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Sunday, 7 December 2008

Prepare ye the way

Would have liked to have uploaded all the pictures I used, but I'm not quite sure how to put them in the right place. Does one cut and paste the source code in the right place? Anybody who knows, please let me know in comments; I'd be most grateful. Then I might even edit to include the slides.

From Isaiah chapter 40 and verse 3: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God." This verse is taken up in Mark's gospel, too: "the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'." Mark applies the verse to John the Baptist, and we'll come to him in a minute, but first of all, let's have a look at when it was originally written, and why.

No-one really knows who Isaiah was. Almost all scholars think that the person who wrote Isaiah chapters 40-55 is not the same one who wrote the first 40 chapters. There might even have been a third person who wrote the last few chapters. too. These various prophecies have become gathered together into what we know as the book of Isaiah, but it does seem clear that they are different people, as the style of writing is different, and they are addressed to different audiences. The first Isaiah, the one who saw God in the Temple, was a priest in Jerusalem just before the people went into exile. The second one was writing just before the people returned in about 538 BC. His premise is that the time of punishment is over, that Israel will be going home soon.

We don't know what his name was, or how his call to be a prophet came, or anything about him except for his writings. He usually gets called Deutero-Isaiah, or Second Isaiah, and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that his name actually was Isaiah, although I did once hear someone wonder just why Mr and Mrs Isaiah had chosen to call their son, "Second". Yes, well, never mind, let's call him "Isaiah", for convenience. Now, many of the prophets spoke or acted their prophecies, and they had followers who wrote down what they said and did, which is how it has come down to us. But scholars think that this Isaiah actually wrote down his stuff, and read it aloud later. He was a poet, and his work is too complex, too literary, to have been spoken.

They also think, by the way, that the first chapter of the section, chapter 40, that was our first reading today, was written last of all, as a sort of introduction to the whole of Isaiah's message.

Isaiah is a prophet full of hope. His God is unique, the creator, the redeemer, and he is also a God of love. Some of the loveliest passages about God's love come in Isaiah; think of verse 11 of the passage we read today: "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." Isaiah knows God, and knows he is loved. He knows God's people are loved, too. That was the message that they needed to hear, stuck in exile in a distant land. Their redeemer was coming, and they should prepare a way for him.

Our whole concept of God as Redeemer comes from Isaiah. In those days, you see, there wasn't a police force, and it was down to the injured person's relations to deal with any wrongdoing. And the nearest male relation, who usually took on the burden, was known as the go-el or redeemer. If someone fell into financial difficulties and had to sell up, the go-el was supposed to buy the land or property. And if someone was so poor that they had to go into slavery, the go-el was supposed to buy the person back. The "redeemer", therefore, in ancient Israel, was the person who restored people and property to where they rightly belong, and if someone didn't have anyone in their family who could act as redeemer, then the King had to do it.

Isaiah, then, sees God as Israel's redeemer, bringing God's people back to Israel where they belonged.


Of course, we Christians see Jesus as our redeemer, bringing us back to being with God, where we belong. And Mark picks up the "Prepare the way" verse and runs with it, telling us that John the Baptist was the voice crying in the wilderness.

John the Baptist, of course, was a prophet. Luke tells us that his father was a priest in the Temple at Jerusalem, and his mother was a cousin of Mary the mother of Jesus. And John was a very late child; his mother had given up all hope of having a baby by the time he arrived.

John was about the same age as Jesus – again, Luke tells us that Mary and Elisabeth were pregnant at the same time. So he would only have been a young man when he started preaching. He seems to have come from the desert, certainly according to our reading today, so we have to assume that he went off there as a very young man to think and to study and to listen to God. When he came back, he was a prophet. He wore skins, he ate locusts and wild honey, he gathered a small flock of disciples around him. And he preached God's message: "Repent and be baptized and get ready for the coming of the Kingdom!"

Well, there hadn't been a proper prophet for many years, and it became very fashionable to go into the desert and hear John. Huge crowds went; it was better than the cinema! John got incredibly frustrated by this.

All these people, but none of them wanted to really hear what he had to say. None of them were really willing to repent, to turn right round and go God's way. Not even the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. Not that they interfered with him, mind you – could have been nasty, if they had. But they didn't want to know! Very frustrating.

But there were the other kind of people, too. People who really did want to listen to John, to hear what he had to say and to act on it. People who came to him, asking to be baptized in the river Jordan. And one day, his cousin Jesus comes to him and asks for baptism.

