Sunday 10th December 2023 ~ Rev Dugald Wilson

Isaiah chapters 1-39 in a nutshell….

The book of Isaiah is often read in church during the Advent season.  I think it is because there are references to a messiah, and new leader sent by God who will bring about the great hope and dream of an earth that is a place of peace and harmony for all life.  Indeed the early Christians often turned to Isaiah as they reflected on the life of Jesus.  Jesus was this messiah, the prince of Peace, the Holy Light of God shining in the darkness to lead us to shape a better society and a better earth.

I want to dig a little deeper this morning.  Isaiah was a prophet.  That means he had a hot line into the heart and mind of God.  He clearly believed God had a hand in shaping human history and in the events that we would call world news.  He also believed that God’s chosen people, the descendants of Abraham, had a unique role in being representatives of God, people who would exemplify God’s truth.  They would show other nations what true and good  life looked like.

In Isaiah 6 we read of Isaiah’s call to speak for God, which is clearly dated in the reigns of King Uzziah.  We can date this to 738 BCE.  We sing of Isaiah’s call in the song “Here I am Lord” in which we are challenged to follow in Isaiah’s footsteps and be the voice and presence of God. 

Isaiah though had some hard messages from God.  He spoke of judgment.  The people of God had turned from God and lost their way.  “Oxen and donkeys know who owns them and feeds them, but my people have forgotten their God”, he laments.   Isaiah is a master of using poetic images to tell the truth.  In another painful image paints a shocking picture of the society he was part of……”From the sole of the foot and even to the head there is no soundness of body,  but there are bruises and sores and bleeding wounds that have not been washed or bound up or treated with healing oil.”  Isaiah saw a nation in ruins for even the natural environment was being laid waste with fire destroying cities, no doubt referring to the presence of foreign powers invading the land, but in our time might refer to the effects of climate change. 

It seems God’s chosen people continued to offer worship, but Isaiah proclaims their sacrifices and worship are meaningless.  And why?  Because there is no moral integrity.  ‘Jerusalem’, says Isaiah, ‘you are like an unfaithful wife.  Once your judges were honest, and your people lived right;  now you are a city full of people who show no respect for others.  You deal in dishonesty, your rules are only interested in money, and widows and orphans never get a fair trial.’  It seems there was a rich elite who lived in multi million dollar homes and paraded around in their fine clothes, full of themselves and the latest crazes, but caring little for the greater good of all. …  Again Isaiah observes…“The women of Jerusalem are proud and strut around winking shamelessly.  They wear fancy jewellery that jingles and says look at me!“   And there lies the nub of the problem…. Look at ‘me’.  The sense of being a collective with responsibilities to care for others had gone, sunk in a mess of liberal individualism, and what’s in it for ‘me’ culture.

And the consequences… Isaiah prophesied.  Unless there was change there would be ….Doom…  Destruction… Desolation.    I cant help drawing parallels with our own time.  Chief executives of city councils and their henchmen need to have their salaries sliced massively because the job isn’t about money but public service.  Likewise the salaries of executives in the business world. For the sake of the planet economies needed to be focused not on growth and more consumption, but on sustainability for all.  People need to understand they are accountable to something bigger than themselves, and for good communities to be nurtured personal and community morality and responsibility matters.  Personal freedom needs to be balanced with consideration for the wellbeing of all.

