Preacher: The Rev’d Jenny Wilson

Isaiah 1:1-9

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.
(Isaiah 1:2-3)

It is the First Sunday of Advent, the commencement of the new liturgical year. Our cathedral is robed in purple and the first Advent candle has been lit. In our morning Eucharist we processed in a figure of eight around the cathedral as we chanted the Great Litany, the great outpouring of repentance and sorrow for all that we have done that is wrong, the great prayer to the one who we implore to forgive, and to bring peace and hope to the world.

It is the season of the prophets. Last Wednesday evening at our Advent Carol service we heard readings from the prophets and music woven around those prophets’ words. This evening in our Old Testament reading, we hear the opening words from the prophet Isaiah. We know well that the Book of the prophet Isaiah is in fact three books written for three different times in Israel’s history. First Isaiah, which encompasses chapters 1 to 39, finds its origins in the eighth century BCE and the crises of Jerusalem before the exile. The prophet speaks words of judgment and words of promise.

The structure resembles a lawsuit, is set in a courtroom, with the Lord calling on the heavens and the earth to hear the case the Lord is bringing against the people. God has invited the people Israel into covenant life with God and the people have failed to live well in that covenant life.

I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.

God speaks as a parent who has lovingly raised his children. God is often portrayed in this way in the writings of the prophets. Most poignantly Hosea, for example, has God say:

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
 I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.
(Hosea 11:3-4)

The most profound disappointment for God as expressed in these first words of the prophet Isaiah are is one of knowledge. God’s people do not know God.

The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.

God’s people live unaware that it is God who has created them and brought them up, gathered them into life with God. The people Israel do not know how to live in this relationship.

Ah, sinful nation,
people laden with iniquity,
offspring who do evil,
children who deal corruptly,
who have forsaken the Lord,
who have despised the Holy One of Israel,
who are utterly estranged!

The people are estranged from their parent God. We, perhaps, too, are thus estranged. The charge that the Lord brings against his people Israel in this heavenly court is one of sin and neglect. The charge is one of a failure to know God’s voice.

Advent is a time when we are encouraged to keep awake, to be alert, to wait for the coming of the Lord, to be expectant about Christmas and our retelling of the stories of the birth of Christ. That we might be expectant that God will reach us and bless us in some way, that we will hear God’s voice, sense God’s peace, sense God’s peace for those we love and for the world that is our home.

Advent is a time to notice our failures, to know that in some ways we do not know the Lord. To spend a moment or two with the reality that how we are at times makes us strangers to God, that our selfishnesses and our pride can leave us like an ox that does not know its owner any more, like a donkey that cannot find its way to its master’s crib. The prophet weaves his images in our midst that one might catch our imagination and speak of our rebellion and yet also the deep love in which we are held.

Advent is a time to ponder these things and the way to ponder things is to find a little time and to, in some way, be still in it. It may be that we would imagine ourselves as a donkey who has lost her home or an ox who searches for their owner and cannot find them, only to realise that they were there all the time and they did not know them. It may be that a carol we heard our choir sing will comfort us and help us be still. It may be that we might make our confession, if there is something we have done of which we are truly ashamed, and in the quiet of our room, or with a trusted friend or priest, we might beg God’s forgiveness.

A Buddhist writer, Thich Nhat Hanh, explored this truth of our need to be still, of our need to be awake, of our need to wait, in a poem about drinking a cup of tea. I love drinking tea. And as I have often thought that to notice every mouthful of a cup of tea would be a prayerful thing – I don’t think I have managed it yet! – I loved this piece of writing.

“You must be completely awake in the present to enjoy the tea.
Only in the awareness of the present, can your hands feel the pleasant warmth of the cup.
Only in the present, can you savor the aroma, taste the sweetness, appreciate the delicacy.
If you are ruminating about the past, or worrying about the
future, you will completely miss the experience of enjoying the cup of
You will look down at the cup, and the tea will be gone.
Life is like that.
If you are not fully present, you will look around and it will be gone.
You will have missed the feel, the aroma, the delicacy and beauty of life.
It will seem to be speeding past you. The past is finished.
Learn from it and let it go.
The future is not even here yet. Plan for it, but do not waste your time worrying about it.
Worrying is worthless.
When you stop ruminating about what has already happened, when
you stop worrying about what might never happen, then you will be in the
present moment.
Then you will begin to experience joy in life.”

Not a bad poem for Advent I think. A reflection on noticing a cup of tea.

I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.

God cries out through the voice of the prophet Isaiah. May we find a way to be still this Advent, to hear God’s voice, to understand God’s ways, to know God as the ox knows its owner and the donkey that its home is in the master’s crib.