Sunday, 9 December 2018

Comfort, forgiveness and redemption is at hand! An evensong sermon

First preached at Evensong on the Second Sunday of Advent at Croydon Minster. Readings: Isaiah 40.1-11; Luke 1.1-25.

Like many people, I have always found the opening of the Aria ‘Comfort ye, my people’ from Messiah by Handel, sends tingles down my spine: carried on the tenor voice, Isaiah’s words float out to the Holy City, Jerusalem.

The message: comfort, forgiveness and redemption is at hand!

How our world needs to hear that message today, not least Jerusalem herself. We are living in what has been described as an ‘age of anger’, an ‘age of upheaval’ and of disruption.

How our world yearns to hear that ‘[our] warfare is accomplished, that [our]
Iniquity is pardoned’.

And indeed for those reading Isaiah’s words in the light of the revelation of Christ we are bold to claim that those words are of global, and even universal application, as well as personal.

In St Luke’s gospel Isaiah’s words are directly applied to John the Baptist, our patron saint here at this Minster Church. John’s is ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (Luke 3.4).

But at the moment I am getting ahead of myself. For our reading from St Luke’s gospel has not yet taken us out into the wilderness, but rather it places us back in Jerusalem where, intriguingly, Luke’s gospel will end.

Isaiah’s message was, in the first place, to Jerusalem, because Jerusalem, the Holy City, is the place of encounter with God, focused in the Temple.

The Temple was both a physical and symbolic place of encounter with the very presence of God.

The Temple was a microcosm of creation and at its heart was the holy of holies, the place that only the priests would enter.

This was true in Isaiah’s day and into the time of Jesus Christ.

And so it was that Zechariah, an hereditary priest married to Elizabeth also of a priestly line, a descendent of Aaron the Priest, was on duty at the Temple.

Luke records it in a way that it reads as if this was all a bit by chance: Zechariah was at the Temple ready to serve, if need be, and was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary.

Placing on his priestly robes, Zechariah entered into the heart of the Temple, which was at the heart of Jerusalem, which is at the heart of the world. And there a transformation begins.

As Zechariah pours incense on to the coals of the brazier the angel of the Lord appears.

This is Gabriel; Gabriel, who will appear to the Blessed Virgin Mary to disclose God’s purposes for her as the Godbearer. But now Gabriel discloses to Zechariah that his son, born of Elizabeth, will be the Forerunner.

It is from the Temple in Jerusalem that the Forerunner, the one to prepare the way will come: as Gabriel declares, John will turn the hearts of people ‘to make a people prepared for the Lord’.

The centripetal pull of the Temple, drawing all into the focal point of Israel’s encounter with God is now being propelled outwards in a centrifugal action that embraces the whole world.

John is to prepare the people for the coming of God’s Messiah.

John is like the farmer who tills the soil to make it receptive and ready so that the seeds can grow: John prepares us so that the seed of God’s word will grow within us.

After John’s birth Zechariah’s tongue is unloosed and he speaks the words of the Benedictus, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who has come to his people and set them free’.

This is the new message of comfort to all God’s creatures, that now we may all be adopted by grace as God’s children.

After preparing us John then declares of Christ, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’

And this takes us back to the imagery of the Temple. The sacrificial Lamb is Christ the Lord.
John is the fulfilment of the prophets and of a priestly line because Jesus Christ becomes both temple and priest, the very presence of God in human flesh: as the hymn puts it ‘Thou on earth, both priest and victim in the Eucharistic feast’.

In the Temple the presence of God was believed to be on the Mercy Seat, flanked by the cherubim. We will come to see the presence of God laid in a manger, flanked by ox and ass.

In this child of Bethlehem, Jesus Christ, is all the fullness of God: our life, our hope, our salvation.

In Christ is a message of Good News to the ends of the earth, and lodging in our hearts.

Fear not: comfort, forgiveness and redemption is at hand!

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