Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; II Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8.
Out of judgment there comes a voice, which prepares the Way.
The readings of this Sunday have this message: Out of judgment there emerges a Way. This way needs to be prepared—built up, leveled out, paved, and posted with proper signage. This Way leads to a God-given relief from sin and past disaster, to a place of comfort, where righteousness is at home.
The four parts of this famous prophetic text—evoking for most of us the yearning-joyful sounds of Georg Friedrich Händel’s music—emphasize the announcement of comfort, though not without a darker reminder of the transitoriness of human affairs.
The basic message is good news for Zion-Jerusalem. Her sins have been paid for—the punishment has even been double what was deserved. The story behind the proclamation is in earlier passages in Isaiah.
How the faithful city has become a whore!
She that was full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her—
but now murderers!
Your silver has become dross,
your wine is mixed with water.
Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
and the widow’s cause does not come before them.
(Isaiah 1:21-23, NRSV)
And the fate of such a corrupt one had already been revealed:
And daughter Zion is left
like a booth in a vineyard,
like a shelter in a cucumber field,
like a besieged city.
If the Lord of hosts
had not left us a few survivors,
we would have been like Sodom,
and become like Gomorrah. (Isaiah 1:8-9)
(A much longer and bawdier version of Jerusalem’s story is given in Ezekiel 16.)
The unfaithful wife was punished with conquest by enemies, devastation of the city, and depopulation of the surrounding land. It has lain thus desolate as a moral lesson to the nations for a long time, twice as long as its wickedness deserved.
It is this disgraced and desolate widow to whom a sudden and surprising announcement is to be given. The servants in the heavenly court are commanded to “speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Tell her “she has served her term,… her penalty is paid” (verse 2).
The proof of the awesome turn in her fortune is that her former husband is returning to her. The command is going out as we speak to “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” A spectacular construction program is being carried out creating a super highway leading to the site of the city from the east (the direction of the “desert” and the direction taken by God when Jerusalem was previously abandoned, Ezekiel 10:18-19 and 11:22-23.)
On this grand triumphant Way will come God, the good shepherd, who brings as the reward and “recompense” recovered from the nations the flock who will repopulate the city and show the glory of God’s new creation—a faithful people.
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13.
The Psalm reading responds to the prophetic announcement as an accomplished fact. “Lord , you were favorable to your land; / you restored the fortunes of Jacob. / …you pardoned all their sin” (verses 1-2, NRSV).
This restoration of the welfare of the (now) faithful people will be God’s own glory. This all happens so that God’s “glory may dwell in our land” (verse 9). The poet is carried away as the imagined characters cavort and act out in this drama. Here Steadfast-Love passes along and “meets” Faithfulness. Righteousness and Peace are so intimate that they “kiss.” Faithfulness takes the role of new crops and “springs up from the ground” while Righteousness plays the part of the vivifying rain that comes from the heavens to make the crops abundant (verses 10-11).
God’s restoration of the repentant and recovered people is climaxed by a procession led by Righteousness. “Righteousness will go before him [God], / and will make a path for his steps” (verse 13).
The sign-post on the Way prepared for the Lord is “to Righteousness.”
II Peter 3:8-15a.
The Epistle reading has its word of comfort also, but it is more subdued, because there is still a great judgment to come.
Don’t let it escape your notice, dear friends, that with the Lord a single day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a single day.... But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. On that day the heavens will pass away with a dreadful noise, the elements will be consumed by fire, and the earth and all the works done in it will be exposed.
Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be? You must live holy and godly lives, waiting for and hastening the coming day of God. Because of that day, the heavens will be destroyed by fire and the elements will melt away in the flames. But according to his promise we are waiting for a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. (Verses 8-13, CEB translation.)
The writer is certain of this coming judgment by fire (verse 10), even though he also knows that some folks scoff at it (see II Peter 3:4). Nevertheless, the faithful are those who live their lives under the expectation of an ultimate cataclysm for the earth. That cataclysm will produce a definitive revelation of everyone’s deeds and character—“the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed” (verse 10, as at least many of the ancient copyists read the text; see the NRSV translators’ note).
But meantime, the faithful are participating in preparing the way toward the day of reckoning and salvation. Their main tool in preparing the Way is Patience. Patience is learned from God. “The Lord … is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (verse 9 NRSV). Thus it is Patience that is exercised by “those who wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (verse 13).
The faithful wait patiently for a new reality, a reality where “righteousness is at home”!
We heard the prophecy of the final coming of the Son of Man (the Human One) last week from the Gospel According to Mark. That was the first reading for Year B of the Lectionary, during which the Gospel selections will be mainly from Mark.
Having heard the judgment that is the first word of Advent, we now begin to hear of the promise contained within the judgment. The Gospel reading now goes to the beginning of the Gospel, the words about preparing the Way.
“The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ”—that good news begins with a quotation from the prophets. That is, the good news begins in the old order. This new news was testified to before hand by God’s prophets, from Moses on down. (The opening clause of the prophetic quotation is taken from Exodus 23:21, addressed to Moses: “I’m about to send a messenger in front of you...”, CEB translation.)
As Mark presents it, the beginning of the gospel is God speaking to God’s own son. “Look, I am sending my messenger before you. He will prepare your way…” (verse 2).
John the Baptist. The “messenger” whom the prophecies said would prepare the way for Jesus is John the Baptist. Our reading, after we get past the prophecy, concerns only John.
The first thing we hear is that he called for people to be baptized, and that lots of people from Judea and Jerusalem came out to hear him. They were convinced by John’s preaching and were baptized in the river Jordan, confessing their sins (verse 5). Then we get a little background on John. He is dressed as Elijah-returned and, like Elijah, he confines his diet to the natural if austere foods of the wilderness.
John’s movement was the actual historical background—and probably the preparation ground—for Jesus’ later calling and ministry. John had his own disciples who followed his way of life instead of the way of Jesus and his disciples (see Mark 2:18). John’s movement went right on after the deaths of both John and Jesus. His disciples appear in Asia Minor in the 50s of the Christian Era (Acts 19:1-7, treated according to Acts’ theory of baptism and the Holy Spirit). And apparently the sophisticated scripture scholar from Alexandria, Apollos, had originally been a member of John’s movement before he was converted to the gospel about Jesus (Acts 18:24-26). Thus, in a real historical sense John the Baptist prepared the Way for Jesus—baptizing him and proclaiming the imminence of the reign of God, which Jesus would carry on in his own way.
The Jesus followers came to understand, however, that John had been ONLY a preparation, that the really real show was to follow. Thus, where John—understanding himself in terms of the prophecy in Malachi 4:5 [3:23 in the Hebrew text]—proclaimed that he was preparing the way for God to come in judgment, the Jesus followers came to understand the preparation to be for Jesus instead of for God.
John said, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me… I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (verses 7-8). John thought this prophecy referred to the Lord God of Moses and all the prophets. The disciples of the early Jesus movement discovered what he had really meant.
The disciples understood that John had prepared the Way for the “beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son” (verse 1).