Church Sermon

Advent II 2014 (Isaiah 20:1-6, Acts 15:12-21)

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

Isaiah 20; Acts 15: 12 – 21
Advent 2 – Communion

My friends, the Second Sunday in Advent is traditionally one in which we are invited to hear again the prophetic voice from the Old Testament. Today, we have heard a reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, and a reading from the Book of Acts which quoted from the Book of the Prophet Amos. The readings reflect two different aspects of the call to be a Prophet of God: one addresses the situation of the day in what many in our generation would regard (correctly!) as a blatantly political manner; the other is a word of hope at the end of a book which, on the whole, speaks consistently of God’s coming judgement and the consequent devastation on the rebellious people of Israel. Amos and Isaiah were for a time contemporaries, although it is probable that Isaiah was twenty or maybe thirty years younger than Amos; both prophets spoke words of warning against those who put their trust in human power to defend themselves against the Assyrian Empire. Let us look briefly at what these two prophets were saying.

The reading from Isaiah was quite plainly aimed at those who put their trust in diplomacy and alliances. The rise of Assyria was threatening what today would be the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, and the rulers of these nations were all looking to Egypt for help. Isaiah was convinced that Egypt was not only incapable of aiding anybody in the area, but that to rely on human diplomacy at all in such circumstances was tantamount to saying “God cannot help us”. For some time Isaiah had been walking around Jerusalem dressed as one in mourning and as one repenting of his sins. When asked for an explanation, his message was simple: “If the people of Jerusalem do not repent and put their trust in God then they will end up mourning the loss of the country God had given to them.” Simple enough message, you would think, and the sight of Isaiah, a well-known preacher and a member of Jerusalem’s aristocracy, walking around the city dressed as one in a state of mourning and repentance would have raised eyebrows, certainly. But did it work? Probably not, especially if King Ahaz was on the throne at the time, for he worshipped other gods.

But an even more dramatic message was to come next. Isaiah takes off his sackcloth and starts to walk around dressed as a slave of the lowest class, one captured in battle by other nations, perhaps as one who was being sold at the market in Tyre or Sidon. Isaiah dressed like this would have caused scandal – Israelites were always very strict about public displays of human flesh, and Isaiah was walking around dressed in a loin cloth and nothing else! What was he trying to say now? As it happens, his message was for Egypt and for those who trusted that the Egyptians would rescue them from the Assyrian army. In our reading we heard mention of both Sudan and Egypt, and at the time the Sudanese royal family had come to rule all of the Nile valley from today’s Ethiopia to the Mediterranean. It was quite an empire in its own right and although it had pretensions to expand north-eastwards into what we call “the Middle East”, in actual fact the rulers had enough on their hands controlling Egypt, without straying further afield. They talked the talked, as we say, but were unable to walk the walk.

You may wonder why Isaiah walked around the streets of Jerusalem if the message was aimed at the Egyptians: why not go to Egypt and make the point in the city streets there? One answer, of course, is that diplomatic channels would soon communicate the message via the ambassadors in Jerusalem and Egypt. Just as in our own day, when a fiery preacher speaks out the news can travel quickly, so too in those days, those who spoke on behalf of God were noticed, even if their advice was not followed. But of course, even if Isaiah had a message for the Egyptians, his message was equally aimed at those who were putting their trust in the Egyptians: the Philistines, for example, and those who lived in Tyre and Sidon, as well as the rulers in the northern kingdom of Israel, and, of course, the king in Jerusalem and his government: “Don’t put your trust in these Egyptians!”, said Isaiah, “Disaster is coming upon them!”

In today’s terms, the message was 100% political – it was an attack on the foreign policy being considered by the king. But it was also 100% a matter of faith: don’t put your trust in man; put your trust in God! It was a message aimed at the ruling elite in Jerusalem – people with whom Isaiah normally felt totally at home, but who, on this occasion, were ruining God’s people with a foreign policy which made no sense. There is no doubt, of course, that here Isaiah’s preaching stands four-square in the prophetic tradition of calling the rulers of the nations to repentance. “Put not your trust in princes” says the psalmist (Psalm 146 v3): Isaiah would be in agreement with those sentiments! And, particularly here, don’t trust those who promise much but deliver little. Is this a message which we are sometimes called on to give to today’s society? Does God not call on us to speak out in our own time against those who would lead our own country astray, against those who promise much but deliver little or nothing? It is, it think, something we need to consider.

Amos, too, spoke out against the rulers of his day – but his message was usually aimed at the northern kingdom of Israel. Indeed, at the end of the Book which bears his name, Amos speaks of the utter disaster which will come upon the northern kingdom because of its unfaithfulness to God. “All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword, those who say ‘Evil shall not overtake or meet us!’” Those are words which immediately precede the ones quoted by James in our reading from the Book of Acts, and the context makes the promise to the house of David even more striking than if we were just to read the verse quoted by James: “After this I will return, says the Lord, and restore the kingdom of David. I will rebuild its ruins and make it strong again.”

