Last Sunday we began our four-week Advent journey toward Christmas. And I shared with you that this season in our church liturgical year is one I have come to appreciate more and more each year. I mentioned last week that advent give us time and permission to acknowledge the dark times in our lives; the times when must look forward with hope for a better day. For me, it seems a little disingenuous to jump right from Halloween to Christmas as if October to New Year’s Day is one long festive season. Now, I love parties and celebrations as much as anyone, but I’ve witnessed and experienced enough pain, sadness and brokenness in my life to know that life is not always a party! Sometimes, life is hard. Sometimes, we don’t feel like putting on our party clothes and our party smile and being around a lot of happy party people. And Advent gives us the time we need to say, for me, the celebrating will come – but right now, I just want to sit and wait. I’ll get to the party later – just give me some time first. So we keep that in mind today as we continue our advent journey. It is okay to slow down, to take time, to reflect on where we are right now in order to more fully prepare to receive the promises that are on the way.
Let’s pray: Lord, in the midst of our busy time, when we are in the rush to Christmas, you burst into our lives with the tantalizing promise of something new. Open our hearts and spirits to the glorious possibilities of hope and peace to come. Help us to slow down in order to fully prepare our lives to receive you. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.
It’s important to understand that this advent waiting is designed intentionally with the end at the beginning. Last week, we sort of flashed-forward in both the Old and New Testament readings. In Isaiah, we see the Israelites, who have lived for over a generation in exile after the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem, being given permission to return home under the new rule of Persia. But they came home to total destruction of their city, their home, and their Temple. The prophet cries out to God on behalf of the people, to open the heavens and come near. So we began last week with the end of the first Temple, but also the end of exile. Today, our Old Testament reading backs up to the time when the Israelites have been taken into captivity in Babylon. After years of battling their neighbors, they have been defeated and taken into captivity; their exile has begun. And God gives the people words through the prophet Isaiah, which would bring comfort to them as they entered this period.
Hear now these words from Isaiah 40:1-11.
1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
If ever there was a time when God’s people needed to hear a word of comfort, it was now. In another translation, verse 2 says:
“With gentle words, tender and kind,
Assure Jerusalem, this chosen city from long ago,
that her battles are over.
The terror, the bloodshed, the horror of My punishing work is done.
This place has paid for its guilt; iniquity is pardoned;
its term of incarceration is complete.
It has endured double the punishment it was due.”
These words were meant to help the people to face and endure a time of captivity and occupation. Being taken away from their promised land must have felt like an ending. But God is speaking words of comfort and assurance. This will not be the end of God’s promises. There will be a time of waiting, a time of exile, a time very much like another exile when God’s people spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness. But God reminds them that God is eternal, and that God will come to them again with strength, and gather them together, as a shepherd gathers its lambs. It’s important to note here that when the Israelites returned under Persian rule and the temple was rebuilt, they continued to live under government occupation up to and including the time of Jesus.
In Mark’s gospel last week, we also began with an ending. Jesus was meeting with his disciples before he entered Jerusalem for the last time. And he’s trying to prepare them for his crucifixion, for the end of their earthly time with him. And he warns them that there will be difficult days ahead, but assures them that God will make everything right in the end. So as we turn back to the beginning of Mark’s gospel today, we’ll be staying in chronological order for the rest of our Advent journey to Christmas.
Today’s reading is from the very beginning of Mark’s gospel. Mark was one of the first gospels written down, and it was meant to be read aloud. It was, in essence, an almost poetic form of storytelling that gives us both Jesus’ own stories, and stories about the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus that were meant to be shared with others in order to give them the gospel – or good news – about Jesus! Mark himself named his writings the gospel or specifically, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Now, gospel was not a term Mark invented; any news in those days could have been termed ‘good news’ – but it was typically used in the context of the military, as when someone would return from the front lines of the battlefield bringing the “gospel” of victory. In fact, just prior to Jesus’ birth, there was an inscription attributed to Caesar Augustus as the “son of god” – a title used by many emperors in those times – and which declared his birthday as “a beginning of good news, [or gospel], for the world.” So as we’ll see in Mark’s writings, the use of these words “Son of God” and “gospel” as references to Jesus, and not to the ruling emperor, were extremely subversive at the time, and were meant to help change the listener’s way of seeing and understanding their lives, their community and their world in light of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Please stand as you are able for the gospel reading from Mark 1:1-8.
1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Mark’s good news about Jesus does not begin with a long genealogy, or even with Jesus’ birth. Instead of beginning with Jesus’ arrival, he begins with Jesus’ introduction. And it’s important for us on our own advent journey of waiting for that arrival to know who this person is introducing Jesus, and what he’s trying to prepare us for. What does it mean to prepare the way of the Lord?
Let’s begin with the scriptures from which Mark begins his good news. Taken from Exodus 23:20, Isaiah 40:3, and Malachi 3:1, these opening words create images for us of the divine guidance the Israelites experienced during their exodus, or escape from slavery in Egypt; then, of the promise that they will be able to go home again after a time of captivity and exile in Babylon; and finally, that before God’s arrival again, that God will send a messenger. Mark is telling us that John the Baptist is that messenger, announcing the arrival of God!
