Church Sermon

Advent IV 2014 (Isaiah 32:12-17, Acts 26:19-29)

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

Isaiah 32: 12 – 17; Acts 26: 19 – 29
That the Christ should suffer….. that all might be as I am, except for these chains

My friends, the Fourth Sunday in Advent is traditionally the Sunday in which we pay special attention to Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Today, however, our readings from the Bible point us not to Mary, but, with Mary, to the great things God has promised through his prophets in the past. The words of the Magnificat (‘Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord’) remind us that Mary would have been horrified to think that we were paying special attention to her, rather than (with her) praising God for what he had done, for what he was promising to do, and for the fulfilment of those promises in the coming of his Son (and Mary’s!), Jesus Christ.

Today, the words of the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, need to be understood by us as a response to the words of the prophets in times past. For example, they may be seen as a response to the words we read from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (‘Once more, God will send us his Spirit and the waste land shall become fertile… everywhere righteousness and justice shall be done… there will be peace and security for ever’). Here, in the words of Isaiah, we read the promise, that same promise, which was given to Mary, and, later, to the shepherds (‘Glory to God in the highest, and peace to men….), that the coming of God’s kingdom will see righteousness, justice and peace on the earth. The version of the Magnificat which we sang just now puts it slightly differently: proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight, the hungry fed, the humble lifted high’ – but it is the same vision of God’s kingdom coming among us. It is the Advent hope.

And all this, in the birth of a baby! Or….. perhaps it isn’t quite a simple as that. So often, during this period of Advent and Christmas, we hear and see references to ‘good will to all men’ and ‘peace on earth’. But what do these things mean? People often seem to assume that God gave us the Baby Jesus to be a sign of innocence and hope, and all we have to do is live in innocence and hope and all will be well. All we have to do is to show good will to all people and live in peace with all people, and that is what Christmas is all about. But really, is this the Christmas message? Is it really that simple? After all, if it were that simple, would we not have managed to do it by now? If the Baby Jesus is all we need, then why do we not live in righteousness, justice and peace every day of our lives? Perhaps the words of the Prophet Isaiah can warn us against such simplistic assumptions: ‘….God will send us his Spirit’. Ah! So maybe that is the key. Perhaps we need God’s Spirit if these wonderful visions are to be fulfilled; perhaps we need God’s Spirit, and not merely our own strength of will, in order for righteousness, justice and peace to reign over us.

But who will decide what counts as righteousness? And who will define justice – for one man’s justice seems in this world often to be another man’s oppression, just as one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. And what of peace? For true peace can only come when there is justice. Shall a baby define these things? Certainly no human baby is capable of defining these things, for a human baby is quite powerless to decide anything, other than to cry, either until food comes along or until the digestive system has done its work! No, the gift of a human baby, however cute and adorable, is quite insufficient for our needs, if righteousness, justice and peace are to reign in this world.

But the story of Jesus Christ does not end in the manger – despite Herod’s best attempts to the contrary! Jesus Christ grew; he became a boy, and then a man; and his life on earth culminated in a period of teaching, preaching and healing; his ministry led to his arrest in Jerusalem, his trial and crucifixion. And that was not the end, either, but before we go any further we have to remember that the manger, as well as not being the end of the story, was not the beginning either, for this Baby, although human 100%, is also God. This baby, although human, is also the Word of God made flesh. The Word of God made flesh. God’s Word to us, yes, but also (and this is difficult, but important) God’s Word to himself (the doctrine of the Trinity) – that is to say, God’s own self-understanding of who he is. God is who he is in Jesus Christ, because this is who God is. And that is why the cross is not the end, for the Word of God also triumphed over sin and death – and triumphed over sin and death in human form. Jesus Christ did not cease to be a human being when he rose from the dead, nor when he ascended to the right hand of the Father. He is and remains fully human and fully God.

No, the manger is neither the beginning nor the end of the story, and those who limit their thoughts to a human baby in a manger will find that they are looking only at a new-born human baby. And marvellous as that is, of course, if Jesus is just a new-born human baby then there is nothing else to understanding, nothing to make us raise our hearts and our voices in song, nothing to cause us to join with Mary in her great hymn of praise. If all we have in the manger is a human baby, then all human hopes and dreams, which we might have because of him, are founded on sand, and we will for ever languish without righteousness, justice or peace. So the Gospel message is about more than the birth of a baby. And we see this in what the Apostle Paul says to Agrippa and Festus in our reading from the Book of Acts.

