Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Mountain of the Lord

Isaiah 35.1-10
We have a satnav, a satellite navigation system, and its very useful especially when you’re trying to find someone’s house in the dark. It will often take you almost to their door!

But there’s a widely reported problem with satnavs, which I can confirm is absolutely true. When you switch on the satnav you tend to switch your brain off, so that you no longer remember the way to where you’re going. In fact it’s easy, if you’re just concentrating on the satnav’s instructions, to go in completely the wrong direction. One night I ended up in Pontefract, instead of the nearby town of Featherstone, because the circuit directory had published the wrong postcode for Featherstone Methodist Church, but people have made much more serious errors than that.

Drivers supposedly obeying directions given by their satnavs have crashed into rivers, construction sites and roadside toilets. One young woman drove the wrong way down a motorway at 75 miles per hour, and an ambulance driver who was supposed to be taking a patient from one London hospital to another found himself in Greater Manchester before it dawned on him that he had taken a wrong turn.

An 80 year-old driver following his satnav drove onto a road that had been closed for repairs and hit a pile of sand. "I just thought my satnav knew a shortcut," he explained to baffled police. Another driver ended up in the river on a foggy day, have mistaking a ferry crossing for a road ridge.

Isaiah foresees a time when even satnavs will be foolproof. God will build a highway so easy to follow that no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray. And it’s important to note where this highway will be - not a ring road around a city, or a highway across a fertile plain or valley. No, this will be a highway across the wilderness.

On the face of it, this is a passage about wilderness and desert. It shows that desertification, the process whereby climate change and pressures from a growing human population put pressure on fragile ecosystems and turn marginal land into desert, is not a new phenomenon.

Today we’ve become more aware of desertification as the scale of the problem has grown. One of the most widely reported examples in the last century was the Dust Bowl created in the American states of Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas in 1934 when a combination of dry weather and high winds caused massive erosion of the soil in places where prairie grass or pasture land for animals had been ploughed up for intensive agriculture. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their livelihoods and huge clouds of soil blew across the landscape - even reaching the cities of Washington and New York before falling into the Atlantic Ocean.

Of course, less well reported is the present day desertification of sub-Saharan Africa, where the Sarah Desert is creeping slowly southwards because of climate change and the pressure from th sheer number of human beings and livestock trying to eke out a living on its margins. People in countries like Niger, Chad and the Sudan suffer from repeated famine and droughts as a result.

The original people of Israel were nomads too, wandering through the wilderness with their herds of sheep and goats. But in the Promised Land they encountered a settled population of farmers, tilling the soil. It was a land which, compared to the wilderness, seemed to be flowing with milk and honey.

As the Israelites began to mix with the local farmers, and their population grew, so pressure on the farming belt increased. A nomadic life cannot support a growing population and people who had once been shepherds were forced to try to cultivate more and more of the land, with very uncertain results.

Isaiah looks forward to a day when the wilderness and the dry land shall rejoice and blossom. There will be an abundance of wild flowers. And the wilderness will become as green and fertile as Israel’s neighbour Lebanon or as the mountains of Carmel and Sharon.

If you look at modern photographs of Mount Carmel it looks a bit arid and bare by English standards but, apparently, even today its slopes are covered in luxuriant vegetation - oak, pine, olive and laurel trees - and in ancient times vines were grown on terraces along its slopes and archaeologists have found the remains of the wine presses and olive presses used to crush the fruit. So we’re talking about a nice place to live and human beings have been drawn there since Neanderthal times. One day, says the Prophet, the wilderness shall be like Mount Carmel.

And then the mood of the prophecy changes. Up until now it could have been spoken by a politician or an economist, but the mention of Mount Carmel is a hinge or turning point because the Prophet is conscious, no doubt, of the religious significance of the mountain.

Since ancient times there had been an altar on Mount Carmel and - when the people of Israel moved into Palestine - Carmel became a spiritual battleground between two competing religions: the religion of Israel’s God, the Lord Almighty or Yahweh, and the religion of the indigenous people, the storm god Baal. It was here, on the headland at the end of the mountain range, overlooking the sea, that Elijah staged his famous contest with the 450 prophets of Baal. He challenged them to end a terrible drought by praying to their god for rain and then, when they had tried and failed, he repaired the altar - which had been torn down - and prayed to the Lord Almighty for help. God heard him, we are told, and sent a huge thunderstorm which not only burned up Elijah’s sacrifice but ended the drought, causing a torrential downpour. And while it rained, Elijah and the people murdered the prophets of Baal in the Valley of Jezreel below.

