Audio Version here: http://youtu.be/txZYdCHVLy4
Advent 2B 14 Mark 1:1-8
So, this morning we hear the voice of John the baptizer, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!” He is calling to us down through the ages, but his is not the only voice we hear this morning. We also hear the voice of God speaking through Isaiah, saying, “Comfort my people!” How do we reconcile the voice of John calling us to repentance and the voice of God speaking these beautiful words of comfort?
God’s voice calls us to preach- to tell the truth of God’s glory, to be heralds of good tidings and to reveal God’s glory. The beginning of the Gospel also speaks of the “good news” or gospel of God. It’s a message that God wants us to hear so much that he sends prophets, like Isaiah, and Elijah, and heralds like John the Baptist, who represents, here in Mark’s gospel the reappearance of Elijah; and finally his only son, Jesus. And this “Good News” is that we are created and sustained by the God who loves us, and even though we have need of repentance we are still loved, we are still called to be in relationship with the creator God.
This is what the one crying out in the wilderness is trying to tell us. We were made for relationship with God, but in order to be in that relationship we have to face up to the truth of ourselves, and not just in a personal sense but in a corporate, whole of humanity, kind of way, too. This is the truth- that God loves us but that we keep on choosing something other than that relationship!
Mark tells us that before Jesus came on the scene God sent his messenger, John the Baptiser to prepare his way. The way Mark describes him makes it very clear that he is “Elijah” who was supposed to return. The last words in the Old Testament, from the prophet Malachi are, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes”. Isaiah, in the passage we read today, calls us to get ready by preparing a way for the Lord, a highway in the desert. And what John the Baptiser did, to make a highway in the desert, was to call people to repentance. He said, ”Get ready for the one who is coming, by examining yourself and then repenting.” That’s interesting, isn’t it? He doesn’t rush into Jerusalem with a band of people and try to overthrow the Romans in order to prepare for the Kingdom of God. I think the reality is that overthrowing one bad regime wasn’t and isn’t going to cut it. When we, the goodies, have vanquished ISIS, the baddies, sadly that will not be the end of humanity’s problems- will it? The problem is that we, humans of all races, keep choosing lies over truth, greed over equity, fear over love, darkness over light. Our human condition is that we choose power now over future glory and that is what God Godself, in the person of Jesus, came to change. God wants to comfort us, in fact it is probably because we keep making that choice that God wants to comfort us.
God, since the dawn of time, has been asking us to choose. We can choose to live as people made in God’s image, people who love instead of hating and fearing. We can be people of generosity who share rather than being people who choose to live as if we were in scarcity. We can be people of justice instead of injustice. We can be people whose heart is the same as God’s. But somehow we keep making the wrong choices. The question is “why?” The root problem seems to be our fear of mortality.
When Isaiah is called by God to preach the truth he objects. Isaiah says to God,
“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.” To paraphrase, “God, I can’t be bothered talking to them because they’ll be dead in a minute- you made them mortal and that is their problem, we’ll just get one lot sorted out and they’ll die and we’ll have to start on the next lot.” You can understand Isaiah’s reluctance- this is how it is, every generation in turn is marred by their constant fear of death, so they grab and they hurt and they destroy and they hate.
But God’s reply to Isaiah is to remind him of God’s own eternal nature. Yes, humans’ earthly lives are temporary, but God and God’s word of truth are eternal. If we choose, we can share that eternity with God. And the news is good, God is coming and he will rule. It is going to be a very different world when God rules. And we humans can stop the constant seeking and searching because God will feed us and care for us, he will be gentle and tender with us. We are people made in God’s image so we have the potential for so much more. And that is the good news that Jesus brings, the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ- we can be different, we can act with compassion and generosity, we can be God’s children, his lambs. John the Baptiser calls us to repentance because, one greater than he is on the way- Jesus the bringer of Holy Fire, which will change us and renew us and enable us.
Jesus’ words to us last week were “stay awake”, because you don’t know when the second coming will be. John’s words to us this week are “get ready”, repent and be baptized, because our great God is coming in glory.
I am having my “Messiah” trouble very badly today, because this Isaiah passage is the text of the whole first section of Handel’s Messiah, and I hear it echoing in my head. After you have had the tenor singing, “Comfort ye,” and then “Every Valley”, all of a sudden the chorus breaks in with, “And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” and you know, it is so glorious that you almost don’t need the rest. Of course the narrative goes on to the Messiah’s suffering and death, and glorious resurrection, the “Alleluia Chorus” and so forth, but in this first moment, God’s whole glory is revealed. And, you know that is the story of the incarnation.
In the incarnation, in the birth of the baby in the stable, God chose to dwell with us, and to pack his glory into a tiny human form. God chose to live with the world, as it was, as it is, full of sin and brokenness, as well as moments of love and joy and wonder. The fact that there has been an incarnation, that God is “God With Us”, “Emmanuel”, God immanent and imminent, means that we have moved into the next phase, we are part of God’s glory now. But it is as if we have a hangover, we can’t quite shake off the fear that makes us limited people.
So this week, that is my challenge, let us both ready ourselves- repenting of the things that make us selfish, and let us speak truth to our world. For we are all called to prophecy, you know. We are to be prophets in our world, but not fortune tellers, or forecasters, or doomsday prognosticators. We are to be truth tellers. And the truth that we must tell is the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, the good news of the Kingdom of God. We need to comfort God’s people, and feed his flock. We need to tell others that they are loved and valued by God, we need to show others that they are loved and valued by God. Go into the world and preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words!