Sermon preached by Revd Karen Charman on the Second Sunday of Advent, 6th December 2020 via Zoom.
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God …” The beginning of one of many beautiful, hope-filled, passages in Isaiah.
When I hear those words, I’m transported back in time to a short break I took in Birmingham, one December – perhaps around 2007. Martin and I went to the Eucharist at Birmingham Cathedral, where we heard one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard, beginning with those beautiful words from Isaiah. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the content now, and the preacher preached without using a script, so I wasn’t able to download it from the Cathedral website later … but I was mesmerised as I heard those words, “Comfort, O comfort my people,” and listened to the preacher speak eloquently and passionately on this beautiful passage from Isaiah.
Today, on Zoom, that Cathedral, with its beautiful Burne-Jones windows, a large congregation, joining the choir in singing Advent carols and hymns seems like a different world … I’m sure we all long for the days when we can safely worship in crowded cathedrals and churches, and sing our favourite carols and hymns. But perhaps our longing – for a ‘normal’ Advent and Christmas – links us to the long line of Old Testament patriarchs and prophets who longed for God’s promises to be fulfilled?
This morning, we lit our second Advent candle, for the prophets and for peace. My first thought was that prophets and peace don’t really sit very well together. Prophets speak the Word of God to his people, and the prophetic voice is often disturbing … challenging … agitating … rousing us out of apathy and demanding that we speak out on issues of justice, poverty and oppression, to name but a few.
The prophet’s voice is one that cries out, with a sense of urgency. The prophet’s message is often a call to action, a call to repentance, a call for us to return to the Lord. The prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel … John the Baptist, and others – don’t strike me as peace-makers, and don’t seem to have enjoyed peaceful lives. Their messages caused controversy, they divided opinion, and they were often unpopular with the political leaders and rulers of the day. Prophets risked imprisonment and, frequently, death, for their commitment to speaking God’s word to those wielding power and influence.
I wonder where we hear the prophetic voice today? Where we have heard a voice crying out in the wilderness? Where we have heard a voice crying out for justice, this year?
Perhaps, like me, your thoughts turn immediately to the Black Lives Matter campaign, and to those who cried out for justice and equality after the death of George Floyd in May?
Perhaps, like me, your thoughts turn to the LGBTQIA+ community, and to Jayne Ozanne and others who cry out for equal marriage, for an end to conversion therapy, and an end to teaching and preaching that is harmful to many in our congregations.
Perhaps, like me, your thoughts turn to Amnesty International, and other organisations that campaign for human rights?
Perhaps, like me, your thoughts turn to those who spoke out against the recent government decision to cut our overseas aid, or international development budget?
Perhaps, like me, your thoughts turn to the growing voice calling Christians and churches to care for God’s creation – including our own Diocesan Synod, who, earlier this year, declared a climate emergency, and the aim to achieve net-zero emissions across the Diocese by 2035.
As Christians, I believe, we are called to be prophetic – to listen and watch for God’s word, and to listen and watch for signs of God’s kingdom – and, like John the Baptist and the Old Testament prophets – to share God’s word with his people.
I wonder where God is calling you to be prophetic today?
I wonder where, or how, he is calling you to cry out against injustice?
I wonder where he is calling you to be a lone voice?
And I wonder where God is calling us, as a Benefice, to be prophetic?
Where, or how, is God calling us to create a way in the wilderness … a highway for our God?
Of course, the prophet’s voice isn’t always one of protest, challenge and dissent. The prophet isn’t always a sower of discord and discontent.
The prophets do also speak a message of peace, and words of comfort and joy.
Although neither of today’s readings contain the word ‘peace,’ we do have that beautiful peaceful image of the Lord:
“[feeding] his flock like a shepherd;
[gathering] the lambs in his arms,
and [carrying] them in his bosom,
and gently [leading] the mother sheep.”
We have those lovely words, “Comfort, O comfort my people …”
And, elsewhere, in Isaiah, 9:6-7, the prophet proclaims God’s promise of the coming reign of a Prince of Peace:
“For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.”
Then there’s the beautiful promise of peace, good news and salvation, in Isaiah 52:7,
“How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’
8 Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
9 Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people …”
And, in Isaiah 55:12,
“For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
Prophets proclaim God’s word to his people – often words of challenge, as God calls, and cries out, to a people who will not listen … to a people who wilfully walk the wrong way, and wander in the wilderness, where temptation awaits. But God’s will for his people is peace – peace and joy; love and light; and abundant life.
And we, too, like the Old Testament prophets, are called to listen for God’s word, to watch for his coming, and to speak God’s promise of peace, of comfort, and of joy, to a world which dwells in darkness, and longs for light.
Last week, I encouraged us all to make, “Come, Lord Jesus,” our prayer, or mantra, for Advent.
Today, I encourage us also, like the prophets of old, to listen and to look, or watch – to listen for God’s word, and to watch for signs of Christ’s coming.
Pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” then listen and look for the answers to that prayer – and cry out in the wilderness of the world that the Lord is coming, coming to comfort his people, and to establish his kingdom of peace and justice for all.
I’d like to end with a few lines from one of the prayers suggested for the lighting of the second candle on our Advent wreath:
“People of God: be glad!
Your God delights in you,
Giving you joy for sadness
And turning the dark to light.
Be strong in hope therefore;
For your God comes to save.”
Our Lord says, “I am coming soon.”
Even so, come Lord Jesus.
 Revelation 22.20