Saturday, December 10, 2005


One of the things I always love about the Advent season is the Advent wreath that we put right in the middle of the church, and each week as we light a new candle it seems we enter a new phase of our waiting – the quality of our attention seems to shift, the message seems to alter just a bit each week and the lighting of a new candle symbolises that.  Now the colour of Advent, traditionally, is purple, but today’s candle is rose-coloured -  maybe you’ve been thinking to yourself the last couple of weeks, Evan couldn’t find enough purple ones – And it looks good, in the middle of this muted season of Advent, that is almost like an echo of Lent, the rose-coloured candle is like a splash of joy – and that is exactly what it’s intended to be.  Because today is Gaudete Sunday – in Latin, that means Rejoice!, and it comes from the opening word of the traditional Latin entrance psalm set for today – if you listen carefully you can hear the joy bubbling up through the readings today, it’s as if even though we’re not there yet, halfway through the deepening spirituality and the introversion of  Advent we can’t resist breaking out a bit, celebrating a bit in advance.

And the reasons for letting our hair down today are right there in our first reading from Isaiah.  The Christian church has never hesitated, right from the beginning, to pick up the bold announcements in the book of Isaiah and say, that’s about Jesus!  That prophecy comes true in Jesus, that’s what Isaiah is really talking about.  And even though the prophecies of Isaiah are written hundreds of years before Jesus comes on the scene, even though we know Isaiah’s confronting mixture of challenge and comfort was written for the people of the prophet’s own time, I think we’re right to claim them, because that’s exactly what Jesus does. 

You know how it was all the go at one stage for businesses and government departments and even parish churches to have mission statements?  A short, snappy couple of sentences that says what we think we’re about?  It was all the rage in the 90s, the idea is to create a strong image right from the start in your flyers or your TV advertisements – and that’s exactly what Jesus does when he bursts onto the synagogue scene in Luke’s gospel.  Jesus chooses as a mission statement for himself this passage we just read from the book of Isaiah.  And what a passage!  It’s nothing short of an announcement by the prophet that he has been called by God, that the words he speaks are not his words but God’s words, and that God is going to do great things through him.  As if that wasn’t a big enough claim, the prophet claims that he is anointed by God – the Hebrew word is moshiach and that’s a huge claim because it’s only kings who are anointed – it is the claim that God’s message and God’s purposes have come true in Jesus’ own words and in his own person – it’s a huge claim because this is also the word - moshiach – that we know as Messiah.  It’s the most confronting claim imaginable, and it’s a claim that carries with it good news - not of the airy-fairy kind, but good news of the kind that alters history.

This is the good news that Jesus packs into the mission statement that he adopted from Isaiah:-

1.     First, it’s good news to the poor – in Luke’s gospel, the word literally means those who are bent over, the lowly.  That’s the first priority, and it’s echoed in the announcement by the angels not to important folk but to dirt-poor shepherds freezing out in the hills near Bethlehem.  God taking on flesh in Jesus of Nazareth is good news for those who are literally at the bottom of the heap.  I guess the good news for the rich is the challenge to adjust their priorities and their practices. 

2.     Second, the prophet says the good news is comfort to those who are broken-hearted – living with dignity also means hope for people whose lives are dominated by anxiety, humiliation or fear.  This claim is getting bigger and bigger!  God has got a special priority for those who are left out, for those who have got used to living without hope – if that’s good news for them, it’s also good news for those of us who are doing OK, because it carries with it the invitation to see things from God’s point of view, to be the agents of God’s good news.

3.     Then the prophet says the good news means freedom for prisoners – oh, hang on, mate, surely not the ones who deserved to be locked up?  Well, apparently freedom is the condition God created us for – and I think that here we are meant to be reminded of people whose lives are not free, not just those who are literally locked up but people whose lives are dictated by their circumstances – the uneducated, the unemployed – refugees, those who are locked away in prisons of mental illness, the sick and housebound.  Jesus claims that the good news he embodies is powerful enough to open the gates of the most powerful prisons human society can invent.

4.     And the biggest claim of all – the prophet claims it’s the year of God’s favour, that means the year of Jubilee – even bigger than the Get Out of Jail Free card, this one says your mortgage is paid off, your credit card bill has been settled for you – in the most ancient law of the people of Israel the Year of Jubilee that came once every 50 years was when everyone’s debts were cancelled, all slaves set free, all aliens living in the land were given permanent residency visas.  A fresh start.  By quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus is claiming all that.

Has Jesus maybe overstated his case a bit?  Did he bite off a bit more than he could chew?  Has he really delivered?

In the movie, ‘Superman returns’, there’s a wonderful line from Superman’s dad.  Now Superman comes from the planet Krypton – I must admit I’d always thought he got to earth more or less by accident but apparently it had all been planned: "Even though you've been raised as a human being, you are not one of them...’ – this is what Superman’s long-dead dad tells him via a sort of hologram cassette-tape message - "They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be.  They only lack the light to show them the way.  For this reason, above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son." 

Well, apart for the obvious and kind of goofy religious overtones – don’t we sometimes wish that Jesus was a bit more like Superman?  – though when I think about it, it does seem that Superman’s presence in Metropolis have made the human beings there even more passive and dependent – so maybe it’s a good thing that God – the real God, that is, chooses a different way to work.  Over and over again, in the story of God’s people, God chooses those who are weak, those who don’t have super-powers, people who are ambivalent and indecisive like Jacob, and Jonah, and Peter; people who are old and barren like Sarah and Hannah; people who are crotchety and unattractive, like John the Baptist, people who are young and scared and poor, like Mary.  The big claims that Jesus makes are claims about how God works in the world – that we are not alone because God is with us, in Jesus himself, born to love and laugh and suffer with the rest of us, God shares the circumstances of our lives - but Jesus’ big claims are also, I think, the claim that God works through human hands and hearts in all their weakness.

There’s a story about a travelling rabbi who finds himself in the court of the king of Egypt.  He is treated like royalty and the king shows him around the palace.  In one room, the rabbi is shown the paintings of an illustrious master who died prematurely, hundreds of years ago.  These are paintings that take the breath away, every one a masterpiece, like jewels that open onto another world – but one wall of the room is bare.  ‘Why’s that?’, the rabbi asks?  The king tells him that the master had died young, that the wall is left bare to remind them of what else he could have painted. ‘But nobody else can do it’, says the king.  ‘Give me a few days’, says the rabbi, ‘and a few chemicals – powered silver, antimony, a few things like that’.  And the king does – a few days later he comes back to find the fourth wall covered with a great mirror that reflected all the beauty of the paintings, which seemed to have come alive and moving, shimmering and radiant. [1]

The Advent journey this year is getting closer to its end.  We find ourselves looking ahead to a pregnancy, to an insignificant birth in a forgotten outpost of the Roman Empire that tells us we are not alone, that God has come into our world.  The message of Advent is that God works through human hands.  And Jesus’ big claims, his extravagant mission statement, tells us what our part of that is – to reflect the light, to rejoice at the presence of the light, wherever we find it, to be the mirrors that bring the light into the dark places that still exist in our world.  To be good news in a world that desperately needs some.  God, strangely enough, chooses weak and imperfect people to do that, people like you and me.


[1] Megan McKenna (1999), Advent, Christmas and Epiphany: stories and reflections on the Sunday readings, (Orbis, Mayknoll NY), p.72.