The prophet Isaiah provides our first readings during Advent this year, and he is particular strong on the idea that the Messiah will come to deliver Israel. As Christians we use the period of Advent to reflect upon the fact that Christ is coming, He is coming as a baby born in Bethlehem, He is coming to us here today in the Eucharist, and He is coming with vengeance to judge the world. Should we be afraid? On the contrary, as the prophet says, ‘Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart,“Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you’ (Isa 35:3-4 ESV).
Isaiah has a vision where the desert, a dry wilderness is carpeted with flowers, a sign of new life, of hope. This is the flourishing which the Messiah will bring, ‘the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God’ (Isa 35:2 ESV). As Christ Himself says ‘I came that they may have life and have it abundantly’ (Jn 10:10 ESV) This is good news, a reason to rejoice and be glad, and to mark this the Church instead of penitential purple wears rose today, to mark the joyful character of this day, and to remind us that Christ is coming. As Isaiah says, ‘the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away’ (Isa 35:10 ESV).
The time is both now, and not yet. As St James writes, ‘You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand’ (Jas 5:8 ESV). Patience is a hard thing to master. We are naturally impatient, we don’t want to wait, but we have to. The question is how we wait: in joyful expectation, preparing ourselves for what is to come?
John the Baptist has been waiting for the Messiah, and while he leapt in his mother’s womb at the Visitation, in this morning’s Gospel he appears to be having doubts. He is expecting a Messiah of judgement, and he is isn’t sure what is going on. John has been imprisoned for criticising Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife. He is hoping for a messiah to sweep away an unjust and corrupt regime, hence his doubts about Jesus, who doesn’t seem to be a political messiah. Jesus tells John’s disciples, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them’ (Mt 11:4-5 ESV).
The vision of a messianic future envisaged by Isaiah in this morning’s first reading has become a reality: prophecy has been fulfilled, God keeps his promises. The Kingdom of God is a place of healing, and Christ is the great physician, who has come to heal our souls. Jesus is the one who is to come, He has come, and will come again. The establishment of God’s kingdom can look strange in human terms: going to those on the margins, the sick, the poor, and the oppressed and marginalised is not a grand gesture. That is the point! The greatest grand gesture Jesus will make will be in handing Himself over to be crucified and die the death of a common criminal. This is how the messiah will reign as the true King of Israel.
It defies human expectations, which is the point: God’s ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts ours. That’s the core message of this morning’s Gospel, if we expect God’s rule to look like human kingship, then we will be disappointed. God has something else in store, something far more wonderful than we could ever imagine, and at its heart is the transformation of humanity by love. God heals His people, because God is a God of love. God loves us not because we are loveable, we are sinners, who don’t deserve to be loved, and cannot earn that love. But rather than what we are, God loves us for WHO we are, His sons and daughters, created in His image.
This is grace: loving sinful humanity so that we may be transformed by love. Hence the focus on healing, something which only God can do, to heal our souls with His love. This is the cause of our joy, what the prophet Isaiah hoped for has been fulfilled, and continues to be fulfilled. The Church exists to carry on God’s healing in the world, to take humanity, and heal it with God’s love. This is what we are about to celebrate in the Eucharist where we thank God for loving us, and prepare to experience that healing love, so that it may transform us. We do so with reverence, because we are not simply consuming human food and drink, but the very Body and Blood of Christ, given for us, to heal us. The greatest medicine our souls could ever wish for. Soon we ‘shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God’ (Isa 35:2 ESV) God’s glory and majesty is to die on a Cross for us, and to feed us with Himself. Come to the banquet my brothers and sisters, and experience the love of God, and let it heal and transform you, so that you and all creation may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.