The spirit of the Lord God is upon me… to bind up the broken-hearted… to comfort all who mourn…. to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
(Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; also Luke 1.46-55, The Magnificat)
The phrase that strikes me on reading the bible passages set for today is “unexpected renewal”.
The prophet writing the book of Isaiah is writing to a people in exile. They have been ripped from their native land, seen their homes and cities destroyed. The Temple, which represented to them the glory and strength and majesty of God has been destroyed by their enemies. And now they live in a foreign land once more. Their dreams of political independence and self-determination are ended.
And they have no reason to think that things will ever be different. Babylon is an immensely strong empire – it is a great power in the world. Its overthrow is unimaginable, especially by such a small nation as Judah or Israel.
Scholars are very certain that there is a significant gap between the first and second (and arguably third) parts of the book of Isaiah, and today’s reading comes from the last part. However I don’t intend to get into scholarly debate here. Let us go with the general outline and principle for now.
So this is where the Hebrew people find themselves. Weeping in a place that seems to have no possibility of change or renewal. Only survival and adaptation. And whilst both of these have their good and rightful place, they can feel like second best.
But then comes a wind of change. Cyrus the Great, the king of Persia, overthrew the Babylonian empire in 539BC and annexed it, creating the vast Persian empire. And Cyrus was a very different sort of king.
He believed in letting people alone with regards to religious practice, and he was willing not only to allow the Jews back to their land, but also to permit them to rebuild the Temple, the symbol and focus of their religion and identity. Provided of course they accepted being part of the Persian Empire. In some ways, this conditional independence was not so very different in practice to the Roman Empire.
And to those people in exile, this must have seemed like finding fresh water in the desert, like rain on parched ground. Hope and new life began to spring up again where both had been given up as impossible. Merely a dream. Now they were becoming reality.
Mary’s words in the Magnificat, our gospel reading for today, have a similar approach. She celebrates God’s mercy and compassion, and how unexpected it can be. How God often (repeatedly) chooses the person least likely to be chosen by human standards, to take forward His design and plan.
Mary celebrates that God’s love is not reserved for the rich and powerful – a common idea in those times, when poverty or ill fortune or disability was taken as an indicator of God’s anger or displeasure. Instead she turns that on its head. After all God has chosen her, an ordinary girl, likely still in her teens, to be the mother of His Messiah. To bring His plans to the next level of fruition.
And so I come back again to my thoughts earlier this week about the oaks of righteousness that Isaiah writes of.
Oaks are mighty trees indeed, and forests of trees have a wonderful system of co-operation and mutual aid. They support and sustain one another, communicating in the most incredible ways. They are not islands unto themselves, but intricately connected in a vast web of mutual interdependence. We modern humans could learn a lot from trees!
Trees also come from often the tiniest of seeds. And usually of the millions of seeds that any adult tree produces in its life, only one will ever grow to full maturity in the natural way of things. The rest become food, supporting the wider web of life around the trees. (For more on this, see The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben)
And they take a long time to become the strong tree. First a seedling, then a sapling. So vulnerable and fragile – which is precisely why only one acorn of all those millions makes it through to become a mighty oak.
But God is a gardener. Which means He understands patience and working with the cycles of time and Nature – well, He created it, so you’d expect that.
What I am trying to say is that, unless we too can tune in to those greater cycles, we may miss the signs of new life and new growth, of “unexpected renewal”, and see only dead earth, bare branches, and nothing more than tiny shoots in the ground which are so easily trampled underfoot by the unwary walker.
Advent is the time of preparing, of cleaning our inner spiritual house, making ready once more for the renewal that Christ brings in our hearts. This can happen at any time, but as Christians we experience this corporately at this season, as we journey towards Christmas.
What new shoots are there around you? Shoots of possibility that need careful tending and nurturing, lest you trample upon them. What unexpected renewal in this year of incredible challenge and trial and struggle for pretty much everyone?
What may have taken root, whilst you were not looking, that could become the mighty oak of righteousness, the planting of the Lord to display his glory?
God’s promise is as sure now as it ever was. As Christians we believe the fullness of this promise is given in Jesus, and is there for us to experience now in our lives, if we choose.
And that promise is that we should expect the unexpected. That new growth will always come again – albeit not where and how we anticipated. And that although we must experience and endure endings and death, we do not live in them, but in the eternal possibility of new life which will always come again.
This Advent in the Church of England we focus on Comfort and Joy. What comfort may this prospect of unexpected renewal, this promise of God that new life will always come through again, bring to you? May it bring you comfort, joy, and blessing indeed this Advent and Christmas season, and into the year to come.
Peace and blessings,