To some extent the Prophet continues his first theme, about turning the wilderness into fertile farmland. He wants this promise to strengthen the weak and to give courage to the fearful. But increasingly there are spiritual overtones to the prophecy.

In a chilling echo of the murder of the prophets of Baal he promises that God Almighty will come with vengeance and terrible recompense to sort out the enemies of Israel. But there’s also a lighter note - the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped, the lame shall leap like deer and the tongues of the speechless shall sing for joy. And, of course, waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert, and springs of water in the thirsty ground.

This will be a time of Jubilee, a time when - mirroring the reclamation of marginal land from the desert - wrongs shall be righted and oppressed and marginalised people shall be healed and set free. And yet the wilderness won’t disappear entirely, for the Prophet foresees a highway across it, along which God’s people - sent into exile far away - will be able to return in safety to the Promised Land. They won’t encounter their enemies there, nor any hungry wild animals.

As I explained last week, (and you can skip the passage in italics if you already know the story), I was talking to someone about this passage and they asked me if I knew about the lions in Doncaster. We don’t live very far from Doncaster, you see, and they thought we should know about the lions in case we were tempted to go there! They’d heard on the radio that a pride of Romanian lions had been brought to Doncaster Airport and set free to roam, and they imagined them prowling around the town.

This might explain why a colleague told me that, when she was drafted in to help staff the post office in Doncaster , to cover for staff absences during the recent heavy snow, there were almost no customers. Would you go into Doncaster if you thought you might encounter a cold and ravenous beast prowling round the streets?

Actually, of course, the lions are roaming free in the Yorkshire Wildlife Park and not in the town centre. But
even the highway across the wilderness will be purged off dangerous animals in Isaiah’s prophecy. The ransomed of the Lord - that is the rescued exiles - shall return to Mount Zion with singing, where they will obtain everlasting joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

So what’s the significance of this passage for Christians in Advent today? We shall have to listen to our gospel reading to find some clues.

Matthew 11.2-15
Jesus gives a typically indirect reply to John the Baptist, when he’s asked by John’s disciples if he is God’s anointed leader, the Messiah. He doesn’t say, ‘Yes! I’m the One!’ but he does quote from various Old Testament passages, including the one we read from Isaiah 35. ‘Are these promised things happening?’ he seems to ask. ‘And if they are, then what conclusions do you draw?’

And then he goes on to draw some conclusions of his own from the ministry of John the Baptist. Matthew has already described John as someone who lived in the wilderness, dressed in hairy robes and with a belt tied around his waist. That seems to be a direct reference to Elijah - who is described in much the same way in the Old Testament. Now Jesus makes explicit that John is indeed Elijah returned from heaven to help Israel in her hour of need.

But like all the other prophets before him, and in particular Elijah, John belongs to a time of struggle when people have tried to control religion and spirituality by force, with violence if necessary. Whereas - with the advent of Jesus’ ministry - things are going to change. There will be a new kind of religion and anyone who commits themselves to follow it will be greater than even the greatest adherents of the old time religion. ‘Let those who have ears, hear!’ Jesus adds.

Well, what do you hear Jesus saying? A vicar once preached a sermon about John the Baptist, calling him ‘the last great Jew’, and conveniently overlooking the fact that Jesus is Jewish, not to mention Peter, Paul, Mary and a host of others. I don’t think that’s the message.

The true message of these passages is, I think, that God’s time of Jubilee is coming, but it can’t be ushered in by force - as Elijah tried to do on Mount Carmel, because the only true way to set free the oppressed is to identify with them and become one of them, and overcome all that’s wrong in the world alongside them from the bottom up. That’s because any attempt to make things better by using power to achieve it is doomed to get corrupted, deflected or distorted, as those who believed in Tony Blair or Nick Clegg as people who could radically change the world of politics must now acknowledge.