Some might see this as the exact opposite of what Isaiah was saying, but Amos was looking ahead to future times when God would act decisively to restore Jerusalem and Judah, ridding it of those who put their trust elsewhere than in the Lord. If Isaiah speaks out against human politicking, then Amos speaks loudly and clearly a word of promise, that if the people of Jerusalem and Judah put their trust in God then God would act to save them, and they would find that, despite their political and military weakness, they would become the centre of attention for all who called on the name of the Lord. Egypt might rise and fall, and Assyria might threaten devastation; but those who put their trust in God would find themselves sustained and upheld in the coming storm. They would be held in God’s secure and strong hands, and emerge safe and sound. Indeed, it would be the Lord God who rebuilt their ruined cities, their ruined social structure, and their tattered faith. This will be the Lord’s doing, not the result of human action, and again as the psalmist says “it will be wonderful in our eyes” (Ps. 118). This is Amos’s message – as applicable now as it was in the eighth century before Christ’s birth.

And James sees this promise as one which is valid not only in the time of Amos and Isaiah, but above all as one which points us to the Advent of Jesus Christ, to his death and resurrection, and ascension to God’s right hand, and onwards to his coming again in glory. For the verse continues: “And so all the rest of mankind will come to me, all the Gentiles whom I have called to be my own.” For James, the result of Paul and Barnabas’s missionary journey to Cyprus and Turkey was clearly that these words of Amos were being proved true. The meeting in Jerusalem, at which James was speaking, had been called to hear from Paul and Barnabas in their own words the story of their experiences whilst preaching the Gospel. The meeting had heard that many Gentiles had come to faith in Jesus Christ – in Jesus, the Son of David – and for James this indicated that God was indeed restoring the fallen house of David, and, indeed, the kingdom which had been promised to him and to his offspring. In Jesus Christ, and in the preaching of the Gospel, God’s ancient word was being fulfilled; and the Gentiles, called by God to join his ancient people Israel, were coming to faith.

And that is who we are! So often we forget that we are among those whose faith proves the truth of the words spoken by the Prophet Amos. You and I are living proof of God’s restoration of the kingdom of David and his gift of that kingdom to the son of David, Jesus of Nazareth. You and I cannot remain neutral bystanders as we read these words for we are among the ones about whom Amos was speaking. Indeed, as we gather together to share in bread and wine at the table of our Lord, we acknowledge that we are, indeed, among those whom God has called, from out of the nations, to be his own. By taking bread and wine we remember, among other things, that our Lord Jesus died on the cross; but we also remember his resurrection and his ascension and reign at God’s right hand; and we remember that we have been called to be part of his people – this is what we celebrate here.

Furthermore, Isaiah reminds us that, as those who have been called to be part of God’s people, we also have a responsibility to speak God’s word in our own day: speak God’s word, and speak it without fear or favour! For, as those called by God to be his own, we are also aware that God has called us to be witnesses to the Gospel in word and in action. This may not involve actions as dramatic as those carried out by Isaiah, but we, too, are called to live prophetically. And we are also called to look forward. For the prophetic word has not yet been totally fulfilled. The rest of mankind has not yet turned to God in response to the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and until it has done so, or until the world ends, our task is to tell others about what God has done for us in and through his son.

The second Sunday of Advent invites us to hear again the prophetic voice. But it does more: for it invites us to join in those who, in times past, spoke God’s word – and point all who hear us to Jesus Christ, in whom God’s kingdom has come. Amen.

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Isaiah 20:1-6

1In the year that Tartan came unto Ashdod, (when Sargon the king of Assyria sent him,) and fought against Ashdod, and took it; 2At the same time spake the LORD by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, Go and loose the sackcloth from off thy loins, and put off thy shoe from thy foot. And he did so, walking naked and barefoot. 3And the LORD said, Like as my servant Isaiah hath walked naked and barefoot three years for a sign and wonder upon Egypt and upon Ethiopia; 4So shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians prisoners, and the Ethiopians captives, young and old, naked and barefoot, even with their buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt. 5And they shall be afraid and ashamed of Ethiopia their expectation, and of Egypt their glory. 6And the inhabitant of this isle shall say in that day, Behold, such is our expectation, whither we flee for help to be delivered from the king of Assyria: and how shall we escape? (KJV)

Acts 15:12-21

12Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. 13And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: 14Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. 15And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, 16After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: 17That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. 18Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. 19Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: 20But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. 21For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day. (KJV)

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