There’s no punctuation in Hebrew or Greek, so know that all those verse numbers and chapter headings in your Bible are very late afterthoughts. “Never place a period where God has put a comma” is not only the UCC’s way of saying “God is still speaking,” it’s also good Biblical translation practice.
Today’s readings from Isaiah and Mark are full of ambiguities–is it a voice in the wilderness crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord”? Or is it “a voice cries, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way!’”? Does it matter? It matters if you’re trying to figure out what the voice is trying to tell you–go into the wilderness to prepare, or is it simply that the voice in the wilderness is calling you to prepare the way right where you are?
And then there’s Isaiah’s image of the God who is coming “with might, and his arm rules for him,” and in the next sentence those mighty arms of God are gathering the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and gently leading the mother sheep.” Which is it? Might or gentleness? The answer, of course, is “yes.”
Which people is God telling Isaiah to comfort? The exiles in Babylon, far from home, or the early Christians, longing to understand who Jesus was and what God was doing through him? Again, the answer is “yes.” And what about us? Are we the afflicted needing to be comforted, or are we the comfortable needing to be afflicted? You guessed it: “yes.”
And what about the Peace for which we lit the candle today. Can we honestly pray for peace, or do we need to hear the words of that other prophet, Jeremiah, who said, “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jer. 8:11) What wounds of our nation and world have we treated carelessly, and so have no right to declare “Peace, peace”?
And finally, what about that beginning of Mark’s gospel? What kind of sentence is that–
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Where’s the verb? It sounds more like a title than a first sentence. Where’s the baby? The shepherds? The magi? It starts with John in the wilderness? Yes.
These Advent texts seem as full of shadows and wildness and murkiness as the Christmas Eve texts seem to us so radiant and mild and familiar. As the daylight in our part of the world gets shorter and dimmer this time of year, so the darkness of these texts comes to be appropriate. In fact, I was reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Learning to Walk in the Dark Tuesday evening when the power went out. Pitch blackness. I noticed that my response to being alone in the dark was much less panicky than it might have been, or has been at other times. OK, I thought, let’s see what I’ve learned about walking in the dark.
What lessons might there be for us in this dark season which stands in such stark contrast to the glitter and wattage and full-press busyness of our culture’s season? How might the voices of Isaiah and John instruct us out there in the wilderness…or is it here, right where we are?
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God [through Isaiah]. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid… A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 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. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
This Isaiah is in sharp contrast to the Isaiah of the first 39 chapters. That “First Isaiah,” writing in the 8th c. Before the Common Era, had lambasted the people of Judah for oppressing the poor, taking advantage of the widows and orphans, putting their trust in foreign armies, abandoning the way of God. The “Second Isaiah” whose voice we read beginning in chapter 40 is speaking to a people in exile, far from home and hope, settled into the inertia of the habits of their captors, accommodating to where they found themselves. “Get you up to a high mountain!” Isaiah cries to them. “Lift up your voice with strength!” Receive the energizing, renewing word of God and let your imagination fly with images of valleys being lifted up and mountains and hills made low, of highways being carved into the desert. The powers that be would have you drugged and drowsy, taking no risks, going through the motions. “Get thee up!..Behold your God!”
“I think we are in fact exiles from our homes and hope,” writes Old Testament professor John Holbert.
Our home is in God, who calls us to love our neighbor, to care for the poor, to serve the very least of these; all that was and is the call of Judaism to its adherents long before it was a call to Christians. Our hope is in the call and presence of God, not in our Gross National Product, our stock portfolios, our well-accoutered selves. We are in exile in more ways than we can [count]. (Patheos, 12/2/14)
Can we imagine ways needing to be straightened through the streets of Ferguson, MO or New York City? How about through the halls of Congress or the White House? What inequalities need to be leveled out? What rough places made plain? How can we make a highway for our God in the neighborhoods of Africa where Ebola ravages? Or the villages and refugee camps where the people of Syria and Iraq flee from the brutality of ISIS? How about through our church, or our lives? Get up–lift up your voice with strength, cries God! How else do you think I’m going to act, let alone “come”?!
“All people are grass…” Isaiah says. Even nations are grass. “… The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” God’s energy endures. “Get you up to a high mountain, herald of good tidings….” God is not only the source of order, but also the disturber, the bringer of change and unrest, who shakes things up, as Process Theologian John Cobb says. (Cited by Michael Joseph Brown, HuffPost, 12/5/14) That’s what “the law and the prophets” is about–order and change.
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” Mark’s gospel begins, or is entitled. It’s the beginning of a movement, not just of Jesus’ followers, what we call the “Christian movement,” but the larger movement of God’s work, having been in the works since Isaiah and Malachi, since The Beginning, really, when God’s Spirit moved over the face of the deep. Mark’s gospel begins on the road, in the middle of nowhere, not in the center of power, which tends to become a black hole of inertia.
“Prepare the way of the Lord,” John cries. “Make his paths straight.””John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” This baptism is more like “being drowned and brought back to life” than being cleaned up or sprinkled, one writer observes (Peter Lockhart, A Different Heresy,” 12/2/14) We prefer the dabbing to the drowning, of course. We’d like to think that all is needed is a little course correction, but John would adjust our spiritual GPS so that we are headed in the direction of God’s new age.” (Bruce Epperly, The Adventurous Lectionary, 12/7/14) Get rid of your excess baggage, he says, which we’ve done this week in the Serendipity Sale! But more than that–focus on the essential. You’ll rediscover your life, the life God intends for you, of wholeness, of joy, of connection.
Sharron Blezard suggests that John the Baptist has at least 5 lessons for us. You may not want to follow John’s tips for fashion or diet, but these lessons are worth wrestling with–1. Get out of your comfort zone; 2. Be yourself and be true to your calling; 3. Know and live the message you’re trying to convey. “Marinate yourself in the gospel,” Michael Frost says. “Steep yourself in God reality” is the way Eugene Peterson puts it. 4. Know Whose you are and why you do what you do; and 5. Be bold. [Sharron Blezard, Stewardship of the Gospel, 12/2/14)
“Comfort, O comfort my people,” God says to us in this dark time, this time of repentance, of pondering, of pausing. Know that God’s comfort has little or nothing to do with consuming or self-sufficiency. (Mark Ryan, ekklesia project, 12/4/14) But know also that God can be found in the darkness as well as in the light, despite what our Christian tradition has too often taught: light is good, dark is bad. After all, God created the light AND the darkness and named each one. It is at night that the stars appear, nighttime when the heavenly host appeared to the shepherds, nighttime when Jesus was born, nighttime when Jesus was raised from the dead.
We can learn to walk in the darkness–the darkness of sorrow or sickness, the darkness of turmoil or upset, the dark night of the soul, the darkness of our national unrest and festering racism, the darkness of planetary warming and climate change. God does not abandon us in the darkness or in the wilderness. In fact, it is there that we are called to make a way. Hear the voice crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord!”
It was at night when Jesus sat at table with his friends, when he broke bread and drank wine, telling them, Take and eat, take and drink, this is my body and blood which are for you and for everyone, for the forgiveness of sins, for the taking away of the separation between you and God. So let us set the table. Prepare the way. May it be so.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark