Church Sermon

Advent III 2014 (Isaiah 28:1-6, Acts 20:17-27)

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

Isaiah 28: 1 – 6; Acts 20: 17 – 27
Advent 3

My friends, the starting point for today’s sermon can be found in the words of Paul to the elders of the Ephesus church, which concluded today’s New Testament reading: ‘For I have not held back from announcing to you the whole purpose of God’. And let me now tell you what will be the conclusion of the sermon: that ‘the whole purpose of God is seen and understood perfectly in Jesus Christ’! So, having told you the beginning and end of the sermon, you might hope that I could finish there, and we could sing our next hymn, and that would be it. But if the opening and concluding lines of this sermon are to be of any real use, we have to know a little bit more about how we get from the start to the conclusion: in other words, we need to ask the question “How?” or “In what way?” What does it mean to say that Jesus Christ is the whole purpose of God; that it is in him and in no-one else that the whole purpose of God is revealed?

You will not be surprised to hear me say that one of the great problems facing us in the run up to Christmas is the fact that society around us has almost totally forgotten what it is we are meant to be celebrating. If you were to ask the vast majority of people around us what Christmas is about, there would not be many who would answer you by talking about ‘the whole purpose of God’. In fact, most would not have the remotest inkling about what the phrase meant (though it might be worth asking the same question of many who are in church today!) And it is because so few people understand the sense of a phrase such as ‘the whole purpose of God’ that Advent has lost its meaning: for we now prepare ourselves for parties, for exchanging presents, for eating and drinking – all the time spending large amounts of money (more than many of us can safely afford!) and we forget that what we are supposed to be doing is preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ, not only in the past (if you can prepare for the past!) but in the here and now into our world, into our lives; and looking ahead, we prepare for the coming of Christ in the future, to bring judgement and salvation, to fulfil the whole purposes of God.

During these past three weeks we have been looking at some of the words found in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. In the Bible we meet a number of prophets, going back to the time of Samuel and continuing on into the New Testament with John the Baptist. What was the task given to a prophet? People often say “They predicted the future” – but that is only partially true. Fundamentally, the job of a prophet was to speak God’s word in a particular situation. This might involve warning God’s people what was going to happen in the future if they did not alter their ways; it might also involve giving hope and encouragement to the people of God by telling them what God was going to liberate them from the mess they were in; but it was always the prophet’s task to speak to the situation in which God’s people found themselves, and, crucially, it was always the prophet’s task to speak God’s word, to inform the people of God, concerning the whole purpose of God, at least in as much as it was given to the prophet to know that purpose.

Scathing condemnation in the Bible is reserved for those who know God’s will but refuse to follow it or announce it to others; and this is especially the case for those who claimed to be prophets yet who refused to speak God’s true word: those who enjoyed the status of being God’s servant, but preferred to keep friendly with the powerful rather than speak words which might offend; in other words, a false prophet is one who puts his own well-being ahead of the needs of God’s people. And a false prophet is a disaster for us, for God’s people need to hear, first and foremost – indeed, exclusively! – the whole purpose of God, and not what the prophet thinks people might like to hear.

Now for Isaiah, much of the time he was called by God to give words of advice, words of encouragement, words which the people often needed and sometimes even wanted to hear. But he was also called to say things which were not going to endear him to the rich and the powerful – and we see a prime example of this in today’s reading. Isaiah speaks to the leaders of God’s people and accuses them of putting their own selfish pleasure above the high calling of government. We cannot be sure as to the exact targets of Isaiah’s words, but we know that in the northern kingdom of Israel, during Isaiah’s time as a prophet, there were several kings who behaved in ways which seemed calculated to bring disaster on the people.

It would be wrong to say that Isaiah is taking the moral high ground and pointing the finger, for there is a sadness about his words, a sense of deep sorrow at the disaster which was coming on God’s people. That said, neither can we say that Isaiah’s words were all ‘doom and gloom’ – for there is also the promise that God will restore to his people a sense of justice and the courage to do what is right; and instead of the temporary glory of garlands of flowers, people will see that their true crown is the Lord God himself, that the humble glory of trusting obedience is far better than the ‘here today and gone tomorrow’ glory of human power. And in saying all this, in pointing both to his own day and to the future, in speaking of judgement and of hope, Isaiah announces the whole purpose of God for his people in his day.

