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Third Sunday of Advent 15:30 Evensong

December 13, 2020

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Isaiah 12

In that day you will say:

“I will praise you, Lord.
Although you were angry with me,
your anger has turned away
and you have comforted me.
2 Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust and not be afraid.
The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my song/might;
he has become my salvation.”
3 With joy you will draw water
from the wells of salvation.

4 In that day you will say:

“Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
make known among the nations what he has done,
and proclaim that his name is exalted.
5 Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things;
let this be known to all the world.
6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion,
for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.”

‘Rejoice in the Lord alway and again I say rejoice.’ These words from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians set to music lift our hearts, and we are so grateful that, even though we the congregation aren’t permitted to sing, that our hearts are lifted by the choir’s singing.

Of course, Christmas won’t be the same without carols – I mean without us singing carols.

It’s part of our spiritual journey not just to hear music but to sing music ourselves, to lean into the plaintive longing of minor keys during Advent, to culminate in the crashing majors of O Come all Ye Faithful at Midnight Mass on Christmas Day.

We are all fully aware of the effects of singing on wellbeing, whether on the terraces of the Premier League, singing Happy Birthday at a party or here in a cathedral. Singing makes us feel good.

Singing was as much a part of life in the time of Isaiah as we long for it to be part of our lives today. The prophet Isaiah wrote the chapter we heard read, chapter 12, as a song, not in prose. His medium is his message. The song communicates the content. So what does he say?

He tells us in verse 1 why he’s singing:

“I will praise you, Lord.
Although you were angry with me,
your anger has turned away
and you have comforted me.”

The cause of his praise is that the God he thought was his enemy has become his friend. He thought God was angry with him for what he had done, but in fact, God’s anger has turned away. Instead of retaliating in his anger, God gives comfort, encouragement, and strength. Remember we get our word ‘comfort’ from the French con fort ‘with strength’.

I can think of situations with work colleagues when someone in a meeting has said something that makes me angry.

I tend to respond either by subtly fighting back seeking to retaliate, or by withdrawing, feeling wounded and angry. I feel trust has been broken and it’s not easy to restore it.

Something has turned God’s anger away from the people of Israel, such that God gives them strength, encouragement and something to sing about. And it’s not until we reach the latter part of the prophecy of Isaiah, that we learn about the suffering servant. There is an Advent tension in Isaiah – we know God’s anger is turned away, but we don’t know why until Isaiah 40, which provides the trigger with that same word ‘Comfort’ that introduces us to a new theme of reconciliation and hope:

“‘Comfort, O comfort my people’ says your God.”

It is the suffering servant, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who is the one who has turned away God’s anger. Through Jesus Christ, God is able to reach out and trust us, instead of retaliating or withdrawing from us.

The tension in time, between past, present and future is at the heart of the message of Advent. In the birth of Christ, our past is reconciled, our present is sanctified, and our future is assured. I guess we spend our whole lives trying to resolve this tension by connecting our lives with Jesus Christ.

Somehow our past lives are forgiven to enable us to live in the present in peace with ourselves, others and God, living in the now free from shame, whilst at the same time looking forward to a future, where the trials and tribulations of the economy, the epidemic, the environmental crisis, and our European relationships are framed within the context of eternity, not just one annus horribilis.

Singing helps to connect us – between the then, the now and the not yet. There is a debate amongst scholars about how to translate verse 2: The Lord, the Lord himself is my strength and, what? It would make sense to say, ‘might’. The Lord is my strength and my might. But there is evidence to suggest we could say, ‘The Lord is my strength and my song.’ What happens when God becomes our song?

I wonder if you’ve ever thought about what it means for God to be your song? It doesn’t just mean singing about God. It doesn’t mean God is the subject or audience of our singing.

When Zechariah confirmed that the name of his first born son would be John, not Zechariah to continue the family name, his tongue was loosed, and his confinement ceased. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and gave us the Benedictus, the song we recite every day in Morning Prayer. I imagine in that moment the Lord became Zechariah’s song. Imagine the reaction of everyone around. Zechariah is invoking the Lord’s kingdom – he is bringing the kingdom of God into reality; the Lord is his song.

I remember being on holiday in France. We were with my wife’s twin sister and her husband, Ali and Chris, who were both confident singers. We visited a monastery one day, with the same heritage and acoustics as here. There was no-one else around, and Ali started singing and the rest of us joined in. There was something about being in that place where people have sung the Lord’s praises for centuries, and our voices joining in with those of the saints, that the Holy Spirit lifted our hearts so that the Lord was our song.

This is what we sang:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.

O leave, O leave, O leave me not alone.

O leave, O leave, O leave me not alone.

O leave, O leave, O leave me not alone.

You’re my shepherd, I shall not want.

Now, I know I can’t sing as well as Canon Andy and the choir – but you don’t have to sing as well as they do in order to sing the Lord’s song and for the Lord to be your song. We believed those words as we sang them. We owned them with our whole bodies. The past and present joined together to establish the kingdom of God there in that place.

Little did we know then that fourteen years later we would be singing that same song at Ali’s funeral after she died of cancer at the age of 40. Whilst bringing our memories of her life together, we sang those words, carrying her coffin into the church, expressing a glorious future, that even in death, she would not be alone.

I guess we’re all a little out of practice singing. Our vocal chords are lazy and our ears are out of tune. Even though we’re not singing together this Advent, why don’t you find a place where you can sing? Sing your song to the Lord, and may the Lord be your song.

Amen.