The Second Sunday of Advent, 7 December 2014

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
II Peter 3:8-15a
St. Mark 1:1-8

Background: John the Baptist
Coming from a tradition that knew and respected those who were considered prophets, or those who took special vows (Nazirites), John the Baptist already had the cultural credentials that earned him a level of religious respect. Called in John’s Gospel “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, John certainly retains the aura of the prophet. The relationship with Jesus is described in the Gospels as familial, and the question remains as to whether that relationship had other aspects such as teacher and student. John has been described by some as a follower and student of the Essenes, what with his apocalyptic teaching and his practice of baptism.  He certainly is not a character who comes and goes with the Nativity of Jesus. He had other roles to play, both religious and political. Constant critic of the ethics and leadership of Herod, his commentary and preaching against the king only earn him a death sentence.  His disciples, some of home begin to follow Jesus, are still with him even after the ministry of Jesus has already begun. It is through their agency that John asks his most telling question of Jesus, “are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD's hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."
A voice says, "Cry out!"
And I said, "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.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
"Here is your God!"
See, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed 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.

There is a tradition that underlies this introduction to the second Isaiah’s work, and that is the sentiments that are expressed in the Lamentations (see Lamentations 2:13). Who is there to comfort and to guide in the current situation? Second Isaiah’s purpose is to call for an exit from the attractions and captivity of Babylon. The first action of comfort is perhaps to regain the relationship of God and people. Later in the 51st chapter the command and wish will be, “depart”. These imperatives will be joined with others during the course of the book – “Awake, awake” (51:9) and “Wake up, wake up” (51:17). The comforts that are offered to Israel are similar to those that were a part of the Exodus from Egypt. They are the highway through the desert, and the present company of the God who calls them. An anonymous voice requests the message, “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” What God demands is fulfilled by anonymity, which is accentuated by the prophet’s description of the fragility of life, “All people are grass”. It is not important to know the voice, but only to heed the command. All the strengths and strong messages portrayed in the hymn are surmounted by images of tenderness (to correspond to the images of comfort that begin this pericope. The shepherd feeds, gathers, carries, and gently leads. These verses are a compilation of human emotion, the emotions that accompany God’s people in difficult times.

Breaking open Second Isaiah:

1.     What does “comfort” mean to you in your life?
2.     Where has your faith comforted you?
3.     Have you comforted others? When?

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 Benedixisti, Domine

You have been gracious to your land, O LORD, *
you have restored the good fortune of Jacob.

You have forgiven the iniquity of your people *
and blotted out all their sins.

I will listen to what the LORD God is saying, *
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
and to those who turn their hearts to him.

Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.

Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

Truth shall spring up from the earth, *
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.

The LORD will indeed grant prosperity, *
and our land will yield its increase.

Righteousness shall go before him, *
and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.

The past tenses of the opening lines of this psalm, “you have been gracious…you have restored,” suggest that this psalmist is writing around the same time as second Isaiah, and most certainly about the same circumstances.  The “comforts” of second Isaiah are met here with the God who “speaks peace to (God’s) faithful people.” The high emotions of being aroused and awakened are absent from these verses, however. There is however, another prophetic tradition present, and that is the “return from from folly” namely the faithlessness from which Israel has been forgiven. What follows then are examples of the “glory (that) dwells in our land.” Mercy, truth, righteousness, and peace all join into this land forgiven its former ways, and restored to the relationship that was.  Again we are met, as in second Isaiah, with the notion of a pathway, here where righteousness and peace become a pathway for God’s intervention, and hopefully for the people’s deliverance.

Breaking open Psalm 85:

1.     What do mercy and truth mean to you?
2.     How are they present in your life?
3.     What is peace for you?

2 Peter 3:8-15a

Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

What we have in II Peter is the contemporary situation viewed from the aspect of a respected leader (Peter) but not from his pen. The theology of Peter speaks to the circumstance of the readers and is influenced not only by the Christianity of the prior period, but also Greek philosophical ideas, and the letter of Jude (Compare Jude 3-18 and II Peter 2:1-3:4). There is anxiety about the day of the Lord, and the author comforts his readers with the notion that God’s time is not measured in our ideas of time (see Psalm 90:4). In a brief apocalyptic, the author describes the end of time. The real question is one of waiting and what does the faithful one do while waiting. The attributes of such a life are described in the final verse of the pericope: peaceful, without blemish, and seeing the patience of Christ as salvation.

Breaking open II Peter:
  1. What do you understand the “Day of the Lord” to be?
  2. How do you prepare for the “end of things”?
  3. What does it mean to live “without blemish”?

St. Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

"See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
`Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,'"

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

This inscription from Priene in Asia Minor on the western coast of modern day Turkey will give us some context for understanding Mark’s task here.  The inscription reads: “the birthday of the god (emperor, Augustus, 9 BCE) was for the world the beginning of joyful tidings which have been proclaimed on his account.” We have always taken such language as inherently religious and theological, but like so many other religious titles (Lord, and Savior) there was a political aspect to them as well. Given that Mark’s message was written in the context of the Roman siege of Jerusalem (ca. 66 – 70 CE) and that it was in all probability written in Rome for a Roman audience, these considerations are helpful if we are to understand the gospel.  Thus the introduction grounds us in the “good news” about Jesus (anointed one, and son of God). 

Without hesitation the author reaches back into the background of Christianity to look at Isaiah, and what the Hebrew Scriptures might say about such an event, and about the person of John the Baptist. Actually, the quotation is a mixture of several writings, namely: Malachi 3:1, Isaiah 40:3, and Exodus 23:20. The place of “the voice” and the ministry of John, the wilderness, connects this beginning narrative to the place of spiritual development for the people of Israel, the wilderness or desert. John preaches in this location and baptizes here. The wilderness location and the surprising presence of water would have spoken to those Jews who were students of Isaiah, and who remembered the course of salvation history for the people. 

To know John, however, we need to know his audience and the message that John proclaims to them.  They come from, as the Greek puts it in a chiastic form, “the whole land of Judea, and from Jerusalem all.” It is a picture of popularity and an expansive appeal, in spite of a difficult message of repentance and confession.  We also need to understand his guise and affect – “John was clothed with camel’s hair…and he ate locusts and wild honey.” Thus is a prophet seen in Zechariah 13:4 clothed in a “hairy mantel.” One wonders if the food, which would be naturally found in the locale of John’s ministry, might not also be symbolic with locusts often being a scourge and honey being the sweetness of the word. Thus the word of the prophet is also the consequence of his preaching. His proclamation in this pericope further describes his role as a forerunner (see the reference to Exodus 23:20, above) and the strength of the one who is to come after him (reread the descriptions of God’s strength in the first reading). The “Coming One” baptizes in the Spirit – the same spirit that would anoint God’s prophets with God’s word for the present time. Thus the water and the Spirit are brought together again, this time for a new creation.

Breaking open Gospel:
1.     What part of John’s message is attractive to you?
2.     What is the difference of baptizing “with the Spirit”?
3.     What prophets do you know in your life?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All questions and commentary copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller


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