Of course no-one really listened to Isaiah  the inevitable happened.  Doom….Destruction…. Desolation….The  Assyrian Empire overran the northern kingdom of Israel with the capital Samaria falling in 722 BCE and the southern kingdom of Judah became a client state. Worse was to follow when the Babylonian Empire laid siege to Jerusalem about 120 years later and in 597 BCE large numbers of Jews were taken in captivity to Babylon in what is known as the Exile.  The core of the Jewish faith, The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and the people were left bereft.  All that they believed in and stood for seemed to have been reduced to ashes.  Their homes reduced to rubble, loved ones killed, their sense of nationhood gone as many were taken as slaves.  A bleak future dawned for the Hebrew people. Even God had seemed to have deserted them as their lives lay in ruins. We know something of this as we look at our own Christian presence in a post religion world.  Churches are now a powerless remnant in a society that worships other gods.  The plight of the Hebrew people was recorded in Psalm 137…and made popular by BoneyM…and it rings true for us.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion

There the wicked
Carried us away in captivity
Required from us a song
Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Isaiah though always made it clear that God’s door was always open if the people truly desired to find life, were prepared to let go of what was, and seek a new future with God.

And so he could prophesy, “When the Spirit is given to us from heaven, deserts will become orchards thick as fertile forests.  Honesty and justice will flourish there, and justice will produce lasting peace and security”   I wish the current leaders of Israel could understand this…. Bombs may win the battle but the war will not be won, and peace will not be found, without justice for the oppressed Palestinian people.  But I digress…

In Exile the people of God did turn to God again.  In the strange land they discovered God was not confined to a Temple or even a particular land, but out of their sense of hopelessness they found new hope and meaning.  Just how that happened we don’t know, although I suspect there were many many discussions, much searching and questioning, and very open honest conversations.  In desolation they turned to one another.   They were humbled and brought low and from the ashes of defeat new life as a community emerged and they understood afresh that God had a role for them in the ongoing history of humanity.   The haughty women of Jerusalem who were concerned only for themselves found new hope in actually shaping a new community of people who genuinely cared for each other.

Isaiah Chapter 40

At the 40th chapter of Isaiah the tone changes.  Instead of Doom and Destruction Isaiah is told to speak of comfort.  Addressing the people who are now in Exlie he speaks of hope.   Scholars think it is now disciples of the original Isaiah that speak.  Let’s listen to these words…

Isaiah 40:1-11
40:1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
40:2 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.
40:3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
40:4 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.
40:5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
40:6 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.
40:7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.
40:8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
40:9 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!”
40:10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
40:11 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.

The voice of Isaiah is telling the people in Exile they are going home.  They have rediscovered each other, rediscovered God, and the promise of the voice of Isaiah is that God will lead as a shepherd leads his sheep back across the desert to begin again.  The people have regained their senses and a truer picture of how they need to treat each other, and their place before God.  Isaiah reminds them they are like grass, created, not gods.   God was announcing that a new chapter of life was about to begin.  And we know this is actually what happened.  Cyrus a new ruler in Babylon adopted a new policy of respect for other religions and set the Hebrew people free to return to Jerusalem to continue to rebuild their faith.  New leaders like Ezra and Nehemiah were raised up to bring the people back into communion with God and each other and indeed Jerusalem was rebuilt.  The Hebrew nation was again to shine with the light of God, a beacon of hope for all people.

Mark 1:1-8

When Mark began writing his gospel about Jesus, Isaiah was in his brain.  The time was now when a repeat of Isaiah 40 was about to happen.   There were no birth stories for Mark, just a launching straight into the guts of things.  ‘See’, he said ‘God is doing a new thing, making a new path across the desert to lead people into the way of true life’. Wake up, take note, God is about to act. Let go of life as it is, take a new direction, make a new path through the desert away from destruction and doom, God is leading us home again.

Mark 1:1-8

John the Baptizer

1-3 The good news of Jesus Christ—the Message!—begins here, following to the letter the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.

Watch closely: I’m sending my preacher ahead of you;
He’ll make the road smooth for you.
Thunder in the desert!
Prepare for God’s arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!

4-6 John the Baptizer appeared in the wild, preaching a baptism of life-change that leads to forgiveness of sins. People thronged to him from Judea and Jerusalem and, as they confessed their sins, were baptized by him in the Jordan River into a changed life. John wore a camel-hair habit, tied at the waist with a leather belt. He ate locusts and wild field honey.

