In the mythical world of fairy-tables and fables, one of the most important roles in the royal court was that of the court jester. The jester, of course, was a clown, something like a blend of stand-up comic, Laurel and Hardy slapstick guy, social circuit-breaker and political commentator. I say in the mythical alternative history of fairy tale because it probably never functioned quite like this in real history. But the jester’s job was to say what everybody else was too frightened or too busy sucking up to the king to be able to say, the jester was the one who could make cruel comments about the physical appearance or the personal habits of courtiers, the jester was the one who could do a silly walk to defuse an awkward diplomatic moment, and the one who could tell the truth about that less than clever policy while everybody else was busily assuring the king how wonderful it was. The jester in fact was no fool, but acting the fool was how the jester managed to do his real job, most of the time without losing his head – the job that is of telling it like it is. You can see how a jester might be quite useful to a king or queen.
So the jester is the fairytale equivalent of the prophet. There’s a lot of misconceptions about prophets, for example that a prophet’s main job was to tell the future - like some sort of grumpy religious fortune teller. And of course prophets were concerned about the future, because the job of a prophet was to tell the truth about who we are and what we have become. The future grows out of the present like the present grows out of the past, so the prophet’s job was to remind people where they had been and how they got where they are now - and where they are likely to end up if they keep doing what they are doing. Prophets didn’t sit easily with the Temple system and the priestly class, for the simple reason that religion and priests were what they all too often had to tell the truth about. The religion of Israel didn’t know what to do with prophets, just as we in our world of the 21st century don’t quite know what to do with people who insist on telling the truth about things the rest of us have decided to put our heads firmly in the sand about. Basically, prophets were and still are a pain in the proverbial - but the genius of the religion of Israel is that the role of the prophet was ordained by God, and deep down everybody knew that the costly truth of a prophet was a word of God.
Well the book of the prophet Isaiah is actually the work of at least two prophets, maybe even a whole prophetic school or tradition, because it spans the history of several centuries – and one very clear shift happens around the end of chapter 39. Before this, the so-called ‘First Isaiah’ had been warning the people of Jerusalem about 8 centuries before Christ, just what is going to happen if they persist in playing the dangerous game of international politics instead of being faithful to the covenant relationship with God. Then into chapter 40, right where we begin reading this morning, we abruptly jump forward two hundred years – the Assyrian Empire has come and gone, the Babylonian Empire has risen and the people of Judah carted off into the sort of captivity that First Isaiah had been warning about – the long exile that actually turned into a creative and life-giving experience for God’s people because it led to some overdue soul-searching, some new thinking about God and new thinking about what it means to be faithful in a shifting and changing world. Historically, between First Isaiah and Second Isaiah, which begins in chapter 40, comes the Book of Lamentations, that long poem of self-accusation and grief with just one single glimmer of hope, right in the middle where the poet pauses and recollects: 'The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness…' (3:21-24). It was a military defeat in which the whole culture and religion of a people was all but extinguished, a defeat which – actually our modern world knows this sort of tragedy all too well, even if most of us in our safe country haven’t experienced it for themselves. The people must have wondered where God had gone. The bottom had fallen out of their world. They felt cut off from God, rejected by God and painfully aware that the apparent absence of God was connected to their own faithlessness.
And our passage this morning speaks of this, and it reminds the people that they were and still are bound to God by a covenant. In verse six of today’s reading, the word ‘constancy’ in Hebrew is hesed – the word that is often translated as loving-kindness or covenant faithfulness, and the point is this – that while God is ever persistent, faithful, and dependable, the people’s response has been inconsistent, fleeting, and undependable. The prophet points out that yes, we do have our moments of faithfulness, yes, in moments of vulnerability we do turn toward God and live out of the centre of our relationship with God – but our faithfulness is like the flower of the field, beautiful for a brief moment but fading and dying as soon as trouble and distraction come upon us. Prophets, you see, are realists. And the prophet reassures us that God's love is the opposite of that: we sin, but we can count on God's faithfulness anyway.
