A Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Advent: Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8
We all know that ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’. We may not know that the word ‘gospel’ in a Greek world context can mean good news “from the battlefield.” For Mark’s audience, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God is good news in the midst of the struggles of life (Jacobsen). After his opening declaration Mark combines material from Isaiah (40:3), Exodus (23:20) and Malaki (3:1) revealing that John is preparing the way for the Messiah, the Son of God. (Gaventa and Petersen). John and Jesus are literally in the wilderness, at the river Jordan at the very edge of Israel. Mark’s people are in the wilderness of chaotic life. We are also in the wilderness, perhaps not geography, we are not at the very edge of Arkansas, but we are close, but we are certainly amidst the disordered, dis-shoveled state of our lives. Both John and Jesus are in the proclaiming business, a sign that we should be listening, following, and also proclaiming (Jacobsen).
Mark’s Gospel story begins about 26 CE and clearly invokes the beginning of 2nd Isaiah (Bible-Hub). The part of Isaiah, we know as 2nd Isaiah, is in the time of the Persian expansion under Cyrus the Great, about 711 BCE (Bible-Hub). It has been more than 150 years since the Assyrian defeated the northern kingdom of Israel, and the destruction of Jerusalem, which lead to the exile in Babylonian (Carvalho). The Lord addresses the angles, who comprise the heavenly host, who are gathered in council (Harrelson). This heavenly council responds to God’s command to comfort “my people” by ordering that a wilderness highway be prepared (Harrelson). The recipient of this order is a prophet, who is to cry out to all of Israel God’s consoling words (Harrelson). Jerusalem, also known as Zion, is commanded to proclaim God’s message of good tidings alongside the prophet, which indicates that the people of God have an active role to play in the divine plan (Harrelson). This proclamation stands over everything else that happens in 2nd Isaiah and specifies the terms of how God is going to treat a people once deaf and blind (6:10) and how God is going to treat a city that was once unfaithful (1:21) (Seitz). The proclamation comes following a time when a prophecy was believed to be long gone. So, it shows us that prophecy has not died out; it is being transformed in ways that make it forever reliable and forever alive (Seitz).
In a grand reversal, the great Babylonian processional highway for gods and kings, prepared for triumphal entry into the city of Babylon, which Israel walked lo those many years ago as chattel, will become the way for the exiles to travel from Babylon to their home, Jerusalem (Seitz). I read an article this past week about the AR Dept. Transportation’s plan to fund AR Highways for next ten years. It makes it clear that Arkansas is responsible for her highways. There is help, but only if we first accept our local responsibility. It was curious to learn that in the days of ancient Persia, highways, which were generally unpaved, intended for wheeled transport, thus often called “wagon roads” were the responsibility of the local populations (Keener and Walton). Some things never change. That got me thinking about who is responsible for today’s wilderness highway?
Roughly 740 years after Isaiah’s prophetic vision of the divine call, Mark presents John as the prophet who receives, anew, the same call to make a way in the wilderness, a highway for the Son of God. 200o years after that, people are still in darkness. Some are oppressed, some are abused, some are marginalized in other ways. Some are in the darkness because of their own, our own, blindness and/or unfaithfulness. There are hearts, nearby and far away, that need to hear the prophetic words of divine promise, and hope. God’s people still need to hear divine words of comfort.
Advent, when it is not centered on Christmas, is often centered on Christ coming at the end of time, and every now and again on learning to see divine presence here and now (The Living Church). Advent is a time of old and new prophetic voices. Br. Jim Woodrum writes
We will come to know God’s presence with us … by teaching and healing, listening to our neighbors, both known and unknown to us (Woodrum).
It doesn’t take much awareness of the world, or our community, to realize the continuing need for comfort. One sign of the continuing need for comfort is the unending creation of winners and losers in all our social systems, especially in the ordering of our economics (Cross). In all the tax cut debates the largest disappointment has been the frequent remarks about the deserving rich versus the undeserving poor who suffer because of their own failure to make investments, without any consideration of their ability or wherewithal to make financial investments. These statements are simply demeaning to the least of God’s people. It is true, 2nd Isaiah never promises that all the suffering will cease. It does not deny or change the brokenness of the human condition. But ~ it does suggest the continuing need for messengers and that, as these messengers, we may be called to speak the truth that others will find hard to hear (Jacobsen)
Prophecies, especially apocalyptic, end of time, seconding coming prophecies tend to come with visions of cosmic disturbances, or perhaps grand social, political, or economic triumph or disaster. The language is futuristic. However, we don’t need to wait, we should not wait for God’s coming, because God is already coming, and to some extent already here, we need to be speaking comfort to God’s people right now (Epperly). The kingdom’s presence or arrival will not necessarily be this great big cosmic, the ends all things event. The Kingdom is coming into its fullness through the triumph of many small things, many small chance interactions (Brown).
The emphasis on apocalyptic, end of time return of the king tends to make time in the future more valuable to us, that is when the King will get here. In truth, all time is a treasure, because each unique moment ends. Each moment of every day is an exclusive opportunity to share the grace given comfort of God. Each opportunity seeks a deeply personal response that can occur in no other life and can occur in no other time (The Living Church).
2nd Isaiah’s Prophecy, and John the Baptist speak of the wilderness. The wilderness is where God’ s people are. Some are crying out from the margins where racism, oppression, and discrimination seek to strip them of their divine image. Some are lost in the confusion. Some are heartsick. Some are just plain tired. The Wilderness, whatever yours, or your neighbor’s, across the street, or across the world, looks like, is where God continually shows up (Lewis). The wilderness is where priest, preachers, prophets, and pedestrians belong. Thus, we are a wilderness, people.
A colleague of mine blogged this week that [John the Baptist’s] task was to point and to say, “Here is your God.” He did his job … faithfully (Pankey). This is Advent.
- A time when we seek the comfort of the divine light in our darkness.
- A time when we are called to speak comfort to the hearts of God’s people.
- A time to remember 2nd Isaiah and Cyrus the Great, John and Jesus through whom the unexpected happened.
- A time to remember that God still asks us to speak comfort into the frail lives of our neighbors.
- A time to remember that the unexpected still happens, that God still sends comfort into our frail lives. (Carvalho).
It is Advent, the time of comfort revealed by voices that never fail.
Bible-Hub. New Testament Bible Timeline. n.d. 8 12 2017. <http://biblehub.com/timeline/#nt>.
—. Old Testament Bible Timeline. n.d. 8 12 2017. <http://biblehub.com/timeline/#ot>.
Brown, SSJE, Mark. “Start Small.” Brother, Give Us A Word. Cambridge, 7 12 2017. email.
Carvalho, Corrine. Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11. 10 12 2017. OliveTree App. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Cross, Casey. “The Rule of God, for Us, Advent 2.” 10 12 2017. Sermons that Work.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 10 12 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Jacobsen, David Schnasa. Commentary on Mark 1:1-8. 10 12 2017. OliveTree app. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2975 1/3>.
Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.
Lewis, Karoline. Wilderness Preaching. 10 12 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.
Pankey, Steve. “Here is your God.” 6 12 2017. Draughting Theology.
Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
Seitz, Christopher R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Isaiah 40-66. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Song of Songs 8:8. Vol. IV. Nashville: Abingdon Press (NIBC) Song of Songs 8:8, 2015. XII vols. OliveTree App.
The Living Church. 11/10: The End. n.d. <livingchurch.org/2017/12/04/11-10-the-end/>.
Woodrum, Jim. Imitate Jesus. 6 12 2017. Society of St. John the Evangelist. <http://ssje.org/word/>.