Last summer – which now feels like an eternity away – my girlfriend and I were lucky enough to be able to go on holiday in the Italian Dolomites. After much planning I knew what the culmination of this holiday would be (for me at least), and that was hiking to the summit of Tofana di Rozes, one of the most iconic peaks of the Italian Dolomites. It was not easy to get there. Our campervan had broken down even before we had started the climb. Once on the mountain, we initially took a wrong way up. We were increasingly tired. And I became increasingly nervous of the hight and steepness (Tirtsa not so much 😊). Yet what kept us going were the pictures we had seen of the summit, the anticipated view from the top, the stories we had read of people who described their own arrival on the summit. It was this anticipation of what was to come which kept us going through the struggles of hiking and climbing up a rocky mountain. Once reaching the summit our anticipation was confirmed, it was all more than worth-it. All the pictures and stories we had read did not even compare to the actual rugged beauty we encountered at the summit.
Maybe closer to home and our current predicament – in these times of pandemic and the struggles and fears that follow – that which keeps us going is the anticipation of life “going back to normal,” of this all finally coming to an end. However, in this case, we will still need to wait a while longer these hopes to come true, if ever.
Today’s sermon and this time of advent – which is now nearly coming to an end – is all about waiting in anticipation, a hopeful anticipation of not just a “going back to normal” but of fullness of life beyond our imagining, as promised by God.
In today’s gospel we read about John the Baptist, who announced the arrival of the soon to come Messiah. His public ministry was incredibly significant, and did not go unnoticed by the Jewish religious leaders of the time. John the Baptist’s public ministry followed 400 years of God’s silence towards His people Israel through the prophets. The last prophet speaking on God’s behalf being Malachi. Moreover, Israel was now occupied by the Roman Empire. The God of the Old Testament must have seemed far away and distant. God’s promises to Israel must have appeared increasingly unrealistic under this oppressive Roman occupation.
It was clear that in such a context the people of Israel, including its religious leaders were longing for a Messiah, for someone to finally deliver them from their predicament. Consequently, people were sent to find out who this John the Baptist was. Right from the start he made it clear that he was not this hoped for Messiah. Then the leaders asked if he was Elijah. The prophet Elijah – in Jewish tradition – was believed to return in order to announce the arrival of the Messiah. Though, surprisingly once again John responded: “I am not.”
The religious leaders must have been perplexed, thus asking: “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
John responds in turn by evoking the Old Testament – by evoking a passage which would have been well known by the religious leaders of the time – in order to make clear who he was, and his role in salvation history. He said: “I am the voice of the one calling the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
This quote comes from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, who had a very similar task to John the Baptist. Isaiah foretold a salvation and hope for God’s people during a troubled and anxious time of the collapse of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and threats to Jerusalem in the South from the Assyrians. His prophesies also dealt with the future exile of the Southern Kingdom by the Babylonians and their ensuing return.
In quoting Isaiah, John makes clear that he too was proclaiming hope and salvation in the midst of their troubles. Isaiah, spoke powerfully about the promised Messiah as God incarnate, as a suffering servant, as one who brings full salvation and restoration of Israel and of all nations and creation itself. John affirmed and pointed to the fulfilment of all these exalted hopes spoken of so many years before, in the soon to be revealed Jesus of Nazareth. Salvation will come from someone so great and significant that John considered himself not worthy to undo the straps of His sandals.
What was prophesied by Isaiah, was being declared once more, this time by John the Baptist. We see here a repetition of a biblical theme, a continuing anticipation of imminent salvation.
Our own reality is not separate from that which was proclaimed by John, and before him Isaiah. Our own reality is in continuation of that which was proclaimed by the people of God throughout salvation history. We too live – or should live – in anticipation of our immanent salvation. In advent we not only prepare our hearts and souls to celebrate Christmas, we are also reminded of our own waiting in anticipation of, and longing for salvation – both at the end of time and in the present.
Two millennia after Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension, we -like the early church in Philippi – are told once more to “rejoice in the Lord always. I say again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. [Because] The Lord is near.” The early church in Philippi was encouraged by Paul to rejoice and be joyful in the midst of their suffering because their salvation was near. Christ will return to institute a new creation. An end to all pain, suffering, and brokenness, when all will know Jesus is the Messiah, and many will realize personally the salvation that he brings – healing, wholeness, eyes opened wide, a loving heart; a reconciliation between God, humankind and all of creation.
In these past months, we have lived through a pandemic. We might have endured loneliness, job losses, ill health, changed plans, cancelled Christmas celebrations…
Don’t we also long for a saviour, salvation, a true hope. I long to be able to embrace my parents again, I long to be able to travel to Colombia to be with the churches I have grown to love, to even have a party with the people I love, and more fundamentally to have a secure future. In the midst of all of this we too are told “the Lord is near.” We must be reminded that we too have an immanent hope and salvation.
This coming salvation need not be a complete mystery to us, as we see throughout the bible how God brought salvation to His people. To name a few: In Exodus He liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt, bringing them back to the promised land. We read of God bringing his people back from forced exile in Babylonia and Persia, and of course we see God’s salvation culminating in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and his promises for us.
Maybe we can also recognise God’s faithfulness in our own personal stories, the ways God has shaped and guided and loved us in the past.
This salvation we read and hear about is not only something of the past. More than anything it is a future promise towards which we must orient ourselves.
In these uncertain times we must constantly remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness throughout the Old and New Testament, in our own lives, and in the lives of those around us. Bible reading, communion, prayer, conversations with friends and families can all play a central role in this. We must remember and come to know that God’s acts of salvation are not only in our past, but that they are future promises. Future promises which inherently gives rise to a peace and hope not dependent on our present circumstances.
This advent, which has now nearly come to an end, may we learn to live in anticipation of our coming salvation. May this be for us a source of hope, peace, and joy in our troubled world.
I hope and pray that this coming Christmas we may once more gain a better knowledge and experience of what our salvation looks like. However, now we will celebrate communion. Through Holy communion we can even now experience, come to know and even taste our future hope and salvation.
May the Lord’s Supper strengthen us, and be a source of “The Peace of God, which transcends all understanding.” Let us not keep this coming hope to ourselves, within church walls. Rather, let us live and emanate this coming joy and hope in a world of fear and brokenness.