Your God is Here!
Isaiah is given access to the heavenly council. He is allowed to overhear a conversation between the heavenly beings. He doesn’t hear God speak directly, but what he does hear comes with the authority of God. After they have spoken one of the Heavenly beings turns to him and commands:
Isaiah is told by one of those who exist in the presence of God to preach. Isaiah’s response is one that is probably recognised and even uttered by every preacher faced with making an announcement to God’s people, as they must:
“What shall I cry out?”
Very few people have had the privileged access to the heavenly places that Isaiah receives. Even those of us who are required on a regular basis to speak about and for God can’t know God and God’s intention to the degree that Isaiah does. At some point all of us, the whole people of God, will have to speak of what we know of God, share our experience of the divine. For every believer there will come a point where we must say: “What shall I cry out?” It is a matter always of having some experience of what God is like, what God has done, is doing or will do, and speaking of that. Whether we are preaching, interpreting the scripturesfrom a pulpit Sunday by Sunday, or sharing something of our testimony intimately with trusted loved ones, the challenge is the same, what must we say about and for God?
Fortunately Isaiah records the answer he receives to that question, and it is answer which might apply as the underlying foundation for all our conversation about God:
“All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. . . but the word of our God will stand forever.”
Perhaps one thing that is most consistent of our experience is that of constant change. What it has been like for us to live through the modern era has been an experience of constant and accelerating change. Nothing stays the same. We for the most part experience this negatively. Nothing can be relied upon, often people least of all. There is, as the heavenly being points out to Isaiah, something transitory, passing about human existence. One minute we are here, flourishing and glorious like a beautiful flower, and the next we are gone. But, there is more to this than just angst and our fear of loss.
There is a Persian adage: “this too shall pass” The legend that goes with the saying suggests that there once was a Sultan who asked his wise men to come up with a saying which would be true and appropriate at all times and every situation. His wise men came up with: “And this too shall pass away.” The Sultan had the words inscribed on a ring so that he could always look at it, and in moments of triumph and pride be returned to humility and reality. But the words also apply in times of loss and sorrow, for these too will pass. The wise men arrived at essentially the same insight as the one given to Isaiah by the heavenly being. The changeableness of our existence is not entirely negative. Even the bad things will pass away too.
Advent is a time in which we look forward, and look forward to change, something new that is about to happen. In an Advent which comes at then end of year in which we have had so much difficult, and we have been trapped in a seemingly endlessly locked-down state of existence, it is important for us to hear, that this too will pass. God is about to do something new!
But this is because behind the transience, the impermanence of the human condition lies the constancy of God. Isaiah is given more than the Sultan’s wise men discovered:
“The word of our God will stand forever.”
The situation in which we as human beings have to express our faith is constantly changing. But one thing never changes, the constancy of God. So whilst Isaiah is given an insight into the changeableness of what it is to be human, he is also given an insight into what it is to preach or to share our faith. That is to set against the changeableness of the human condition the constancy of God. How the news of God sounds depends on where we find ourselves in those cycles of change. I said last week that some years in Advent we have to hear the sharpness of John the Baptists demand to repent and turn back to God. In other years we need to hear the comforting words of Isaiah, and this is one of those years.
The conversation which Isaiah has overheard in the heavenly court gives precisely that message:
“Comfort, O comfort my people says your God.”
One of the heavenly beings is telling others that God has announced that it is time for them to comfort his people. Another moment of change has arrived. The situation of God’s people is about to pass into a new phase. For decades the people of Israel have been stuck in exile in Babylon. They were taken there after Jerusalem was conquered and Israel’s independence came to an end. During those decades they had grasped that this was a consequence of their failure to remain faithful to God. They were victims of their inconstancy, their inability to remain true and consistently committedto the covenant they had with God. But the announcement in the heavenly council makes it clear, that time of exile has come to its end. For all their unfaithfulness God still says of them “my people”. In the past they may have broken with God, but God has never broken with them. And now their time of suffering is ending. The consequences of their actions have fully played out. Indeed the pendulum has already swung too far the other way. But this too shall pass.
A second voice in the heavenly council speaks. It tells the others we needs to be done now:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
The traditional focus of the second Sunday in Advent is John the Baptist. And this reading from Isaiah is particularly associated with him. It is because, ina creative partial misquote of these words, the first Christians recognised that John obeys this commandment made in the heavenly council. Mark beginning his gospel declaresthat John is:
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness. . .” (Mark 1:3)
Everybody knows that John’s voice spoke, out in the wilderness, beside the river Jordan. He seems to fit Isaiah’s prophecyperfectly. And with the addition of an ingeniously implied comma between “wilderness” and “prepare” he does. Mark is not wrong to do this. Since John does clearlyprepare the way for the coming of Jesus. Which is why of course he comes to our minds in the run up to Christmas. But at the moment these words word spoken something else was in mind as well.
The usual route from Babylon back to Jerusalem was around not through the wilderness. It involved a journey that started out travelling north-west which gradually turned left, bending first west and eventually south. God has something else in mind for his people. He will come and retrieve them by the most direct route possible. Not just straight there, but every obstacle in the path will be levelled out too. The change which God promises his people is dramatic. Their circumstances will be utterly transformed, and in the most astonishing fashion. What God does for his people makes everyone else sit up and pay attention. God makes himself known inthe transformations he brings about in the lives of those who trust him.
“The word of our God will stand forever.”
And this is the moment at which Isaiah the prophet begins the second phase of his ministry. He gives comfort to the exiles who are about to find out that their suffering is ending. Having overheard the conversation in the heavenly court Isaiah goes to his people and announces:
“Here is your God!”
Perhaps what is striking is that despite the uniqueness of the moment the message which is spoken remains the same. Whatever circumstances God’s people find themselves in, good or bad, in faithful suffering or forgetful complacency, the same word is spoken. What the heavenly being declare is true:
“The word of our God will stand forever.”
Not only is this the announcement which Isaiah makes, it is also essentially the same announcement which John the Baptist makes:
“Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”(Matthew 3:2)
Which in the context of John’s speaking sounds like a sharp rebuke. In the context of complacency and unfaithfulness the idea the God is near does sound quite threatening. But it is also essentially the same message which Jesus himself announces:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” (Mark 1:15)
Perhaps we hear his words more as a comfort. But there is a constant and it is God’s word about himself. God is very near to us. Which is especially the point as we are beginning to think about the way God comes to us in Christmas. The message of Christmas is “Godis with us”, too! And the assurance that God’s presence is there to deliver us from the difficulties that surround us, even now, and to take care of us and protect us.
Perhaps if the wise men in the story about the Sultan had been a little more wise, or if they had had the access to heaven which Isaiah had, they would have come up with a different sayingwhich would be true and appropriate at all times and every situation. Something that is sharp challenge in times of satisfaction and complacency, and a comfort in times of sorrow and suffering. That saying is what we hear and what we still proclaim. When we ask hat we can and must say about God the answer is always essentially the same:
“Your God is here!”
You God Is Here! by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0