Comfort God’s people

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.

 


References

Bible-Hub. New Testament Bible Timeline. n.d. 8 12 2017. <http://biblehub.com/timeline/#nt&gt;.

—. Old Testament Bible Timeline. n.d. 8 12 2017. <http://biblehub.com/timeline/#ot&gt;.

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/&gt;.

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&gt;.

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/&gt;.

 

 

 

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Aimlessly Watch The Clouds, Wiggling Our Toes In The Ground

A sermon for Pentecost; Genesis 11:1-9, Psalm 104:25-35, 37, Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17, (25-27)

Pentecost is as big a preaching challenge as Christmas and Easter. The readings are the same every year. There is a similar focus every year, the arrival of the Spirt. So this year, I propose that we, regardless of the angelic question, from last week, about staring into the sky. aimlessly watch the clouds. I also propose that we do so after we take our shoes off and wiggle our toes into the ground.

Gavin Pretor-Pinney is the publisher of literature for loafers. The goal is to sustain the value of aimlessness. It turns out this is really hard; it is very focused work; it is a burden. So, Gavin took a sabbatical and moved from London to Rome. There he spent his time aimlessly looking at paintings. He noticed that there were always lots of clouds. This caught his attention because there are no clouds in Rome’s skies. This peaked his curiosity, and he just went with it. He started the Cloud Appreciation Society; it has a website, I googled it, it is there and has an intriguing look. You can join its current 40,000 members for $15. The Society’s goal is to get us to look aimlessly skyward.

In June 2006, a member saw an impenetrable shroud of dark clouds looming over town. It was so enormous, so terrible and so strange; that she took a picture of it and posted it on the website. The initial thought was “this is unique.” It turns out it wasn’t really unusual. People posted pictures of similar clouds from Norway, Ontario, Scotland, France and Massachusetts. It also turns out the cloud does not fit into any official cloud formation. The esoteric system for describing unusual clouds is to fit the clouds into the existing map of the sky or set them aside as irrelevant. Gavin named it himself; ‘asperatus’ which he got from Virgil’s description of a rough sea.

asperatus

Gavin pitched the newly named cloud formation to the Royal Meteorological Society. They referred him to World Meteorological Organization. The WMO provided a lengthy description of their archaic system of establishing new cloud types. Nothing has been added since 1953. When Gavin asked “Why?” he was told, “Because 50 or 60 years ago, we got it right.” (Mooallen)

Nothing new in 60 years? Well aimlessly looking into the sky will still provide you with awesome visions and from my practice I expect you will experience something different.

Now to our toes Maria Evans wants us to take our shoes off and feel the ground. Maria’s inspiration come from Exodus (3) when God tells Moses “Remove your shoes, this is holy ground.” In ancient societies and some modern societies, this is a sign of respect. In some ways, when barefooted you are more naked, therefore, humbler before God. Maria got to wondering

what if God’s intent with Moses was not to prove that one has to ingratiate or depersonalize oneself in the presence of the Divine, but [is] a desire on the part of God for us to feel with our own two feet what it feels like to be a little closer to God in a tactile way?

She posits that our tendency is to focus on the distance between God and Moses. It is a false distance. Moses is told to “come no closer” but he cannot get any closer his feet are already intimately touching the holy mountain. He is already as close to God as one can possibly get; the soles of his feet press against the holiness of God’s personal space. Maria ponders when do we stand back from a genuine chance

  • to press against the holiness of God?
  • to intimately encounter the holy?

Where do we hesitate to take our shoes off and feel the presence of the holy (Evans)?

To allow our minds to wander aimlessly, dropping all pretenses and wiggle toes against God’s holiness, is to risk an encounter with the Spirit. Some of those pretenses we think are scriptural. We heard the story of the Tower of Babel when God infuses many languages into human society this morning. God is not out to limit human accomplishments; God is not afraid for the divine self or heaven. God’s concern is what we, in our efforts to be like God, and unbridled by restraints on our inclinations and power, will do to one another (Gaventa and Petersen). On Pentecost, God is not undoing what was done at Babel. Everyone spoke Greek. The gift of the Spirit for native languages is to undermine Rome’s interests in creating a single people through suppression of native languages (Gaventa and Petersen).

Peter’s speech quotes from Joel’s exhortation that in the last days the Spirit will be poured out on all people and that they will prophesy. We tend to believe prophecy is about seeing into the future. And prophecy does use stories of our past to reveal the presence of the Kingdom in the here and now or the future. But what prophecy really does is to tell the truth (Skinner). To speak the truth into an oppressive empire of any form is unsettling. Any encounter with the Spirit will nudge us into the world to speak the truth of God’s Kingdom, and that leaves us uneasy. So yes, we leave our shoes on, and we stay hyperactively engaged with mundane futile activities empire proclaims as necessary.

The wonder of today is that Jesus continues to keep God’s word. He said he would return from the dead after three days, and it was so. He said he would send us another advocate to walk beside us forever, and it is so.

To begin again, I propose we aimlessly watch the clouds. I also propose that we do so after we take our shoes off we wiggle our toes against the holiness of God’s personal space. I further propose we trust the advocate to walk beside us as we speak the truth in proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is here and now. I don’t think it will take long to experience a new manifestation of God’s eternal loving presence.

 


 

References

Bratt, Doug. Lectionary Acts 2:1-21. 8 5 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Evans, Maria. Speaking to the Soul: Kick off your shoes. 10 5 2016. <http://www.episcopalcafe.com&gt;.

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.

Hoezee, Scott. Lectionary Gospel John 14:8-17 (25-27). 8 5 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. Spirit Focus. 8 5 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lundblad, Barbara. Commentary on John 14:817, 8 5 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Mooallen, Jon. “An improbable tale of how a British maverick harnessed.” New York Times (2016). <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/magazine/the-amateur-cloud-society-that-sort-of-rattled-the-scientific-community.html?_r=0&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Skinner, Matt. Commentary on Acts 2:121. 8 5 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.