Sunday, December 6, 2020
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
Advent 2 2020
Isaiah 40 and Mark 1
Whenever I hear today’s passage from Isaiah I almost immediately hear Handel’s Messiah. In my ear is the clear tenor voice singing Comfort ye. Then comes the aria Every Valley which uses the rest of today’s passage. The two movements are taken directly from this passage of Isaiah. You may not know this but the libretto, the words for the Messiah was written not by Handel, but by an Anglican priest. A great deal of the text of this masterwork is from Isaiah. So what is so special about Isaiah? The answer to that tells us also why we rely on Isaiah so heavily for Advent.
Isaiah is probably written by three different prophets around the time of the Babylonian conquest, during the exile, and lastly for the return after Cyrus the Persian conquers Babylon and restores Jerusalem. This covers a total of around 150 years of Jewish history. Understanding what was going on at this time is important to understanding not just today’s passage but all of Isaiah and the role these passages play in our gospels including today’s passage from Mark about John the Baptist
Isaiah is probably written by three different prophets around the time of the Babylonian conquest, during the exile and lastly for the return after Cyrus the Persian conquers Babylon and restores Jerusalem. This covers a total of around 150 years of Jewish history. Understanding what was going on at this time is important to understanding not just today’s passage but all of Isaiah and the role these passages play in our gospels including today’s passage from Mark about John the Baptist.
Babylon has conquered, no not just conquered but crushed Israel. Solomon’s temple the house where they believed God came and spoke to his people has been totally destroyed, the walls of Jerusalem have been pulled down. Life has not looked this bleak since the days of Egypt. All of the leaders and many of the people have been taken back to Babylon where they now live and work.
Now there was a belief at the time some 2500 plus years ago that each land had their own god or gods. The Babylonian’s head god was not Yahweh, but Marduk and he ruled this part of earth. So some of the Jews truly wondered if not only had they been defeated but if Yahweh had any power in Babylon to protect them.
That is the setting at the end of first Isaiah and now second Isaiah begins his writing in chapter 40 with the famous passage we have this morning. Comfort ye, comfort ye my people says your God. Isaiah is proclaiming that even though things are bad, the God of Israel is still God and still in command. Now he says that is time to prepare a way in the wilderness for God to come. This is the beginning of redemption for the nation.
So now fast forward 500 some years to the first century in Jerusalem to our passage from Mark. While this is the start of Mark we must remember when Mark was written. Look at the parallels. Mark is probably written in the 70s. Rome has crushed the recent rebellion of the zealots and Jerusalem has been destroyed. Herod’s temple is gone the temple mount flattened and the diaspora has begun. Jerusalem as a city really doesn’t exist. Is it any wonder that Mark in proclaiming Jesus as the messiah turns back to second Isaiah for words of hope and the show that once again God is intervening to rescue God’s people?
Isaiah says to go up on a mountain and proclaim the coming of the Lord and John is just that voice crying in the wilderness in a different time, but in the same place! Now I doubt Isaiah actually was writing about Jesus. In fact, the savior that came in Isaiah’s time was actually Cyrus the Persian who during the time of third Isaiah conquers Babylon and allows the people of Israel to return to Jerusalem with all the temple goods and support to rebuild the city and the temple.
However, the gospel writers look back and say, see God has done this before and God is going to do this again. Their great hope is in the steady presence of God. Isaiah says that we are like grass, just a brief blip in the vast timeline of God’s world, but God and God’s word stands forever. This was good news in the time of the Babylonian captivity, good news in the time of Jesus and is certainly good news in today’s world. For if there is nothing else we need this Advent it is hope. That is the theme of the Living Compass meditations this Advent.
So what are the hills, the valleys, the rough places that are keeping you from proclaiming the good news both for you and for God’s people? That really is the question.
In one of the videos that the Wednesday theology group watched was by Nadia Bolz-Webber. A very different Lutheran pastor who I really enjoy reading and listening to. The video was entitled Thief in the night. She asks the question based on one of the advent readings about the homeowner who is robbed at night. She asks, “If Jesus was a holy thief and came to take something from you (she actually said, if Jesus came to jack my stuff) what would you want him to take. This is a variation on the question of what are the hills and valleys that block God’s path to us, but I think it works even better. What are those things that you would like to Jesus to steal, to take away to clear the way for you to be in a deeper relationship with him? This is a really good Advent question because it is about making the path straight.
Among other things we can all act like Christians, like we actually believe and want to live the kind of life Jesus calls us to live. We have too many people today who worship Jesus, but do not follow him, do not live by his teachings. Too many people who pay lip service to the gospel message, but when it comes to how they live their lives it is not in accordance with the teachings of the Prince of Peace. I’ve seen several variations of the post, “If you want to keep Christ in Christmas then feed the hungry, clothe the poor, welcome the stranger, love your enemies.” I cannot tell you how to do this other than to point to the gospels and the teachings of Jesus.
I keep a file of prayers that I really like. This is one I often come back to at this time of year. This is from Pastor Steve and I want to close with this prayer that serves the purpose of a reflection on the day and a prayer of preparation for the next.
God, prepare your Way in me.
What valleys in me need to be lifted up?
Raise those low places.
What mountains in me need to be brought low?
Dismantle those mighty things.
What rough places in me need to be made smooth?
Smooth them out.
How might your glory be revealed in me?
Let it shine.1