7-8 As he preached he said, “The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life. I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism—a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit—will change you from the inside out.”

I guess most of you have heard the passage many times before, but this Advent I think it’s particularly poignant.   The Middle East is poised to explode over the Israeli brutality in Gaza and the West Bank.  Climate Change is happening with increasing severity and we continue to shrug it off.  Growth economics with demands for increased consumerism is leading the world into destruction.  Locally we see the politics of individualism being played out as demands for the freedom of the individual take precedence.  Restrictive laws about smoking are repealed because the individual must be free to make their own choices and I guess because the government needs quick money. 

The words from Mark that I have been wrestling with over this last week are the words about making straight the path through the desert.  What does that look like for us?  How do we move along the road towards the home that God seeks to establish on this earth?

The simple religious answer is of course Jesus.  We need to elevate Jesus in our lives and in our life together as a Christian community.  We need more conversation about Jesus and the abundant life he promises.  I believe this.  As Christians we do not utter the word Jesus often enough, we do not discuss and what Jesus means for us, we do not seek to discern the way of Jesus in 2023… other than we should be nice to each other.  We may be a ‘do good’ community, but we should be a Jesus community. 

How often do you seek the way of Jesus each day?   When you map out your day or make a decision about using your resources and gifts, or purchasing something does Jesus influence this?  How strongly does Jesus and the new kingdom he talked about really influence your life/our life together?  Do we have a strong sense of being a disciples and followes of Jesus…the body of Christ in this place? 

The more nuanced answer about the road is to offer a word from the Spirit.  And that word is simply the need,, like the people of Jerusalem in the time of Isaiah, to recapture a sense of ‘We’.  When Covid struck ‘we’ became important.  People looked out for one another especially the vulnerable.  Neighbours actually met neighbours.  There was time to converse with each other.  Suddenly there was a revolution of priority.  For a few months we lived out what William Wordsworth called ‘the best portion of a good mans life, his little nameless unremembered, acts, of kindness and love.’  And we discovered as is always the case that though lifting others we ourselves are lifted.  How quickly this has dissipated and we have returned with vengeance to the blinkered world of ‘what’s in it for me?’  Electronic media with its faceless contact is partly to blame as Donna Miles reminded us in her excellent article in Monday’s Press.  Put simply she was saying we have to seek out people who have differing views to ours and engage in dialogue.  It has to be face to face.  It doesn’t mean we have to agree but we do need to engage and respect.  This will involve sacrifice.  Jesus called this the way of peacemaking.   On a wider scale the sacrifice is understanding that my freedom will be curtailed by the greater collective wisdom.  This wisdom will often be expressed in rules and regulations.  We need rules to play a game of footy, or to drive on the road.  Without them our activity becomes chaos.  But can you imagine we could manage a country wide lock down for the good of all ever again.   The sense of pulling together has been replaced with a chorus of competing interests in the name of individual freedom.   We wither and die like grass in the field?…. I don’t think so…. We like to think we are much more important than that, and we certainly don’t warm to the idea that we are responsible to something beyond ‘me’!

True liberal democratic freedom is collective and depends on self restraint.  A society in which everyone feels free to do what they want is not a free society at all.  It is anarchy.  Watch this space.

We have something very special contained within this community.  A sense of togetherness and a sense of compassion and caring.  We understand the importance of ‘we’.  Our understanding is far from perfect, and we are still poor at handling the inevitable conflicts, or welcoming the stranger who is different, or as I said earlier including the active challenging presence of Jesus.  But we are on that road through the desert.  I encourage you to keep walking on this road together…for your own good, but also for the good of the wider community and all the earth.   The light of Jesus that guides us is a light that moves us from a ‘me’ centred life to a ‘we’ centred life.  It is a light that has grown dim…. So we need to shine like a beacon, a lighthouse, as God’s people to help a lost world find a way home.  WE…. a beacon of hope and peace.