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Welcome to Advent; the season of waiting, preparation, anticipation and expectation. Over the next four Sundays, we will explore this season and reflect especially on the words of Isaiah in a linked four sermon series that will take us up to Christmas Eve and the celebration of Jesus coming into the world.
Curiously, although this is the first of these reflections, we begin this morning almost at the end of the book. The scene is set around 537 BC when the Babylonian empire is weakening and some of the exiles at least have returned to the area around Jerusalem. The city is still in the hands of the conquerors and life in Judah is hard. The temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 and so the Jews had been in exile for fifty years. This might well explain the vehemence almost of the prayer for divine deliverance born from the frustration of being exiled in a foreign land away from all the Jews held sacred in their lives.
“O that you would tear down the heavens and come down so that the mountains would quake at your presence”
Isaiah expresses his people’s desire that God should come, in all his power and glory, most especially to confound their enemies and make them tremble in His presence. This, to my mind, is an interesting tone of voice to use.
When I used to sing regularly in a choir, our choir leader, who was a professional opera singer and had thought hard about the roles she sang, used to say to us, “You must mean it. If you don’t mean it, don’t sing it!” There we were one day, singing an Advent hymn about the coming of Elijah and God and she stopped us in mid bar “Look,” she said “you are singing about the coming of God but I don’t hear it. What would you think if Jesus walked in that door and came up this aisle right now?”
Well, to be honest, that would be quite a scary thought, as I have said before, I am sure I am not ready and am certainly not worthy. There is much in the Gospels about being ready and vigilant; the wise virgins with their lamps, wicks trimmed and full of oil for example and we are encouraged to live each day knowing that Jesus’ return is imminent but then if that is so, why should we not then earnestly wish God to come as Isaiah does?
Having prayed for God to return and to return in an unmistakeable way, with quaking and fire, to make his name known to all, looking as it were for a second exodus for the exiles in the same way as his ancestors were led out of Egypt, Isaiah then goes on to remind them why they are where they are, why their God seems to have forsaken them anyway. The message is a very tough one; his answer is that the whole nation of Judah had fallen into spiritual disintegration.
“We have all become like one that is unclean. We all fade like a leaf” and most telling of all “You have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” In other words, he is saying that it is not the Babylonian’s fault; the people of Judah were not conquered so much by the Babylonians but by their own wickedness. But then Isaiah goes on:
“Yet O Lord you are our Father” so begins the final glorious prayer of this passage affirming that we will wait, that we are the clay and He is the potter that we are all the work of His hand and so we pray for this new Exodus but not an exodus not from Egypt or from Babylon but we pray to be delivered from ourselves and to do His will.