There is a quotation ascribed to Churchill that goes, “ If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use the pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time; a tremendous whack.” This is mirrored in a common framework for speech and essay writing to help get your point across clearly, “Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em, tell 'em, tell 'em what you told 'em.”
It seems to me that the three readings that we have heard this morning fit into this pattern, though because of the liturgical pattern of the service we had them in a slightly different order.
In Isaiah we heard God telling us what is going to be told, in Luke's account of the birth of John the Baptist we hear it being told, and in Paul's sermon in Pisidian Antioch we hear the congregation being told what had already been said.
Isaiah – tell 'em what you're going to tell em', Luke – tell em, Paul – tell 'em what you told 'em.
So, if I'm right, and we can see this pattern, it begs a question: what is this important point that God is making? What is the pile driver being used on? What point is made repeatedly throughout scripture? And, if this point is so important, what are we going to do about it?
As I was reflecting on these passages, it seemed to me that there were two key themes that run through all three. A call to repentance and pointing to Jesus. A call to repentance and pointing to Jesus.
We'll look at each of these in turn, though they are linked, as we shall see. So, let's start with the call to repentance. In v6 of the reading from Isaiah we overhear the beginning of a conversation:
“A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
“All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever. ”
The first stage of the call to repentance is the recognition of sin. Now, we have to be careful here, this is not about going round finger pointing, gossiping, or fault finding. But it is about saying that sin is real, that all of us have fallen short of what God has called us to, we have not loved each other or loved God as we should have, and that we have sinned, we have done wrong. This is necessary because unless we recognise that we have sinned we are not able to turn away from that sin, we cannot repent. The first stage of repentance is the recognition of sin in our lives.
The good news from Isaiah is that there is an alternative. The second stage of repentance is realising that there is someone to turn to, there is an alternative. We are faithless, but God is faithful. Our word is weak, but God's word endures. Without this stage, the call to repentance is only a counsel of despair – we're sinful. With this stage, the call to repentance is one of hope – there is another way, and that other way is underwritten by the faithfulness of the one who created us.
These two stages are echoed at John's birth in the song of his father, Zechariah, which comes in the gap of the reading that we had this morning. This song is part of our church's daily morning prayer. If you are not in the habit of saying Morning Prayer, may I suggest that for this week you find five minutes each day to read through and reflect on Zechariah's song in Luke 1:68-79, it really is beautiful. For our purposes this morning, I want to take a couple of verses from the middle:
“And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, To give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of all their sins.”
Here we find the third stage of the call to repentance – the assurance of salvation that is given with the forgiveness of sins. When a person recognises their sin, and turns away from it and towards the one who provides a different way of living, they are forgiven and saved from the power of that sin. That is what the call to repentance means: it is a call to recognise, to turn, to be freed.
Paul tells his hearers that John brought this call to the people of Israel, and now it has been taken to the Gentiles, to the whole world, to us: a call to recognise, to turn, to be freed.
The call to repentance rings clear in all three readings, but how can it be? How is it possible that we can be forgiven, that we can be restored to our intended place in God's family? It's all because of Jesus. Coupled with the call to repentance is pointing to Jesus.
In Isaiah, we hear of the call to prepare the way for the Lord, and the herald being told to proclaim the arrival of God. Now, we do have to realise that when Isaiah was writing it is unlikely that he would have understood this as a direct prophecy about John or Jesus. He was writing an inspired poem about what will happen when God acts to restore the people of God. Even so, we can understand this as pointing to Jesus, because what God actually did to restore the people of God was to send Jesus.
Isaiah calls to repent and makes it clear that it is only because of what God does that the final stage of repentance: freedom, is available. What God actually did was to send Jesus to live among us, to die for us, and to be raised to life with us. Isaiah points to this without knowing the details himself.
In Zechariah's song, we hear this next:
“In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
And it is here that we see the first glimmers of John's pointing towards the coming dawn, the light of Jesus shining out over all the world, bringing light to dark places and life to those who are dying.
This pointing to Jesus is described explicitly by Paul, “As John was completing his work, he said: ‘Who do you suppose I am? I am not the one you are looking for. But there is one coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’
John knew that he was not “it”. He pointed to Jesus. John knew that he had been sent to prepare the way for one greater, for the one who would bring about the freedom from sin that John had been telling people about, and calling people to. Paul joins John in pointing to Jesus, the Saviour that God had promised. Jesus, the one who frees people from the power of sin in their lives, and brings life in all its fulness.
This is the point that God hits with a pile driver. A call to repent and pointing to Jesus. This is the point that we are called to respond to for ourselves but also to share with others.
I'd like to finish with a series of questions that might allow us to think about our response to this call. I will leave a brief pause between each to give us some space to think. You might want to be mindful of your reflections as you come up to receive Communion, you may want to find someone to talk and pray your response through with.
Are there things that we need to repent of?
Are their sins that we need to recognise in our lives?
Are we in despair about them, because we fail again and again?
Do we need to receive God's forgiveness, and live in the freedom from guilt that is ours in Jesus?
Are our lives pointed towards Jesus?
How are we to point others to Jesus in what we do?
How are we to point others to Jesus in what we say?