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Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8

How are you doing on this second Sunday of Advent?  Are you finding moments of awareness of God’s presence breaking in on you?  Are you paying attention to the new thing, the new reign, mystery, and wonder of God coming down to dwell with you?

In our Old Testament reading that we just heard, God said to the prophet Isaiah:  “Comfort, O comfort my people… speak tenderly to them and cry out to her… the Lord comes and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him and his recompense is before him.  And he will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”[1]

Have you been feeling God’s comfort this week?  Have you been feeling like a lamb gathered in the Shepherd’s arms, held tightly with great love like mother holding her child to her breast?

This is the season, my friends, in which we train ourselves to receive this hope-filled possibility.  Where we open ourselves up and pay closer attention.  Where we hang onto the hope that love will triumph over darkness somehow; and the crooked places in our lives and world will be made straight.  This is the season where we believe that one day, every valley will be exalted and the high mountains and the powerful will be made low.  We begin to new hope about the injustices in world and the darkness that so pervades.  We long for the day when the lion and the lamb will lie down together and there will be peace on earth, good will to all people – not just some people – but to all people regardless of any barrier that might be erected; any wall that might separate.  Good tidings of great joy.

And you and I; you and I – the likes of us will be part of this thing that God is doing.  We are part of it and we want that kingdom to come through us as we do our part.  “O come O come Emmanuel.”

And we begin to recognize that it will require something of us and it won’t always feel like good news.  It won’t always sound like good news.  We’ll want to cover our heads, remove our hands.  Pretend that we are too busy; that we have enough problems of our own.  We’ll want to take another route.

We’ll have to come face to face with some truths that we would rather not; put ourselves and our reputations on the line; our likes and dislikes.  We’ll be vulnerable in dark places.  And it will require resilience and determination and forces beyond ourselves if we are going to hang on to the hope that loves wins in the end.  Into such, Jesus comes and this is the glad tidings that the world claims to look for and celebrate.

How are you doing?  Are you getting yourself ready?  Because we’ll need to prepare ourselves over and over again for what God wants to do.  It is not for the faint of heart; not for those who cannot open themselves up.  It is not for those who cannot let go.  It alien to almost everything we know and want to be and do; that our culture says is good and right; and acceptable.

“Comfort, O comfort my people.”   These words spoken by the prophet were written to a nation in chaos; a nation on the brink of despair and losing hope.  They were written to a people disposed; grieving the loss of who they had been; crushed under a shroud of death, injustice, darkness, and despair.  Stripped of the institutional structures that had shaped their lives and their history; their temple had been destroyed, their homeland laid to waste, the government was upside down and corrupt, the people languished under the thumb of a mighty, ruthless oppressor who appeared to have all power in his hands.  And God?  God appeared silent.  Voiceless.  Absent.  Indifferent.

Oh my brothers and sisters, the people needed comfort.  They needed to be held.  They had no power of their own.  There was nothing they could do to help themselves.  All other resources had been exhausted.

Their cry is the cry of every people and every generation.  And I suspect, of every life.  It’s been my cry.  Where O where are you, God?  Say something; do something!

God said, “Comfort them; ease their burden and despair.  And Isaiah cried, “What Lord?  What shall I tell them?  How can I cry aloud?

“Go up on a high mountain, messenger Zion!  Raise your voice and shout, messenger Jerusalem!  Raise it high (boast about it); do not be afraid; say to the cities of Judah (say to those who are suffering, say to those who are downtrodden, say to those who live in the margins of life, say to those who cannot see their way, say to those who are broken hearted:  Here.  Here is your God.  Here is the Lord God coming with strength, with a triumphant arm, bringing his reward with him and his payment before him.  Say to them:  Like a shepherd, I – God will tend the flock; I – God will gather them like lambs in my holy arms and I will lift them onto my lap.  Tell them, I will gently guide them like a mother sheep leads her young.”[2]

And then, Mark, the gospel writer picks it up.  Thousands of years later, Mark picks it up and gathers the ancient echoes of this same passage.  It picks it up as though time stood still and  plops it down in the middle of Israel’s history and our story; tying it all together.

