The glory of the Lord will be revealed – Second Sunday of Advent 2011

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

The beautiful opening of that part of the book of Isaiah which we attribute to an unknown prophet of the 6th century BC, who has the joyful task of announcing the good news of the end of the Exile in Babylon. For seventy years or so, Jerusalem has been in ruins, the Temple destroyed, and her king and people either killed or taken away into a foreign land. But now:

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

The time of punishment is over; the time of renewal begins. So the deserts between Babylon and Israel will be flattened and straightened into a great road to bring the exiles home. It will be like a re-run of the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

The glory of the Lord is revealed precisely in the return of his people to their homeland. Just as in the Exodus story, where the caravan of Israel is led by the Lord in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night – visible symbol of the glory of the Lord who lives among his holy people – so the glory of the Lord returns to Zion. He went into exile with them, and now travels with them on their journey to a new beginning. It reveals the glory of God because it shows God’s faithful love of his people. He has not forgotten his covenant; he has not abandoned them, even though they went astray. God’s glory is revealed in the absolute reliability and faithfulness of his commitment to his people.  “He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever”. The mouth of the Lord has spoken.

A voice says, “Cry out!” Announce this good news of God’s unchanging faithfulness; of this new chance; of this renewed community. But the prophet is hesitant. ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. For us, grass often seems like a sort of evergreen plant, but in the Middle East it is very short-lived, green one day, hay the next, to be burnt in the oven. It is a symbol of mortality and frailty and fickleness. The people went wrong before; they will probably go wrong again. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.  How can we rely on ourselves? and he gets an answer: Yes, the grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. Our hope of a fresh start is not based on our own strength but on God’s unchanging loyalty and commitment. We may receive the consequences of our wrong choices, but we are not abandoned; God will never give up on us.

And so destroyed Zion, ruined Jerusalem, signs of disaster, are turned into heralds of good news, witnesses to God’s faithful love, signs of renewed hope and renewed community. 

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings;lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’  See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 

Here is your God – here where community is rebuilt in justice and righteousness, where compassion and faithfulness rule.

He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

St Mark chose words from this prophecy to open his book of “The Good News of Jesus the Messiah, Son of God”. In Jesus he sees God’s faithful love again at work, God’s unchanging commitment to Israel, now expanded to include whoever will trust him, Jew and Gentile alike. The glory of God is revealed in this new community of the followers of Jesus, not because of their own qualities, but because in their forgiven and forgiving lives they bear witness to God’s faithfulness, to God’s grace and compassion. The glory of God is not revealed in our perfection, our powerfulness, our self-sufficiency, but in the way he remains loyal to us in our frailty and fickleness, and renews and restores and gives us unquenchable hope.

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