Sermon: Advent, Andrew and beautiful feet
Preached on 29th November 2010
by The Reverend Canon Dr David Kennedy
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts, be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Advent Sunday and the feast of St Andrew the Apostle always fall near to each other. So we will give thanks to God for Andrew this coming Tuesday, November the 30th. It is one of my favourite saints’ days, because since ordination I have served in two Parishes dedicated to him in this Diocese, St Andrew, Tudhoe Grange and St Andrew, Haughton-le-Skerne. And there is further link; part of this morning’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 52, is also the appointed Old Testament lesson for St Andrew’s Day. So, in this sermon I would like to reflect on the Advent hope and the call of Andrew through the words of Isaiah 52.
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’.
What unites this passage, Advent Sunday and the call of Andrew is a sense of excitement.
The prophecy in Isaiah 52 is set in the Babylonian exile. God’s people were languishing in a far off land. While the prophetic charge had been that their plight was because of their sin and rebellion against God, there was always the hope of restoration. Nevertheless, the exile was a dark night indeed. It would be natural for the people to doubt God’s power to save; it was natural that they should wonder whether the gods of Babylon perhaps were stronger. And all the more so, because the exile had been long- it lasted a life-time. What is God doing? must have been a question often asked. Why is he seemingly so inactive? And for so long.
Suddenly, a messenger appears running over the mountains. He’s exhausted, he’s struggling for breath, yet he continues to run because nothing less than running is sufficient for such breaking news. His exhaustion and his breathlessness cannot prevent him blurting out a message of excitement: ‘Peace’, ‘Salvation’, ‘Your God reigns’. Here, at last is good news, good news of peace, of restoration, of hope, of a future, of a return home, after all those years of banishment. And how welcome that good news is – and so the charming transferred epithet speaks of beautiful feet to bring such beautiful news!
The prophet then imagines the broken down walls of Jerusalem, but there is a flurry of activity among the sentinels – they are rejoicing, hugging each other, smiling, shouting with joy – the excitement is palpable. Why? Because they can see in the distance the triumphal procession, drawing ever nearer. But this procession is not simply the return of the people, but the return of the Lord to Zion. The prophet bids even the ruins to rejoice, because in place of judgment there is comfort, in place of punishment, there is redemption, and now, at last God is acting; it is as if he has roused himself from sleep, and now everyone, including the surrounding nations, who have mocked and persecuted God’s people, will see that God is saving them; how he is restoring them.
It’s tingling, heart-pounding excitement.
And I sense, although it is not stated explicitly in the Gospels, that for Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, meeting Jesus and hearing his call, was also the most exciting thing that could ever happen. Why do I say that? Because in St John’s Gospel, when Jesus says to Andrew, ‘Follow me’, we’re told that at once Andrew rushed off to find Peter and blurted out to him, ‘We have seen the Messiah’, and he brought Peter to Jesus. And the next day, when Jesus said to Philip, ‘Follow me’, he rushed off to tell Nathaniel; ‘come and see’, he said to him with excited impatience. It’s all a bit breathless. You see, I think that those fishermen, Simon and Andrew, James and John, were not men who were struggling to make a living, or so bored with the routines of life that they needed something to brighten up a dull day; no, I sense that they were prosperous fish merchants, hard headed business men, people of substance. But such was the excitement of encountering Christ that they gladly left all behind them, and set out on a journey of faith, because they sensed that here God once again had roused himself, breaking into Israel’s history in the person of his Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.
Which brings me to Advent. And again, we sense excitement:
Hark, the glad sound! The Saviour comes,
The Saviour promised long.
Let every heart prepare a throne,
And every voice a song.
Hark! A herald voice is sounding,
‘Christ is nigh’, it seems to say.
‘Cast away the works of darkness,
O ye children of the day’.
Many of the great Latin collects set for this time of year, began with the word Excita, it lies behind last week’s collect – Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people. So in the medieval Sarum rite, today’s collect began Excita, Stir up, we pray, O Lord, your power and come. And next week’s for Advent, 2, Stir up, O Lord, our hearts to prepare the way of your only-begotten Son. It’s a word that suggests a rousing to activity, and so an excitement that anticipates God’s gracious saving initiative. Advent Sunday recalls us to the truth that what God has begun in Christ he will surely accomplish. It invites us to live today in anticipation of reign, a reign characterised by peace, salvation, justice.
And yet, we must beware any sense of uncritical triumphalism. If we return to Isaiah 52, and the sense of the triumphal procession home from exile, the return of the Lord to Zion – it sounds like the coming of God’s great day, when all his promises would be fulfilled. Yet if we read the books from the post-exilic period, then there is a different story, because in many ways the glory did not return. In fact, in the Book of Ezra when the foundations of the restored Temple were laid, there was on the one hand great shouts of joy and cheering from the younger people – but the older people who could remember the first Temple wept because this was so diminished from its former glory. In fact, you couldn’t tell apart the cries of joy from the cries of sorrow. To Christian eyes, it was of course, the coming of Jesus that marked the return of the Lord to Zion – but his true glory came in the context of the deepest lowliness – ‘the great humility’ of which today’s collect speaks.
And whatever, excitement gripped those early fishermen, they had to learn that God’s salvation, his Kingdom, would come only by means of the hard road of the cross, through rejection, suffering, pain and death. And that this kingdom would be characterised not by the exercise and love of earthly power, but by the sacrificial power of love. For Andrew, this ultimately meant martyrdom, as tradition tells us that he was martyred in Greece in about the year AD70.
And for ourselves, while today we echo the excitement and the anticipation of God’s ultimate triumph, well we can feel as if, in terms of wider society, we are in exile – other ‘gods’ seem to grab the headlines and catch the imagination, and demand our society’s time and money and interest. What is God doing? Is he inactive? Why will he not stir up his strength, and bare his arm, and act? But the truth is that the Church is also called to follow the pattern of Christ’s great humility.
What Andrew would say to us, though, I believe, is that that first excitement – ‘We have found the Messiah’ never left him. Those insistent, beckoning words of Jesus, ‘Follow me’, never diminished. That sense that in his face we see the human face of God; in his actions we see the Christ-like God; and in his death and resurrection we see the triumph of God, a triumph that is being worked out in history and in time. And so an excitement, that rouses our discipleship and assures us that our labour is not in vain. It’s interesting that some of the Excita prayers are a plea to God to stir up his strength and some are a plea that God will stir us up. May we today respond again to Christ’s call and with a sense the excitement live out the truth, ‘Your God reigns.’