God Pulls Us Towards Him, Even The Weirdos (Isaiah 40.1-11, Mark 1,1-8)
I wonder if John The Baptist was around today, what people would make of him? Would he get through the selection process criteria of the Church of England? Would he get through a Bishop’s Advisory Panel? I’m not really sure training residentially around lots of other people would have suited him, and then of course there’s his diet, would the kitchens be willing to provide enough locusts and wild honey? ‘And lo there appeared a Man named John, in Norwich city centre, he wore a crumpled and stained shirt, and ate out of bins, and people in the Norfolk countryside came to him to be baptised in the River Wensum.” Can you imagine it? The Christian story is littered with strange people, and strange stories, which gives me hope, if someone as strange as John the Baptist can find a place within the Christian story, then there’s hope for me too.
The bizzare, the strange, the outcast, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the unclean, the unwashed, the poor, these are all the kinds of people that Our Lord hung out with. That’s important to remember, that God pulls everyone towards him. Even the weirdos and the people we don’t like, even the smelly people. What God was saying through John the Baptist was that the Kingdom of God is coming, that God himself in the form of Jesus was coming to pull the entire world back towards him, to reconcile us to him, to enter our darkness and shine his light on us. God says, your pain is my pain, your hope is my hope and I share my light and my love with you. The voice that cries out in the wilderness, is the voice of God saying I want you to join in, I want you to be part of me, I want you to be reconciled, I want you to be pulled towards me.
In our reading this evening from Isaiah, I think that this is all about how God pulls us towards him. The context of this passage is Jerusalem in exile, when the Israelites were forced into exile in Babylon, so It’s coming from a place of suffering and of sadness. Despite being in exile however, God is still reaching out to Israel. The writer is interpreting the exile as the punishment of God, but now it’s coming to an end. Now whether God was punishing them, or the downfall that they were experiencing is a natural consequence of their own sin, is something that can be argued either way, that’s not what’s important. What is important is that God is bringing them back, that God’s mercy and love comforts them, that God is crying out in the wilderness and YHWH will be revealed, and all people shall see it together. God will be known by all people, not just the Israelites. “Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
“A voice says, Cry out! And I said ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it.” People are fragile, and temporary, we live and we die. In the near east the summer heat quickly withers the grass. These verses are all about the temporariness and uncertain state of us as humans before God came and rescued us. God cries out and shouts his forgiveness at us, and in verses 8-9 this is what it means by “O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’
Shouting the message of God from the hilltops, proclaiming God pulling humanity towards him, that he has come and saved us from ourselves, that is what it means!
Are we going to go out onto the streets of Norwich and shout it from the hilltops? Well the one hill, Kett’s hill. That might make us look a little bit of a John the Baptist to be honest. We can proclaim the message of God but in different ways. If we don’t share the love of God that’s within us, the fact that God constantly goes the distance, and pulls us towards him, then that’s a bit selfish.
Being quite a liberally minded person myself, who believes in caring for all people in our pluralistic society, It’s something that I’ve really wrestled with, how do I share the love and the hope that’s within me, without making other people feel uncomfortable? It seems an insurmountable task, and my English reserve often gets in the way, but it doesn’t have to be.
I think the answer is through service, through demonstrating that love in the way you act, being a little bit different, perhaps doing things that seem strange or counter-cultural, like inviting our elderly neighbour over for a cup of tea. 1 in 3 old people in Britain suffer from lonliness, that’s huge. Over 200,000 older people have not spoken to friends or family, or anyone for a month. Imagine the potential if every member of the Church of England spoke to one elderly lonely person.
Another way is perhaps talking to the strange person we see on the street, the people who feel isolated and alone, and sharing the love of God to them, person to person. With God there are no in groups and out groups, worthy or unworthy, we are all on a level playing field, and we have to reach out in love, just as God reaches out in love to us, pulling us towards Him and His love. Not just because it shares the message of God with people, through action, but because it’s good in and of itself, and transforms society through love and care.
The fact that God reaches for us, couldn’t be more clear at this time of year. The people of Israel prayed, and watched and waited for God to come closer to them, and it happened in the form of a baby born in a stable. God incarnate, God is with us. You all know the words to O Little Town of Bethlehem ‘But in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’ God came into time and space, and met us where we were, and as that baby cried in the manger, God cried that he had come closer to us than ever before. At the heart of this time of year is the Love between people and families, but even more so for us, as Christians, is the love of God that pulls us in. People get that they love each other, but if we could only articulate the amount of love that God has for us, that was manifest in that little Baby in the manger, the world would be transformed. The love that people feel for each other at this special time of year, is a drop in the ocean compared to the love that God has for us.
“He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” God is not someone who smashes us into bits if we don’t do what He wants. God is a God that reaches for us, saves us from ourselves, and scoops us up when we need it. Perhaps to the secular world believing this makes us look like a bit of a John the Baptist, a bit crazy, but you know what? In the end love wins, and if believing that makes me look mad, I’d rather be a bit crackers.
Preached at Evensong 10/12/2017
St Peter Mancroft