This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Parish Uniting Church, meeting in Newborough, for Sunday 10th December 2017. It was the Second Sunday in Advent.
Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
This year, beginning last week on Advent Sunday and running through until we celebrate Christ the King on the last Sunday in November 2018, we shall be reading primarily from The Gospel According to Mark. This is one of my favourite gospels, and if it’s not my absolute favourite it’s definitely top four. I especially enjoy how brief and to the point Mark’s writing is, everything is so sudden and there’s no padding. Today’s reading, the first eight verses of the book, is just like that. Bang – here it is in Mark 1:1 and then straight in to the coming of John the Baptiser in Mark 1:2 to prepare the way for Jesus, who appears in Mark 1:9. Matthew and Luke each take until chapter three of their gospels to get to the arrival of John in the desert: Matthew in 48 verses and Luke in an astonishing 132 verses. Mark takes one.
So, Mark immediately opens the story at the best starting place: the arrival of an adult Jesus on the day he begins his ministry, the day he is commissioned by the Holy Spirit in the presence of John the Baptiser, the prophesied one who would announce his coming. Mark grounds the story of Jesus immediately in the salvation history of the Israelites, connecting the appearance of John to the prophetic speech of Isaiah, and to the mission of Israel’s God in history which had always been about reconciliation. As God had constantly called Israel and Judah back to the covenant, offering forgiveness and mercy time and time again if only they would return, so John offers a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins as he says in Mark 1:4. It’s the same thing, he’s calling the people to make an about face, be released from debt, and move forward in God’s direction.
So, given that Mark quotes him so early in the piece I wonder, what did Isaiah actually say? Well we find in Isaiah 40:1-11 that God has taken Isaiah aside and prepared him with a new message for the Israelites who are living in exile. “Speak comfort to the people”, says the LORD, “because the people have served their sentence”. Their saviour is coming along the wilderness road, levelling the road and making a way of travel. Repentance is not complex, and while it is not easy because it is so confronting to human pride, it is simple. God has seen that human life is temporary and that women and men are inconsistent in their ways because of this limitation upon them. Individuals die but the story of God lives on. God tells Isaiah, and we can presume that God also tells John the Baptiser, to go, get up on a high place and proclaim that story loudly. The instruction to Isaiah and to John is to tell the Jerusalemites the story of salvation so that they can then get about telling every citizen of the world that God is present. God is coming, God has come, and when God comes the good leader will feed the hungry, clothe the exposed, and carry the broken ones close.
As far as Isaiah is concerned this is a commissioning passage, a personal call to prophetic ministry much like the ones recorded in Isaiah 6 and Isaiah 61. If you read closely you’ll see that the call to comfort and speak is given to the angels, one of whom commands (Isaiah 40:3) the opening of the way home: a second ex-hodos through the wilderness like the first one was through the sea. But Isaiah’s and John’s message is that this will be an easy road, unlike the trek of Moses, since the land will fall flat, and the road will be straight and direct. This is a road without wandering or struggling. Another angel commands Isaiah to proclaim the message of God’s constancy (Isaiah 40:6) to God’s people who are dead grass (Isaiah 40:6-8). As the Korahites sang in Psalm 80:10-13, (which I read as our call to worship), God is constant regarding the promises of the covenant, and the people’s hope of restoration is secure. Six hundred years later John is telling the same story, and soon enough Jesus will repeat God’s message over and over.
Peter reminds us in his letter that God is beyond age and epoch. God is not slow, God is not limited, God has chosen to be patient and God is not feeling pressured to act or be rushed. Even as the Israelites and Judahites waited for God in exile, even as the Judeans of Jesus’ day suffered under Roman occupation and cried out for God to restore a king from the Davidic line, (rather than an Idumean puppet appointed by Caesar), the God of Abraham waited. Jesus had come and gone in Peter’s lifetime, but the Romans remained. But Peter remembered God’s promise to return to earth and he trusted God to come in the fulness of God’s time. Peter reminds his readers, the people of his church but also any to whom he had ministered in the past, that when God arrives you’ll not miss it because it will be bright and loud and violent.
Advent is the time in the Christian calendar when we remember that Jesus is the Once and Future King, to borrow a phrase from the legends of Avalon and Camelot. Peter’s story of light and sound is obviously not a retelling of the night in Bethlehem when shepherds watched, and three wee kings arrived. Like the exiles, the Judeans, the Romans, and the Antiochenes we wait for God to return for us and lead us home along that straight, wide, and flat road. We believe the word of God when his disciples remind us that all that surrounds us is finite and that it will be swept away when God returns. We believe the word of God and are reminded that finite does not mean without value: Peter is saying we must not hold onto the world or depend upon it for our safety, but we are to utilise it for the work of proclaiming the gospel. Use it, use it up, but don’t waste it. Demonstrate the same patience that God shows, and model your life on the generous and unhurried flow of Jesus, the one who was often busy but never hassled. Live with integrity in a world which is mocking your trust.
The first words of Mark read “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the son of God”. In the light of all we know about Jesus and his ministry, and all that Peter reminded us of, must this sentence refer only to Mark 1:1 as some Greek version of “Once upon a time in a land far far away”, or even “In the beginning”? Or is the whole book of Mark only the beginning of the good news, and further instalments of the gospel are not to be found in Mark 1:2, Mark 2:1, or even in Mark 16:9, but in what we say and do with the message in our day? Where Advent reminds us that the one who came to Bethlehem is coming again, and to Yallourn and Moe this time I think it’s more of the second, that the gospel continues in us. Now the mandate given to the prophets, the psalmists, and the apostles is given to us. Our task is to speak comfort to the city, not Jerusalem or Rome but the City of Latrobe, and to assure them of the coming grace of peace and restoration. Our Christmas message to the community is that when the Lord comes he is coming for them to welcome them home.
Just as he did the first time he came.