+ ‘Arise O Jerusalem, stand upon the height, look towards the East’
Last week I spoke of the importance of looking towards the East for Christianity. How Christians prayed facing East from the beginning, facing the direction Christ was believed to return from, because Jesus is called the Rising Sun. He is often simply ‘the East’ in the Bible. How Churches, like this one, have always been ‘orientated’, facing East or the Orient. How the Muslims copied this Christian practice and then turned it round to face Mecca. How it is particularly useful to recover this ancient practice, by the priest facing East the same as the congregation, in Advent when we await the coming of Christ in Bethlehem and in the clouds of glory at the end of time. We sung of this in the first hymn, ‘People look East’.
But what does Baruch mean when he says ‘look towards the East’? And for that matter, who is Baruch? Baruch was the secretary of Jeremiah, who was taken with him into exile in Egypt at the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC. The Book of Baruch looks to the end of exile and uses language from Isaiah, the hills made low and the valleys exalted, to promise that the exiles will be brought home, not from Egypt but from Babylon in the East, where most of the Israelites were taken – ‘they were led away by their enemies but God will bring them back.’
It is a message of hope. Hope is coming from the East. The Isaiah Baruch quotes is not the 8th century prophet Isaiah who wrote the first chapters of the book of Isaiah, but the anonymous prophet who wrote the last twenty chapters of the Isaiah during the exile in Babylon 200 years later. Baruch is also probably not Jeremiah’s Baruch but someone writing later to encourage the Jews during a later exile. There is a lot of history in the Bible but it is not there to teach us history or science but to teach us hope in God’s loving purposes. This hope is needed in every period of history.
In the Gospel we see John the Baptist picking up the same words of Isaiah, the hills made low and the valleys exalted. John, along with Mary and the Prophets, are our guides during Advent and they guide us towards hope. We see that hope building up and repeated, again and again, through all the books of the Bible. The same hope and even, as here, the same words – by Isaiah, Baruch, and John the Baptist. The meaning develops under time, hope that the exiles will return from the East, hope that the Jews will return to Jerusalem and, finally, hope that God will come to save us. This is the message of Advent.
It is geographical – Arise O Jerusalem (which symbolises the Church)… look towards the East (which symbolises Christ). But, having said that the Bible is not a history text-book, today’s gospel is actually very historical: ‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness’. You can’t get more historical (or for that matter geographical) than this. Luke sites his events in time and place, Jesus was really born and John really preached in the wilderness; but God intervenes in time, ‘the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness’.
The hope that was kept alive through the centuries by the prophets was fulfilled in Jesus to whom John was a witness. It was fulfilled in a particular time and place – so that we can welcome this hope in our time and place.
But what does it mean for us, who don’t live in the reign of the Emperor Tiberias?
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
As Tolkien said in Lord of the Rings, our task is to respond to Jesus in our time and place. We might wish we didn’t live in a pandemic, but here we are. We might wish we didn’t live in a secularised society where there is no Christ in Christmas and M&S are selling ‘Happy Pigmass’ cards, but we do.
Here and now is where God wants us to be. The hope the prophets looked for has been born in the East, in Bethlehem. The exile we need to return from is sin, not Babylon. And John the Baptist tells us that we are the hills, we need to be made low by repentance (which is turning from sin and evil) and we need to be raised up by accepting forgiveness – which can be very difficult. This is the message of Advent and this, not pigmass, is what we celebrate at Christmas. This, I hope, is what we will share with those coming to our Christmas services.