We were watching the news on Channel 4 the other night when Helen said, ‘The news is so terrible these days that you really don’t have time to take in the enormity of it before they’ve moved on to the next item.’
For example, there was a report that high inflation, government cuts and the longest period of wage stagnation on record will mean that the spending power of the average British family is going to plummet over the next five years. And families with children will be particularly hard hit. In 2016 they will be worse off than they might have been if their children had been exactly the same age 14 years earlier in 2002.
Mind you, it’s not just younger people who are feeling the pinch. As Jeremy Clarkson might have said, public sector workers should perhaps spare a thought for those of us who don’t already enjoy their fairly generous pension arrangements. An announcement in George Osbourne’s autumn statement on Tuesday changed my retirement date from 2024 to 2026. Not only is that the date when I will now receive my state retirement pension, the date when Methodist Ministers are able to collect their full occupational pension was recently pegged to the state retirement pension age as well. So, if I want more or less the same pension I could previously have expected to receive at 65, I must now wait for at least another two years.
And then, of course, there’s the threatened melt down of the Euro, which promises to make the 2008 banking crisis look like a mere overture. The other day I tried to order some more Euros for our post office, where we sell them to holidaymakers, but Post Office Ltd - the people who run the network - were having none of it. ‘We’re trying to limit our exposure to the Euro,’ said the man on the other end of the phone, ‘In case things go wrong.’ In the end I persuaded him to let me have more 20, 10 and 5 Euro notes in exchange for most of our 50 Euro notes - no one wants them anyway.
And so I could go on, heaping one bad news story on top of another. But, funnily enough, a government report published this week also revealed that - at least as recently as last summer - most people in Britain were still feeling happy with their life. Perhaps that’s because, like my colleagues at work, they don’t watch the Channel 4 news, or any news programmes for that matter. Or maybe it’s because, as one expert suggested, when times are hard people have to put more reliance on relationships than on things, and if we’ve got good relationships with the people who matter to us it’s easier to feel happy even when the news is unremittingly bad.
Advent is supposed to be a time of joyful expectation. Instead, this year it’s a time of looming crisis, a crisis more serious perhaps than any when since World War II. How appropriate, then, that we read this Sunday the ancient prophecy of Isaiah, ‘Comfort my people, bring comfort to them. Proclaim that their term of bondage is served, for they have already received double measure for all their sins.’
Isaiah is clear that, no matter how deep the problems we may face, we human beings have only ourselves to blame. We are being punished for our own collective arrogance, short sightedness and greed. We assumed that every year things could go on getting better and better, that living standards would grow, that we could all enjoy longer and more prosperous retirements, and we were wrong.
But Isaiah is also clear that God is not going to abandon us. Instead, he has a message of comfort for us. God is coming to face the music with us, to stand alongside us, to help us and encourage us. And like the world’s major clearing banks pumping cheap cash into beleaguered European banks, the Lord God is coming in might to help us, lending us his powerful arm to protect and guide us.
So what is it that God can do for us to bring us comfort? I think Isaiah’s message is about the power of a personal relationship with God to bring us comfort even in the darkest of times.
He reminds us that we are as frail and fragile as grass or flowers, and our achievements - like our good looks - could so quickly and easily be gone and forgotten, just like a faded flower. ‘The grass withers, the flower fades, when the blast of the Lord blows on them.’ says the Prophet. And we might conclude, therefore, that God doesn’t care to save us; that we matter no more to him than a flower or a blade of grass. But, of course, Jesus said that God does care even for sparrows and wildflowers, and so he will care for us.
And Isaiah says that God will carry us in his bosom, and lead us to water, and shield us with his arm, tending us and looking after us like a gentle shepherd. In him, and in his word, we will endure for ever.
The worship resource Roots on the Web recommended that I should buy some locusts, which it said were readily available in supermarkets, and then do a blind tasting - a bit like the man in the TV documentary who gave his guests road kill to eat at a barbecue. Only after they had eaten the meat, and declared it very tasty, did he reveal that one of the dishes was actually squirrel. Or maybe it would have been more like the delicacies served up to celebrities in the jungle, except that they know what they’re eating. But then I asked myself, ‘What would be the point of giving you locusts to eat, even if they tasted lovely?’
John ate locusts and wild honey and people often say that this was in conscious imitation of the Prophet Elijah, but actually Elijah never ate a single locust in his life, nor is there any record that he ate honey. Like John, he did wear a trademark hairshirt fastened with a leather belt, but like Crocodile Dundee he would probably have advised that, while you can eat ants and grubs you really wouldn’t want to.
Locusts usually figure in the Bible as a symbol of disaster and destruction - they eat up propsperity, a bit like financial speculators. If John has taken to eating the locusts maybe it’s to make a point, that with God alongside us we can chomp our way through even the toughest of credit crunches and come out smiling.
None of this is to make light of the trouble we are in. It’s very real. But the Bible promises us that after John, the man who bit the heads off locusts, comes one who is mightier still, whose sandals he is not even worthy to stoop down and unfasten.
The Messiah, the Lord’s anointed, will baptise us with the Spirit, allowing us to find a relationship with God that is so strong and enduring that nothing will ever be able to separate us from his love.