Sermon preached by Revd. Hazel White, 10 December 2017

Advent 2, St Mary’s 8am and 10am

Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8

Today in our Advent journey the church traditionally remembers the prophets: those who foretold the coming of Jesus Christ, God’s messengers, those through whom God spoke. In the opening verses of Mark’s Gospel we are introduced to John the Baptist, the last in a long line of prophets, sent to prepare the way for Jesus. I always imagine John the Baptist as a wild and eccentric character, living hand to mouth in the desert, dressed in slightly strange clothing, and speaking words of challenge, confronting people with the need to change their ways. But more about John the Baptist next week, when the lectionary focuses on John.

Today we remember the prophetic tradition in which John stood, a tradition that set the scene for the coming of Jesus in whom was the fulfilment of all the hopes and dreams of the Old Testament prophets. Old Testament prophets spoke words of challenge, warning people of what would happen if they turned their back on God and lived godless lives, as well as looking forward to the time when God would act decisively to bring about salvation for humankind and for the whole world.

I believe that Christians are called to continue that prophetic tradition today as we speak into our contemporary culture, although the words and images we use will need to be very different from those of the Bible, because we live in different times and in a very different culture.

But it’s worth asking ourselves the question: what is the essence of the good news that we are called to proclaim today? There is still a need for prophetic challenge, to confront injustice, and to call people to a change of heart and a change in the way lives are lived. But if we go back to the words of our Old Testament Reading, words spoken by the prophet Isaiah to offer hope to a people in Exile, a people who had suffered greatly, and were longing for restoration and peace, we also find there words of comfort:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God, speak tenderly to Jerusalem…

And then, in verse 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…

I’m sure we will all have experienced times in our lives when we need words of comfort, and when we need to know the gentle presence of another. Those of us who live alone, however busy or fulfilled our lives, may, I guess, be all too familiar with that sense that sometimes we just long for the comforting presence, and the gentle words of encouragement, of another human being.

Isaiah tells us that such comfort comes to us in the gentle presence of our God. Perhaps some of you, like me, feel sometimes that the promise of God’s presence is a poor substitute for the more tangible and concrete touch of another human being.

The Incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas tells us that God came to dwell amongst us as a human being in the person of Jesus Christ: God came in the vulnerable baby who knew what it was to need the comfort and gentleness of a mother’s touch; God was present in the vulnerable adult who suffered more than any of us will ever know on the cross, crying out when it seemed that all was lost and he had been abandoned by those upon whom he had depended; and God came in the resurrected Christ who walked the dusty road with those who were grieving, speaking words of peace to those who thought that all was lost.

This morning’s prayer for the lighting of the second candle on the Advent wreath reminds us that, just as the Israelites in Exile were not abandoned by God, neither are we, even when we perhaps feel that we are: ‘we light a candle of promise, to remember we are not alone, not abandoned, not lost, but held in the promise of God’s love’.

And the truth of the incarnation means that God is still present in human flesh today: surely this is the Good News that we are called to proclaim, not only with words, but through our lives and in all that we are.

This Advent I set myself a challenge to look for signs of God’s presence even, and perhaps especially, when it seems there aren’t any. It’s amazing what you do see when you open your eyes and your heart to look: this week I had a colleague gently administering first aid after I’d managed to slip over on the pavement on my way to church, as well as a church member from St Anne’s very kindly raking up all the leaves on my front drive; sure we could say that those things are just acts of simple human kindness, and on one level perhaps they are, but if we believe that God is in any sense present in our lives, then we should also see that God does come to us today through the kindness and attentiveness of one another.

How about you? Where might you experience God’s gentleness and God’s comfort today? And, how might you be a source of comfort to others? We do so in faith that the God who spoke words of comfort to a people in Exile, and the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ, still comes to us in the gift of one another today, as well as in the gifts of the bread and wine that we shall shortly share.