Sermon on Isaiah 40: 1-11 and Mark 1:1-8 for Advent 2B, December 10, 2017

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!”

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.”

C. S. Lewis wrote that if you set out to look for truth, you may find comfort.  But if you set out looking for comfort, you will neither find comfort nor truth.  I think that is right.  But it is an easy mistake to make, and I see it being made all the time. 

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People often seem to act in ways that suggest they believe things that cannot be true just because it makes life more convenient, more comfortable.   But just because it would be comfortable if something were true, it does not make it true. 

But who can blame us for seeking some comfort?  Life is complex, difficult, often painful, and the unexpected keeps happening.  We need a break.

In the gospel of John, we hear Jesus saying, 

“you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32) 

I believe that genuine freedom and comfort only comes from the truth.   Getting bad news truthfully is better than getting a sugar coated version.   The truth usually comes out in the end anyway.  Look at all the scandals that are coming to light, now that women are not afraid to speak the truth. 

We have two Advent texts before us.  Both of them have truth to tell  us – somewhat difficult and uncomfortable truth, it may appear, but ultimately, I believe, great sources of comfort.  So we will look briefly at both them.

Isaiah’s Words of Comfort

Isaiah actually begins with the word “Comfort”.  God is speaking, telling what the prophet is to say to the people, with the intent of providing them some comfort.  And it starts out comforting-sounding. 

“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.”

If you believe that what you have gotten is punishment for your sins, at least it is good to know the punishment is over.  I believe that God’s way of punishing us for our sins is simply making a world in which natural consequences occur. 

Israel became an internally corrupt state, made horrible decisions, and ended up in exile in Babylon.  If there was any good news, it would have to be in the form of something like this: the punishment is over, and a new future awaits us. 

The new future is based on the expectation that God had not abandoned the people in Babylon, but was planning to make a return.  So, if there is to be a new future, there is work to be done: preparation for God’s return would have to be made.

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A voice cries out:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

The Return of God

Every year, at the new year’s celebration, the Babylonians held a festival.  The festival grounds were outside the walled city, so, in their thinking, outside of the protected area, hence, in the wilderness.  Their patron god, Marduk, had a role to play in the festival, so they would load up his statue on an ox cart and haul it out.  This required a bit of road building each year.  In the ancient world, roads were not permanent.   

So that ox cart journey on the new road in the wilderness that Marduk took may have been in the mind of the prophet as he summons the people to make preparations for God’s return by building a road in the wilderness.

But then there is the truth that hurts.  Besides crying out in the desert the command to prepare the way, the prophet has a second message to give, and it sounds like bad news.

“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.”

Generally, being reminded of our mortality is not a source of comfort.  Announcing that everyone dies is not a way to make them feel good.  But there is more to the message:

“The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.”

So now we get the point.  After coming to terms with our limitations; after accepting the truth of our fragile finitude, we can see a deeper truth. There is more to life than meets the eye.  Yes, we are mortal.  Yes, we will die.  But that does not evacuate purpose and meaning from our lives. 

Our purpose and meaning are found in the knowledge that we are a part of something outside ourselves.  We are a part of something bigger than ourselves; longer than even our lifespans.  We are a part of what God is doing in the world.  It is far beyond the scope of our human lives. 

God’s dream of a beautiful world is what we get to live in.  God’s dream of a world of justice in which no one goes hungry and everyone has shelter is the dream we get to live.  God’s dream of a reconciled world that knows no animosity nor discrimination is the world we get to live in.  God’s dream of a beautiful world without pollution, but fertile, verdant, abundance for all, is the dream we get to live in every day.

So this is good news indeed.  Go up to a high mountain and announce the good news to everyone.  God is up to something.  God will show up again.  And when God shows up, it will be in exactly the form we need: like a shepherd.

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See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for 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.

Life can be chaotic.  We spoke last week about catastrophes that will never stop coming.  That is one of those quite uncomfortable truths that we live with.  But as people of faith, we believe that God is still at work in the world.  God is always coming, in every moment. 

