Comfort, comfort ye my people. Advent is the time when our hearts are lifted by Handel’s Messiah, and those moving words from Isaiah 40.3 we have heard today:
Prepare ye the way of the Lord; every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; and the rough places plain.
Isaiah prophesied in the 8thC BC in Judah and Jerusalem, but today’s reading is from what scholars refer to as 2nd Isaiah, 160 years later in 539BC, the year Israel’s 48-year captivity in Babylon was ended when Cyrus of Persia overthrew Babylon. It was a time of high hope for the exiled Jewish people, with the expectation that they would soon return to their homeland, which they did. The experience of the exiles captures the Advent theme of captivity and hope:
The glory of the Lord shall be revealed. Get ye up to a high mountain and cry: ‘Here is your God’, who will feed his flock like a shepherd.
We think of manifold captivities today:
In places like Nigeria, and Gaza, Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan and the Sudan, the sufferers from Ebola. Where is hope for God’s afflicted and innocent people?
In Aotearoa – the captivity of homelessness, poverty, children and parents living stunted lives deprived of the wherewithal to give kids a robust and confident start in life. Where lies hope?
Personal captivity of age, loneliness, illness, bereavement, loss of a job, breakdown in a relationship, lives devoid of meaning and purpose, or an uncertain future. Where is hope?
And there is the captivity of the comfortable, the captivity of complacency, self-satisfaction, which allows 65%of Kiwis to believe the poor have only themselves to blame. God comforts the afflicted, but afflicts the comfortable Are we among them? Is there hope for us also?
Advent is a time to reflect on our own captivities, past and present. What have been, or are, the times of captivity in our lives? And how did they end? Or do we wrestle with them still? I well recall some times in my life when I have felt up against a vocational brick wall – feeling I had come to an end of the job I was in, but seeing no way ahead. But new things emerged in a way I was not expecting, and which I can only see as the grace of God.
All our hope is quite simply in the Lord: The Lord comes with might, proclaims Isaiah, and Mark echoes the theme in his opening Gospel words. Mark spends no time on Jesus’ genealogy, or the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. He cuts right to the chase announcing the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God. And he follows up with those words of Isaiah: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
At once John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, calling the people to a baptism of repentance, of turning again to the Lord. John was a striking figure:
Clothed with camel’s hair, a leather belt around his waist; eating locusts and wild honey.
John did not dress in fine clothes or dine in rich palaces, but stripped away worldly pretensions to better proclaim his message. There was a mood of expectation as people from the whole Judaean countryside and Jerusalem went out to him. Captives under the occupying Roman regime and rapacious landowners and tax-gatherers, they flocked to the desert in hope of liberation. And baptising them in water, John pointed to One who was yet to come:
One who is more powerful than I, One who will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.
John’s baptism in water was a baptism of repentance, but Jesus’ baptism in the Spirit would draw people into direct communion with God. The Saviour, the ultimate source of all hope, was near. Here centrally and deeply is the source of our hope: our communion with the living God, mysterious, other than us, yet present in the fullness of light and love, hope for all people.
Rowan Williams has said that in prayer he feels attended to. Not the prayer of words, but prayer found in silence, stillness, waiting, opening ourselves to God’s spirit that fills us. When nothing around us seems clear, here is our hope, God who is light in our darkness, strength in times of weakness, One always present so that we are never alone.
But for those who enjoy the captivity of the comfortable, God offers a different path to freedom, a path that follows in the way of John the Baptist and Jesus, standing with the last, the least and the lost. I have kept the words of a poem I read from this pulpit in 1971. New in the role of industrial chaplain I was preaching at the annual Civic Service, attended by Mayor Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, and local body leaders. Rewi Alley, a Kiwi who spent 60 years of his life in China as an educator, writer and advocate for the workers, was revisiting his homeland and wrote this poem, Auckland:
Weekend, and comes the sound of motor-mowers clipping neat lawns street after street.
And in gardens fig trees, lemons and grapefruit bear richly, a myriad flowers throw out their fragrance...
And people speak of world problems as though such were no pressing concern of theirs;
go on thinking that more and more prosperity is just around the corner and that the end of life is just to be comfortable and happy, protecting their children from hardship.
… no sea so blue as that of Auckland, no gulls whiter, no youth more straight-limbed and eager, and truly no place where challenge is greater for the new Oceania to be.
Rewi Alley was a member of the China Communist Party, and his words are prophetic, a challenge to break the bonds of captivity. To that challenge, Isaiah adds the word of promise that the Lord will be with the people to break the bonds and bring new hope. And John speaks of the One who is to come, the One in whom is the hope of humankind, the chosen one who baptises with Holy Spirit.
In Advent we await in hope the coming of that One, Jesus the Messiah, who calls us to join in the work of liberation. And we wait recalling the words of our Gradual hymn, remembering that:
the slow watches of the night also belong to God; that already on the hills the flags of dawn appear; the dawn of the day when justice shall be throned in might; when knowledge hand in hand with peace shall walk the earth abroad; the promised day of God.