Each of these sets forges a connection between the prophet Isaiah and the birth of Jesus. This connection is crucial to understanding the significance of that birth, and the Epistle readings from Hebrews and Titus are chosen to make this clear. Thanks to modern scholarship, however, we now know something that the authors of those epistles did not know. Isaiah is really three books. Moreover, the authors of these three books (Chaps 1-39, 40-55 and 56-66) lived and wrote several hundred years apart – before, during and after the traumatic capture and exile of the Israelites in Babylon.
The editing of these materials into “one” book, however, is no accident. Whoever its editors were, they correctly perceived that the three books they stitched together, though composed centuries apart, were animated by the same spirit, and to a great extent the same theme. It is this. How is faith in God to endure across the vicissitudes of time and circumstance? This common theme makes it possible for the Old Testament readings for Christmas to be taken from all three. So, when John the Baptist asks Jesus if he is “the one who is to come”, he is making reference to a hope and a yearning that had persisted over a very long period of time, and across dramatically changing fortunes. This fact carries an important lesson for us about how we should view our own time and place, and the sort of timescale we should take to heart.
“A thousand ages in Thy sight, are but an evening gone” Isaac Watts reminds us in his paraphrase of Psalm 90. It is easy for us to confine the advent of the Messiah to the deeply intriguing and appealing, but brief, event that is the Nativity. While God’s saving work in his Messiah certainly began at Christmas, it was only thirty years later, after his death and Resurrection, that the birth of Jesus could be recognized, dimly, for what it was. Its full significance, Christians subsequently came to see, lay within the immensely vaster time scale of God’s redeeming history.
The key spiritual task at Christmas is twofold. We have to find a worthy way of acknowledging the extraordinary fact that in Jesus, God came to an earthly home. At the same time, we must avoid any inclination to domesticate Him. The theme of Christmas is that “He came and dwelt among us” so that, despite all our follies and weaknesses, human beings can be raised to God’s level. The danger of too 'homely' a Christmas is that, inadvertently, we reduce God to our level. The perfect innocence of Jesus makes our redemption possible, but it is not the innocence of a sweet little baby such as any of us might dote on. It is the innocence of one who turned the other cheek, gave his back to the smiters, and asked divine forgiveness for those who put him to death.
The strange and unwelcome circumstances in which we must celebrate Christmas this year present us with both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to mark the birth of the Saviour of the world with due reverence and attention. This is not easy when so much of what we normally do is forbidden. On the other hand, the stripped down form in which we are forced to celebrate Christmas this year gives us the opportunity to focus on it more clearly, deprived as we are of all the beautiful distractions and lovely extras by which Christmas is usually surrounded. The fierce restrictions imposed upon us also serve to give insight into the cataclysmic Exile around which the three books of Isaiah were written. How, the Jewish captives asked, shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?. This Christmas, we too are in a strange land and cannot sing. But we can take hope from the fact that the Exile eventually ended, and that it is possible for a faith that looks to God to persist, even in the greatest adversity.
John the Baptist features prominently in the Gospel readings for the season of Advent. Last week he was the subject of Mark’s Gospel, and this week, as in all three years of the Lectionary cycle, he is once again the subject, this time of John’s Gospel. If this were not enough, Christmas has barely ended before he appears again, on the first Sunday in Epiphany, for the celebration of the Baptism of Christ. So the Lectionary does its utmost to drive home the key role that John the Baptist has to play in understanding the significance of Jesus.
John stands in the long line of Jewish prophets and so forges a link between the promises revealed to Israel over hundreds of years, and the light that comes into the world with the Incarnation of God in Christ. The passages from Isaiah that provide the Old Testament lessons for this week and last have been chosen to underline this link. 'The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me'. So says Isaiah, and John can say just the same.
The image of John that the Gospel passages paint is very much in accord with the prophetic tradition from which he springs. Like almost all the prophets, he is an outsider, roughly dressed, existing on a strange and meagre diet, and proclaiming his message in ‘the wilderness’, which is to say, on the edge of human settlements, whose inhabitants must go beyond town and village limits to hear him. John the Baptist fits the people's preconception of how a prophet should be so well, it is only natural that they should wonder if he might be the promised Messiah.
In this week’s Gospel they ask him outright if he is – but he denies it, and famously points to ‘one who is coming after me’, the thong of whose sandal, he declares, ‘I am not worthy to untie’. The true Messiah, it turns out, differs very greatly from the traditional expectations of the prophet. The Gospels all depict Jesus, not as a voice in the wilderness, but an energetic teacher and healer in the heart of town life. He converses in busy streets, takes part in arguments, visits houses, sits at dinner tables -- even to the point of being accused of engaging too easily with the seedier side of urban life. His clothing, too, as the soldiers at his Crucifixion discovered, is fine enough to be wagered for.
In their depictions of John and Jesus, then, the four Gospels all implicitly invite us to engage in a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise. It is one that can prove highly instructive and illuminating. The Incarnation, which the Church is about to celebrate, is a unique event, unlike any other revelation of the ways of God. The Gospels do not in any way discount the importance of the prophetic tradition as embodied in John the Baptist. There is this crucial difference, though. The message which Christ at the end of his ministry commissions his disciples to preach, is that the salvation promised to Israel is now for “all the nations”.
This is just one aspect of the difference between the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, and the sharp contrast with John the Baptist is an indication early in Christ’s ministry that the 'true' messiah will not run 'true to form' --- as, in due course, the Cross and Resurrection will dramatically confirm.
The readings for the second Sunday in Advent in this year of the lectionary are unusually well integrated. The Gospel passage depicting John the Baptist expressly quotes the Old Testament passage from Isaiah, with its reference to ‘a voice, crying in the wilderness’, while the tone of Psalm 85 and the message of Peter’s second Epistle resonate with a similar theme -- the kind of faithfulness that looks to 'a new earth, where righteousness is at home'. In one way or another, then, all these readings point to two interconnected concepts -- repentance and restoration.
The interconnection is crucial. Modern Christians widely, easily, and for the most part correctly, proclaim that the steadfast love of God to which the Psalmist refers is not conditional. God does not love the things he has made because of their merit, but simply because they are his. Still, this steadfast love on the creator’s part is not always matched by faithfulness on the part of the created. Sin is a reality. It is easy to see that human pride, cruelty, foolishness and self-centredness erect barriers between human beings that are hard to overcome. But they erect no less of a barrier between humanity and divinity. We live in a world where it is evident that righteousness is not at home. Yet, the central message of the Gospel – as of many religions – is that despite appearances, this can change. The barrier between the human and the divine is surmountable. We have not shut ourselves off from God for ever, and one day, in the Psalmist’s compelling image, ‘righteousness and peace will kiss each other’.
Surmounting the barrier of sin, though, is a two sided affair. God’s love offers us forgiveness, however vile or despicable or foolish we may have been. In this sense divine love, unlike human love, is indeed unconditional. But God's forgiveness is not unconditional. It has a precondition -- sincere repentance. Without honest acknowledgement and true remorse for the many ways in which we have fallen short of our God-given potential, we remain 'tied and bound by the chain of our sins', as the Book of Common Prayer puts it.
Peter’s Epistle expresses just this thought when it declares that God’s love is shown by his patience, ‘not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance’, while Mark's Gospel in a similar spirit offers ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. Repentance, however, also brings into play a deeper dimension. It is key to lifting us beyond the level of material beings created and nurtured out of love – which is what plants and other animals are. It draws us up into the realm of beings who uniquely in all Creation have the potential to participate in divine life.
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