home will disappoint us eventually; only when we find our home in God will we be fully satisfied. “You have made us for yourself”, Saint Augustine prays, “and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”.

So what does Jesus say to us?
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3).

I don’t think Jesus is especially talking about death here. We don’t have to wait until we die to find our home in God. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Do we have to wait until we die to ‘come to the Father’? Of course not; we can come to the Father right now.

So that’s the first announcement of Advent for us Christians: our exile is over. Jesus has come to take us home to the Father. Advent is an invitation for us to find our true home in the presence of God.

Let’s go on to the second voice. The second voice is a promise about the dependability of God’s promise. Look at verses 6-8:
‘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. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever’.

The issue here is a simple one: Who can you count on? When the chips are down, who will come through for you? Is there such a thing as a human bring whose promise is utterly reliable? The prophet doesn’t think so.

We live in an age of great scepticism when it comes to the promises of politicians. Most of us suspect that they have no intention of keeping them. They want us to vote for them, so they say what they know we want to hear, but it’s all a con game. Of course, that’s an outrageous generalisation; there are good and sincere politicians who genuinely want to make a difference. But generally speaking, when political promises are broken very few people are surprised.

And even when people make promises with every intention to keep them, there’s still a problem: we human beings aren’t in total control of our lives. We’re not gods; we’re ordinary mortals. The prophet uses the illustration of blades of grass. A blade of grass isn’t in control of the hot desert wind that dries up the ground and causes all growing things to die of thirst. Neither is it in control of the man who comes striding across the field, flattening everything under his feet without even thinking about it.

We human beings are like that. I lost a good friend who died of cancer at the age of forty-six, leaving behind four children under the age of twelve, one of whom had Down Syndrome. It was his intention to be there for those kids into a ripe old age, but that wasn’t the way it turned out. No fault of his, but he was unable to keep those promises.

So who can we trust? In verse 8 the prophet says ‘The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever’. God’s promise is totally dependable. He promised to bring the Israelites home from exile, and he kept that promise. He promised to send a Saviour for all people, and he kept that promise. He has promised to bring us to his Kingdom, and he will keep that promise as well.

Of course, sometimes God’s promises seem a little slow in fulfilment to us poor mortals. The people were taken into exile in 586 B.C. and their return began about fifty years later. In those days a fifty-year lifespan was a long one for ordinary people; very few of the original exiles would have lived to see the journey home. I sometimes wonder what it means when we pray to God - who lives outside of time – and ask him to hurry up! One of the most common phrases in the Old Testament is ‘wait for the Lord’; apparently it was common knowledge that he takes his time, since he has plenty of it! My Dad used to say “God knows I’m impatient, so he’s made me wait for almost every important thing in my life!”

I think part of the call of Advent to us who live in an age of great materialism is this: be sceptical about the extravagant promises mammon makes to us. Advertisers promise us that if we just buy their product we’ll find true happiness and fulfilment, but in the end that’s a lie. What we’re looking for we can only find in God; only he can give us what Jesus calls ‘life in all its fullness’ (John 10:10). So the prophet calls us to believe the promise of God and to turn to him for what we’re looking for.

We’ve heard two voices: a promise of a homecoming, and an assurance of the dependability of the promises of God. The third voice is a promise of the presence of God himself with us. Look at verses 9-11:
‘Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, 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, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep’.

Remember, the prophet is talking to people who assumed that God had abandoned them because of their sins. This was the only way they could make sense of the disaster that had happened to Jerusalem. ‘If God had truly been with us the Babylonians wouldn’t have been able to destroy us. So God must have left us’.

But now the prophet tells them ‘Here is your God’. And the image he uses emphasises the tender and loving nature of God: ‘He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep’ (v.11). Yes, God is coming to live among them again - and not as an angry judge, but as a tender shepherd caring for the weakest and most vulnerable members of his flock.

God is not far away from us; he is present with us and lives among us. This is what the coming of Jesus means. Matthew says that the birth of Jesus was in fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God is with us’” (Matt. 1:23-24). Never again will God be a stranger to human life; he has lived it to the bitter end just as we do. As Eugene Peterson paraphrases John 1:14: ‘The Word became a human being and moved into our neighbourhood’.

So the Advent word is a call to look to Jesus. As I said last week, he’s the human face of God. In him, God has come to us and he has never left us since then. And because of him God’s Spirit lives among us. When we gather here week by week, that’s what we’re celebrating: Emmanuel, God with us. That’s what Jesus means.

So this Advent message is full of comfort and hope for us. Jesus came among us to lead us home to God – the one place in the universe where we can be completely secure. The Bible uses the old word ‘abide’; to ‘abide’ somewhere is to make it your home. ‘Abide in me’, Jesus says. Where God is, there we are home, and we believe that God is in Jesus, so we are at home in Jesus.

Jesus came to us as the fulfilment of the promises of God. False gods make all kinds of false promises to us – perfect happiness, eternal youth and so on. But we know we can’t rely on those promises. Only in God can we find what we’re really looking for. So we’re called to be sceptical about the promises of the false gods, but to put our trust in the Word of God, who is Jesus.

And Jesus is ‘God with us’, our Good Shepherd. God has not abandoned us and he never will. We may not always feel his presence, but our feelings are not a reliable guide. They’re influenced by all kinds of factors; some we’re aware of, some we’re not.

But the presence of God with us is deeper than our feelings. I heard a phrase at a clergy conference a few years ago that really struck me. The speaker said, “We sometimes talk about asking God to come into our hearts, but we might just have it backwards. What the gospel tells us is that God holds us in his heart!”

‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God’ (v.1). I can’t think of anything more comforting than the thought that God holds us – you and me – in his heart. Our true home is the heart of God. We live there now, and we’ll live there forever. Ponder that one for a while, and ask God to help you experience it as a living reality.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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