And the prophet makes an announcement in God’s voice – the season of suffering and exile and self-recrimination is over. The consequences of faithlessness don’t last forever and in God’s scheme of things there is always renewal and restoration. Yes, this is partly just about catching the tide of history, recognising how our own self-centredness and failure to reach out in compassion has made the times when nothing made sense and God seemed to be far away that much worse and more meaningless, recognising too how times of reconnection and fresh hope offer opportunities for the renewal of our spirituality and relationships. But the prophet speaks of a way being made clear of obstacles – maybe the promise is that from now on there will be no more hardship or struggle – or maybe more realistically the idea is that even out there in the desert, which is to say in the struggle of real life, that the people who have remembered their covenant connection with God will no longer be lost or overwhelmed. It is a good word for us in Advent – in a year when like all years we are in danger of losing our centre, overwhelmed by everything that the newspapers tell us is wrong with our world, overwhelmed by the need to decide what we should even believe about the big issues of our world, overwhelmed by the everyday struggles of our personal and family lives – the word of Second Isaiah tells us to lift our heads, to clear some space, a path between here and there so that God can come into our lives again. In Advent, we hear the reminder to attune our hearts and minds to the ways that God enters our lives and the life of the world, the holiness in the everyday reality of our lives as well as the momentous affairs of the world we inhabit. Especially the momentous affairs – especially the big picture – because Advent calls us out of self-preoccupation and into collective reflection, recognition of the collective hope we have for a world of justice and shalom.
Funny thing about exile is that even the gruesomeness of defeat and the humiliation of being led away captive can get forgotten. Over the years and decades Babylon, that great and splendid city of the ancient world, had become home. Babylon after all wasn’t just a military super-power, but a culture - more sophisticated, more attractive and wealthy and learned and just as morally nuanced as anything the exiles had ever known. Yet Second Isaiah’s call to renew the vows of covenant faithfulness is a call to leave all that, to go home the hard way, through the desert with only the promise that God will be there with them, that mountains will be made to seem like footpaths. Yes, the world is under new management, yes, the exiles are free to begin living in new relationship with God and with one another – but it might not have sounded like uniquely good news to families with jobs and comfy homes and mortgages in the leafy suburbs of Babylon. Going home means leaving everything we have substituted for home along the way.
You see like a good court jester, a prophet doesn’t only look forwards but also backwards, reminding the people of their past filled, not with meaningless turns and accidental choices but with the fruits of faithful obedience – not with self-serving achievements but with life-giving miracles. And the hard way home is the promise of shalom – the promise not of never having to struggle or sacrifice, but of the right ordering of relationships, the mutual recognition of needs and sharing of resources instead of competitiveness, the honouring of promises of faithfulness and the practise of compassion. Shalom is always communal, an alternative history and a reliable promise that the ways of materialism and militarism don’t get the last word.
Advent asks us to consider – to what are we captive? From what are we being offered freedom? And the reading gives us two ways to unpack the message in our own world. For captives, for all who suffer and are oppressed – for the poor - the word of Isaiah is the hope of freedom, the promise that you are not insignificant to God, that you are beloved and that God is with you and will lead you into freedom. It’s an intoxicating word, a word that sometimes seems elusive, that mostly depends on the turning of history and the recognition of God’s priorities being enacted by men and women of good will. We look around us – especially during Advent – for God’s purposes being made actual in the hard places of our world. But the second way – the word for captives who have become comfortable, for captives who have learned to settle for the false promises of this world and have forgotten their costly calling to grace – for most of us, most of the time. Captives to consumerism, captives to the privilege of living in a wealthy country where we take security and safety and social services like welfare and health-care and education and housing so much for granted we forget how privileged we are – the word for us? Is to wake up, to prepare to be de-centred, to be led away from self-preoccupation and into compassion, away from the worship of goods and self, and into the worship of God and the love of neighbour.
What are you captive to? Advent is the call to freedom – the call home by the hard road made easy.