Since the publication of the New English Bible, now over 50 years ago, I’ve been a strong advocate for the modern translations. But for some passages you just must have the old Authorized Version, the King James Bible. And today’s Old Testament reading is surely one of them.
When I realized that it was Isaiah 40 verses 1 to 11, I was tempted to abandon any idea of a sermon and rig up here in the pulpit a CD player to play the five, yes five, famous, marvellous pieces from Handel’s Messiah based on this short passage. Soon you may be saying, “I wish he had.” For many of us, I’m sure, their words and their tunes are embedded in our souls.
"Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God" – the very first words of the oratorio.
"Every valley shall be exalted; every mountain and hill made low."
"And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed."
"O thou that tallest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain."
And, "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd."
These words from Isaiah come from a particular historical setting. In 597BC King Nebuchadnezzar had invaded and conquered Jerusalem and had then taken half its population, including the leading citizens, into exile in Babylonia. They were captives and essentially slaves 700 miles from home, and by the time of Isaiah 40 they’d already been there 40 years. A generation had died and was being replaced, and if it hadn’t been for that stubborn nationalism which has always been a characteristic of the children of Abraham, they would long since have lost their identity. But they continued to be proud to be Jews, committed to the Jerusalem many of them had never seen, praying to return home.
Now a new message of hope had come to them: Comfort ye and prepare ye the way of the Lord; make in the desert a highway, a straight and level and smooth highway for our God. It was music in their ears. Tomorrow in Jerusalem – hope, expectation, advent.
And the Advent theme was the point of the New Testament reading from the Second Epistle of Peter. "The day of the Lord will come like a thief." Jesus is no thief of course, but his advent, like that of the burglar, will have no previous announcement, no warning.
There is of course for us all that ultimate coming when he arrives to take us, in St John’s words, to that place which he has prepared for us, so that we may be where he is. But Advent also reminds us that we ought generally to be on the look-out for him here and now. He can, he does, come in all sorts of guises. If we look with expectant eyes, we may recognize him in a distressed neighbour or a needy stranger. Yet he comes not only in cries for help, ways which challenge our conscience, but also in happy and cheerful moments, in family gatherings, in thank-you smiles. Jesus, remember, was a party-goer: he could be a gate-crasher.
And then there’s today’s Gospel from St Mark. Though second in the New Testament, Mark’s was the first to be written and then used as a major source by Matthew and Luke. And I love the directness of his opening; no messing about, no preamble: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Good news – gospel. Christ – the Greek word for Messiah.
Thank goodness we’ve got those stories of Jesus’ birth given by Matthew and Luke. We could manage without them, like Mark did. The lack of them wouldn’t really diminish our understanding of Jesus or the purposes of God or the call to the Christian way of life. But without them we’d also have to manage without Christmas. And we could, like the puritans did in the 17th century, but what a lot we’d be missing!
And Mark, having made his opening statement, plunges straight into the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord, taking us directly back to Isaiah 40. All the gospel writers link those words to St John the Baptist, the Advent saint.
He was a strange man of course, an uncomfortable character. He was a crank in his own day, wearing the outmoded clothes of the prophets of old, living without a hint of luxury in and off the desert, a loner – no party goer he; no booze at all! Thank goodness, thank God, Jesus our example was so very different, so much so, that his critics accused him, unfairly of course, of being a glutton and a drunkard.
But John was also a compelling figure: you couldn’t ignore him. Crowds flocked to hear his stern warnings. Repent, he said, turn your back on your present way of life and redirect yourself along the highway to God. And be baptized, washed clean for a fresh start. And vast numbers submitted themselves to being dipped at hid hand under the Jordan water.
It was a one-man religious revival which prepared the way for the advent of the Messiah. John was the warm-up man for the star of the show. That’s exactly how he saw himself. The limelight wasn’t for him, but for the one who was to come. "I am not fit," he said, "to get down on my knees to fasten his sandals."
Well, what about us? We’re in the run-up to Christmas, two and a half weeks to go. We’re getting ready to celebrate with great cheer that first coming of Jesus the Messiah. But also let us keep our eyes open to see where we may get a glimpse of him in others – others in need, and others in joyfulness. And then let us respond in appropriate ways – generous, or maybe simply praise.
And this Advent we too can prepare the way of the Lord. People do talk about Christmas and that gives us an opportunity – gently, subtly – to remind them of what it’s really about. God came and God comes and God will come in Jesus. That’s the reason for the season.
Prepare ye the way of the Lord.