Isaiah 61.1–4,8–11 and John 1.6–8,19–28
John the Baptiser has had quite a bit of attention over the last week. In last Sunday’s sermon, I explored how he had a subtly different understanding of who the Messiah was meant to be, and how he should act. Then on Thursday, I explored the sceptical side of his nature, and I suggested that scepticism is a generally healthy thing for all thinking people – and especially religious thinking people. Just now, we lit our third Advent candle, and reminded ourselves of John’s pivotal role as a witness to the truth – as a burning and shining light for Christ.
Despite all this focus on John, we must never forget that his primary role was to be the announcer of Christ. As he himself said (in John 3.30) “I must decrease, so that he may increase”. John recognised in today’s Gospel that he himself was not even worthy to untie the sandals of the Messiah. As John the Gospel-writer stressed, John the Baptiser was not, himself, the Light…but rather, he came to testify to the Light.
It was Jesus – the Light of the World - that John pointed us to. And it was Jesus who, a short while after his baptism by John, who would claim for himself the opening lines of Isaiah 61, when he stood up to read in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth (see Luke 4:16-30). Here, again, are the words he both quoted, and then made his own:
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour…”
Having read those words, according to Luke’s account, Jesus put down the scroll and said to the congregation ‘Today, these words have been fulfilled in your midst’. Jesus deliberately, and purposefully, declared his mission to be one of bringing good news, binding up, healing, and proclaiming liberty. He proclaimed that this was the year of the Lord’s favour.
Which is all very beautiful. But I’m interested in what Jesus doesn’t say. I find it fascinating that Jesus stopped quoting Isaiah at just that point. He didn’t read the next line, which says ‘…and the day of vengeance of the Lord’. Jesus stops at the news that this is the year of God’s favour.
There is a stream of consciousness which flows through the Bible, and especially through the Old Testament. It’s a theme of judgement and divine vengeance, constantly invoked by prophets and seers throughout the ages, no doubt in an attempt to scare humanity into behaving itself. The very oldest stories of the Bible paint a picture of a kind of Divine ‘bogey-man’ who needs to enact some kind of punishment on humanity…
For the sins of Adam and Eve, they are cast out of the Garden. For the sins of all humanity, God apparently sends a flood to wipe out the earth. Pharaoh and his riders are cast into the sea for having stood in the way of the Divine will. Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, because the people failed to offer hospitality to God’s angels. Time and time again, the Bible’s writers reach for stories of divine vengeance.
But Jesus refuses to align himself with that kind of thinking, and with those kinds of stories. He doesn’t, for a moment, deny the power of human sin, or its ability to destroy. But neither does he retreat into metaphors of divine vengeance as the solution. Instead, Jesus talks of God’s love for the world. Just two chapters later than this morning’s Gospel, Jesus says those words which we repeat at every Thursday Eucharist: “God so loved the world, that he sent his only son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”. The God whom Jesus unfolds for us is that God who does not seek the destruction of his children. This is not the angry, vengeful God of former understanding. This is the God of love, of healing, of binding up, and of setting free. This is God the parent….God the loving Father.
And that, ultimately, is the good news that we are called to announce, this coming Christmas and then every day of the year. When we announce ‘peace on Earth, and God’s goodwill to all people on whom his favour rests’, we speak of a transforming, overwhelming Love, a love which proclaims good news to the poor, which binds up the broken, and releases the captives.
I’m frankly tired of the religious voices who claim that every disaster which befalls us is some kind of divine punishment. AIDS was never a punishment from God, and nor is COVID 19. They were both self-inflicted wounds by an unwise humanity, who released otherwise harmless animal viruses into the human population. The devastation of earthquakes and even tsunamis are not divine vengeance – but the self-inflicted wounds of an unwise humanity, who build cheap houses and beach resorts in known earthquake zones. God does not wage war, and he never requires suicide bombers. God does not desire vengeance or retribution…these things are not the will of God.
God, rather, offers wisdom and love. Through Jesus, he offers us life – abundant life, filled with wisdom, healing, sharing, and liberty. It’s Life which goes on for ever. All we have to do is look to the Light, and live in the Light, of the wisdom and truth of Jesus Christ.
Just as John the Baptiser discovered that he must also do. Amen.