The Reverend Margaret Legg
Endless commercials this time of year are encouraging us to buy this and that.
There's a Curry's ad on at the moment.
A mother tells her children they will have a more traditional Christmas this year, sitting around the fireside, singing carols, having long conversations… the children’s faces droop.
"No," she goes on, "We’re not! Look here’s a spanking new TV. LED, top of the range, extra large!" And the retail assistant says: "It’s what Christmas is all about!!"
No! Not primarily about preparing to receive your new TV, it’s about preparing to receive God’s gift to us, preparing to celebrate the coming of Jesus.
Where are the prophets when you need them? They don’t lose the plot. Prophets speak on behalf of God. For them faith is not an academic study, it is not a contemplative pursuit to be followed in the cloister. It is to be proclaimed, defended, fought for, in the political and social arenas of the day. Prophets would NEVER keep politics out of the pulpit!
Often in the centre of public affairs, Isaiah was the counsellor and advisor of kings and statesmen. Prophets were often unpopular, because they speak truth to power, so sidelined. Actually that’s just the 1st Isaiah. There are 3 of them! A "major" prophet along with Jeremiah and Ezekiel…. Not "major" because important, but because his book is long. Then there are the 12 so-called "minor" prophets, all between 750 – 250BC. 1st Isaiah majors on gloom and doom – writing in Jerusalem before the Assyrian invasion and feeling he was the only one that knew it was coming.
Prophets are concerned about the gulf between rich and poor and how they are treated; care of the stranger, about corruption in high places. Nothing new there. Modern prophets are still not popular: Pope Francis keeping his distance and not living in the Vatican, because he is trying to tackle the corruption. Angela Merkel and her refugee policy, now struggling to retain her political power.
Have we spoken out with a prophetic voice? Do we know of any prophets – in our work places, neighbourhoods? What are they saying? My bete noir is plastic: carrier bags, one-use coffee cups, plastic free aisles in supermarkets... But I’m not very good at speaking out about it.
Which brings me to a second commercial, one that fills me with deep despair. It's for Greggs, and we see a Nativity scene with the usual suspects in place, except.. in the manger, a sausage roll.
Where are the prophets when you need them?
No we’re not just preparing for a major food binge – although statistics show that each person in the UK will consume an average of 5000 calories on Christmas Day and Boxing Day and my food shopping list is getting longer by the day. The heart of the matter is that we are preparing for the coming of Christ. And prophets are very good at getting to the heart of the matter and spelling it out.
"Take heart Margaret, comfort O comfort Margaret," (and all who are in despair) cries out Isaiah! There is a bigger picture here. God is greater than we can ever imagine. God is compassionate and we must be too. Isaiah brings a message of hope, not the blame game. Comfort. The words ring out. Take heart: strength (con forte), God is bigger than a sausage roll. God not only of wrath and judgement, to be terrified of, but also of love and mercy.
Today’s passage is not gloom and doom, quite the opposite! It's encouraging. The Jews are in exile in Babylon. Jerusalem is ruined, Judah no longer exists. (The 1st Isaiah was right!) They are more than homesick, they are in despair. It seems the gods of their conquerors are more powerful than Yahweh. Isaiah points out how God is at work to help. Yahweh will raise up Cyrus to set his people free. A way back to Jerusalem will be opened up for them. This is far more than another turn of events of international affairs. It is Yahweh’s work. He has raised up Cyrus in order to conquer the Babylonians and set his people free. And Yahweh will lead his people home as a shepherd leads his sheep. A second Exodus!
Centuries later, in our Gospel, John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets, brings hope to a people weighed down by yet another invading army – the Romans, pointing to the Lord, giving hope and vision to those around, reminding them that God loves them and cares about them and has not forgotten them.
So Andrew and Vanessa, as you bring up Matthew, remember to comfort him, not only with the milk and honey and even sausage rolls that he will need to grow strong physically, but also by telling him about God, who loves him and cares about him deeply. Read to him the stories of Jesus, pray with him, walk with him in his journey of faith. And as you face those toddler tantrums, endless questions, dilemmas, teenage rebellion, truth and all the riches of growing up, your reference points are these:
What would Jesus do?
What is the life-giving solution?
Are we being merciful?
How just is that decision?
What encouragement are we giving Matthew?
And for all of us I ask the question: Who do we encourage? To whom will we speak about the heart of Advent/Christmas – before tucking into our sausage rolls and watching the Downton Christmas special?