Hebrew Bible reading Isaiah 42:1-9
It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? God’s promise of someone who will bring justice to the nations. He won’t yell, demanding attention for himself; he won’t destroy people who are already broken, or crush those who don’t feel they’re worth anything. What he will do is give sight back to people who can’t see; to give freedom back to people who are locked up.
Sounds great! But let’s be serious, is it ever going to happen? Seriously? Isn’t it more like the sort of promise we can look out for more and more as we approach election time? Promises of great things to come if we only vote for the right person, or in this case have faith in the right person? Promises that are mysteriously sidelined or forgotten once whoever it is gets into power? Promises not worth the scroll they’re written on?
Looking around at our world, it would be very easy to dismiss these words as if-onlys. I’m sure some in Isaiah’s day did just that. After all, they were in an even worse situation than we are, politically and economically. Their nation had been defeated; they’d been forced to leave their country and go and work for a foreign power far away. Why would they take any notice of the words of a prophet whose god had let them down? Typical promises of religion – airy-fairy, no substance to them. But what if God did mean those words, does mean those words? What if the promise that God’s servant would come to heal and transform, to encourage and renew, isn’t just words but actions too? What might fleshing out that promise look like?
Well, we’ve recently been celebrating one way God’s promise has come true, in the birth of Jesus. And, as you know, through the weeks to come we’ll be following the story of what happened when he grew up. But for me that still leaves the question: what about here and now? How can we see God’s promise being fulfilled, God at work, in Freemantle in 2014?
Well, we already know, both from Isaiah’s prophecy and from Jesus’ coming as a baby, that it’s not going to look spectacular. If you saw that film again over Christmas, forget the Indiana Jones version of the Ark of the Covenant. That’s just entertainment, folks. The fleshing out of God’s promise in real life is going to look much more ordinary than that. And in just a few moments, we’ll be seeing part of it take place before our very eyes.
For as you know, today we are reinducting two Elders to serve our church. David Hoadley, who has been working with you for years, and Adrian Whiffen, who has served as an Elder elsewhere, but I believe will be in that position with us for the first time. And very soon, they’ll be standing up and making promises to serve this church as part of our leadership team. That may sound less than glamorous; no Charlton Heston Moses type experience. And indeed, no Elder is a superhero – they’ve got more sense than that. Some of being an Elder is less than glamorous, as you who have experience of Eldership know full well. But it involves forgiving, freeing, helping, loving the people of this church and this community into becoming who God knows we can be. Fleshing out God’s promise in this place. That’s why these servants of God have been called to this work. And before the rest of you decide to relax and leave them to it, that’s work God has called all of us here this morning to do.
Gospel reading Matthew 3:13-17
So if we’re all called to do God’s work in this place, not just David and Adrian, not even just the other Elders with them, the next question is: how? For we know ourselves well, and the difficulties we face; whether it’s a heavy workload, or others who rely on us, or the fact that sometimes it’s not easy just getting up in the morning. What hope do we have of doing what God wants, when sometimes we feel like broken blades of grass or smoking candlewicks, waiting for God to transform us?
If Jesus was a true human being – as I’m convinced he was – he’ll have had to face that too. How could he, one man, a carpenter from an unimportant village, be God’s servant, be a light to the nations?
If that sort of question did cross Jesus’ mind, he could look back at his baptism, the time when he stood up to be counted and God was there in an indescribable way. Later it was described as being like a dove: something about lightness, about flying and resting, about being chosen and precious. He’d have held onto that memory in Gethsemane, on Calvary.
But of course the Gospel reading we have just heard isn’t just about Jesus. It is also about his cousin John, John the Baptist, who heard God’s call to transform his mind, to repent, and who repeated the call so loud by the Jordan that everyone who heard him felt God calling them too. If it hadn’t been for John hearing God’s call, Jesus would not have been baptised, would not have had that assurance from God: Here’s my son, my beloved. I’m delighted with him.
Later on, when he was in prison because God’s call had led him to give the king some unwanted and rather tactless advice about his marriage, John wondered whether he’d made a huge mistake. Had God really been there, by the Jordan? Had he really seen and heard what seemed to be true at the time, or had the sun got in his eyes? Was God’s spirit truly working in Cousin Jesus? Or was the hope of God’s promise fulfilled just wishful thinking?
At this stage, John still had some friends who came and visited. So he sent them to Jesus, and asked them to check out his credentials. Was Jesus really the one sent by God to fulfil Isaiah’s words? Or was the world still waiting for God’s servant to come?
When they found him, Jesus didn’t give them a straight answer. According to the record, he hardly ever does. Instead, Look around you, he told them. Have a look at what’s happening. Does it tie up with God’s promises relayed through Isaiah? Can you see people being healed, people’s lives transformed? Does what I’m doing live up to the prophetic headlines? And if it does, go back and tell John what you’ve seen and heard.
For Jesus, it’s deeds that are important as well as words. Whether it’s overflowing wine at a wedding, whether it’s lives being put back together again, whether it’s people forgiving each other, breaking down the barriers between them, you can see where he’s been, where God’s spirit is giving new life, fleshing out the promises of God in real life.
So I’d like you to apply that test to your own life, and the life of our church. Where have we seen the new life that comes from God’s spirit? As we prepare to meet Jesus in real bread and wine, let us give thanks for all God’s promises already fleshed-out, and let ourselves be strengthened for God’s service to come. For that’s the only way we can have the nerve to answer God’s call.