Good news is no news, or so they say in the newspaper trade. The more bad news and scandal you can pack in, the better your paper sells, or so it seems. Faced with so much bad news, we may think the whole world’s going down the drain. Maybe it is, though every generation seems to have thought the same; we’re not short of things to worry about: politics, climate, refugees, Brexit, you name it, there’s plenty to get us down. The weather’s no help at this time of the year: short days, long nights and icy roads. I can be quite depressed even before I even open my paper.
There’s nothing new in bad news. Woe, woe and thrice woe, remember the soothsayer in Frankie Howerd’s “Up Pompeii”? Real soothsayers may not have used those words to predict doom, but they’ve always been around, since long before there was ever a Daily Express.
There’s plenty of dire prediction from the prophets of the Old Testament. They were called to expose the misdeeds of the people, the leaders especially, and they didn’t pull any punches. But they were speaking the word of God, and while that was indeed a word of judgement and retribution, the prophets also spoke of restoration and redemption, of new beginnings and an age of peace.
So in our Old Testament reading this morning, Isaiah speaks of the new thing God will do, and the new leader he’ll send. The context is still one of warning and judgement. Isaiah has had plenty to say about God being full of righteous anger at his people’s misdeeds. Unless they mend their ways, he tells them, things will go badly. And yet they remain his people, he continues to love them, even though they’ve been disobedient and let him down. The nation will be destroyed and its people carried off into foreign lands, but a remnant will be saved. The people will suffer in exile, but one day they’ll return to their own land. The yoke will be broken from their neck, and they will come back home.
And so we come to the words we’ve heard this morning, the promise of a new beginning, and a new leader who will wear the belt of justice, and be girdled with truth. We read in these words a prophecy of God’s messiah, or Christ, the holy one he will send to change things for ever. That’s what Isaiah tells us; his words are apocalyptic, they are new age: he speaks of a different sort of world, in which the lion eats straw like a cow, in which a child can dance over the viper’s nest without fear of being bitten.
So where is this new world? We’re not there yet, if the newspapers are anything to go by. There’s still plenty of bad news to fill their pages. But God’s not abandoned his people. We heard also this morning part of Matthew’s version of the story of John the Baptist, the man sometimes called the last prophet. People believed John to be the forerunner promised by Isaiah, the one who would prepare the way for God’s new work of salvation. Remember that although by this time the Jews were back in their own land and able to worship in their own temple, their land was now part of the empire of Rome; so that the people longed for deliverance, and for the restoration of the house of David.
So they flocked to hear John, but he had tough words for them - for they had to begin again. To put away all the bad stuff, and to be baptized as a sign of the new start they were making. Jews didn’t need to be baptized, they were born into their faith. Baptism was what someone who wasn’t a Jew would need to do as part of the process of becoming a Jew. So John was saying, “You’ve behaved as though you weren’t God’s people, so you’ve got to start again. And people got the message and were baptized in great numbers. But among them appeared some of the great and good of the people, the Pharisees and Saducees, two of the religious parties that dominated Jewish life. People looked up to these guys as godly and pious, but John didn’t. “What are you here for?” he demanded of them. Don’t imagine that your Jewish birth is all you need to be God’s people; prove by your deeds that you truly belong to him.
John also said, “I baptize with water; but the one God will send is going to baptize with fire.” Is that the fire of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost? Or is it perhaps the refiner’s fire that purifies a precious metal by exposing and burning away all that is bad. A fire then of judgement. Judgement’s a constant Advent theme, from the Old Testament prophets to the warning words of John the Baptist, and of course of Jesus himself. We are warned that the time is short, and we need to get things right. That’s what the prophets of old said to the kings and priests and people; and that’s also God’s word for us at Advent, as we prepare ourselves in these short weeks to welcome our King: to sort out the stuff that gets in the way of God, that obscures our vision and drowns out his word.
We may be surrounded by a world of bad news, but we shouldn’t let it swamp us. There’s more good than bad in the world around us, there’s more good than bad in the people I meet. It just doesn’t make the news. Churches are rarely full, and for the most part never so on a Sunday, yet we are mostly surrounded by friends; and most people, whatever they may think about God, continue to believe in their own spiritual selves, and they’re not as far from God as they, and we, might believe. Jesus told his disciples that the fields were white for harvest; they still are.
And the message of the prophets is there is judgement but there is also salvation. God’s angered by our misdeeds and idleness, but he also loves all that he has made, even you and me. The world’s Christmas may be more about the John Lewis TV ad or the Christmas no. 1 than, say, midnight mass or carols from Kings; but the Child born in Bethlehem still makes his quiet entrance, in acts of care and self giving, even in the refugee camps, the desolation of inner cities or the ruins of Aleppo. The branch from the stock of Jesse, who with justice comes to save the poor. Our task is to share him and preach of him, not only in words and carols, but with whatever small deeds of love we can manage, each one a candle in the darkness to turn back the winter of sin.