John the Baptist may have seemed a strange choice of messenger to announce the coming of the Messiah. He was not a political or military leader. He lived in the wilderness, and was completely dependent on God’s provisions for his food & clothing – wearing camel hair and eating locusts and honey! A strange character, indeed. But here is one who has given up all pretenses, possessions and preoccupations in order to devote his life to the message of the coming reign of Christ. And notice the wilderness aspect of both our readings today. This is an important theme in understanding the way that we prepare for God’s work in our own lives. In the Exodus story, God’s people had to learn complete dependence on God before they were spiritually prepared to receive God’s promised land. In the wilderness, they learned to let go in order to be shaped by God as a worshiping people. Remember that when they first settled in encampments, they began to complain about their lack of meat! Some even suggested they would have been better off to remain enslaved in Egypt where, at least the food was better! But with time, they learned that God’s promised future was much more important than holding onto their nostalgia for ‘the way things used to be.’ Then, after generations of living in city God gave them, God’s people once again found themselves exiled from the home and way of life they had always known. But God reminds them with words of comfort that God will not forget them, that God has a plan for the future, and that God will come again with strength to restore.
Now, we enter the wilderness with John the Baptist, and with scores of God’s people who are still living under occupation in a land that doesn’t always feel like home. And John doesn’t go into the Temple to deliver his message, he holds retreats in the wilderness – outside of the Temple – to remind people of the wilderness times in their past. And to help them understand that, once again, in order to be spiritually prepared for the coming reign of God, we must make room by letting go of all of our other pretenses, possessions and preoccupations so that we can receive the blessings that await us in Christ’s new kingdom.
John’s message is to repent – which means to change course, to turn around. God’s people had been looking for a new military leader and king ever since they had been conquered by Babylon in the time of Isaiah. Their hopes were for a Messiah to come and overthrow the government – to topple the ruling empire. But John, who would be seen by his people as an archetype for Moses or Elijah, is preaching a message of a Messiah who will come, not as a military leader, but as a prophet, healer and teacher. He is preparing them for the kingdom of God’s reign which will not be an earthly reign, but a spiritual one – one that will extend beyond the city walls of Jerusalem, and into every corner of the world. One that does not depend on governments ruled by humans, but that overrules all earthly powers.
This week’s advent focus is on the peace that Christ brings. As we look back over the course of the history of God’s people, we see that military conflict was a nearly constant part of their story. At the time Mark wrote his gospel, the Temple had been destroyed for the second time. This time as a result of the Jewish revolt against the Roman occupation. Mark’s gospel, or good news, about Jesus, could not have been more relevant or needed for God’s people. If they had not seen or believed Jesus when he was on earth, then they needed to hear this message of good news that God’s kingdom was taking shape, and that they no longer needed the Temple to find God’s presence with them. Jesus had come! And Jesus would come again! And the reign of Christ’s kingdom would be a kingdom of peace – where wolf would lie down with the lamb, and swords would be beaten into ploughshares, and people would study war no more.
Peace, true peace, is different than the absence of conflict. True peace can only be known through Jesus, the Prince of Peace. This peace is the result of completely letting go of our pretenses, possessions (and the things that possess us!) and preoccupations in order to let Christ’s love be the prevailing motive for all of our thoughts and actions. It requires us to commit to practicing the spiritual disciplines of prayer, bible study, worship, giving/serving and witnessing to the ways that Christ has transformed our lives. That’s easier said that done, though. So let’s think about it this way. To what situation in your own life do you long to hear the voice of God speaking, “comfort, comfort?” What would it look like for you to spend some quiet time each day this week reading through scriptures and praying that God opens your heart to feel peace in that situation? You see, Christ’s kingdom is all around us. Christ is with us, and longs to fill us with his Spirit of Peace. When we have let go of the things that hold us captive to fear, resentment, worry, jealousy, bitterness, and anger, then we make room for Christ’s love and peace to be born in us, so that we can go out as one of God’s messengers to proclaim the good news of God-with-us – God who brings comfort and peace in our wilderness days; God who levels out the path ahead of us, removing the mountainous obstacles that would keep us from pursuing God’s ways.
Once we have experienced God’s peace in our own lives, then we are called to join with God in becoming peacemaker ourselves – by offering love and acceptance instead of hate and intolerance, by offering comfort and care to those experiencing conflict and grief, by offering our attention, our friendship and our resources to those living in fear. This is what we celebrate at Christmas – when we have found peace in our own darkness, then we are ready to join with others who know this peace; to celebrate the already and the still coming rule of the Prince of Peace in all the dark corners of the world. We believe in resurrection, in restoration. And we confidently look forward to the day when the whole world be again as it should be.
Prayer: God of patience and peace, as John the Baptizer called the people to repentance, so you call us to new life in your Spirit. Help us wait for your promised coming, and prepare your way with faithfulness and steadfast love. Amen.