Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
Our lectionary for this second Sunday in Advent nicely pairs the cry to prepare the way of the Lord in Isaiah with the echo of that cry in the beginning of Mark’s gospel. Mark applies it to John the Baptist. However, cutting each of these passages from its context and stitching them together, as our lectionary does, also leaves a lot of loose threads. Especially in Isaiah, we have a passage that is confusing at places. (You will benefit from having that passage open as we consider it.) We hear : “Comfort my people, speak tenderly to Jerusalem… All people shall” see the glory of the Lord. But then we hear: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower in the field [which is not a compliment]. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.” Perhaps this means human beings in general, “all people,” are inconstant, fickle. And so, therefore, are God’s people, Israel, Isaiah seems to say: “Surely the people [even God’s people ] are grass,” as well. It sounds cynical, does it not? But not false. Look how much trouble we are all having maintaining safety protocols for covid-19, even wearing masks. A massive rise in infection testifies that the people are indeed grass, and just so, we are withering.
Now, this cry is used to call attention to John the Baptist. Mark’s account of John is briefer than the other gospels. Mark doesn’t include the harsh preaching of John we find elsewhere. The result is a gentler John, but still a wilderness man who eats locusts. And he’s still the one crying out for repentance, and the people come out from all over to “confess their sins.” So this call of repentance, as well as Isaiah’s cynicism toward the people, stand in some tension with the message at the beginning of our Isaiah passage: “Comfort my people,” as well as the promise at the end that the Lord “will feed his flock like a shepherd,” carrying them in God’s bosom. The tension present in our reading shouldn’t be too surprising. The whole Bible is replete with God’s comfort amid suffering, and God’s judgment amid comfort. Suffering, judgment, and the promise of comfort form the very stuff of Advent, until they are all finally reshaped by the appearance of God’s grace in person.
Let’s look more closely at the Isaiah passage. A commentary on this passage says that the first two verses, “Comfort my people, etc.,” represent God speaking to a group, presumably the heavenly host, which we might also think of as the unseen powers of creation. And then one voice among them, an angel or power, “cries out,” saying “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,” etc. (Otherwise God is speaking in the third person.) Then another voice from the angels, or perhaps the same one, again says, “Cry out!” (And here we could think of this angel as one of those hidden sources that inspire us to new things.) And this voice is addressing the prophet Isaiah, who responds in the verse that follows: “And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” And Isaiah then registers his own cynicism about the people being grass. So, much of the tension in this passage is explained by distinguishing the various voices speaking in it.
But the content says a lot too. The passage is about preparing the way of the Israelites to go home to from their exile in Babylon. And here it can touch us closely, for we as a church might very well feel like we are figuratively in exile—at least, not the prosperous and respected church we used to be. In most of the Old Testament, this exile, which lasted for as long as 58 years, is understood as being a punishment from God for faithlessness and injustice. Now, Isaiah in this passage seems a little unsure about that. He says that the people have “received double for all their sins,” suggesting that the exile was not the fair punishment we expect from God. In agreement with other passages in the Bible, I also am wary of ever saying that suffering is a punishment from God. Catastrophes like the exile to Babylon come with enormous loss of life, especially for children and women. And all this is at the hands of the unrighteous and power-hungry Babylonians. Is this how God acts?
But our passage suggests a better way. We saw that Isaiah has God speaking to the heavenly court, the invisible powers of our world, and they shall prepare the way. In other words, God does not intervene directly, but through the structures of creation.
So let us consider the exile as an act of God in a new light. The Israelites were a small nation surrounded by wealthy, powerful, ambitious nations. Once they became large enough to be noticed, it was only a matter of time before they were conquered by one of the empires. This is simply the tragedy inherent in trying to be a nation of God among the nations, with a king and a land and borders like other nations. It is the tragedy that comes with power: those who live by the sword will die by the sword. That inherent tragedy, which is only natural, combined with the culpable failures of the Israelites and their kings, did indeed lead to their defeat and exile. In that indirect way, we can say it was an act of God.
But the exile, while heart-breaking, was a vitalizing time for Israel. It taught them how to be God’s people without the temple, without the sovereignty of a king, and without a land of their own. If they hadn’t learned that, then we probably wouldn’t be a people of God today, existing without any of those things. The only way they survived exile as a religion was by refocusing everything on the study of Torah, on God’s word. God’s Word now becomes the power behind everything. That most beautiful depiction in Genesis 1 of creation by God’s word, by God’s speech alone, was composed in or after exile. The Israelites learned how to order their life solely by the message of God’s promises and commands, and they survived. I don’t picture God looking down from heaven, and nodding with approval and saying, “Oh, that’s better. You can go home now.” But the Israelites did discover a power rooted deeply in creation and especially in their being created in God’s image that allowed them to survive and thrive.
We as a church have also relied on the land, on the temple, and on sovereignty. We have relied on our prestige as the oldest, most established church, with our beautiful building located right in the center of town, funded originally by the King’s tax dollars. In Christian Ed this week, we talked about how the church used to be the only game in town. People could come, not for the Word of God, but because there was nothing much else to do. But no longer. We’re not that established church anymore. And I think it’s a good thing.
We have a lesson to learn from Israel. We too can expect that when we stop relying on the Word of God, and when we stop making our basic task one of ordering our life based on God’s promise and command, then we will find ourselves sooner or later exiled from the benefits we once enjoyed. The people are grass. When the winds change, they wither fast. This is a truth for us to consider for ourselves.
We are not literally exiled, but Israel’s story is already ours. We will feel our exile, feel the grass withering, whenever our children fade away from the church to chase after other sexier pursuits, whenever our singing feels forced or our rituals fall flat; whenever our fellowship feels stale or superficial; whenever a pestilence like covid is able to undo us as a church. That’s exile happening in our midst. God will depart from us whenever we depart from God, leaving us vulnerable to whatever winds are blowing; but even worse, to our own worst selves.
But if Israel’s exile is a real possibility for us, or at least a figurative one that is quite painful enough, then so is Israel’s return home. If God isn’t a hothead who angrily smites us with exile, then God is not one to hold a grudge, either. God is always ready and willing for us to return home. The angels may or may not be on our side. That’s another way to say, the structure of nature and history might be in some ways against us, in some ways for us. But we are not being held captive by the Babylonians. We do not have to cross literal deserts and mountains. We don’t even have to cross back over the Jordan river to be home. We’ve done that already. It’s called baptism. God has already made straight our way home from exile.
The journey home for us is not across thousands of miles, but a journey inward, into ourselves, and a journey outward to each other. Inward to find courage, correction, and power by God’s Word—by which I don’t mean just flipping open the Bible, but meditating deeply on where God is in your life and where your life is in God. (And keeping an eye on the coming One, our Lord Jesus, for whom God was his very life and his very life was God’s.) And then outward to challenge yourself by each other’s wisdom and gifts, to encourage one another, and to seek to be of one mind and heart together.
Now, it may be true that this journey inward and outward is even harder than the journey home faced by the Israelites. A little stroll through the desert may not sound so bad! The challenge to turn to God within and to turn to God in one another is indeed no walk in the park, and we hardly know the way. But the good news is, you’re already home! God has already given you everything you need. Once you have been baptized, you are in God’s land of promise. Of course life will feel like an exile, sometimes. Of course the angels and winds will sometimes blow at your back, sometimes right against your face. Of course life will sometimes feel like you are waiting, still, for God to come. But then you’ll remember that the messiah is already here.