Church Sermon

Advent I 2014 (Isaiah 12:1-6, Acts 9:36-43)

Rev John Bremner, Unknown Date
Part of the Festival Sermons series, preached at a Advent I 2014 service

Isaiah 12: 1 – 6; Acts 9: 36 – 43.
First Sunday in Advent

My friends, the period of Advent invites us to experience a variety of emotions. If we consider the hymns and readings in our act of worship today, we can see this variety very clearly.

On the one hand, there is the plaintive hymn ‘O come O come Immanuel’, with its suggestion that, whilst we await the coming of the Messiah in hope, our situation is one of suffering and oppression, and there is, as yet, only the promise which, we believe, will be fulfilled at some point in the future….. Perhaps it is the music to which the words are set, but the singing of ‘O come, O come Immanuel’ seems to me to be a cry to God from a place of darkness and foreboding, without any sign yet of the new dawn – no sign, that is, except for God’s promise in the mouth of the prophet: “A young woman is with child and shall have a son, and will name him ‘Immanuel’ – which means ‘God with us’”.

On the other hand, we have heard other words from the Prophet Isaiah, words full hope and rejoicing, ‘the day is coming!’ A day is coming when we and all God’s people will sing for joy, and will tell the world what God has done, tell the world that he dwells among his people. Now those are words of hope, indeed, words of rejoicing and festivity!

And then thirdly, from the Book of Acts, we read of the total fulfilment of the Advent hope: new life, restoration, renewal, joy and wonderment, the power of Jesus Christ risen from the dead, seen and experienced at first hand by his people; and with this event comes the Gospel message pointing forward and onward to the day when Christ will come again in glory to establish the Kingdom of God in a new heaven and a new earth.

So let us look briefly at these three moments of Advent: the darkness, waiting for signs of light; then the jubilation of the day of the Lord; then the Advent hope seen in our own lives today.

The words and music of ‘O come, O come, Immanuel’ seem to emerge from the darkest moments of the history of God’s people. Look at words such as ‘captive’, ‘mourning’, ‘exile’, in the first verse; and then the longing in the second verse for wisdom to live in the paths which follow the ways of God, the longing to produce a society which reflects the order and peace and God’s kingdom. As the hymn continues, the singer appeals to the God who, in ancient times, did great and wonderful things; this is an appeal to God to liberate his people from Satan’s tyranny, to make safe the dangerous road to the New Jerusalem, to disperse the gloomy clouds of night, to complete the work which has been begun but which, so often, seems to have been blocked by our own sin and by the sin of others. The hymn almost seems to suggest that we long for the impossible, for that which is beyond this world, beyond any realistic hope.

This hymn speaks about our need for God to act and act decisively in our favour, for we are in a situation of great distress, a situation which is beyond our ability to change for the better. The hymn reminds us, perhaps, of Israel in slavery in Egypt, or in exile in Babylon, longing for God to do something wonderful, to restore his people to freedom, to bring hope and light and new life. It is a hymn which expresses a deep longing for the dawn of God’s kingdom. Yes, it is bleak and dark – and you may say that you don’t want ‘bleak and dark’ in the run up to Christmas. But unless we acknowledge our situation of sin and despair – heaven knows, the world is hardly a place of unalloyed joy and festivity, is it?! – unless we acknowledge our need of God’s saving activity, how shall we find any reason to rejoice when God does act to save his people?

And that is what we find in the words we read from the Prophet Isaiah. But before we go any further, it might be valuable just to remind ourselves a little about who Isaiah was, and something of the times in which he lived. From what we read in the book which carries his name, and from relevant passages in the Second Book of Kings, Isaiah lived in Jerusalem; and judging by the ease with which he could speak to members of the court, and, indeed, to the kings who lived in those days, it would seem that Isaiah was a member of the higher circles in the city. Some have even suggested that he was himself a prince of royal blood. His was a long life – he started preaching during the days of King Uzziah, and it would seem that he died during the reign of Uzziah’s great-grandson, Manasseh – a period of ministry of perhaps more than fifty years.

During Isaiah’s early years as a prophet, there was general stability in the southern kingdom of Judah, but the northern kingdom of Israel witnessed great upheaval; three kings were assassinated in military coups; following the second of these coups, the new king inflicted horrendous war crimes on his own people; he in turn was made to bow before the might of the Assyrian empire; his son, along with the king of Syria, launched an unsuccessful attack on Jerusalem during the reign of Uzziah’s son, King Ahaz; but a few years later, the king of Israel, along with the king of Syria, found that the Assyrian empire was more than they could cope with – Damascus was conquered by the Assyrians, along with much of the area north of Lake Galilee, and the king of Israel was assassinated by one of his generals, who thought he could do better; the alliance he tried to forge with the Egyptians failed and the Assyrians finally conquered the Israel’s capital city, Samaria. The ten tribes of the north, or those who could not escape, were taken away and dispersed among the territories of the Assyrian empire, before attacking Jerusalem.

Not that all was sweetness and light in Jerusalem. Isaiah preached against those who failed to maintain justice, against those in power who preferred parties and the high social life to the difficult task of government; and he spoke out against those wishing to adopt the religious practices of other nations: for example spiritualism and fortune-telling (horoscopes and so on). There were also three major crises during Isaiah’s ministry in Jerusalem. Firstly, Uzziah’s grandson, Ahaz, was a poor example of a king; he followed the religion of the Canaanites and even sacrificed one of his own sons to the gods of the Canaanites. It was in his day, when Jerusalem was surrounded by the armies of Israel and Syria, that Isaiah spoke in trenchant terms of a virgin, or young girl of marriagable age, who would conceive (though Isaiah probably meant that she was newly married, not unmarried) and bear a son who would be a true king, following the law of God and whose name would be ‘God is with us’ – Immanuel.