A few minutes ago I mentioned John the Baptist, and the Third Sunday in Advent is a day in which we are invited to consider John the Baptist’s ministry, which was, of course, a ministry of preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Unlike Isaiah, who preached in the city of Jerusalem, the Baptist preached in the wilderness. But just as Isaiah did not hold back in his condemnation of those who misled God’s people, so, too, John the Baptist was known for his fiery condemnation of those who posed as leaders of God’s people, but whose lives were lived only for their own glory and for the public prestige of power. When we think of John the Baptist we tend to see him as the hell and damnation preacher, and indeed, “Repent! Repent! Repent!” might have been a large part of John’s message – but it was only a part of his message, for John did more than just condemn others. His principal task was to point people to Jesus Christ: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”; “after me is coming one whose sandals I am unworthy to untie”; “I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”. John’s preaching may have been tub-thumping and he may have said harsh things to many people, but he also pointed people forwards in hope to the coming of Jesus Christ. And in this, John, like Isaiah before him, announced the whole purpose of God.

And this is where we ask ourselves today, what this might mean for us. You see, one of the great problems we have in the Church is that there is a ‘disconnect’ between the celebration of Christmas and the real meaning of the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. Yes, we hear readings from the Old and New Testaments which are familiar to us, in which there are phrases such as “…and his name shall be called Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us’”, but we tend to allow our thinking to be limited to a warm glow, thinking that we know what it means to say that God has come among us. But do we know what it means? We so often forget the reason why Jesus Christ, God’s Word made flesh, came; and we certainly try to forget the outcome of his coming among us – the cross, on which he died, carrying in his body the sin of the world (“Behold the Lamb of God….”!). Yet without the cross, we cannot know or understand ‘the whole purpose of God’; if we ignore the cross we are only trying to alter the story of Christ’s coming to suit our own purposes; that is to say, so often we use the Christmas story in order to forget reality for a few days, have a jolly time, and live in a sort of fantasy world until well into the new year. Just as an example of this wish to ignore the cross, I ask you: how many Christmas cards have you seen which depict the massacre of the male children in Bethlehem? Any? Any at all? But that is just as much a part of the Christmas Story as the angel visiting Mary, or the wise men following the star. The massacre of the innocents reminds us brutally that Jesus came into the real world. It prefigures the cross, reminding of us the sin of the world. It’s just that we don’t really want the whole story, only the comfortable bits. We don’t want to hear the whole purpose of God – only the bits that suit our purposes.

For the whole purpose of God can only be heard by us when we are willing to keep the story of Christ’s coming firmly rooted in the real world, the world in which the powerful torture those whom they regard as a threat; the world in which violent men massacre the powerless – be it in the homes of Bethlehem or the market place in Baghdad; the world in which the coming of the Son of God can be changed from the story of salvation into the story of how to sell as much in three weeks as you sell in the rest of the year.

For if we wish to understand the whole purpose of God, we need to acknowledge the reality of the world – this world, so torn apart and wrecked by human sin and selfishness, a world in which the purposes of God are so often ignored and fought against. If we wish to understand the whole purpose of God we need to look beyond the stable and the manger and see the cross (‘Soon comes the cross, the nails, the piercing…’) – and the resurrection (‘Dreaming of Easter, gladsome morning…’). If we wish to understand the whole purpose of God then we need to remember that during this period of Advent we must celebrate the promise of Christ’s coming again in glory, even more, perhaps, than we celebrate his coming in human flesh and blood, born of Mary. A failure to do these things will be a failure to understand the whole purpose of God.

The words of the prophets can only be fully understood in the light of Jesus Christ. Indeed, Isaiah and the other prophets could only speak and act because Jesus Christ is, from all eternity, the whole purpose of God: the whole purpose of God – from creation to the end of time – and in all eternity. The whole purpose of God is seen and understood perfectly in him, and only in him. May God grant us to understand, and to rejoice in, this, his whole purpose, now and always. Amen.

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Isaiah 28:1-6

1Woe to the crown of pride, to the drunkards of Ephraim, whose glorious beauty is a fading flower, which are on the head of the fat valleys of them that are overcome with wine! 2Behold, the Lord hath a mighty and strong one, which as a tempest of hail and a destroying storm, as a flood of mighty waters overflowing, shall cast down to the earth with the hand. 3The crown of pride, the drunkards of Ephraim, shall be trodden under feet: 4And the glorious beauty, which is on the head of the fat valley, shall be a fading flower, and as the hasty fruit before the summer; which when he that looketh upon it seeth, while it is yet in his hand he eateth it up. 5In that day shall the LORD of hosts be for a crown of glory, and for a diadem of beauty, unto the residue of his people, 6And for a spirit of judgment to him that sitteth in judgment, and for strength to them that turn the battle to the gate. (KJV)

Acts 20:17-27

17And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. 18And when they were come to him, he said unto them, Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons, 19Serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews: 20And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house, 21Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. 22And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there: 23Save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me. 24But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God. 25And now, behold, I know that ye all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more. 26Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. 27For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God. (KJV)

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