Series: Near (Advent Christmas 2021)
Theme: Prepare the Way
Bible Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7 / Mark 1:1-3
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
This Advent we are letting the voice of Isaiah and John the Baptist to help us focus on what Advent is about … Preparing the way for Jesus to come close to us at Christmas. Isaiah spoke to people going through a dark time that a light was coming. John was saying that one was coming who could save us. How do we enter into this time of preparation this advent?
Isaiah 9:2 … The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
I want you to think about that moment when night finally realised that morning has won. When the darkness of night gives up the rising brilliance of the sun. It does not matter how dark the night was, how difficult it has been, how long it has felt … the night know that it is over when the light begins to dawn.
To anyone who is walking in darkness, Isaiah is not only saying these words to the Isrealites of his time – Isaiah is saying them to us too. To anyone who is walking in darkness – the morning is coming. A light is dawning.
Verse 6. For to us a child is born. Even though Isaiah was prophesying these words 600 years before Jesus, he is writing them in the presence tense. Not, for to us a child will be born, but to us a child IS born. For Isaiah, this promise is not just a hope, it is a done deal. The dawn is breaking, there is nothing that can stop this happening.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and then in verse 7 Isaiah goes on to give us four names for this promised child … in the same way that a herald would announce a king, Isaiah announces that this promised child would be “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
But that is not the first time Isaiah assigns a name to this promised child. If we go back two chapters to chapter 7:14 Isaiah is talking about a sign of this dawn breaking.
The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. Which we know from Matthew chapter 1 that Immanuel means, “God with us”
To the people walking in darkness, Isaiah says that a light is coming, an unstoppable dawn is breaking. A child is coming to us in whom is Immanuel. God is coming near.
Is there anyone here who feels like they are walking in the darkness at the moment? Is there any here who knows what the shadows feel like? Is there anyone here who is struggling to keep the fatigue, the despair, the sense of overload at bay. Are you finding that after the year we have had your default response at the moment is to expect the worst. Is there anyone here who feels that the darkness is closing in?
If so, then I have some good news. This advent season is for you. You see, there really was a son born. There really was a child given. It really happened as Isaiah predicted. The king has come. Immanuel – God came near and stayed.
And while Jesus has never left us and we believe that Jesus is always with us, in this season of Advent we relive this journey that Isaiah and the people of God did … they had this time of preparing for this promised child to come. They prepared to receive Immanuel and this advent we are going to do the same. We are preparing to receive anew this Christmas Immanuel, to experience afresh this idea of God coming near. And after a year of social distancing, lockdowns and separation – this Christmas as God draws near to us, I think it is time to draw near to each other and to Jesus.
So we are going to open up one of the gospels to explore a little of what it means for Advent to be a time of preparation to come near. Now, you have done this Advent / Christmas journey before, you would know that only two of the gospels explicitly include the Christmas narrative … Luke has the birth and the shepherds and Matthew the Nazareth stories and the magi and the star. John mentions it in a symbolic “connect the dots” sort of way where he starts with creation and says that God became flesh and dwelt amongst us. But I have never in my 20 years of ministry (nor in my 30 years before that) have ever opened the gospel of Mark during Advent or Christmas … so who was surprised to see it as our bible reading for today?
How does this reading tie into the advent journey … let’s go to Mark 1:1 and find out. Mark is the shortest of the gospels and often doesn’t muck around getting to the point … and verse 1 is a good example of that. The opening line of the gospel is the ultimate spoiler… this is the “good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God”. No warm up here, Mark blurts out in the first sentence that this is it. Everything that Isaiah and the other prophets foretold, Jesus is it. He is the one, he is Immanuel. God with us.
Great! This is sounding Christmas-y. But then we keep reading and Mark goes straight into John the Baptist. We find John preaching in the wilderness a baptism of repentance, eating locusts and honey, wearing camel’s hair and a belt around his waist and dunking people in the river. How does John fit into the Christmas story? How can we take a que from John the baptism on how to prepare our heart to receive Jesus anew this Christmas.
Let’s jump back into our bible reading from Mark.
1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
John’s calling was to prepare the way for Jesus and I am hoping that we will see that this is our calling to. It is not only to prepare our own hearts for Jesus this Christmas but we are preparing a way, to make a straight path for others to experience Jesus too. How do we prepare the way for our workmates, the people we socialise with, our local community and even our nation – who have been walking through a dark past 18 months – how do we prepare the way for them to experience a little of the hope, peace, joy and love which through Jesus this season offers.
If you are interested … you might have noticed that Mark isn’t just quoting Isaiah in that reference but is a mash-up of two Old Testament verses … Micah 3:1 and Isiah 40:3. Isaiah chapter 40 is an amazing chapter. You should re-read it sometime. It starts with God offering comfort to God’s people, through to a declaration of “Who compares with God” and ends with that amazing promise that for all who hope in the Lord, God will renew their strength and their will rise up on wings like eagles. Great chapter. But in verse 5 there is this bombshell which the religious leaders at the time didn’t know how to quite interpret.
Verse 5 implies that the LORD (or because it is all caps we are talking about Yahweh … or the almighty God here), that the glory of God will be revealed in the presence of the people. Some of the teachers of the law thought that this was symbolic, that we would see God’s glory in the wonders of creation, or the beauty of scripture. But others argued that these verses were implying that the almighty God was going to come in person to God’s people, that God would show up, that God would actually come near – that this person in the wilderness would prepare the way for this amazing experience – of God in person coming to us.
It sounds preposterous, but we know the rest of the story, and this is what we believe. That God indeed showed up in the person of Jesus. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory … full of Grace and truth” (John 1:14). The creator steps into creation. The infinite squeezes into the finite. The author of life writes himself into the story. This is the mind-bending miracle of the incarnation.
And this is good news for ALL people walking in darkness.
During Isaiah’s time they were hoping that God would send a great king to provide leadership to a lost nation, to bring hope and peace amidst the threats of those around them, to bring healing to a people that were hurting. And in response God doesn’t send another earthly king but stepped into that role himself.
In Isaiah’s time, if you knew a king was coming to your area, work parties would be sent out to prepare the way. To make smooth the road, to straighten bends or to build bridges over valleys. The king was coming and they needed to prepare.
John the Baptist was doing the same. John knew that THE king was coming, the dawn was breaking, God was drawing near and so John called us all to “Prepare the Way”.
I said at the beginning that in this season of Advent we relive this journey that Isaiah and John the Baptist and the people of God did … Advent is a time of preparing for the promised child, the promised King to come to us.
How are you preparing this year? How are you helping make the road a little easier for people around you to enter into the spirit of Christmas this year?
This advent journey has begun. The darkness is already less dark. The promise has been given … for unto us a Child is born. It is happening whether we are ready or not. The king is coming. Jesus is drawing near to you and after the year that we have had, I want you to be able to experience that nearness of God in a rich and full and deep way. Prepare yourself. Prepare the way this advent because Jesus is near.