Rev. Teri Peterson
Isaiah 40.1-11, Mark 1.1-8
10 December 2017, Advent 2B text
Isaiah 40.1-11 (NRSV)
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
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.
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.’
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.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
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!’
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
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.
Mark 1.1-8 (NRSV)
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’,
John the baptiser appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 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. I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’
When I was fifteen years old, I decided that I needed to read the Bible, from beginning to end. My family was not church-going, and I had never even been in a church for anything other than orchestra rehearsal at that point in my life. I had no concept of what the Bible was about. All I knew was that I was a musician and a lover of literature, and that I wanted to study both at university, and that I was missing out on understanding things because they so often referred to Bible stories I did not know.
So I began this project, finding a copy of the Revised Standard Version tucked away behind a shelf full of other books in my parents’ basement. I decided I would read five chapters each day, and more on weekends. I opened up the first pages, in secret under the covers after I was supposed to be sleeping, and fell headlong into a story that was more varied, more interesting, more boring, more beautiful, and more incredible than I had ever imagined. When I was finished—and I did finish!—I had a feeling that it was not just a story, it was somehow True with a capital T, even though I still didn’t understand how or why. I didn’t tell anyone what I had done for years, until after I had joined the church as a university student.
While I was reading, I found myself in love, particularly, with the prophet Isaiah. He has such a gift with words...it isn’t every writer who can make declarations of doom and destruction sound beautiful, and his songs of promise and hope to people in exile all sound like...well, like they belong in Handel’s Messiah, which is because, of course, that is how so many of us know them.
The gospel writers knew the stories we now call the Old Testament, and their telling of the life of Jesus is full of the kinds of references I knew I’d missed in other literature and music, too. I’m glad I read from “in the beginning” even though it was sometimes hard going. What I wish I had known, though, is that the Bible was originally written in languages that didn’t have punctuation. Instead, what we learn through punctuation is included in the grammar or sometimes within the words themselves, or it is just assumed. But that also means it can be easy to miss, or to understand in different ways.
A great example is in our readings this morning. The prophet Isaiah says: “a voice cries out, ‘in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.’” And the gospel writers say “a voice cries out in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord.’”
It seems such a simple sentence, but with different punctuation it can mean very different things.
John the Baptiser was indeed a voice in the wilderness. He dressed strangely, worked alone, and spent his time outside the margins of society, calling us to see how we have made many crooked paths by following our own ways, and it’s time to come back to God’s way. People came out of their everyday lives to hear him, taking a day out by the river, and then they went back into town, to homes and families and routines, while he stayed out with his locusts and his camel hair. His task was a big one: to allow himself to be a conduit for a grace he could not understand, to prepare for the one who was coming next, not to be the star himself. Hopefully people were changed by their encounter with him, though it would be easy to dismiss his lone voice as the crazy fringe.
Meanwhile, in Isaiah, we hear the prophet speaking to the Israelites in exile. Having been torn from land, family, and Temple, they are far from home, and have been for decades. Two generations have grown up in this foreign land, marked by the loss of their family’s identity and purpose, yet formed by the reality in which they now live, with friends who speak another language and worship another God, land that is similar yet different, and expectations their grandparents don’t understand. The world feels more complicated than ever, with violence and competing voices and uncertainty at every turn. They are living in the wilderness, both spiritually and literally. Perhaps 537 BCE and 2017 have more things in common than we might expect.
And then the voice of the prophet speaks, words of comfort, yes, and also words of challenge, all tied up together. God is coming, he says! In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord. Out here, where you are now, away from everything familiar and holy and certain...in the wilderness, get ready because God is doing a new thing.
Not just one voice in the wilderness, where we can go to observe and then go back again to comfort and peace...this voice speaks to us in our wilderness, bringing us comfort and peace where we are, and calling us to look for God in our midst right here, right now. It’s amazing what a difference one comma can make, and how many stories can be hiding behind one seemingly simple sentence.
God’s people understand wilderness—they’ve been there before. They know it is a place of being lost, and of being found; a place of hardship and isolation, and also the place where God speaks in burning bushes. It is inhospitable, a place of hunger and thirst, and also the place where God provides manna from heaven and water from rocks. The wilderness is a place of separation, and also the place to build the road that will carry God and the people back together.
In the wilderness, prepare the way, says the prophet. This is a way that will change the landscape, and doing the work together will change us, too. Just as the forty years between Egypt and the Promised Land was more about becoming God’s covenant people than it was about the actual route between two points on the map, so too this wilderness road is not just a construction project, it’s a spiritual and community building process. It will be some challenging and messy work, to prepare a road for God...and as Mary sang in her Magnificat, it will likely go against all the systems we live with, to level the field and to tear down the walls and to lay aside the things we think we know, to make room for God to do a new thing.
The prophet knows we have difficulty with new things, and that we are prone to looking at a problem and assuming it’s too big, that our small effort can’t be worthwhile. People are like grass, fickle and fading. We can never manage this work. Our faithfulness fades away at the first sign of trouble, or we forget everything God has said before, if we ever knew it to begin with. We don’t like change, we’re tired, it’s too big a job, impossible.
But we all know God’s answer to our declaration that something is impossible, right?
For mortals, fading like the flower, it is impossible. But for God, whose word stands forever, all things are possible. And it is God who will walk this road, coming to us, not waiting for us to come under our own power. This is a wild promise—uncontainable, almost unbelievable, yet somehow True with a capital T, and it grows unlike anything else in the wilderness. Whether we are ready or not, whether the highway is finished or not, whether everyone believes or not, whether there is room in the inn or not, God is coming, to sit down in our midst and share our humanity, to walk the way with us, from the shadows into the daylight, to gather the lambs and feed the flock and lead us on into the kingdom. The glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. Not just those who can afford a mountaintop view, not just those who can manage a day out by the riverside, not just those who have shiny wrapped gifts or fruitcake perfectly prepared, but all people. Even when we fade away under the scorching heat of the wilderness sun, or when we sink into the shadows of lengthening night and despair of light ever shining again, God’s promise of comfort and abundant life is still carrying across the sandy riverbeds and the stony hillsides and the crowded stables and the empty tomb, and it is still true, for the word of the Lord stands forever.
May it be so. Amen.