Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sunday 7 December 2014 - Second Sunday in Advent

Theme(s): Repentance // John the Baptist // Restoration // Patience

Sentence: With the Lord one day is a like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. (2 Peter 3:8)


God for whom we wait and watch,
you sent John the Baptist
to prepare for the coming of your Son;
give us courage to speak the truth
even to the point of suffering. Amen.


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


As we move through the days of Advent, the season of coming towards Christmas/Christ's Return, we focus this week on John the Baptist, the forerunner to Christ, the prophetic trumpet to Israel announcing Christ's coming. Paradoxically, we note that John the Baptist was not the prophet of Christ's birth but of his mission.

Isaiah 40:1-11

The Book of Isaiah 'changes course' at the beginning of chapter 40. Nearly all scholars divide Isaiah into at least two parts, the second beginning with this passage. Many actually see Isaiah as tripartite, 1-39, 40-55, 56-66. Chapter 39 ends with King Hezekiah (i.e. pre the exile of Judah to Babylon) but Chapter 40 begins with God speaking tenderly to Jerusalem in a manner which presumes that it has served its term in exile.

But who is doing the speaking, for example, in verse 3 (see also 6) when the author records 'A voice cries out'?

The setting, scholars propose, is the heavenly council (look back to Isaiah 6). The voices which speak up are those of the high heavenly beings who comprise the council. In the dialogue we listen into as we read the passage we find themes and motifs which come together under the general theme of the restoration of Israel.

One of these motifs is that of the Exodus when enslaved and (voluntarily) exiled Israel was set free and restored to its promised land. Key words here are 'wilderness' and 'desert' (3) and 'the glory of the Lord' (5) which reminds us of the pillar of cloud by day and light by night which guided Israel in its journey through the Sinai desert. Note also 'highway' in verse 3 - the (so called) King's Highway in the area known as the Transjordan was part of the route followed by Israel in the last part of its wilderness journey.

Verses 6-8 takes us in a different direction. What is fleeting and what is permanent? Only the 'word of God will stand forever' (8). This alerts us to the word of God spoken through Isaiah in part 1: in 2:1-4; 31:4-5 and 33:20, the prophet says that God will restore Jerusalem. Now that word is coming to fruition.

Somewhat paradoxically the next verses honour Jerusalem (Zion) itself with the role of announcing to the rest of the cities of Israel the 'good tidings' (we could say, 'gospel') that God is present, comes with might, and 'will feed his flock like a shepherd' (9-11).

This last invocation, of the shepherd-king, is full of the promise of restoration. We might think of Psalm 23 and the vision there of the Lord as shepherd who restores the troubled flock to a place of safety, rest and plenty.

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

In these verses we have a lovely complement to Isaiah 40:1-11 and to our gospel reading: God will restore the fortunes of his people, not least beginning with forgiveness for their iniquity.

2 Peter 3:8-15a

There is no doubt that this passage comes from a time in the life of the early church when Christians were beginning to get impatient about Christ's return. (This tends, incidentally, to favour the thought that a verse such as Mark 13:30 - part of last Sunday's gospel reading - was understood to literally be about 'one (40 or so years) generation').

What is the apostolic response to this impatience?

8: understand God's chronology is different to ours. Our 1000 years is akin to a day on God's calendar.
9: we may be impatient and ask why God does not hurry up but the question is whether God is impatient or patient. In fact God is the patient one, permitting a long period to elapse so that 'all come to repentance.' The implied hint here to the reader is: if you love others and long to see them saved, you will be patient too.
10: in keeping with Jesus' own teaching, the response here emphasises that when Jesus returns, whenever it is, it will be sudden, dramatic and unexpected.
11-12: a question is asked which answers itself as it is asked! If the world is going to end ('dissolved') then how might we best prepare for that? By being people 'leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming day of the Lord.' A question is left hanging here, What is it that we do which 'hastens' the day of the Lord? One possible answer, working from verse 9, is that we continue to preach the gospel - to call people to repentance which is what the Lord seeks to happen while he holds back from ending the world.
13: nevertheless, 'we wait'. By implication the holy and godly lives we are encouraged to lead is for the reason that the 'new heavens and ... new earth' are characterised as a place where 'righteousness is at home.' Better get used now to the way life will be.
14: What are we to do while we wait? 'Strive to be found by him at peace, without spot of blemish.'
15a: Finally, 'regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.' This takes us back to verse 9. There is a great purpose to God delaying the return of Christ.

Mark 1:1-8

Notably among the four Gospels, Mark has no sense of the 'beginning' of Jesus Christ being either at or before his birth. Neither birth narrative nor genealogy (Matthew, Luke) nor theological reflection on origin in God and before time (John) feature in Mark's opening verses. Yet this gospel has a strong sense of 'beginning' as it boldly begins, 'The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (1).

Mark is going to tell us the good news announced and enacted by Jesus Christ - so we read his teaching and his actions subsequently.

Mark is going to tell us the good news about Jesus Christ - there was a man called Jesus Christ, his story is a great story, in fact, more than a great story, it is euangelion, good news, wonderful news for the world.

When we talk among ourselves about sharing the gospel, we do well to think about sharing the gospel as sharing the announcement of what God is up to in the world, as brought by Jesus and as sharing the story of Jesus.

Combining the two modes of the good news which begins in Mark 1:1, we can say that Jesus Christ is the good news of God!

To every story there is a back story. Mark tells us the back story to the good news story in verses 2 and 3. The prophet Isaiah looked ahead to the coming of the Lord when he predicted the coming of one who would prepare the way for the Lord to come. The coming of Jesus is not a random event but one planned from long ago by God.

If we attempt to track back from verses 2 and 3 to find where Isaiah said these words we find a curious thing: he did not quite say these words! These verses are a conflation of Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. Mark may simply be reproducing a popular saying which was routinely ascribed to just Isaiah or he himself may have written this summary of prophetic foretelling and somewhat lazily acknowledged only one authority behind it, in which case he goes for the most popular prophet in the eyes of early Christians.

If we pick out of the prophecy certain words and phrases, 'prepare the way of the Lord' and 'wilderness', as well as reflect on the context and aims of Isaiah 40, then we are drawn to consider that Mark understands Jesus to be at the vanguard of a new 'exodus' for Israel. That is, Israel is in captivity and Jesus will lead her from the place of slavery to the place of freedom. As we follow through the miracle stories Mark tells us, we consistently find Jesus releasing people from various forms of bondage.

When Mark tells us in verse 4 that 'John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness' he is both identifying the subject of the prophecy, John is the messenger of verse 2, and underlining the authenticity of John as a prophet by locating him in the place where prophets should come from, the 'wilderness.'

John proclaims a specific message, 'a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins' (4b). How to prepare for God's new future? Return to God through repentance and forgiveness of sins. Israel knew of various rites for forgiveness, centred on the Temple in Jerusalem. This is a little bit different: leave Jerusalem for the wild places - note verse 5 'all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him' - and be washed in the waters of the (holy, historic) River Jordan.

Again, thinking backwards for significance to emerge, what happened in the first Exodus? Israel escaped via the Red Sea waters being parted and then, many years later, crossed the Jordan River to enter the promised land. Reference to 'wilderness' in verse 4 and 'the river Jordan' in verse 5 take the discerning reader on a journey through the memories of Israel.

What else do we see as we read this story full of symbolic clues and hints? John is described in detail in verse 6. The way he is clothed draws us to think of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). Elijah was not the first of the prophets nor unarguably the greatest of them but he stands out from the prophets of Israel's history in at least a couple of ways relevant to the story of John the Baptist and of Jesus.

First, Elijah was a prophet who stood apart from the established rulership and state religion. He was raised up by God to challenge kings and priests. Both John the Baptist and Jesus will do this. Jesus, in fact, will often be taken to be Elijah (6:15; 8:28;15:35-36). Secondly, Elijah was a prophet who performed mighty miracles, some of which resemble the miracles Jesus will perform. Thirdly, we note that Elijah was part of a kind of double act: he was succeeded by a prophet cut from similar cloth, Elisha. John the Baptist will be succeeded by Jesus. (Nevertheless, links and connections here are not neat analogies. Elisha is never directly invoked in the gospel. Elijah (arguably) was the greater prophet compared to Elisha.)

What we might reasonably conclude from this telling of the story of John the Baptist is that his coming - his message, his actions, his clothing - evokes memories of both the Exodus and of Elijah. But John will not himself lead the new Exodus, nor is he the new Elijah: those roles are taken up by Jesus.

Verses 7 and 8 seal this analysis. John is not the one who is important. A more powerful and more worthy one is coming. The baptism of that one is greater than his baptism. John's water baptism is an anticipation and sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit - the Spirit which will descend on the Coming One when he is baptised shortly afterwards (verses 9-11).

Advent (to invoke some great thoughts in a sermon I heard yesterday) is a season to consider what the Christian message is all about. In the run up to Christmas, if we can find a few moments of peace, What is it that Jesus came to do? Without an answer to that question there is no spiritual or eternal significance to Christmas - just the material point of food, festivity, family and presents.

To reflect on these verses is both to reflect on the significance of John the Baptist but that takes us to Jesus and the purpose of his coming: to baptise us with the Holy Spirit, that is, to lead us to a new life and a new future in God, indeed a new future in which God is with us and in us. The good news of Christmas is the good news of God's new life available to all - not just to the Judeans and citizens of Jerusalem who flocked to John the Baptist!

If we head back to the Isaiah reading and the comments there: Jesus comes to restore life to Israel and the whole world.

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