• Third Sunday of Advent
    Published: Sunday 13 December 2020 04:01:PM
    Author: The Revd Jane Millinchip

    Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11
    John 1:6-8,19-28

    Somewhere, there's a place for us
    Somewhere a place for us
    Peace and quiet and open air wait for us

    Words from Leonard Bernstein’s musical ‘West Side Story’ which some of you may know. It tells the Romeo and Juliet story, in the context of gang rivalries in 1950s New York. Tony and Maria sing this duet as he lies dying in her arms, a victim of the violence. It is a duet of hope, hope in a love which transcends the messy world in which they live, hope in something better.

    We live in a messy world too – in a broken and suffering world. It has always been that way. Listen to some of the words from our Old Testament reading. Isaiah, back in the 8th century BC, speaks of the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the captives, the prisoners, of all who mourn, of ruined cities and devastation. He could just as well be describing our world in the 21st century, couldn’t he?

    Our lives have been dominated for nearly a year now by COVID-19, and that has brought much suffering to a great many people. Many are broken hearted as they mourn loved ones, and many find themselves virtual prisoners, captive in their own homes, or in their care homes, unable to live life as they would wish to, and unable to be with those they care about.

    And then there is the ongoing suffering of so many across our world. Refugees in makeshift camps, fleeing conflict and violence. Ruined cities and devastation too. Only just last week British troops were sent to war-torn Mali as part of a UN peacekeeping force, as the security situation there deteriorates, with all the inevitable consequences for its people.

    Need I say more?

    So, just as Tony and Maria look for hope in a love which transcends the messy world in which they live, hope in something better, in the context of 1950s New York, so we, in our own context, do the same, don’t we? We need hope – we look for hope in our messy world.

    And the hope we look for is not that superficial, and actually often vain, hope which we express when we say things like “I hope it won’t rain today” or “I hope my train arrives on time”. We are looking for a deeper hope, a hope in our hearts, a hope that the messiness of our world is not what it is all about, that life is about more than this.

    Now, when Isaiah speaks of good news, his good news is specifically about hope. It is about the hope, that we as Christian believers hold, that life is indeed about more than this.

    God is good, and never changes his attitude nor forsakes us, whatever difficulties may arise. Remember St Paul’s wonderful words from Romans 8:38-39:

    For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    We know that the broken world we see around us is far from God’s vision of justice, peace, solidarity and compassion, and so we turn in hope to his love and his promise something different and better. This is the world of which Isaiah speaks. Of binding up the broken-hearted, of liberty and release, of comfort and gladness, of rebuilding and repairing that which has been destroyed.

    Biblical and Christian hope however does not mean living in the clouds, simply dreaming of a better life, as Tony and Maria in West Side Story are doing. It is not merely a projection of what we would like to be or do. It points us to a new and better world, the new heaven and the new earth which St John speaks of in Revelation 21, where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. It also however leads us to discover seeds of that new world already present today, and it challenges us to live differently, not according to the values of a society based on self-interest and individualism, but in a society which turns Isaiah’s prophecy into a reality in the here and now.

    Ironically, COVID-19 has given us a unexpected and once and for all chance to do that. We have all had to stop and think and reassess our priorities. We have realised how important to us our contact with other people is. We have realised that rushing from one place to another, is not necessarily best for ourselves or for other people or for the environment. Even as a church, we have been forced to question what it is we do, and why we do it.

    The good news, the gospel hope, is not a way of taking our minds off the tasks of life here and now, but using them instead to make a difference in the world today. A call to set out on the road. Men of Galilee, says the angel in Acts 1, just after Jesus’ ascension, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? And Jesus himself in Mark 16 says Go into the entire world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation… You will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth. We are called to work towards a different future here and now, in the midst of the difficulties of the world, to sow seeds of renewal which will bear fruit when the time comes.
    And in doing this we follow in the footsteps of John the Baptist. John, we are told in our gospel reading, was himself not the light, but he came to testify to the light. We too are called to testify to the light – that is to the love of God in Jesus, who is the light of the world. We are called to offer the hope that the messiness of our world is not what it is all about, that life is about more than this, in the here and now, as well as in the world to come.

    This is not always easy. We tend, especially at difficult times in our lives, to focus on the darkness instead of on the light. It is easy to get sucked into a negative way of thinking, and to forget that life is about more than what we are going through at the time.

    There is so little colour in our gardens at the moment, and there are days when it hardly seems to get light at all … but we know that the spring, with all its promise of new life, is not far away. I am certainly looking forward to getting out there with my camera, starting probably with the snowdrops. They always seem to be the first. In the same way, Isaiah reminds us at the end of our reading that, as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. There is hope.

    The final verse of the song from West Side Story goes like this:
    Hold my hand and we're halfway there
    Hold my hand and I'll take you there
    Somehow, someday, somewhere

    We can’t physically hold each other’s hands at the moment, in these strange times, but we can support each other and care for each other and encourage each other. Jesus himself turns to our reading from Isaiah when he stands up in the synagogue at the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4, and identifies himself with the words of the prophet, saying Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Let us encourage each other with the hope we share, in the good news in our Old Testament reading, and in the light of the world which is Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.

    Let us pray

    Heavenly Father, our hope is in you.
    We thank you for the past, trust you for today, and believe in your promises for the future.
    Help us to encourage each other with the hope which is in our hearts.
    Enable us to share that hope with those around us.
    Use us to transform our world
    And to spread your hope to every corner of the earth.


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