Isaiah 40:1-11 Isaiah was possibly written over a long period of time, running from the eighth century BCE to as late as the second century BCE. Most commentators would agree that the prophecy consists of at least two parts; some would say three. Today’s reading is the first chapter of the second part. Some commentators suggest that the basic theme of the first part is exile, while that of the second is PROMISE. Promise is certainly apparent in today’s reading. It’s in four sections.
In an animal population, the worst thing that can happen, apart from being killed, is being driven from the group: banishment. At that point, not only are all of your relationships gone, but also any defence you might have had from others. Now you’re open to predation.
That’s what happens when you’re in exile—in Egypt, in Babylon—when you’re separated from God. As a kid, the worst thing you can hear is “Go to your room!”
That time in your room is unbearable, and it’s an incredible comfort to hear “You can come out now.” You can come back to being part of the group. That’s what’s going on in this reading.
Part 1 God tells the evangelist/prophet, “Comfort my people.” That’s amazing!: “my people”. In exile, whose people were you? “ … says your God.” We’re back together with God again! “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” Gen. 17.7
“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” This is the language of wooing, the wooing of a lover. “She has served her term” Her “time out” is over. “She has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” She’s more than served her time.
Part 2 Prepare the Way of the Lord. This is not just a road for the exiles to come home on. It’s for the Lord to lead the procession of exiles—back together again, with the Lord at the head of the procession! It’s to be made straight—the shortest distance between two points—from Babylon to Jerusalem. It’s to be made level—valleys filled in, cuts through the hills and mountains—much like modern highway construction. We’re going in style!
Part 3 People are as short-lived as the grass—here today and gone tomorrow—but “the word of our God will stand for ever.” Verbum domini manet.
Part 4 “So, get up onto a mountain, where you can be heard,” says the Lord to the messenger. “Speak loudly and clearly. Say ‘Here is your God’.” That’s good news.
Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13 Does this look to you like a postscript to the Isaiah reading? This is a description of a God who is steadfast. This God says to his child “Go to your room!” and then, when the time is right, “You can come out now.” God is a God of steadfast love, compassion, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace.
“Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people.” Those who are willing to listen will hear the words of peace … but you do have to listen.
“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” Here’s another love scene. Steadfast love and faithfulness, righteousness and peace—fidelitas, the kind of love where people are faithful to one another—are intertwined, just like lovers.
“Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.” Does this look like the God who is in procession before the people on the highway from exile to Jerusalem?
2 Peter 3:8-15a Here’s the waiting theme again, but it also reminds me of the procession from exile to home in Jerusalem. But this procession looks more like a Sunday afternoon family walk, and you have all three generations along—grandparents, parents, and children—so you have to go slowly. It seems to take forever to go from A to B, but this slowness is rooted in compassion—for those who move slowly. And God is with us, whether we notice it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not. God is with us on the procession home, on the Sunday afternoon walk.
When we have kids along, some of them are going to do things which are risky. Do they even know it’s risky? Are they doing it because it’s risky? Do they have problems with authority? Don’t they know that we have to say “Don’t do that” occasionally because we, ourselves, have had the same experience? We’ve suffered the consequences already, and we don’t want that for them.
Or are there children—people—in our group who just plain don’t care? They don’t believe there will be consequences? They look at the “delay” and think there will never be a time when justice will be done? There is no judge?
The picture of the dissolution of the heavens and earth at the end of the age is common. It’s the “new heaven and new earth” of Revelation, for example. At that time, we will “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.” God’s patience is a reflection of God’s grace.
The Day of the Lord seems sudden only to those who are unprepared. Those who are prepared go about their lives in a mood of expectancy.
Mark 1:1-8 “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Oh, my gosh! What is this? Is it the title for this section of Mark’s gospel? arch ‘beginning’ This is the word which introduces some very significant texts, e.g., Gen. 1.1 in the Septuagint or John 1.1. We’re meant to sit up and take notice.
εὐαγγελίου “Good news” Good news comes up in all kinds of contexts in the Ancient World. A messenger comes running from the battlefield with good news: “We’ve won.” A messenger comes from the palace: “Good news! A child has been born in the palace, a new king!”
“the good news of Jesus Christ” Is this the good news as spoken by Jesus Christ? The good news about Jesus Christ?
“Jesus” I understand. He’s the child of Joseph and Mary. What is “Christ”? The family’s last name? Christ comes from χριστοῦ christou ‘anointed’. When we anoint someone, that means we’re setting them aside for a special purpose. Prophets were anointed. Kings were anointed. In the Hebrew mind of the time mašia ‘anointed’ also means ‘saviour’.
“Son of God” was also in common usage at the time. It can mean the king, e.g., 2 Sam. 7.14a God’s Covenant with David: “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.” But in the Roman Empire, some emperors were known as God or Son of God. When people called Jesus Son of God, how did that go over in Roman circles?
In verses 2 and 3, you’ll immediately recognize a quote from the Isaiah passage we’ve just discussed, but it’s interwoven with another passage from the prophet Malachi (3.1): “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.”
Now that we’ve cleared the deck, we can get down to the heart of the matter: who is John the Baptizer, and what’s his role here? The writer says he appeared in the wilderness. That’s interesting. We just read this: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Hint, hint. What’s John’s role?
John proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” That’s why he’s called “the Baptizer.” Baptism was not unheard of in those days. All Jews practiced ritual cleansing in water, but that wasn’t baptism. Baptism ‘submerging, dunking’ was a special ritual cleansing for proselytes, converts to Judaism. That being said, it was quite unusual for Jews to be baptized—they were Jews already—so when they did, it indicated a strong intention. John insisted that it was an important ritual act, an act of cleansing from sin, a sign that you had “turned around”, that you had repented (Lat. repentere ‘turn around’). This was an open indication, a statement that you intended to change course in your life, to follow the Law, as given by God.
The way John dressed—and his diet—says he looked like the prophet Elijah. There had not been a major prophet in Israel for a long time, and the people longed to have one among them again. When John’s reputation as a preacher became known, people flocked to see and hear him. It’s not surprising that people from the Judean countryside came to him—it wasn’t far away—but when they came from Jerusalem, that was surprising. Jerusalem was the centre of Judaism; the authorities were in Jerusalem. To them, John was preaching heresy. The authorised way to show repentance for sin was to perform a sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem. This John was departing from this. He was telling people that God is approachable, that it required no priests, no intermediaries. John wasn’t much for political correctness. Here’s how he spoke to the Pharisees and Sadducees from Jerusalem: (Mt. 3.7) “But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
But here’s the clincher. He introduces Jesus: (Mk. 1.7-8) “7 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. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” This shows great humility. He admits that, despite his reputation as a reincarnated Elijah, Jesus is more powerful than he is. Doing footcare for a person was the lowliest job imaginable, and he says he’s not worthy to do even that for Jesus. The reason for that? John’s baptism was with water, a humble precursor to Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirt is ruach Adonai ‘the spirit of the Lord’. The Spirit was there at Creation, a very powerful force. When the Holy Spirit enters your heart, you will truly repent, truly turn your life around, truly be focussed on the will of God.
John is Jesus’ forerunner. He points to Jesus. He cries out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”