Identifying with the oppressed is, of course, exactly what Jesus does when he dies on the Cross. The Book of Revelation also echoes Isaiah when it says that, because of Jesus’ death for us, ‘crying and pain will be no more’. So the effect of Jesus’ death is hugely powerful, but on the other hand we have to be patient as we wait to see the full impact of his death and - while we’re waiting - we have to use Jesus’ methods, not the methods of Elijah or the crusaders or Muslim terrorists, to try to bring closer the day when God’s reign of enduring peace and justice will finally be established on earth.

And perhaps the message for little congregations in inner city churches is to hang on in there if you can, and to continue witnessing by actions more than words - as Jesus did - to the healing and liberating power of God until the day comes when you shall obtain joy and gladness.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Lions at LIberty in Doncaster!

Isaiah 11.1-10
Matthew 3.1-12

The Prophet Isaiah talks about a new kind of leader or king who will be sent by God one day to bring about a new age of world peace. This is symbolised in the reading by the idea of all sorts of unlikely animals eating and sleeping side by side without harming one another, and a little child reaching its hand into a hole where a poisonous snake is lurking and yet not being hurt in the slightest.

I’m not sure how seriously we’re meant to take the prophet's vision. Lions wouldn’t be lions if they didn’t eat meat, and calves and lambs wouldn’t be calves and lambs if they didn’t sometimes get eaten. That’s the way nature works and it’s always puzzled Christians why nature has to be so cruel. But it would be nice to imagine a future where we all become vegetarians - even lions and tigers and wolves!

Christians certainly believe that one day Jesus will come back to earth to put everything right and stop all the violence and wars. In that sense the vision will come true. So perhaps all the savagery of nature will be tamed by Jesus too. Until that happens, we believe that we’re called to work with God to make the world more peaceful and Advent - the four weeks before Christmas - is a time when we remind ourselves about that challenge. What better sign of peace could there be than a Christmas paper chain made up of people holding hands with one another?

When I told someone that today’s Bible reading was about lions lying down with calves and eating straw with oxen they said, ‘Well did you know there’s a pride of lions in Doncaster!? I’m not quite sure why they said that! It was as if they thought the lions are wandering round the streets there. Which might explain why someone told me on the phone that they had been helping out in the main post office during the week but it had been totally quiet, with hardly any customers at all. No wonder if they have to run the risk of bumping into a hungry lion!

But, actually, of course, although there are lions in Doncaster, they’re fenced in! They were rescued from a zoo in Romania, which couldn’t afford to look after them, and brought to the Yorkshire Wildlife Park. This is a picture of the leader of the pride, who’s called Cezar.

I guess we’ll have to wait a bit longer for the time when leopards will lie down with young goats, and bears and cows will share the same pasture! But, as I said before, Christians do believe that Jesus is the promised Prince of Peace.

John the Baptist urged his listeners to get ready for Jesus’ coming. ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,’ he said. And that’s our job, too. Partly to prepare to celebrate Jesus’ coming at Christmas, by making paper chains and putting up decorations. That’s a celebration of the past, of course! But also to prepare for a future when real peace will be established by Jesus at the end of human history. And the way we’re supposed to prepare for that time is by working for peace and justice in the world now.

An American senator said last week that we didn’t have to worry about the future of the world, because God is taking care of it. But he was wrong. We’re supposed to take care of the future with God.

These are the days of Elijah

1 Kings 18.7-16

When we decided to hold a praise service to celebrate the beginning of Advent someone said that it was a contradiction in terms. Advent isn’t a time of celebration. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost - these are the great celebrations of the Christian year. But Advent is a time of preparation, a time of repentance, a time to think about the judgement of God and to get ready to face him.

Yet surely we can celebrate the lives of the prophets who proclaimed the coming of the Messiah and prepared the Way of the Lord. Men like Elijah, Moses, Isaiah and Ezekiel. And let’s not forget Mary who prophesied about the impact that Jesus would have in her great song of praise to God which in Latin is called The Magnificat: ‘My soul praises the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.’ This is the very first and greatest Advent hymn of praise.

So what are the days of Elijah? They are days of confrontation. During a time of desperate famine Elijah confronts Obadiah, the most senior civil servant in the land of Israel, and tells him to report back to the King, his master, that Elijah is here! It’s High Noon in ancient Palestine. One of the most evil kings ever to rule over Israel versus one of the greatest prophets of Yahweh, Israel’s God.

Obadiah is sure that Ahab will kill him just for mentioning Elijah’s name, and reminds Elijah that he’s a good guy, a secret servant of Yahweh who has been protecting his prophets from the sword. Ahab has been searching in vain for Elijah, in every land and region. What if he goes out to meet Elijah now and finds that he has disappeared again? Ahab will surely be beside himself with fury. But Elijah promises to keep the appointment and - after Obadiah delivers Elijah’s message - Ahab goes to meet him.

Here then, in these short verses, we have all the ingredients of the days of Elijah - days of great trials, of famine, and darkness and sword! And one man, the greatest prophet since the time of Moses, stands almost alone against the forces of evil, declaring the word of the Lord. His mission is, of course, to see righteousness restored throughout the land.

This, then, is something to celebrate in Advent: the courage of all those great men and women of faith who - in days of great trials - have declared the word of the Lord and demanded that righteousness must become again the hallmark of leaders and people alike. And make no mistake about it, we too live in the days of Elijah - a time of economic hardship, warfare and concern about the planet and its future. We need to hear, and to proclaim, the word of the Lord to our society and to our own friends and neighbours.

Lord Jesus Christ, we have come to worship you. Make us glad in this season of Advent because we want to be ready - ready to give thanks for your righteousness being restored, ready to recognise your presence with us in the great trials that we face today and ready to welcome your return at the end of history to make all things right. Open our hearts as we worship you so that we may understand what it means for us to proclaim the word of the Lord. In your name we ask it, and in the power of your Spirit. Amen.

Matthew 3.1-6

We began by reminding ourselves that Advent is first and foremost a time of preparation and repentance. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a sombre time, devoid of praise. Repentance can be a cause for celebration.

Jesus himself said that heaven rejoices more over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine good people who have no need of repentance. I guess he was exaggerating, as usual, in order to make his point. But you get the picture. God’s big project is to turn around the bad people and every time he succeeds the not-so-bad people should rejoice.

It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But actually it’s not the way the world works. When someone is nominated to take on a prominent role in our society, what do all the journalists do? They go digging to see if this person has any skeletons in their cupboard. Kate Middleton is a good example. I guess hundreds of journalists are now on her case, digging for dirt. The most that they’ve come up with so far is a see-through dress that she once wore at a charity fashion show. But they’ll keep looking.

When John the Baptist preached about repentance in the desert, and proclaimed that the day of the Lord which Isaiah had promised was surely drawing very near, thousands of ordinary people flocked to hear him and to confess their sins. Were the not-so-bad people impressed to see them getting religion? No, like a pack of modern day journalists they came to investigate him, to see if he was on message, to find out if he was making repentance too easy.

During the very first Advent Mary went to stay with her cousin Elizabeth. Both women were pregnant and, in his mother’s womb, John the Baptist - Elizabeth’s unborn son - is supposed to have leapt for joy, according to Luke, when he heard the news of Jesus’ coming.

For Mary and Elizabeth Advent was a time for rejoicing, because they were soon to give birth, but it was also a time for preparation and reflection, and for getting ready to lead a changed life. A recent medical report said that all women should do more to prepare for pregnancy and childbirth. It’s in the best interests of their baby, but it’s also in their own best interests because having a baby will radically alter their lives and how they feel about themselves and about the world.

John’s message to the crowd was that the the day of the Lord would work a huge change in their outlook too. Like a pregnant woman preparing for childbirth and motherhood, to get the best out of the coming of Jesus they must prepare themselves to meet the challenge he will bring. They must change direction, or repent. This is the time of Jubilee - the time when people can be set free from all the skeletons in their cupboard and start over again. It’s the time for salvation.

And these are also the Days of Elijah, because Matthew makes very clear that he sees John the Baptist as Elijah returned from the dead in Israel’s hour of need. Like Elijah, John wears a hairy coat tied with a leather belt and lives in the wilderness. But for the new Elijah, restoring righteousness is not just a question of changing society and the shared values by which we all live, it’s also about changing individual people and proclaiming the need for personal righteousness to be restored.

Loving God, from the dawn of time you have been preparing for the coming of your reign on earth. We praise you for the prophets who foretold the coming of Jesus, your chosen leader or Messiah, and especially we praise you for the ministry of John the Baptist. He was a voice in the wilderness making ready the way of the Lord by calling people to repentance.

