The second Sunday of Advent, Year B, 2014 – Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85; 2 Peter 3: 8-15; Mark 1:1-8
Modern art, especially painting after 1850, has taught us that things that wouldn’t otherwise be seen by our eyes can indeed be seen all-at-once by an artist’s representation of reality. Let me explain. If you were looking on at a nice arrangement of fruit on a kitchen table you wouldn’t see the far side of the table or one of its sides. But what artist’s discovered was that on a canvass you could simply paint on the view from the unseen sides – flipped up. In a painting you could show all the fruit in the bowl as if it were tilted vertically toward the viewer. It began a revolution in seeing not simply things in a line but everything all-at-once. Today it doesn’t seem at all strange to see a huge canvass with all kinds of things going on simultaneously – things represented in a single view, though they exist on the other side of the earth or at a different point in history or in a different state of mind or in shapes and colours that don’t represent anything we recognize in daily life.
I think this is quite helpful when we look at scripture, especially the prophetic texts in Daniel or in the Book of Revelation. Things happen simultaneously. Voices sound from the left or the right. Creatures have eyes all over and some have more than one face. It’s a glimpse of a reality that we find hard to take in. I mention this because of the all-at-once view of things is to be preferred by those interested in the life of God.
We have just heard the opening lines of Mark’s gospel. In just eight short verses we are given one of the most startling images in the entire gospel narrative. It’s the image of a powerful Old Testament prophet, John the Baptist. He stands, as we know, in a long line of ascetic and fearsome prophets of Israel, like Elijah. In fact he is dressed like Elijah – “a hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kings 1:8). We know later, of course that John the Baptist is a wild man of the desert who confronts a king about personal sin, rudely denounces religious leaders and preaches loudly that one ought to repent in view of the Lord’s coming. For his pains his head ended up on a platter: a prophet’s head for a simple dancing girl.
We might think that John takes up the whole stage here in the first chapter of Mark. But the real centre is the link to Isaiah 40. It’s there that we learn the purpose of John’s ministry. Without this reference one would think that God wanted John the Baptist to say something like this, “Tell the people to hurry up and get ready because after they have done so, I will come”.
In fact, as we shall see, God has no pre-conditions at his coming. Instead, we find God saying something like this, “prepare the way, I am coming regardless”.
Isaiah chapter 40 presents a familiar image of dialogue in a heavenly court. We see that God is responding to the lament of his people of Israel in a way that sounds more like a wounded love, according to one commentator.1
“Comfort, comfort my people, Speak tenderly to Jerusalem”, God says. Yet we know they ran after foreign gods more times than we can number. But the God of faithfulness and mercy says to the holy messengers in this court scene: “Cry out to her that she has served her term and that any penalties have been paid.”
A divine attendant in another corner of the heavenly court is given the role of a messenger who cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”. Wasn’t it always in the wilderness, we think, that Israel was saved throughout the long exodus from Egypt? So it is in the latest message, the road to God through the wilderness is the place of his revealing, is far removed from the dazzle of worldly power. We know this to be true. In a seemingly barren place God can be seen coming to save you.
Another attendant sensing the urgency of God’s approach cries out, ‘Make straight the way/ every valley shall be lifted up/ mountains and uneven ground made level’. Impediments, be they external or internal are to be rendered powerless, for the glory of the Lord is to be revealed. Such a message of intervention ends with this announcement: Say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God”.
This is astounding. To people who are compared to dried up grass, who acknowledge their failures in righteous living, God comes to be seen. Can anyone see the face of God and live, you may well ask? Let us be sure of this one thing. As hard as you look in the text, you cannot find a pre-condition to this. “Here is your God “– not because the people are good, but because, says God, I made a covenant to be with you and to love you. On account of this, I will come.
“See, the Lord comes with might says the Isaiah text. His arm rules for him. These are words of power. But the images that follow almost immediately tell of tenderness and beauty freely offered.How will we know him when we see him? The Isaiah text has the answer.
“He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will gather the lambs in his arms, carry them in his bosom, gently lead the mother sheep. “ So much for what we see in the Isaiah text.
Let’s turn now to our gospel text. “Why”, you may ask, “would Mark tell us so much about John the Baptist proclaiming repentance and offering baptism for forgiveness of sins before Jesus is about to make his appearance? He speaks of Jesus and points to Jesus as a savior and shepherd for his people. Yet he calls out for repentance.
As some of you know, I traveled regularly to the UK to study Canon law. I learned a lot from some excellent professors. But the most profound lessons were unplanned and were revealed in the lives of my fellow students. One such person, I’ll call him Chris, was a distinguished lawyer and a Christian who had described his religious observance as ‘moderate’. Chris took me aside one day to tell me that in the previous month he felt the overpowering presence of God which he could only describe as love and holiness This lasted a full three weeks. So powerful was his sense of being in the presence of Christ that he wanted to resign from his law firm. The stronger God’s presence, the greater the sense of unworthiness. He found himself over and over, weeping about his unsavoury past. God’s love continued unabated despite the light shining in dark corners. Two things, it seems, existed simultaneously; God’s overwhelming presence and Chris’ awareness of sin. It was an all-at-once experience of God holding together both overpowering love and a strong awareness of what was not right in his life.
This helped me in reading Mark’s gospel. John the Baptist preached repentance seemingly non-stop even as he preached about a long-awaited Saviour. The record says, “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him”. It has always seemed odd to me that haranguing people about sin and repentance could actually work. Chris’s story really helped me resolve this dilemma. When you sense the awesome approach of God you are overwhelmed by the sense that this is undeserved. Not being able to stop this approach of God you just might fall flat on your face and seek God’s forgiveness. That’s the fullest meaning of Advent as it appears in Mark’s gospel. God’s coming and our repentance, in that order. It means perceiving that there is on the horizon the unstoppable approach of the kingdom of God’s Son. Can we sense deeply the Advent truth that injustice will be reversed no matter how painful and that falseness of every type will be exposed and that in therein we shall see the face of God?
Every December we prepare ourselves to look upon the infant in a manger and we are dumbfounded. The most holy God sends his anointed Son as a completely helpless baby. God redeems our life by entering it. Here is your God records the prophet, Isaiah. John pointing to Jesus says, “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie his sandals/ I may baptize with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Can such unconditional grace be fathomed? No wonder the people everywhere in the whole Judean countryside rushed forward to be baptized by John in the Jordan river. They sensed they were unworthy of the grace.
Perhaps in the darkness of our December mornings we should all rise up early and look for that dawning light, and be filled with the promise that God has decided to save us from despair, from being lost or simply crushed by our sins. He comes as Shepherd and King and sacrifice. Now listen to John again – prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. God is coming anyway! I can’t bear to receive him in the state I’m in. Well then, prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.
Hold these two things together. It’s an all-at-once-view. Grace and joy are present when the Saviour of the world comes and so will repentance. That approaching wonder fills us with joy and will make our hearts weep. Amen.