The second major crisis was when the Assyrian army laid siege to Jerusalem, and Isaiah’s preaching during the siege was crucial in maintaining morale and confidence, reminding the people of God’s promise to David, that if his descendants remained faithful, then God would protect his people. Jerusalem, under King Hezekiah, survived the onslaught. The third crisis was when King Hezekiah was gravely ill, and we are told that it was Isaiah’s medical knowledge which saved the king’s life.

So Isaiah lived in turbulent times; he saw the rise of the Assyrian empire and the end of the northern kingdom of Israel. We can see that Isaiah was very aware of what was going on around him and that he attempted to intervene and bring the word of God into the political and social situation of his day. Isaiah’s preaching was aimed at the leaders of the people and he was not afraid to speak out against the powerful; he was a prophet of hope for the people, for he constantly called on the people of Judah and Jerusalem to put their trust in God and stop fearing the gods of other nations, who, said Isaiah, were as nothing in comparison with the Lord. The passage we heard a few minutes ago from chapter 12 is an example of this. ‘God is my saviour; I will trust in him and not be afraid’ (verse 2). This sums up Isaiah’s preaching very well and is central to the advent hope as Isaiah understood it.

And so we turn to the Acts of the Apostles. A few chapters pervious to our erading, the apostles, Peter and John, astounded the Jewish leaders and the whole people by using the name of Jesus Christ to heal a cripple. The advent hope (the coming of God;s kingdom) was realised, brought to fruition, in the healing of a man. In the New Testament, the verb ‘to save’ means more than simply ‘to rescue’, as we often use the word. It implies a return to health and wholeness in every aspect of our lives. So the healing of the cripple was, indeed, a sign of the salvation won for us on the cross by our Lord Jesus Christ. How much more, then, is the raising of Dorcas, or Tabetha, in today’s reading, a sign to the world that the advent hope is now fulfilled in the cross and resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ! He sits at God’s right hand – and nothing can impede his power or authority. Peter demonstrates through this amazing and yet simple action, that the advent hope is fulfilled – God is with us, the promise of God’s kingdom is being brought into reality amongst us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

And yet even this is still only a partial fulfilment of the promise. If the cross and resurrection assure us that God’s victory and our salvation are assured, there still remains the fact that the raising of Dorcas from the dead is only a sign of greater things to come; for God’s kingdom is here amongst us, but it is also ‘not yet’. It is ‘not yet’ in the sense that the kingdom of God in all its fullness is still in the future. The advent fulfilment of Christ coming in glory to establish a new heaven and a new earth, God’s eternal kingdom finally amongst us, all this is still in the future. Isaiah’s hope is fulfilled in that Jesus Christ has come among us, and through his cross and resurrection he has conquered all that opposes God’s will. But it is still to be seen and experienced by all humanity. Dorcas may have been raised from the dead, but she is not among us now; like the son of the widow of Nain, like Jairus’ daughter, like Lazarus, she re-entered the world of the dead, for she, like them, remained a mortal, just as we are mortals. But the new life which was given to Dorcas was a sign for us, that the advent hope is no longer a deep longing for what seems utterly impossible, but a real presence in the here and now. God is with us!

So as we travel through this season of advent, let us remember with thanksgiving the preaching of Isaiah: the assurance of God’s presence with his people, the promise of Immanuel. And let us remember with joy that in the power of the Holy Spirit the advent hope is already at work amongst us – if only we have eyes to see it and ears to hear the call to faith. For although God’s kingdom – in its fullness – is ‘not yet’ you and I may live in a hope which is founded upon the certainty that even death itself is but a temporary thing: for the resurrection Immanuel has sent his Spirit among us, and the kingdom will come. Amen.

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Isaiah 12:1-6

1And in that day thou shalt say, O LORD, I will praise thee: though thou wast angry with me, thine anger is turned away, and thou comfortedst me. 2Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and not be afraid: for the LORD JEHOVAH is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation. 3Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation. 4And in that day shall ye say, Praise the LORD, call upon his name, declare his doings among the people, make mention that his name is exalted. 5Sing unto the LORD; for he hath done excellent things: this is known in all the earth. 6Cry out and shout, thou inhabitant of Zion: for great is the Holy One of Israel in the midst of thee. (KJV)

Acts 9:36-43

36Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas: this woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did. 37And it came to pass in those days, that she was sick, and died: whom when they had washed, they laid her in an upper chamber. 38And forasmuch as Lydda was nigh to Joppa, and the disciples had heard that Peter was there, they sent unto him two men, desiring him that he would not delay to come to them. 39Then Peter arose and went with them. When he was come, they brought him into the upper chamber: and all the widows stood by him weeping, and shewing the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them. 40But Peter put them all forth, and kneeled down, and prayed; and turning him to the body said, Tabitha, arise. And she opened her eyes: and when she saw Peter, she sat up. 41And he gave her his hand, and lifted her up, and when he had called the saints and widows, presented her alive. 42And it was known throughout all Joppa; and many believed in the Lord. 43And it came to pass, that he tarried many days in Joppa with one Simon a tanner. (KJV)

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