Isaiah 40:1-5 | Mark 1:1-8
So we arrive at the start of a new year – in Church terms, at least – the beginning of advent, the four weeks when we start to get ready for great miracle, the great mystery, that lies right at the heart of our faith – the miracle, the mystery of Christmas.

Over the four weeks of advent we reflect on four different parts of the journey that leads us towards Bethlehem, towards the stable, towards the baby.

And that journey starts long before the events of the first Christmas, back in the days of the Old testament prophets – and today, in particular, the days of the prophet Isaiah.

As we move through the Advent season, we read quite a lot of the Old Testament prophets. And when we do so, I think it’s quite important for us to recognise that we, as the Christian Church, read the prophets in a particular way. We find them quoted in the gospels, often with the phrase “this happened so that the word of the prophet might be fulfilled”, or “as is written in the prophet Isaiah” that we had today, or something similar – and I think we often don’t realise just how selective we are being in our use of these Hebrew voices, how we are encouraged to claim them as if what the prophets were all about was Jesus.

Even the way we lay out the Bible encourages this: if you look in the contents of your Bible at the books of the Old Testament (the kids in Splash at 5pm are currently learning them, to the tune of Waltzing Matilda, thanks to Colin Buchanan and Kristy) you find it laid out with all the books of the prophets at the end, as if to say that the prophets are the bridge; in the Old testament, but pointing towards the New.

But if you look in the Jewish scriptures you find those same books, the Hebrew Bible (that we call the Old Testament) has the prophets interspersing the books of history. They are placed in the context in which they were written, alongside the accounts of the times in which they wrote.

Which actually reflects something important about the Hebrew prophets: they were speaking into the very specific concerns of their time; speaking to care and concerns of God to the people there and then.
We claim those promises for, and see them as fulfilled in the person of Jesus – not because they predicted him so much as because in him everything that is true of God – including everything true the prophets saw about God – is most completely fulfilled.

The prophets point to Christmas not simply because they point to Jesus, but because they point to God and to the character of God; and because it is God, and the character of God that is revealed through the birth and the life of Jesus.

So today we read the amazing words of comfort from Isaiah 40. Isaiah spoke of hope to a people who felt abandoned by God; and worse, who felt that they deserved to be abandoned. They were in exile; they had come to believe that this was because they had failed their God, that their God had rejected them because they had rejected God. That all their suffering was because of their sin; that all their persecution was God’s anger; that all their pain was fair payment for their past decisions.

And to that very specific belief, Isaiah directs his words: comfort my people, speak tenderly to Jerusalem; she has served her term, her penalty is paid.

Now I don’t believe that God was punishing the people – I find that image of God impossible to reconcile with the God revealed in Jesus Christ – but there is no question that they believed that, that they understood God in those terms, and that Isaiah’s words were chosen to meet the very real need of the people – the need to believe that it was over. That their time of being dislocated from God was at an end.

And so the prophet repeats throughout the image of God’s presence returning to the people: make a highway for our God (for our God is coming); say to the cities “Here is your God”; God will bring reward, will feed the flock, will gather the lambs.

The words of Isaiah were the words of hope that the people needed to hear, the hope beyond hope that they longed for.

So I wonder, what are your hopes for this Christmas time? What is one thing that you might be hoping for, as you get ready for the celebration of the miracle of the incarnation, of Emmanuel, God with us?
I’m guessing that many of our hopes would be for others – for our children, our grandchildren. For the world that they will grow up in; that it will be a world of peace, perhaps, or a world in which we have found ways to live without destroying our environment; a world in which all people live in respect, equally valued in the eyes of all, where differences are seen as beauty not as danger.

Perhaps your hope is for health, for yourself and for others.

Perhaps you hope for meaningful employment, for financial security.

Perhaps you hope for reconciliation, for broken relationships to be remade, for estranged loved ones to make peace.

Perhaps you hope, for yourself or for others, for new relationships, new friendships.

All those hopes have something in common – for when we hope for something, we acknowledge that it is beyond our control. I don’t hope for a cup of coffee in the morning. I get up, I put the kettle on, and I make it for myself. It is (mostly) within my power – so it is not a matter for hope.

We hope because we do not have control – or have only partial control. Perhaps that’s the reason children often find it easier to answer the question “what are you hoping for”; because so much more is beyond their control.

But there is something else that all of our hopes have in common.

For one part of the mystery of Christmas is that somehow, everything we hope for is there in the baby, in the miracle that is God entering into creation, taking on the form, the reality, of humanity. In my single favourite line of any Christmas carol at all (and this is a hard call, for there is some beautiful poetry and amazing theology in our Christmas carols – alongside, of course, the sentimental (“little Lord Jesus no crying he made”? or just plain made up (“I saw three ships go sailing by”?)) – but my single favourite line, which has haunted me since childhood – “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight”

All our hopes – hopes for peace and for meaning; hopes for love and reconciliation; hopes for health and healing; hopes for security and a brighter future; all of these hopes are captured in this story, for they are reflected in the good news of the kingdom of God, the story that begins in earnest with birth of Jesus. The kingdom of reconciliation, of healing, of forgiveness, of grace, of hope, and of meaning.

But more so even than that – in the miracle of Christmas, in the incarnation, in that one amazing word “Emmanuel” – God with us – we hear, just as the people of Isaiah’s day, so long ago, needed to hear – we hear that we are not alone. That if we were, we are no longer. That if we feel abandoned, bereaved, threatened by circumstance, that any of those things may be true, but they are not The Truth.

So get up onto the high mountain, and lift your voice with strength; do not fear; say to the cities – “Here is your God”.

Cry out in the wilderness “prepare the way for your God”.

For here, in Bethlehem, the Good Shepherd, who will feed the flock and protect the lambs, has come.
And with him, hope.