Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
2nd Sun of Advent
St Barbara’s 10.12.17
Rev Tulo Raistrick
(This sermon was interspersed with songs from Handel’s Messiah)
When I was in my twenties, one of my house-mates had an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of pop music. The problem was that in any conversation, she could not help bursting into song when I would say the most basic of comments – “oh, look, its raining outside” would prompt one song or “what should we have for tea” would prompt another – because she would be instantly reminded of a song that shared similar lyrics. It was a great skill at parties and quiz nights, but less so over breakfast.
She was unusual, but I guess for all of us, there are certain phrases, certain lines, that just bring instantly to mind a piece of music.
Well if you are anything like me, you may find it impossible to hear the words of Isaiah 40 that we heard this morning without Handel’s Messiah coming to mind. Indeed the 11 short verses we heard contain no less than five pieces from the Messiah. So rather than trying to fight the music playing in our minds, I thought this morning I would allow the music to punctuate our reflections. It may encourage us to go away and listen or indeed sing it, something that may be far more inspirational than any sermon I am able to give.
Handel’s Messiah : Comfort ye, comfort ye my people
Comfort ye my people. Israel was in dire straits. In exile, hundreds of miles from home, Jerusalem and their homeland in ruins, the people of Israel must have wondered whether this was the end of their nation, their identity, even the end of their faith and their God. Imagine if Germany had won the Second World War, had successfully invaded England, had burned the Houses of Parliament and St Paul’s Cathedral to the ground, and had deported whole communities off to the Ukraine. That is the situation the people of Israel find themselves in.
And God’s first words to them are words of comfort, of love, of mercy. Much of the words of Isaiah leading up to the terrible events of exile had been ones of warning and judgment – turn away from your sin or else terrible things will happen. But now, there are no words of judgment, no “I told you so”. The first words are ones of love. “Speak tenderly”, God says to Isaiah. Those words are the language of wooing – literally “speak to her heart”. God is coming for his bride.
You may feel in a dark place today. But God says to each one of us, “Be comforted – I love you”.
Which leads us to our next piece from the Messiah, based on Isaiah 40 verse 3.
Handel’s Messiah: Ev’ry valley shall be exalted
In the days of Isaiah, the arrival of a great king or emperor would be preceded by a frenzied activity of road-building, ensuring that they could travel in pomp and circumstance, not having to wend their way along treacherous mountain paths, or potholed and bumpy tracks. Just like the arrival of the queen today may lead to roads being re-surfaced and everywhere given a fresh lick of paint, so in Isaiah’s day.
But there is one coming who is worthy of far more than that. One for whom the very mountains themselves should be levelled, the valleys lifted up. One for whom nature itself needs to get ready.
Isaiah is looking ahead to the coming of the Lord, the one who comes in glory. Whilst all humankind is as fleeting as grass, here is one whose Word stands forever.
Isaiah’s words were taken up by John the Baptist in preparation for the coming of Jesus, and have been taken up by the church ever since: we are to prepare our lives for the coming of the King. As we thought about last week, Advent is a period when we give particular attention to being ready. Am I going to put up road-blocks and barriers to God, or am I going to give him full access to my life?
And so to our third piece of Handel’s Messiah based on Isaiah 40:5.
Handel’s Messiah: And the glory of the Lord
“And the glory of the Lord will be revealed , and all flesh, all humanity, will see it.” These words of Isaiah open another extraordinary window onto the breadth of God’s love.
From a human point of view, the context is one where even God’s own people are beginning to lose their faith in God. The greatness of gods in the ancient world were determined by their success in war, and by that marker, Israel’s God was a total failure. The Babylonian people proudly processed their idols through the streets proclaiming the total dominance of their gods. And yet here Isaiah says God’s glory will be revealed. In an increasingly secular culture we too may be tempted to despair, to wonder whether we may be the ones who are deluded, mistaken. Isaiah encourages us to think again, to hold onto hope.
And from a spiritual point of view, Isaiah’s vision is extraordinary too. Previously in the Old Testament, God’s glory had only ever been revealed in the temple to the high priest in the holy of holies. Moses had only been allowed to see the back of God. But here Isaiah promises that God will reveal his full glory, and to all the world. Every person may come to see the glory of the Lord.
Isaiah exhorts his listeners to shout the news from the mountain-tops, to proclaim the good news. “Behold your God”. This is astounding news! Handel picks up the theme which you can follow in verse 9.
Handel’s Messiah: O thou that tellest good tidings
But throughout the Old Testament the question was rightly asked: how are we to behold the glory of God and live? Surely God is so holy, so powerful, so infinitely great, that we couldn’t possibly enter into his presence and live.
Isaiah gives us a preview of the answer in our reading, and begins to unpack it further over the next few chapters. For he describes God not as some all powerful warrior, but as one “who tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers them in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”
Here is an image of gentleness, of tender love, of compassion. It is also an image of vulnerability, of humility. Later, Isaiah will speak of the one who is despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and familiar with grief.
God will make himself known, in the weakness and vulnerability of the incarnation and the cross. God finds a way to show his love to us in the only way we can understand. It is a remarkable message and one we celebrate again this Christmas.
So now I have put the music in your heads, why not make listening to the whole of Handel’s Messiah part of your Advent preparations, and listen out for Isaiah’s words.