In order for us to understand Paul we need to realise that, for him, the starting point of his understanding of the Gospel was not the birth of Jesus Christ but his death on the cross. Indeed, Paul mentions the birth of Jesus only a couple of times in his letters, and then only indirectly. For Saul, (the Pharisee who persecuted the Church), the Gospel was originally something utterly against his whole way of thinking: that the Messiah should be such a trouble causer as this Jesus had been; that the Messiah should be rejected by the very religious people with whom Saul of Tarsus wanted to spend the rest of his life; that the Messiah should be crucified; all this was quite impossible. As far as Saul of Tarsus was concerned, the cross was a huge stumbling block. Indeed, he was determined that the whole ‘Jesus movement’ should be wiped out. And then, on the road to Damascus, he met Jesus. We do not know the exact nature of this meeting, but this meeting transformed Saul from persecutor of the Church to missionary preacher and teacher, whose work proved fundamental for the Church as it sought to understand the meaning of the cross and resurrection of her Lord.

And that is the point I want to concentrate on now: for Paul, the Gospel message centres not on the birth of Jesus Christ but on his cross and resurrection. Indeed, it is fundamental to the Bible’s understanding of the Gospel that Jesus Christ came to earth precisely to die – taking upon himself our sin and our death – and to be raised again from the dead, the Lord of all. Paul’s defence in his trial before Agrippa and Festus gives us a clear picture of how much the cross and resurrection stand at the centre of Paul’s preaching of the Gospel. Paul, having spent much time and energy since his conversion exploring the Old Testament, is utterly convinced that the Prophets had spoken of a Messiah, God’s servant, who would suffer; they had spoken of one who would take upon himself the suffering of God’s people, winning for them (for us!) liberation from their and our sins; and only after this would he be triumphant over death and establish the kingdom long promised.

Liberation from the power of sin; triumph over death; our participation in these things through baptism into Christ and membership of the Church which is his body; the kingdom of God coming in glory: this is what the cross and resurrection mean. This is the ‘why’ of the incarnation, why it is that Jesus was born among us in such great humility. And without the cross and the resurrection, Christmas, quite frankly, has nothing to say to us, or to the world around us. If the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ are not at the heart of the Christmas message, then the very name ‘Jesus’ (‘he will save his people from their sins’) has no meaning.

And that is why we need to hear again, and make our own, the words of Paul, spoken to King Agrippa: “May it be pleasing to God, either in the short term or in the long term, that not only you but all those who hear me this day might become as I am….”; that is to say, Paul hopes that we and all around us should arrive at an understanding of Christ’s coming among us which has at its heart a call to repentance and a return to God based on the cross and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And this involves, also, a realisation that the things we talked about earlier in this sermon – righteousness, justice and peace – are to be found not in our own actions, but in Jesus Christ and in him alone. He it is who, by his cross and resurrection, has shown us God’s righteousness (that is to say, God’s intention of maintaining his covenant promise), God’s justice (that is to say his rejection of the sinful and his restoration to a true relationship with him of those who put their faith in him) and God’s peace (that is to say, God’s reconciliation of himself to us, and through this the possibility that we might be reconciled one to another). All of these things are to be found only in Jesus Christ. That is the Gospel message.

Salvation is not to be found in human attempts to live in righteousness, justice and peace. It is to be found only in the righteousness, justice and peace of God, given to us in human form with the coming of God’s Word made flesh, God with us, Immanuel, who went to the cross for our sakes and rose again that we might be brought into his kingdom, living only in the power of his Spirit. That is the true message of Christmas, for it is the Gospel message. And that is what we, along with Festus and Agrippa and all those others who heard Paul that day, and hear him today, need to understand. May it be so for you and for me, this Fourth Sunday in Advent, and every day of our lives as we join with Mary in singing the greatness of the Lord. Amen.

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Isaiah 32:12-17

12They shall lament for the teats, for the pleasant fields, for the fruitful vine. 13Upon the land of my people shall come up thorns and briers; yea, upon all the houses of joy in the joyous city: 14Because the palaces shall be forsaken; the multitude of the city shall be left; the forts and towers shall be for dens for ever, a joy of wild asses, a pasture of flocks; 15Until the spirit be poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness be a fruitful field, and the fruitful field be counted for a forest. 16Then judgment shall dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness remain in the fruitful field. 17And the work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever. (KJV)

Acts 26:19-29

19Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision: 20But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance. 21For these causes the Jews caught me in the temple, and went about to kill me. 22Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come: 23That Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles. 24And as he thus spake for himself, Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad. 25But he said, I am not mad, most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and soberness. 26For the king knoweth of these things, before whom also I speak freely: for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner. 27King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest. 28Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian. 29And Paul said, I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds. (KJV)

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