11th December 2023

A sermon for Advent

A sermon for Advent, 10 December 2023

A sermon preached by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor 

(Isaiah 40.1-11; Mark 1.1-18) 

One of the things I love about our Darkness to Light processions, which launch Advent, is that they are multi-layered, multi-textured. In 90 minutes or so, everyone packed into this building experiences very basic, primary things like silence, darkness, stillness, movement; the spread of light; attention is drawn at first to a single spot, and then over time in several directions; we hear music of many different characters, some very quiet, and plain; some complex; we hear evocative texts from the bible which echo and respond to one another. Each person, though surrounded by many others, is in her or his own world; the mind can focus, or it can wander.  Great erudition and subtlety have formed the liturgy; great expertise and skill goes into the music; but no expertise is needed to experience – anyone could come out of that service feeling profoundly affected. 

This morning we have heard the beginning of chapter 40 of Isaiah, the text with which Handel’s Messiah begins. It’s a dramatic passage, and in hearing it I find resonances with my response to Darkness to Light last weekend. It too is evocative, multilayered – and not just because it calls to mind past encounters with baroque music. There’s a lot to digest, to reflect on; but also there are the most basic feelings and emotions in play.  

On Friday I sat down rather earnestly to look at a commentary on this 40th chapter of Isaiah. I found what I read genuinely interesting, but I also quickly grasped that to make much use of it would drag you all, with me, down a rabbit hole from which it would take a very long time to extricate us.  

For, while sermons may seem very long to the hearer, the actual amount of text is quite short, and the amount of information that can be usefully included is very modest. I do not therefore now plan to discourse at length on various aspects of this chapter’s relationship with the 39 earlier chapters, the radical transformation of the Temple cult in Jerusalem which had happened a generation or two earlier, or the many other things in the commentary which the historian in me found stimulating. 

The book of Isaiah is huge: 66 chapters, occupying 68 double-column pages in my bible. Regular churchgoers will be familiar with various gobbets, samples taken and used in worship at various times of the Church year. I don’t decry that practice of occasional selective dips into this complex text: it would make no more sense to read all 66 chapters from beginning to end, because this is NOT a simple book. It’s not the work of an individual, and it doesn’t come from a moment in time, but is the outcome of a tradition of prophetic speaking and writing, and embraces centuries of that experience. Lifetimes have been spent in studying it. 

We have ten or 15 minutes. So here is a mere thumbnail of background to this text – the opening of chapter 40. 

There is a striking change within the Isaiah tradition, right at this point: largely what has gone before has its focus in Jerusalem during the kingdom which descended from David, and lasted many generations until it was completely obliterated by conquerors from Babylon in the early 6th century BC.  

Starting here at chapter 40, we are hearing later prophecies, coming from a backdrop of defeat, exile to Babylon, and the desecration of the Jerusalem temple. This is very easy to see for yourself: when you go home, take a cursory glance at the end of chapter 39, and the compare it with the passage in this service. There, a horrible future is predicted for the king’s family and his people; and then, all of a sudden, and speaking from decades later, comes the familiar phrase: ‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God’.  

The drama of that simple word ‘comfort’ is remarkable; volumes are spoken in two syllables. Every human knows something of loss and misery; some will experience much; God willing, we also know something of comfort. It’s what we yearn for in hard times; it’s what moves us to sympathy when we hear the sufferings of others; it’s what we pray, for example, for ordinary people huddled now in the miseries and dangers of Gaza. 

You don’t need to be an expert to grasp something of value in a prophecy still spoken or sung two and a half thousand years later. In its various layers it communicates God’s transforming intervention in his world, where it hurts. ‘All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field…….but the word of our God will stand for ever.’  

Human flimsiness, visited by loving power. God is on the move.