Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8
This morning we hear from two prophets, and one of them even quotes the other. Did you notice that part of the passage from Mark sounded familiar? It's because it was a quote directly from the Isaiah passage.
Now prophet is a word that is often misunderstood today. When people hear the word prophet, they often think of someone who tells the future, usually with dire predictions and warnings. But in the Bible, the term prophet is used for someone who speaks the truth. They are not fortune-tellers, not forecasters of the future, not doomsday prognosticators. They are only predictors of what is to come if that future makes sense because of or due to present behavior. They are analyzers of the “now” for the sake of moving toward a different future. It is someone who looks at what has happened before in the world and sees it happening again and says "Hey, this turned out badly last time. It will again. Stop doing that." It has nothing to do with seeing the future, and everything to do with understanding the past.
So in our first passage today Isaiah is speaking to the Judeans in the time of the Babylonian exile. They have been dragged from the country they know and loved by an invading kingdom and forced to live as second class citizens. The Babylonians were basically trying to assimilate them into their culture. And this wasn't a new thing. By the time this scripture was likely written, they had been in Babylon for years. Naturally they were full of despair.
And here comes Isaiah saying "O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear!" Isaiah says that God is coming, that God will gather them up like a shepherd and hold them close. That they are not alone even in their exile and God is still at work. A generation later and they are returned to their homeland and begin to rule themselves again.
Five centuries later and John the Baptist returns to these words in a world that feels pretty similar to the Jews only this time, with Rome. The Romans had been in their country for over a generation at this point. Most people had never known what life was like outside of the rule of Rome. And again, they were no longer citizens with full rights, only Romans were that in the empire. The land no longer belonged to the people. The religious leaders were a wholly owned subsidiary of the Romans. For many people the daily struggle to survive was all they could manage.
Some, like the chief priests, believed the only option was to collaborate with the Romans. Others retreated to the wilderness seeking purity and became known as the Essenes. Then there were the zealots who plotted for a revolt, and spoke of assassins. While the Pharisees said that if they could all just get right with God on all 613 laws, then God would turn the Romans out of their country.
They were divided as a people and conquered as a country. Once again the Jewish people were in a seemingly hopeless situation, full of despair. And along comes John, John who came across as a crazy man in the wilderness, wearing sackcloth and eating bugs. But John offered hope even in his craziness. He reminded people of the words and promises of Isaiah, becoming that voice in the wilderness for them. So they came. They came to listen, to hear a word of hope.
A lot of people came from the countryside and from Jerusalem. They had gotten sick of the way things were, tired of their despair. John called them from the kingdom of despair to take part in the in-breaking of God's hope for the world. Their baptism made them a part of a movement of change. And things did change didn't they?
In the next passage Jesus comes along for his own baptism and then begins his own ministry. See? God comes again in the darkness. Just as in the time of Isaiah. Just as in the time of John.
And just as God does today.
We certainly seem to be in our own time of wilderness, don't we? Everywhere we look there is more bad news. Wildfires are raging, incidents of violence break out over and over again, racism and sexism and greed all seem to fill the headlines and we are a country more divided than we have been in years. The gap of who has money and who does not gets wider and wider, and the global stage seems full of tension and threats.
And often we find ourselves in our own personal wildernesses, don't we? When our place in the world seems shaky and nothing seems to go right. We lose our job, or the test comes back positive, or the money just isn't there when the car starts to rattle or the person we thought we could count on no matter what betrays us. Beyond the world stage, we all have our own reasons for despair at time.
And Isaiah tells us "Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God." And Mark responds with "This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God," And to these cries for deliverance, God responds with promises of healing, peace, and justice in and through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
That is our Advent word today, a promise from our God for comfort, for good news even in the midst of the deepest wilderness. And that, perhaps, is the key message of Advent. That in the stable at Bethlehem God is not only keeping promises God made to Israel but also making promises to us. That in Jesus, God hears our cries of fear and concern and doubt at our lowest points and responds.
So when the world seems to be nothing but disaster and despair, when things seem to be falling apart all around us, we can turn to the words of the prophets and hold fast to the promise of God: even in the wilderness, God is with us and we are never alone.
In just a few weeks, the Incarnation of our God will descend over us like a blanket of stars, and we will be filled with the song of angels, the gentle amazement of shepherds, and the humility of the kings. If the image and the songs of Bethlehem can fill us that day, we might pray during these last few weeks of waiting that our hearts will be filled with the comfort of God and strengthened to bring that Good News to all.