Make firm Feeble Knees: Advent 3

Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean

Isaiah 35: 1 – 101, Psalm 146, James 5: 7 – 10, Matthew 11: 2 – 11

Don’t you just love it? Today’s extract from Isaiah 35 surely had to be written for one of the many Anglican churches filled with aging people. You know, one of those where the main topic of conversation is not about the big issues facing the world – things like climate change, gay marriage, and human rights; or fighting cancer, stopping family abuse and housing the homeless; or even, God forbid, the poor returns on super funds, the latest tweet trumped over the internet and your golf handicap. No – conversation over morning tea in one of these congregations (definitely not the Cathedral) is about much closer and more important issues – body aches and creaks, and hip and knee replacements! What do I mean? Listen to these words from Isaiah 35: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those of a fearful heart, ‘Be Strong..!’” It even got picked up by the compilers of An Australian Prayer Book and woven into today’s Collect.

But seriously, Isaiah 35 is another of those wonderful hope-laden passages of scripture, filled with encouragement for real people struggling to make sense of the experiences dealt to them in life. Struggling to hold on to faith in God, to live lives worthy of Jesus Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit. It is all too easy to give up, to go with the flow of the world around, to get sucked into that downward spiral of unbelief, of wondering whether it was all worthwhile.

If you like, this is John the Baptist in prison. A fiery firebrand preacher, he was not known for mincing his words, for backing down from calling on politicians, community and religious leaders, those filled with a sense of their own importance, to live the rhetoric they so easily speak. “You brood of vipers” we heard from his lips last week; but not this week. This week John is in prison – both physically, imprisoned at the whim of the person in temporal power; and mentally, imprisoned in the doubt of his own mind. Did I get it wrong? Did I misread the signs, the ancient prophetic writings of Isaiah and Amos and Hosea? Is this man Jesus, my cousin, really the promised one? Is he the one who will usher in the Kingdom of God and transform the world, the one for whom we have waited so long? In the darkness of his depression, John sends his messengers to Jesus.

We sense something similar happening in the snippet from the Letter of James. Reading between the lines of today’s 2nd reading there is a certain despair in the church; things seem not to be going that well; perhaps people were leaving, young ones were not coming in, the congregation had run into debt, controversy, who knows, even abuse? Certainly it appears that all was not well in the congregations to whom James wrote.

In all three of today’s readings there is a strong sense of disillusionment, of doubt, of questioning. It is easy to see why people might wander off, lose heart, simply give up.

It is precisely into these situations that the message of Advent comes – simply, strongly, full of joy, hope, encouragement and good news.

Look again at Isaiah 35 – especially the first three paragraphs, verses 1 – 7. For those who like literary techniques notice the chiastic structure of these verses, the pattern of idea A mirrored by idea B, and then repeated in reverse order, idea B followed by idea A. So the first paragraph tells of the transformation of creation – the wilderness, the dry land and the desert. The second paragraph opens with the transformation of a disabled humanity – the weak hands, the feeble knees, the fearful heart. The third paragraph begins by repeating the previous idea, that of transforming disabled humanity – blind eyes opened, deaf ears unstopped, the lame leaping, the speechless tongue singing. That is followed by the transformation of creation – streams in the desert, pools in the burning sand, lush swamp sporting reeds and rushes.

And we must ask ourselves: what made the difference? What is the catalyst of transformation? It’s there in the middle of the passage. Listen again to Isaiah 35 verse 4: “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.’” Be strong, do not fear! Great words of encouragement. Hold on. Don’t give up. Keep the faith. Similar sentiment is offered by James in his letter. Be patient. Strengthen your hearts. And by Jesus to John the Baptist. Tell John what you see and hear – the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

We all need to hear messages of encouragement at times. I know I do – often. When, in the middle of the night, I wonder whether we will ever be able to raise the money needed to pay for the organ restoration, when it seems that even the generosity of some is not enough – I need to hear Isaiah’s words of encouragement and hope. I need to give that same encouragement to members of the Cathedral Council, and those of the Organ Fund-raising Task Force – don’t give up, this is worthwhile, we can do it. Strengthen your weak hands, make firm your feeble knees …! It’s not unusual in the middle of a major project to wonder if it is worthwhile, to listen to the nay-sayers, to be tempted to put it in the too-hard basket.

But then those words of Isaiah again: Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God! The words of James perhaps: Be patient … strengthen your hearts … do not grumble against one another. The words of Jesus to John the Baptist: Tell John what you see and hear!

It is at that point that doubt turns to joy, as faith in God is strengthened, re-affirmed; as one’s eyes are opened, even those of John the Baptist languishing in the prison of his own darkness. Isaiah imagines God’s answer as a highway home through the desert – and tonight’s worshippers will hear the thrilling message of Isaiah, immortalised in the music of Handel’s Messiah:

“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says your God …

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low…” (Isaiah 40: 1 – 11)

Along that highway will march a joyful crowd such as has never been seen before.

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35: 10)

To John the Baptist, Jesus offers the reality of the Kingdom of God

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. (Matthew 11: 5)

This is so much more than simply the repentance of sins that John advocated, and which the crowds flocked to the wilderness to hear. This is the fulfilment of that bold vision we hear over and over again during Advent and find in the writings of successive generations of those who used the name Isaiah.

In these days, when it is tempting to focus on the post-Trump, post-Brexit gloom; when falling GDP with resultant job losses, or education failures, take up air-space; when rumour and falsehood are so easily propagated in our ‘post-truth’ world – dare we listen to the words of Jesus to John the Baptist? Dare we notice the good news stories, the blind who do receive their sight (how many of us have had cateracts removed?), the lame who do walk again (thanks to the marvels of easily taken-for-granted hip and knee replacements), the deaf who hear (yes – hearing aids and cochlear implants are part of God’s Kingdom), and the poor have good news preached to them – as examples the generosity of the weekly food baskets that go to the Magdalene Centre from St Peter’s Cathedral; the stunning work of AnglicareSA; the Australian Board of Mission and its support for sanitation and fresh water supplies in Vanuatu, made a little easier by the $5000 given by this year’s Cathedral Art Show. Opening our eyes and ears to see and hear what God is doing in the world, through all sorts of different people – of various religious persuasions and none – may well be the action called for us today.

Advent is no time for shirking, for languishing in the prison of our own darkness. It is a time to Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees, and to say to those of a fearful heart, ‘Be Strong..!’

One final comment today: Two weeks ago I suggested that we follow the advice of Mother Teresa and seek daily to do something beautiful for God. Today I suggest we add to that – and find something each day for which to rejoice. In doing so, we will not only move out of our self-imposed prisons but join that great throng of people who actively seek to notice and celebrate moments of joy daily. And. Perhaps more importantly, spread the joy of living to others.

Do something beautiful for God today. Be someone joy-filled for God today