God is present, leading us, as gently as a shepherd does, towards a new future that includes goodness, beauty and truth.  God is there providing new possibilities for us to join the great movement towards a reconciled world, a new day of greater justice and freedom. 

So this is a comfort; our short lives can be part of something much bigger; vastly bigger.  Following the shepherd is how we get there.

Mark’s Version: Prepare the Way

So now let us look briefly at the Advent text from Mark’s gospel.  It too has comfort to offer, but only after uncomfortable truth.  Mark is telling Jesus’ story.   He begins with John, who understands himself as one who is doing what Isaiah said to do: preparing the way of the Lord.  He conceives of himself as the voice crying out in the wilderness,

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,'”

How exactly is preparation made?  This is the uncomfortable part. Preparation begins with a call to repent.  Repent simply means change your thinking, and then, as a consequence of thinking differently, acting differently. 

Mark tells us that John proclaimed

“a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

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The word for “sin” in, in the New Testament, comes from the world of archery.  It means “missing the mark.”  So, preparation starts with facing the sin, or the ways we have missed the mark, that perhaps we used to think were the way to go, and thinking differently about them. 

The act of baptism symbolizes a cleansing, in other words, a bath.  There are ways of missing the mark that soil us, soil our relationships, soil our communities, and even soil our planet.  We need a bath. 

Baptism also symbolizes dying, as we go under water, and rising as we come back up.  There are things we need to die to in order to be reborn into a new and better life. 

There are many ways of living, missing the mark, that soil us; many things we need to die to, much need for clear-eyed self-analysis.  But there is one in particular I want us to focus on today because this text shows us that John is such a good example for us. 

When John describes Jesus, he also describes his own willingness to take a back seat.  He recognizes his important role, but he also recognizes that he is not the focus.   He says, of Jesus,

“ I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”

There are a couple of things going on here.  John has clearly come to the conclusion that his life is about something that is much bigger than his own self.  He understands that God is going to show up in his life, and when he does, it will be to further God’s work in the world.  It will be for the good. 

Now, John lived in times that were as chaotic as they were for his ancestors in the Babylonian exile.  And I think his times were as chaotic and unpredictable as ours.  But yet he believed that God could show up and make a difference, and that he could be a part of it.  I believe that same thing is true for all of us.

So John had prepared himself by doing the necessary ego work.  He had come to the conclusion that it was not all about himself.  He had a role to play – an important one, but someone else was more important, and that was fine.  All of the ego needs, to be first, to be best, to be recognized, to get the credit, had been dealt with. 

John’s ego was not in the way.   He had died to his false self – the self that needs recognition and praise, and had risen into a new life of being an instrument in God’s hands, for the good.  This is what a time of preparing the way, in Advent, is for, for all of us.

So there is comfort here today, but it follows uncomfortable truth.  There is the truth of our own mortality – that we are all flesh; we will all fade away like flowers do.  But there is also the comfort that there is more going on in the world than our small lives.

There is a depth dimension to life. God is at work in the world, showing up to accomplish purposes of goodness way beyond our capacity to fathom.  We are invited to participate in God’s beautiful dream for our world.

There is also the truth that we get pulled into ways of being, habits of doing, habits of thinking, that miss the mark, that soil us, and our world.  These we need to repent of – think differently about and therefore die to.  Chief among them is the ego which wants to be in charge, or be right all the time.

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My specific advice, if you want it, in Advent, is that I know of no better form of spiritual preparation than a regular discipline of contemplative prayer, or meditation.  Nothing else is so helpful at preparing the way for God to show up in our lives than this, because nothing is more effective in redeeming our egos. 

Meditation, which brings us consciously into the presence of God in which we remain present in silence, helps us become mindful, and self-aware.  We become aware of our false self and its ego demands, and that awareness opens up beautiful possibilities to live a new way. 

All the regular spiritual disciplines are helpful as we prepare the way of the Lord: prayer, a gratitude journal, regular worship, and reading helpful literature.  The voice is still crying out in the wilderness.  You are being called.  Let us respond.  Let us prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.


One thought on “Taking Comfort Where We Can

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