Advent is about the Gospel, the good news. The Gospel of Mark tells us that the story the author is about to tell is "the beginning of the good news." So, do you think that means that because this is good news the bad news if over? Or is it good news about what is to come, at some point in the future? We would probably all agree, it does not always feel like we’re living in good news right here and now! The same was true for the people of Isaiah’s time and of Mark’s time. In both passages, the people of God were in the midst of very troubled times.
Second Isaiah spoke words of comfort to a people who had known nothing but exile from their homeland. Over 150 years before, the Babylonians had invaded, conquered, and destroyed Jerusalem, and sent her people away, separating them from their source of strength, from the center of their religion. And in Mark’s time, radical Jews were rebelling against the rule of Rome, and Jerusalem was once again under siege. Families’ loyalties were divided, and their way of life, whether good or bad to begin with, was being challenged and disrupted. Some wanted to be freed from Rome’s rule. Others thought the best path was to stay the course.
God seems to know when to judge and when to comfort. The first part of the book of Isaiah, written before the fall of Jerusalem and the exile, spoke of God’s wrath towards a people who were arrogant and indifferent, who were ignoring the plight of the poor and the immigrants. But when the people had suffered long years in exile, the second part of Isaiah brought words of comfort and hope to a discouraged people. And they are such beautiful, lyrical words: "Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her….Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low…He will gather 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." It is not an unrealistic picture, not one that promises a rose garden of a life: "The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever." So these are words of good news, then, in the midst of the bad news that is still continuing. These words give hope that God is present through the bad as well as the good, and that the bad will one day end. This "holy conversation" in our passage in Isaiah, between God and God’s messengers of hope, probably angels and prophets, reminds us that God exists in every corner and moment of our lives – in the celebrations of births and birthdays, holidays, marriages, but also in the trials of illnesses, deaths, separations and losses. We need to hear both the judgment of First Isaiah, calling us out of our selfishness to take better care of others, and the comfort of Second Isaiah, reminding us that we are always wrapped in God’s loving arms. The really good news of Isaiah 40 is that God is present in a place where the people thought God was not, where they felt separated from God. With these words from the prophet, God brings hope of restoration in the midst of destruction. Indeed, the hope comes before the restoration. We cannot truly know comfort if we have not also known suffering. The words of hope are here, God is always present.
In Mark, John the Baptizer brings words of comfort, but he also brings words of judgment – "Repent, and be baptized," he told the people. To repent means we have something from which to turn away, that we need to turn our lives around and change our ways. Baptism is an outward sign of the inner change to a new way of life.
John was an odd fellow, really, a hermit of sorts, who lived off the wilderness, in his clothing and his food. In his wilderness ruminations, he must have felt a calling to preach a message from God. But he did not leave the wilderness to go to the cities. Instead, the people came out of the protection of the city walls to the wilderness to hear him, and to be baptized in the river. He could have reveled in that attention, it could have gone to his head, as it sometimes can for preachers or other people in positions of power. But John was a humble sort. "There is one coming after me who is so much more powerful than me," he said. "Why, I am not even worthy to stoop and untie his sandals" (something a servant would do). "This baptism with water should mean something to you, but it is not anything compared to what He will bring. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit."
Here it is the second Sunday of Advent, and we are looking in this passage for an adult Jesus to come. The next scene in Mark is the baptism of the grown-up Jesus, and then, after the temptations, Jesus heads to ministry in Galilee. We haven’t even welcomed the baby Jesus yet this Advent, and already we are talking about Jesus’ grown-up ministry. For Mark, this is the beginning of the Gospel, the good news. There is no birth narrative in Mark, or in the Gospel of John. Yet "the beginning" is important to both of these gospels. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." The beginning started long before us, and continues long after us. We are not the center of the good news or of life.
Lillian Daniel in the "Feasting on the Word" commentaries that the Presbyterian Church produce, says:
"Waiting for the savior is humbling. It forces us to admit that the world does not operate on our schedule. And by waiting for the savior, we have to admit the obvious: he is not here yet. If he is not here yet, that pretty much rules out the possibility that the savior is one of us. It guarantees that it is not me." (Lillian Daniel, in Feasting on the Word, p.46)
Walter Brueggemann, the professor and scholar who taught at Columbia Seminary, said:
"Advent does not begin in buoyancy or celebration or a shopping spree. The natural habitat of Advent is a community of hurt. It is the voice of those who know profound grief, who articulate it, and do not cover it over. But this community of hurt knows where to speak its grief, to whom to address its pain…And because the hurt is expressed to the One whose rule is not in doubt, the community of hurt is profoundly the community of hope." (Brueggemann in "Advent/Christmas Proclamation").
So even as we approach this joyous celebration of a baby to be born, we are reminded that the good news is not just a message for you or for me, that Jesus is so much more than a baby in a manger. His birth would be joyous, indeed, as most births are, but it would not be as important for us and for millions around the globe if Jesus had not also taught and preached and performed miracles, and especially had he not died and risen from the dead, all out of a deep, deep love for us. The proclamation of Isaiah and of Mark is one we need to carry forth. It is the message that there is both judgment and comfort in life, that we are called to be messengers of such a love that can both correct us when we go astray, and wrap us in arms of love when we truly sorrow or suffer. Despite what we think or feel, God does not cease to be with us when times get rough. Like a shepherd, or like a parent, God wants to protect us and to help us grow into caring and capable citizens of God’s kingdom here on earth. Out of a community of hurt emerges the community of hope. It is the same community, but it is one that has learned to care for one another, as God cares for us. Nowhere is that message better borne than in the sacrament we will share in a few moments. In breaking bread and sharing the cup, we acknowledge the hurts, the brokenness, in Jesus, within ourselves and in our society, and we accept the nurture and hope that God can overcome it all, for us, with us, and through us.
And so even as we await again the announcement of the birth of the baby Jesus in the world, we follow and walk the way of the grown-up Jesus. It reminds me of song Amy Grant wrote a number of years ago, called "My Grown-Up Christmas List." She said:
Do you remember me? I sat upon your knee.
I wrote to you with childhood fantasies.
Well, I’m all grown-up now and still need help somehow.
I’m not a child but my heart still can dream.
So here’s my lifelong wish, my grown-up Christmas list,
Not for myself, but for a world in need.
No more lives torn apart, that wars would never start,
And time would heal all hearts, and everyone would have a friend,
And right would always win, and love would never end.
This is my grown-up Christmas list.
John the baptizer did not feel worthy to stoop to untie the sandals of Jesus. But Jesus would not see it that way. Jesus would see John, and all of us, worthy of living lives of justice, peace, and grace. The grown-up Christmas list of Isaiah and of Mark, seems to be the hope that the love of God might spark a change in the world, that all might repent and turn around to live in love and respect for all other human beings and creatures, and, indeed, that wars would never start, and God’s love would never end. Oh, Lord, might it be so. Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen.