Both our readings today are familiar – we may not be able to listen to the Isaiah reading without hearing “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people from Handel’s Messiah” in our minds. John the Baptist’s cry to prepare the way of the Lord always brings to mind the song from Godspell that we opened worship with today. The familiarity of these readings goes with the familiarity of the Advent routines in church and world. We are having our Christmas dinners, Christmas parties, preparing for the main event with shopping, cooking – I’ve made my puddings and Christmas cake and just need to find time to marzipan and ice the cake now. However, the familiarity can mean that the readings lose their power – they become part of the mood music of the season instead of being passages which inspire us.
The Isaiah passage opens the second part of the Book of Isaiah. The first part has all been about God’s judgement on the nation and the threat of impending invasion and Exile. The Northern State of Israel had already been carted off into Exile by the Assyrians, now the threat to Judah, in the south, was Babylon. God had a plan but that plan involved defeat and Exile. As you can imagine Isaiah wasn’t popular!
This part of the book, however, is written in Exile. The image is of God speaking in a heavenly council and commanding words of comfort to His exiled people. The voice crying in the wilderness commands a great highway is made for God, with valleys and hills levelled as God will come and deliver the people.
This is a theme which resonates again and again in Scripture – God will come and His glory will be revealed. The command to speak tenderly to Jerusalem was powerful then – as Jerusalem lay in ruins – and has no less power now as politicians seek to lay claim to that city for one group or another instead of letting it be a sign of peace, tolerance and diversity.
It was as if God has spoken to the Native Americans who have been driven from their land, pushed into reservations and seen as quaint left over from a bygone age, and promised them restoration. It is as if God spoke to the millions of refugees living in camps on the edge of their own countries or who have sailed, swam and walked their way to Europe in the hope of safety and announced that their land has been set free and they are to go back to start again and build a better world. That is the power of this passage – a call to return, a call to heal, a call to see God at work in our midst. God always desires comfort and consolation for the dispossessed, the exile, the poor and the downtrodden.
This passage, originally written for Jews in Exile, brings hope to all who seek God at work in our world. The passage also challenges us to be the heralds of the good news that God brings comfort. These words can also bring compassion and peace to us, the Church. In an age of doubt about the Church and its future, with declining religious observation and lower numbers we can delight in the comfort that God brings us – as well as the challenge to be heralds of the Gospel. However, having hope requires us to change our perspective.
Turning to St Mark and that opening passage of his Gospel. Imagine you live in Galilee around the year 70. There’s a war on. Some radicals have revolted against the Roman overlords and now Jerusalem is under siege – everything you hear sounds bad. Some think that God has raised up the radicals to drive out the Romans, others think the best thing to do is to submit to Rome so that there is peace and security. The Emperor Nero died last year and there have been four men acclaimed as Emperor since – each assassinated now the general besieging Jerusalem, Vespasian, is the new Emperor. Everything is uncertain – even the price of oil has gone up – olive oil that is!
Your village is divided, one small strange sect of Jews refuses to fight. They are followers of a local rabbi who was executed by the Romans 40 years ago for insurrection. People are a bit suspicious of them. The Rabbi thinks they are heretics and the radicals think they are useless. You’re interested in the fact they think that their crucified rabbi is a sign of God’s good news for the people. You are handed a scroll with Mark’s fast paced Gospel in it and read it with interest.
Everything you read changes your perspective. Jesus is named as Messiah – a title straight out of strange parts of the Old Testament with notions of a deliverer. The title Son of God undermines the claim of the Emperors to be divine sons. You expect, therefore, the Gospel to be about politics and revolt – instead the opening words are about repenting – turning away from your sins. Your perspective is changed again.
Linking the two
Just as Isaiah proclaimed comfort to the Exiles, Mark has John the Baptist proclaim comfort through turning away from sin. The Jews in Mark’s time weren’t in exile but they were under occupation. For Mark God wasn’t going to bring political liberation like he did last time, instead God calls us to examine ourselves to see if we are righteous or not.
As Mark looks at John who looks at Jesus he changes his perspective of himself. As we look at those who follow Jesus and at Jesus himself we find our own self perceptions can be changed.
Just as John was called to prepare a way for the Lord, so are we. We are called to be heralds of God’s good news. That good news has many ways of working itself out. To the lonely it is comfort, to the downtrodden, freedom and dignity, to the bereaved blessing. To all of us, hope.
Like the crowds listening to John we seek direction, we want God to come and put things right. John points to Jesus – who always shocks us – not least by telling us that we have to put things right ourselves – and use his strength to do so.
Whose coming was proclaimed by John the Baptist,
Help us to turn away from sin,
And follow you,
That we may bring comfort to your people,
Now and always. Amen.