‘There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light […] He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord”’, as the prophet Isaiah said.’ John 1:6-8, 23
Brothers and sisters, I wonder if you know what the most valuable of all talents is? Well according to Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States of America – ‘The most valuable of all talents’ he said ‘is that of never using two words when one will do.' I wonder what he thought of Isaiah’s picture painting at the opening of chapter 61? Isaiah could simply have said; the kingdom of God is coming. But he didn’t. He waxed lyrical about the kingdom and the impact it would have in the world:
'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, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn'.
This wonderful messianic prophecy, overflows with an abundance of images and expressions that all seek to tell the same story of God’s redemptive power when His kingdom breaks into this world. Isaiah is looking forward to and indeed pointing others to the reality that will one day occur. Of course, Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled 600 years later in Jesus who personally embraces the prophecy at the beginning of his ministry – Luke 4:16-21. As we reflect on the passage 2,500 years later we have the advantage of being able to look back and forward at the same time. We can look back to Jesus Christ who was born 2000 years ago who fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah and we can look forward to the return of Christ and all that has been said about what will happen at that moment in time. What is worth holding on to is the fact that when God breaks into this world, things look different. When God breaks into this world, things are turned up-side-down. When God breaks into this world, lives are changed and communities are transformed.
At the beginning of John’s gospel, we encounter John the Baptist, the last Old Testament prophet. John had the great privilege of being part of the company of prophets who kept the rumour of God alive and constantly reminded people that God’s kingdom was coming. In many ways John saw himself as a directional sign: ‘I am the voice of one crying out – make straight the way of the Lord.’ John also recognised that he should not be the focus of attention: ‘I baptise with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ In Luke’s gospel, chapter 7, we read that John sent a couple of his disciples to ask Jesus if He was the one who he had given his life to point to. Jesus reply points John to a world that is beginning to look different, so Jesus says: “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” All that Isaiah spoke about in his prophecy seems to be embodied in the ministry of Jesus – the blind see, the deaf hear, those who are ill find healing – in other words, He bring good news and in so doing fulfils the prophecy. John must have felt an air of satisfaction of a job well done!
As God’s kingdom breaks in, all those who have been blind or lame or ill have their lives turned up-side-down. Their weakness is transformed into strength and Isaiah comments – ‘they will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory’. In other words, when God breaks into the world His power will be seen in transformed lives and that transformation will be a display of His glory in the world for all to see. Just as a tiny acorn grows into a might oak tree – so, when God is at work in a person’s life, even if their faith is the size of a mustard seed, He can accomplish great things, simply because it is God doing the work …. not us!
Today, Isaiah and John call us to look again at the prophetic announcement of God’s kingdom and ultimately to respond to it ourselves. Today, Isaiah and John call us to recognise our own weaknesses, blindness, deafness, oppression and to allow the year of the Lord’s favour to impact our own lives. John came to witness to the light, he came to witness to Jesus so that we might ultimately believe. So that we might see things differently. So that we might be changed and transformed as God breaks into this world and into our lives. Take time during these last few days of Advent to think afresh about the message of Isaiah and John the Baptist and what ‘believing’ might actually require of you at this moment in time. Amen (from the Very Rev. Peter Howell-Jones)