Unlike others, Mark does not begin his gospel with stories of splendor or mighty powers casting down kingdoms.  He does not begin with angelic choruses or shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night.  There is no nativity scene; no mention of Mary engaged to Joseph.  No visit from her cousin Elizabeth; no genealogy at all worth mentioning.

No, Mark says, “In the beginning of time, good news started with Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  And there will be a messenger who cries out in the wilderness and the dark places and spaces of your life and world: Get yourselves ready to receive him, make his paths straight.”[3]

Mark takes us out into the wilderness; out away from the hub of city life; out from all the things that distract.  Mark takes us out where we are uncomfortable, and vulnerable.  Out into rough terrain and darkness where we are open to the light that might possibly shine in on us.

He takes us out and plants us down before a crazy looking man, named John.   There is nothing conventional about him at all.  Nothing that might make us think he is somebody’s Somebody.  Nothing news worthy that speaks of high pedigree or one worth listening to.

He looks wild and unkempt; like someone destitute.  He is dressed in camel’s hair and eats wild honey and locust.  His message is simple though direct.  There is no eloquence of speech or self-aggrandizement.  John is not trying to create a name or reputation for himself.  He is not even advancing his own cause but speaking of another; one who is to come.  One more powerful than he, for whom he is unworthy to stoop and untie the thong of his shoe.

And the first thing out of his mouth: is that you must confess your sins and repent.  Mark says this is the beginning of good news. Wow.  The beginning of the reign of God is when we can turn from our ways; let things go.  Pick up something new.  Open ourselves up.  It all starts right here in repentance and hope.   It is difficult to imagine, isn’t it?

For when we typically think about good news we think of things like the announcement of an engagement, the birth of a baby, a healthy medical diagnosis, a graduation from school or a job promotion.  We rarely equate good news with things like: confession, repentance, and forgiveness.  They seem more like messages to be dealt with during the season of Lent which makes more sense.  After all, we are committed to traveling with Jesus to the cross, suffering, and death.

But here it is, right up front as we kick off the new liturgical year; right when we want to get on with all the holiday happenings and Christmas cheer.  John says, “Get ready.  Prepare yourselves.  Clear the way.  God is coming.  Make the path straight.  Unclutter the clutter.”

And one might think that the people in those days would have been running away from this sort of message.  Running away because who wants to be told to acknowledge your faults.  Who wants to called out?  Challenged?  Who wants to be told “that this behavior is not going to achieve God’s purposes”?  Who wants to be told to turn?  Be different?

But Mark says that the people did not run away.  They did not run away from the message.  They  get angry and start a campaign – at least not right away.  They were coming out to hear from all over the countryside of Judea and from the city of Jerusalem.  They were eager to hear this message and they heard it as good news – for themselves and the world they were yearning for.

And so, we are reminded that sometimes good news might not first appear to be good at all.  Good news might be a clarion call to take an honest look at ourselves so that our future can be brighter than we have ever imagined.  Good news is always held in tandem with bad news – with our own or somebody’s.  We cannot hear good news if there has never been bad news; cannot see a glimmer of the light if there has never been darkness.  We can’t be comforted unless we have truly been uncomfortable.  Can’t know joy – not real joy – unless we have been in despair.

Here is the good news, my friends.  God has entered our stories.  Your story and my story; and the world’s story.  Whatever it is – good, bad, pretty, or messy, it did not start with us nor with our parents – nor will it end with us.  Our story is caught up in a much larger story and God comes among us to write and rewrite the narrative.  And God is shaping the details through all the ups and downs and we get to play our own part in it.  God is shaping the story of our lives into a glorious ending.

What better news is this?  Good news worth slowing down to grasp?  Worth hearing and receiving and taking in?  The very best news of all.

 

[1] Isaiah 40:1-11

[2] Isaiah 40:9-11 Paraphrase

[3] Mark 1:1-3 Paraphrase