Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 6 December 2020.
• First Reading: Isaiah 40: 1-11 (Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God)
• Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13
• Epistle: 2 Peter 3: 8-15a (The Day of the Lord will come like a thief. Make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with Him)
• Gospel: Mark 1: 1-8 (Prepare the way of the Lord. I baptize with water. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit)
We have all become used to the phrase ‘strange times’ as we have had to adapt our lives and habits to the hazards of the Coronavirus pandemic.
We may be used to stories of wartime heroism and endurance but this is different for the dangers are hidden and silent, and any encounter could prove to be risky if not worse.
And then there are the approaching effects of Brexit and the implications of Scottish independence, neither of which seems to have been fully thought out.
And that is before we start thinking about the effects of climate change and the measures to avoid it and to mitigate its effects, the new range of international tensions, and the effectiveness of global organizations.
So yes, there is much in today’s world to cause alarm and confusion.
But then Isaiah, writing during the exile of Israel in Babylon, was urging the people not to lose heart. God had not given up on them even if they and their parents had been chastised.
This was the time to prepare and the Israelites would eventually be released by Cyrus the Persian to return home. The city walls of Jerusalem would be rebuilt and the Temple restored.
At a time of utter desolation, the people were being encouraged to renew their faith in God. God would not abandon them but would lead them home.
This is the scene in which Isaiah was urging, even outsiders, to speak words of comfort to His people. Times would change and the people would recover their land as they were already renewing their faith.
This was the time when some of the books of the Old Testament were being written and when the synagogues were starting, effectively as informal places of prayer and study.
In the midst of all their discouragement the people were already finding new expressions for their faith and for their lives together.
So in its way this was a Good News time and there were things to celebrate even in exile.
In both Peter’s letter and Mark’s gospel there is the same call to prepare.
Both were looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. Yes, in Peter’s letter the earliest disciples thought that Jesus would come again during their lifetimes, so long term planning was not advised.
But even in this they were still under that final commandment and the Great Commission to take the gospel to every land and people and language. Jesus would not return before this had been done. And even now the work is still incomplete.
But then there was that sense of personal preparation and it was there in the ministry of John the Baptist before Jesus made His public appearance.
As the people took hold of the hope of the coming – and the returning Messiah, so they were also being encouraged to make their personal preparations.
It would mean reasserting their faith in the gospel and as they did so, in naming their sins in the sight of the Lord and resolving to turn away from them.
It would mean a personal redirection and rededication. If Jesus had already consecrated Himself for His disciples in the world, then it was also there for the same disciples to renew their lives of faith before Him.
And this process would demand two aspects, later expressed by Mark.
First it was to repent. Second it was to believe. And they go together. One is be realistic about oneself.
But the other is to be realistic about God.
It would see and rejoice in the utterly radical and earth-changing initiative that God had taken in giving Jesus into and for the life of the world.
In this the words of Athanasius are there to lead us: The Father made of none; the Son not made or created but begotten; the Holy Ghost not made or created or begotten but proceeding.
God has acted in a way that is wholly sacrificial and self-giving and Jesus exerted every effort to go the cross for us and resisted every temptation to avoid it or to find another way.
And this was being done while we were still burdened by the compromises and corruptions of our sins and those of our communities.
So yes, as times get darker so the opportunity is there for the light to shine the more brightly, and the light of Jesus is there in the glory of the resurrection and its proclamation by His disciples.
It is the darkness that provides the scene for the light to shine. And that light is nothing less than the light that Jesus desires to kindle in His people.
It is the opportunity for faith to shine forth and this will happen as we also prepare the way of the Lord in our own hearts and lives. Now is a good time to start.