The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the prophet Isaiah. The Book of the prophet Isaiah is one of the longest books in the Bible and likely sounds cryptic, even unintelligible to our ears. The prophet speak of events, circumstances and people that have long since faded from the memory of nearly everyone except scholars and historians. As such most preachers will try to derive some abstraction from the text if they speak about it at all.
This can be helpful as far as it goes, but it just doesn’t go far enough. The Bible is not a book of abstractions but a book about how God acts in the real world, in real lives, in real events and circumstances. The God of the Bible (your God!) is not a cosmic force, feeling in your heart or idea in your mind. The God of the Bible is a living, active, divine person who seeks a relationship with his creation and in particular a relationship with us. This relationship happens, not just in a far away heaven, but in the here and now of this world.
And so, what is this first scripture about?
Basically, the prophet Isaiah is reassuring the Israelites in the face of one of the most cataclysmic events in their history. Around 720 BC the armies of Assyria invaded the territories of the Israelites, cutting the nation in two and driving 10 of the 12 tribes of the Israelites out of their ancestral homeland. These 10 tribes would be lost forever. In 702 BC the armies of Assyria were at the gates of the city of Jerusalem where the remaining Israelites had taken refuge. The Israelites were facing sure and certain destruction.
The prophet speaks words of courage and consolation to the Israelites, insisting that God would come to fight on behalf of his people. God would come to set a world gone wrong right. Isaiah presents God as a mighty warrior who hearing the distress of the Israelites, will come into the world with the full force of his power and deal with the enemies of Israel.
Oddly enough, the armies of Assyria would withdraw, forced into retreat by a plague that breaks out and takes the lives of many in the Assyrian army. Isaiah understood this plague to be God’s intervention.
What does this have to do with us?
This prophecy from Isaiah highlights one of the great expectations of Israel- that God would intervene in the midst of their real life struggles and set a world gone wrong right. The Israelites, who were so often besieged and beleaguered by other nations, hoped that God would come into the world as a warrior and fight on their behalf, defeating their enemies.
It is our faith as Christians that this is precisely what God does in Christ. God comes into this world in Christ ready for a fight, prepared for a showdown with all the dark powers that have opposed God from the beginning- the dark powers of sin, death and the devil (and all who serve them). Thus, this prophecy from Isaiah is proclaimed during Advent so that we Christians can remember just who Christ the Lord is- he is God the Warrior, who comes into this world to set wrongs right and wage war against the powers of sin, death and the devil.
This is why in a world in which so much is wrong, we Christians continue to heed to the words of the prophet Isaiah- and seek comfort and consolation in God who in Jesus Christ, fights on our side against the dark powers and comes into this world to set things right.
Christ coming into the world is the concern of our second scripture, an excerpt from the New Testament Letter of Peter.
In this letter, the apostle Peter warns us not to become too preoccupied and enamored of this world and the things in it. We are only here a short while and the things of world, being finite, will one day all pass away.
The apostle then evokes a dramatic and terrifying day when God in Christ will come in the fullness of his power and bring his creation to an end. But that end will itself be a new beginning, the occasion for a new creation.
This frightening text from the apostle Peter is meant to highlight for us one of the great truths, the great revelations of Christian faith- that God in Christ has come into this world, but this is not his last and final revelation. God in Christ will come again, and he will come, not as he did as the tiny baby of Bethlehem, but with the full force of his divine power, a power that made creation and can also unmake creation.
This would terrify us into complete paralysis if not for the truth Christ reveals that when he comes again in the full force of his power, and not as a baby, he still comes as he did the first time- as our Redeemer and our Savior. His final battle is not so much with us, but with the dark powers that continue to afflict us. We need only turn to him in the midst of this conflict and he will fight on our behalf and rescue us from the power of sin and death and the devil that rage against us. God in Christ loves his people so much that he will upend creation itself if that is what it takes to defeat the dark powers and to save us.
That’s the lesson from Letter of Peter.
Finally, in Christ’s Gospel, we hear the voice crying in the wilderness, the voice of the wild man himself- John the Baptist.
John the Baptist was a priest who had gone rogue. Distressed and disgusted by the ruling elites of his time, in particular, the dynasty of King Herod, who had presented himself as Israel’s long awaited messiah and the true successor to King David, John had left his service in the Jerusalem Temple and retreated to the wilderness, where he called the Israelites away from the Temple (which had been rebuilt and financed by King Herod as a sign to the Israelites that he was their one, true king) and insisted they repent- because John believed that God’s coming into the world was imminent and when he came, he would deal with the ruling elites of the Israelites and set what was wrong right.
And on that day the Lord arrived, you didn’t want to be between those elites and God- you wanted to be standing with God.
And so, John’s message is get away from Jerusalem, get away from the Temple, get away from the Herodians and the ruling elites, because when God gets here, he is going to deal with all that and you don’t want to be in his way.
It is John the Baptist who sees correctly that Christ the Lord is God who is come into the world to set things right. And in his own way, Christ the Lord will deal with Jerusalem, the Temple, the Herodians and the elites, but he does so in a way John did not expect. He wages his war against the powers that prop up all the world’s corruption- the dark powers of sin, death and the devil.
Sin, death and the devil are real, and God comes into the world in Christ to deal with them.
He comes into our lives to deal with them as well, for these dark powers do not just afflict the world, they afflict us, personally and individually. We cannot of our own power or will defeat them, and that is why Christ comes to us repeatedly, personally and individually, through the Sacraments of the Church to defend us and to defeat the dark powers that subvert us.
And there is the lesson of today’s Gospel. Get ready. Christ the Warrior comes. Get out of his way. He has sin, death and the devil in his sights. And he has come for a fight. On our part, we have to make a decision, when the fight against the dark powers comes close- whose side will we be on?