Sermon for Advent 2 2008: Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8
The context of two of our readings this morning is so important for us to be able to hear them with their fill impact:
It is approximately the year 540 b.c.e. The adult Jews who live in Babylon have largely been born there. They never knew life in and around Jerusalem. They have made a life in the Empire and they are raising their children to do so as well. Assimilation is taking place. Perhaps the children think of themselves more as Babylonians than Jews.
There is no Temple, there are no priests. There are a few who try to tell the old stories about the deeds of Israel’s God, Yahweh, but they ring hollow. Nothing has been heard from this Yahweh for a long, long time. Many assume he had been defeated by Marduk, the war god of the Babylonians, or perhaps he had always been a figment of the imagination. Whatever, it is time to move on. Life in the Empire is all that we have.
Into this moment of silence and acquiescence and despair comes a new voice. Even if you are just reading through the Book of Isaiah and you finish chapter 39, chapter 40 begins as if coming out of a different world.
Chapter 39 is Isaiah of Jerusalem’s final prediction of the exile itself. “All that is yours… shall be carried to Babylon, nothing shall be left…some of your own sons…shall be eunuchs” (39:6-7). You can’t see it in the text, but there is then a long pause, a very long pause, 160 years or so, time enough for the despair to sink in deeply, for all that Isaiah had predicted had come true.
And then this remarkable voice bearing what he calls “good tidings, good news, gospel.” Mr. Handel made the words even more well-known than Isaiah
Comfort, comfort my people…
Yahweh speaks! It is a vision new, fresh, impossible, perhaps, but reviving old hopes of freedom and restoration. Might what once was be again?
Fast forward. It is Judea sometime between the years 60 and 70 c.e. Judea has been a puppet kingdom of the Roman Empire for more than 100 years. A few benefit from the Empire, most do not. The peasant class is huge, and, particularly in the rural areas of the region called Galilee, they are restless. Little insurrections flare up from time to time which are brutally put down by the Romans with the full cooperation of the Jewish civic and religious authorities. One treated in such a way had been Jesus of Nazareth.
Some still follow the teachings of this Jesus and believe him to have been resurrected from the dead. But that was at least thirty years ago and the stories told about him are starting to fade. And what relevance do they have to the oppression experienced at the hands of the Romans and their Jewish puppets?
Someone in this situation (he came to be identified as Mark) decided it was time the stories got written down, and in such a way to make it clear whose side God was on in these hard days. He believed Jesus would have criticized the Romans and the collaborating Jewish religious authorities alike and that he desired to establish a new community outside of these dark realities: a kingdom of freedom, a kingdom of God.
So he writes, and to begin his writing he reaches back to Isaiah and his bringing astounding good news at the end of the exile. He uses the same word Isaiah used to name his story: “good tidings, good news, gospel.”
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
It’s a simple opening sentence, but it packs a one-two punch. It signals that what he is to write will be deeply subversive of the powers that be. For that word “gospel,” in Greek euangellion, had been co-opted by the Romans for their political propaganda. It was used to announce the birth of emperors, themselves thought to be gods. In using the language of his ancestor Isaiah he was also taking a slap at Rome.
And then the titles “Christ” and “Son of God,” deeply subversive in a religious sense, outlandish for him to say. Who was he to make such claims? Only the scribes, the keepers of the law, could make such a claim. Without their authority it was simply blasphemy.
Mark’s “good news” is set from the beginning to take on the powers that be.
Like Isaiah before him, Mark’s speech is outlandish, impossible, but reaching deeply into the people’s memory and their hope. Whether the exile of the Jews in Babylon, or of the peasants in Galilee, there was now a taste of freedom in the air.
The road ahead for neither group of people was easy. The story of Jesus that Mark tells is a difficult one, ending in his crucifixion, feeling abandoned by God, followed only by a rumor of resurrection. The exiles in Babylon will return home, but find a land in utter devastation and a city, Jerusalem, that will need to be re-built from the ground up.
But, and it is big, massive, biblical “but.” They knew euangellion. They had heard good tidings. They knew good news. They looked forward to gospel. God was for them.
These stories are from long ago and they may inspire us as such, as stories of long ago do from time to time. But I would submit to you that they remain our stories, as present to us as they were to Isaiah and Mark.
We know what exile feels like. Particularly we in the mainline church, and most particularly we in the urban mainline church. The glory days of Jerusalem are long behind us when the Temple was full and anyone who wanted a religious experience came to us for it. Our Temples were not destroyed, at least not quickly. One could argue that they are being destroyed as we less and less have the capacity to maintain them. And we no longer have much if any influence in the Empire.
And we know what the restlessness of poverty feels like—the enormous gap between rich and poor that was true in Mark’s day, breeding violence in his day as well as ours. And true justice slain on the altar of expediency year after year after year. We hope in a new administration maybe it will be different. But will any of us be surprised if it is not? Our cynicism runs deep, as well it should. You’re not paranoid if someone is actually following you.
And one could easily personalize these stories of exile and restlessness that borders on fear in each one of our lives. We know them both, and the current economic crisis is making new ways for many of us to know them.
I talked last week about the hidden God, the silent, mysterious God with whom we have to come to terms and live. I talked about how our spiritual life is spent straining to hear just a whisper from this God. Both Isaiah and Mark allow us to hear that whisper if we listen hard enough. Even in the midst of exile and fear it is there.
Comfort, comfort…the beginning of the good news.
We are not alone after all and the news about God is good. God is for us. Here is our God! He will feed us like a shepherd, gather us and carry us like lambs and gently lead us like ewes.
Exile and the fear of powers outside our control do not have the last word. They shall not stand for ever. They wither, they fade, but this word of good news from God shall stand for ever.