“Comfort, O Comfort my People…” So begins what scholars refer to as ‘Second Isaiah’ (i.e. Isaiah 40-55). It is believed that Second Isaiah was written in the sixth century by an author who wrote toward the end of the Babylonian Captivity. The purposes of Second Isaiah were to encourage the people that God would deliver them from Babylonian hands, that God would restore the promised land, and that the Israelites were indeed the chosen people of God.
Our Hebrew Bible lection is the opening eleven verses of Second Isaiah. It asserts that the people of Israel have paid the penalty for their sins (twice over in fact), and that now it is time to herald the coming of God who will “feed his flock” and “gather his lambs” and “gently lead the mother sheep.”
The call to herald the coming of God is a call to preparation. The Israelites are to “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” They are to know that the word (the promises) of God stand forever, and they are not to be discouraged, but instead to shout the coming of God from the mountaintops.
The instruction to “prepare the way of the Lord” and to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God” will become the message of John the Baptist who will herald the coming of Christ. In advent we remember that the coming of Christ is a sure thing, and that preparation is called for. We remember that the promises of God stand forever, and that we are to act in light of God’s promised future.
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Psalm 85 begins where Second Isaiah leaves off. The first three verses could well reflect the circumstances following the decree of Cyrus (a Persian king) who signed legislation allowing the Judeans to return to their ancestral home. The psalmist declares that the “fortunes of Jacob” have been restored.
The lectionary skips over verses 4-7 and follows the psalms optimistic introduction with verses 8-13 which envision life in a new Israelite nation, where God’s steadfast love and faithfulness have allowed righteousness and peace to “kiss each other.” Moreover the land will produce abundantly and God’s glory will dwell in the land.
The intervening verses (the verses not included in the lectionary) provide an interesting caveat to the optimism in the introduction and the verses that follow. In verses 4-7 the psalmist asks God for yet another ‘restoration.’ Apparently the experience of returning home from exile did not immediately bring about the glorious end that the disciples of Second Isaiah had hoped. The return to the promised land was plagued with infighting, insecurities, and the sufferings of the people. The people found themselves ‘restored’ yet in need of ‘restoration.’
All of us feel this way. We are people of the ‘last days’ who have received grace and mercy through our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet still we find ourselves mired in the tragedies of life, and struggling to find our way. This puts us in a precarious and vulnerable place. Do we lose hope that we can be finally and ultimately restored, or do we persist in our faith? Psalm 85 encourages our persistence in faith.
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Verses 8-10 of 2 Peter chapter 3 describe the inevitable coming of God , a coming that is intentionally delayed because of God’s great patience and desire to see all come to repentance, and a coming that will not only bring grace but fiery judgment.
Verse 11 provides the ethical corollary, “Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way [at the second coming of Christ], what sort of persons ought you to be…?” The question is an important one for the church, for we still are the ‘waiting community’ The answer Peter provides is short, “strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.”
Peter’s message is one of patience and diligence. The early Christian belief in the imminent parousia (second coming) was struggling to accept an apparent delay. As days and months and years continued to pass people became discouraged about the Lord’s coming. Moreover, the Christian community that had proclaimed the imminent parousia was receiving ridicule from detractors who were delighted that the Lord missed his appointment! Peter instructs Christians to ‘stay the course’ and to remember that God’s time is not like our time, and that God’s reasons for a delay are legitimate and intentional. In the meantime the church must be the church–a holy, called out community that offers a glimpse of life in the new heavens and the new earth.
Mark begins by linking the good news of Jesus Christ with the good news of God remembering the Israelites in Babylonian exile (note the citation from Isaiah 40 in Mark1:2-3). This good news comes to the people in the form of John the Baptist–and what a form it is! John is not ‘right’. John is not ‘respectable’. John operates on the ‘fringe.’
This is a remarkable thing about the good news of Jesus Christ. It does not erupt in the streets of Jerusalem. It does not arrive in the holy of holies within the temple precinct. It is not delivered by learned scholars and scribes. The good news of Jesus Christ appears first in the wilderness on the tongue of an apparent mad man. This is God’s way. God operates along the margins. God tests our tolerance–those who have ears to hear will hear.
The people of Jerusalem and Judea flock to see John. And John calls for their repentance, baptizes them in the Jordan, and instructs them about the one who is to come. John is a herald of Christ the king. And if the Christ is anything as shocking as John, we are in for quite a surprise.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the promise of God’s intervention in the world. We are called to proclaim this intervention. In the meanwhile we are asked to ‘comfort’ those in our world who are afflicted. As the years go by, it is natural for our enthusiasm to wane, and our eyes to grow tired of seeing injustice. So as a community we sing psalms that ask God to ‘revive us again’, and we hear the admonition of Peter to keep ourselves from spot of blemish. And as we wait we remember that God’s coming will likely be in the place we least expect, somewhere on the margins, championed by odd looking prophets.