We praise you for those who have made your promises known to us and who gave us the opportunity to respond to your call. Encourage us now when we feel like voices in the wilderness declaring your word, so that we may continue to share your good news until those around us are able truly to prepare for your coming in Jesus at Christmas. Amen.

Matthew 3.13-17

So why is it so important that Elijah had to return? Because part of his new mission was to baptise Jesus and so allow Jesus to experience that supreme moment of confirmation when he felt God’s Spirit filling every part of him, like a dove descending upon him from heaven, and he heard a voice assuring him that he was God’s beloved Son.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all make this seem like a fairly personal, inward experience, although Matthew implies that the crowd heard God’s voice too and Luke implies that the Spirit was as visible as a real bird. But in John’s Gospel it is John the Baptist who sees the Spirit descending on Jesus and hears the inner voice of God.

In the picture the Spirit is descending to empower and enable both John’s baptism of Jesus and Jesus’ subsequent proclamation of the Good News. And, of course, the Spirit comes to empower us too - and that’s another reason for rejoicing.

We are the labourers in the vineyard where the grapes are ripe and ready to be picked and made into wine. We are the harvesters in the wheat and barley fields where the grain has been bleached almost white by the sun and is ready for harvesting to be made into bread. And in this daunting task, of declaring the Word of the Lord, we need the dry bones of our very ordinary spiritual existence to be fleshed out by God’s powerful Spirit.

One of my day jobs is to sell mobile phone top-ups and stamps to post office customers. I’m supposed to ask every customer whether they need either of these things. And nine times out of ten they laugh and shake their head. But some people are fields white for harvest, or vines ripe for plucking. They’ve nearly run out of telephone top-ups or stamps, and I’m doing them a favour by asking.

You know, if we don’t talk to people about Jesus, how will we ever know whether the fields are ready for harvest? Advent is a time for preparing ourselves for the challenge of actually declaring the word of the Lord.

Lord Jesus Christ, we thank you for the steadfast witness of John the Baptist to your truth. We thank you for his courage, that led him to speak out even at great cost to himself. We thank you for his readiness to point away from himself to you. We thank you for his willingness to live in such a way that everything he did testified to the truth of his message in a manner that words could never do.

Help us to prepare your way for today. May we witness to your renewing power and demonstrate your compassion so that the hearts of many people may be turned to you and respond to your love. Amen.

1 John 1.1-4

Behold he comes! The song refers to poetic descriptions of the second coming of Jesus at the end of time, the culmination of salvation history when God’s work will finally be complete and his reign on earth will be just like it is in heaven. Advent is a time for looking forward to that day and celebrating the promise of its coming.

But Advent is also the time when we get ready to celebrate the coming of God in Jesus that happened in the middle of human history, two thousand years ago. John sums up the significance of that event when he declares: ‘We have seen it with our eyes and our hands have touched it. This we proclaim concerning the Word of Life.’

In the picture Mary is holding the Word of Life, cradling him in her arms as Joseph and the wisemen gaze at him in wonder. Nearby is a bed of straw where he will be laid to get some sleep.

Elijah’s promise, that the day of the Lord would come when righteousness would be restored, is being fulfilled in a very unexpected and surprising way. Not in the rise of a powerful leader - although the promise remains that he will return to complete what he has begun. But his first coming is as a baby. Almost unnoticed and virtually unobserved, God comes to dwell with us - and is immediately both helpless and yet wonderful to behold.

No wonder so many people refuse to believe that Jesus can be anything more than just a good man. How could God choose to empty himself and become like this? There is indeed no God like Yahweh Jehovah - a God who is willing to share all that it means to be human: joy and suffering, pain and delight, power and helplessness - for all these things are wrapped up in our short life span. This is the message of Advent and Christmas. To some people it seems blasphemous to talk about God in this way. To others it seems like nonsense. But to those who believe it is the true power of God.

Gracious God, we thank you for the joyful promise of Christmas, which is that whatever we may face, you are always with us in Jesus. You support us through hard times by your loving example. You enrich us by your grace at work among us. You equip us with your spirit. So inspire us afresh each day to go on our way rejoicing with you and to declare your Word, the Word of Life revealed in Jesus Christ. Amen.