And at that moment, John knows that this is the One he has been waiting for, the One for whom he has been preparing the way. And yet he wants to be baptised – surely not! Surely it should be he, Jesus who baptises John? John's always known that when the Messiah came, he wouldn't be fit even to undo his shoes and wash his feet, slaves' work, that. John mutters something to this effect, but Jesus says, "No, let's do this thing by the book!"

And as he enters the water, the Holy Spirit comes down on him in the shape of a dove, and a voice speaks from heaven, "Behold my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased!"

Of course, as we know, John wasn't always quite so sure – you remember how when he was in prison, awaiting death for having criticised the royal marriage once too often, he suddenly got a fearful attack of doubt and sent to Jesus saying, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" and Jesus has to reassure him. And in the end, of course, John gets executed, and Jesus is devastated by his death, and tries to go off by himself, but the crowds follow him....


Well, this is all very well, but it's all long ago in history stuff. What does it have to do with us this Sunday morning in the 21st century?

Well, we are in the season of Advent. And Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas. It's not just about writing cards, choosing presents, putting up decorations, preparing cakes and puddings, eating mince-pies, arranging family parties, and so on. That too, of course. But it is, or should be, a time of preparing ourselves for Christmas. For the coming of the King of Glory as a child in the manger at Bethlehem. In years gone by, many people would fast throughout Advent, and I know people who still do. They don't literally abstain from food for the whole month, but they might well deny themselves some pleasure or other – that of eating sweets, perhaps, or of watching certain television programmes. As a reminder that they are preparing themselves.

These days, we tend to moan that Christmas is too commercialised, but I rather think that is inevitable when we share the festival with non-Christians. And in a way, watching the shops decked out in their Christmas colours and full of stock they don't have at other times of year is rather fun. I've always loved walking through shops which sell Christmas decorations, and when my daughter was a baby, her first winter, she used to gurgle with pleasure on being taken for a walk through Woolworth's, for instance – we used to go most days, not to shop, but so she could enjoy the colours and sparkles as only a small baby can! Even now, I still enjoy it, and some shops are very clever. But, of course, what they want you to do is to buy their products. And why shouldn't they – after all, they have a living to make. It will be sad if Woolworth’s does go under after all these years – let’s hope they survive.

Christmas is lovely. Sometimes we do get all Scrooge-ish about it, and mutter and grumble about the commercialisation of it. John Betjeman, that great poet of the 20th Century, wrote back in 1955:

The Advent wind begins to stir
With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
It's dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
And in between we only see
Clouds hurrying across the sky
And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
And branches bending to the gale
Against great skies all silver pale
The world seems travelling into space,
And travelling at a faster pace
Than in the leisured summer weather
When we and it sit out together,
For now we feel the world spin round
On some momentous journey bound -
Journey to what? to whom? to where?
The Advent bells call out 'Prepare,
Your world is journeying to the birth
Of God made Man for us on earth.'

And how, in fact, do we prepare
The great day that waits us there -
For the twenty-fifth day of December,
The birth of Christ? For some it means
An interchange of hunting scenes
On coloured cards, And I remember
Last year I sent out twenty yards,
Laid end to end, of Christmas cards
To people that I scarcely know -
They'd sent a card to me, and so
I had to send one back. Oh dear!
Is this a form of Christmas cheer?
Or is it, which is less surprising,
My pride gone in for advertising?
The only cards that really count
Are that extremely small amount
From real friends who keep in touch
And are not rich but love us much
Some ways indeed are very odd
By which we hail the birth of God.

We raise the price of things in shops,
We give plain boxes fancy tops
And lines which traders cannot sell
Thus parcell'd go extremely well
We dole out bribes we call a present
To those to whom we must be pleasant
For business reasons. Our defence is
These bribes are charged against expenses
And bring relief in Income Tax
Enough of these unworthy cracks!
'The time draws near the birth of Christ'.
A present that cannot be priced
Given two thousand years ago
Yet if God had not given so
He still would be a distant stranger
And not the Baby in the manger.

That's the point, isn't it? “He still would be a distant stranger, and not the Baby in the manger”. But He did come down, he isn’t the stranger. We know Him. He dwells in our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Our ways of preparing for this may be “extremely odd”, but they are fun anyway. But I think we do need to prepare ourselves, to remind ourselves that the feasting, the presents, the parties, the decorations are only part of the story. We, too, need to prepare the way of the Lord. Amen.