Sunday, 30 November 2008

How then can we be saved?

Advent 1 year B Sermon   Isaiah 64:1-9

At least 160 people have been killed since attacks began last Thursday… in the Indian city of of Mumbai… a city you probably know best as… Bombay.

Those who died were Westerners and Asians…all caught… in indiscriminate gunfire and explosions…or taken hostage.  Christians… Muslims… Jews and Hindus …fathers and daughters, international tycoons and spiritual seekers…in hotels and restaurants…railway stations and community centres.

 Those responsible have declared "open war" against India…in retaliation for what they see as … 60 years of Muslim persecution… and India’s support of U.S. policy.

On and on it goes…the cycle of revenge…an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth…religious and ethnic warfare…attack and revenge …injury and retaliation.  India…Sudan… Iraq… Thailand… Wanaka and Hawea…sometimes people die physically…sometimes they just die emotionally

Nations…communities... churches and families…torn apart because no one is willing to give in… no one is willing to forgive… to turn the other cheek…to love their enemies.

And don't we just sit there in front of our television sets and feel powerless…just like the prophet Isaiah.

Oh, God…that you would tear open the heavens and come down

God please come down…

because only your intervention…is gonna save this wretched planet. [pause]

Today on the first Sunday of the Church Calendar

the first Sunday of… the Season of Advent…We look forward to the coming of the Messiah…from 500 years before Jesus was born

In Isaiah’s prayer…we hear the anguish cry of God’s people… as they lament the state of their worldwe listen to their longing for salvation…as the third prophet in the scroll of Isaiah…pleads with God on behalf of the Hebrew people

Isaiah cries out…our worlds in an absolute mess… and God we know it’s our fault… so only your intervention will save us.

Because ‘All of us have become… like one who’s unclean,  and all our righteous acts… are like filthy rags

       we all shrivel up like a leaf, 
       and our sins sweep us away... like the wind….’

God… the whole world is so off track…that without your help… we’re powerlessWe can’t fix this. We need you jump start humanity…recharge our batteries… heat us up…

‘As when lightening catches the trees on fire and causes water to boil.’

God… you’re gonna have to come down yourself and do something awesome and spectacular like lightening

‘to make your name known to your enemies 
       and cause the nations to quake before you!’ [pause]

Because we’re in such bad shape… we can’t do it. People don’t even know who you are God… ‘cause they’ve never seen you in action…it’s been a long time since you dazzled us with wondrous deeds.

‘No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you.’

From our perspective God …it looks like you’ve walked away and left us alone…to suffer the consequences of our own actions…it feels like you’ve abandoned us. [pause]

But…in ancient times, Isaiah prays

‘when you came down, when you did awesome things we didn’t expect…even the mountains trembled before you.’

And God… you’ve got a reputation that goes back a long way…as being the only God who ‘comes to the rescue… [pause] of those who gladly do the right thing, and remember your ways.’

But we’ve been so unfaithful as a people…we have to face facts don’t we God…If you’ve given up on us in disgust.

‘How then can we be saved?’ [pause]

And then the prophet does this incredible thing on behalf of the people …he goes from pleading to God…for some awesome cosmic intervention to put things right…Isaiah goes from pleading …to weedling…to reminding God…he created human beings in the first place…

‘Yet, O LORD, you’re our FatherYou’re the potterwe’re merely the clay. We’re all the work of your hand.’

So maybe… we can rely on your mercy and forgiveness?And that somehow we’ll be saved after all. 

So Don’t be angry beyond reason, O LORD;don’t remember our sins forever. Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we’re all your people.’

And without your help we are lost. [pause]

Two thousand five hundred years later…two years before I was born…an intact scroll of Isaiah was discovered in the caves of Qumran… on the west bank outside Jerusalem. Copies of around 800 documents… known as the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

Most Biblical scholars believe the scroll of Isaiah was written over a period of 300 years… across the reign of six Jewish Kings…followed by the Babylonian exile and the return of the exiles to Jerusalem… after 538 BC.

The third part of Isaiah from which our text comes today… contains many words of rebuke for those who’ve returned from exile. The wealthy and educated elite who were carried off to Babylon are disappointed by what they find when they get home…They’re trying to make sense of what it means to be God’s people when so many have forgotten what it means to worship  God.

They’re ready to give up… trying to do anything about the mess they’ve found… and hanging in the air all the time

is the question of what God’s response will be to their plea for divine intervention. To their longing for God to act…to their yearning for a messiah…who would proclaim the year of the LORD's favour. [pause]

Five hundred years after this… in the village of Nazareth…

a young rabbi would begin his public ministry… reading from this part of the scroll… written after the exiles returned…

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, 

       because the LORD has anointed me 
       to preach good news to the poor. 

       He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, 
       to proclaim freedom for the captives 
       and release from darkness for the prisoners, 

to proclaim the year of the LORD's favour 
       and the day of vengeance of our God, 
       to comfort all who mourn,

 and provide for those who grieve in Zion— 
       to bestow on them a crown of beauty 
       instead of ashes, 

       the oil of gladness 
       instead of mourning, 
       and a garment of praise 
       instead of a spirit of despair. 

       They will be called oaks of righteousness, 
       a planting of the LORD 
       for the display of his splendour.

God had acted… not with mighty acts of power…but in the person of a young man… who would teach his followers… to love their enemies… and heed the words of the prophets… to act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with their God.

A young rabbi who would suffer and die for this teaching…for this way of life…in order that God’s will would be done…on earth…in order to bring about the reconciliation of all people… to God and one another.

In Jesus God answers the desperate question of all people… who wonder if there’s a way out… of the mess they’re in…who wonder as Isaiah did.

How then can we be saved?’

To this question… Jesus replies

‘follow me’.

In this is the very core of the Christian faith…and the story we remember every Christmas: That in Jesus… God has come down to save us…to get us out of the mess we’re in… as nations as communities  as churches as families and as individuals…by showing us how…to be humble peacemakershow to do justice and love mercy…no matter what the cost. [pause]

Unlike the ancient Hebrew people …we no longer look forward to the coming of the Messiah.

As Christmas approaches we look back… to remember and retell and celebrate…the coming of the one we believe to be the saviour of the world.

The one who rescues us by teaching us to forgive as we’ve been forgiven… by the God who created us.

And if you aren’t already a follower of Jesus…I recommend you become one. Become his disciple…give your life to him… learn about his ways.

Trust in his mercy and forgiveness… for the messes you’ve made…and with join with us… the broken and forgiven ones…as we seek to continue his saving work of reconciliation and peace in this time and in this place.

In a time of silence let us remember…in Jesus…

God has come down to save us…

and in prayer let us all …give our hearts to him once again.