The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
(Read the whole passage)
It has been a while hasn’t it.
Many of you know that back on November 2nd, I was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy. I am still recovering, as the nerve in the right side of my face continues to be inflamed and refuses to send the the signals to my face muscles to do their job.
So I have been on sick leave for a few weeks. Still sending emails and sharing worship, but this week I am trying a little more. Including a sermon.
When you last heard from me, it was on All Saints Sunday. Now, we are into the second week of Advent. We have started a new church year which brings with it a new gospel to focus on. This is the year of Mark.
As we begin making our way through Mark’s gospel this church year, it stands in contrast to the other gospels. Unlike the start of Matthew or Luke, Mark’s telling of the incarnation – of Jesus coming into the world – is a little different than what we might expect.
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
There are no angels, pregnant virgins, shepherds or mangers. There’s no Christmas pageant using Mark’s account. No shepherds in bathrobes awkwardly delivering Mark’s dialogue.
Mark gets straight to the point. Yet, there is a lot being said in the economy of Mark’s words.
The good news starts now. The good news starts with this one named Jesus. And this one named Jesus is the son of God.
Then to explain that statement about the good news and Jesus, Mark quotes from the prophet Isaiah. But Mark expects a lot of his readers, and when he quotes from Isaiah, he expects that the first line is enough for us to fill in the rest and get the picture. Fortunately for those of who haven’t memorized the 66 chapters of the book of Isaiah, we read the passage that Mark quotes just a few moments ago.
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to her, that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2)
This passage from Isaiah comes at key moment for the people of Israel. The first 39 chapters told of the story of the exile into the Babylon, when the religious and royal class of Israel was forcibly removed from their home and sent to live in Babylon for generations.
Yet we come into the story precisely a the moment that everything changes. The exile has ended, and Isaiah pleads with God to be gentle with God’s weary people. They have endured a lot and need the time to recover. And now begins the story of the return of God’s people to their homeland. God is no longer the wrathful God who has angrily sent the exiles away because of their sins, rather God is now the gentle saviour redeeming the tired and weary people of Israel. The exiles’ experience of God is completely transformed from this moment onwards.
And Mark quotes Isaiah expecting that we know this story well, the story of exile and return from exile. Even more so Mark expects that we will see that he is connecting Jesus to this important moment when everything changes for the Israelites.
Mark is saying, “Hey remember that moment when God changed everything by bringing the exiles home? Well, this Jesus is changing everything too.”
And then Mark takes another left turn, keeping us on our toes only a few lines into the story, by introducing us to John the Baptist.
John, the rough around the edges desert preacher and prophet, who is attracting crowds and gaining the popularity of the people while drawing the ire of those in charge. John is quite the character dressed in camel hair, eating giant desert insects and preaching from a river.
But perhaps most jarring of all in this short passage of Mark’s, is that John is quite the opposite to Isaiah. If Isaiah is pleading to God for comfort, compassion, and tenderness for God’s weary people, John is warning of the swift kick in the pants to come if they don’t repent.
So is anyone confused by all this stuff in Mark? Good, that is the point.
Not unlike the Israelites, we might know a little something about being tired… about being weary… we might know about longing and waiting for God… for Messiah to show up, to transform our lives. It is exhausting trying to keep the faith and have hope for the future.
More so than just about any Advent that we have lived through, we understand the waiting of the people of Israel. We know what is it to live under the thumb of a power that we are powerless against. We know what it is to hope for salvation, so live day to day until something changes, until a new world comes about, one that we simply do not know when it will arrive.
The ways in which we labour, strive, suffering and struggle these days is not a short list. Whether we are suffering lonliness, anticipating a much reduced Christmas than ever imagined. Whether it is the threat of loss of business, jobs, income and offering.
Whether it is stressed out health care-workers, teachers, front-line workers, parents and children.
Whether it is families serparated by quarantines and restrictions, distances that cannot be travelled or public health orders that cannot be broken.
Whether it is those suffering from COVID-19, contracting the illness and its hard to endue symptoms.
Whether is families who are grieving as dozens die each day across our province.
Take your pick.
The list of burdens and suffering is long. It’s no wonder we feel weary. It’s no wonder we wait for God to show up in our lives and in the lives of our family, friends and neighbours.
Here’s the thing about Advent: when waiting for Messiah becomes about things deeper than opening the little doors on advent calendars and collecting our chocolate treat, or counting the days until Christmas, it raises questions. Questions about where this Messiah that we are waiting for is in our world. Where Messiah is in our lives.
We long for the God of Isaiah to come and show us weary people some compassion and tenderness.
We know that we need the Messiah of John the Baptist to come and give us swift kick the pants to keeps from atrophy.
But it’s the waiting… the waiting is what we cannot abide.
Because waiting has no answers until it is over.
This is what John and Isaiah have in common. They are both speaking to the waiting of God’s people. Whether they are proclaiming a tender God who brings comfort or a powerful God who comes preaching repentance… they both are speaking to people who wait. To exiles whose waiting in exile is about to end, to Israelites waiting under oppression for Messiah.
To 21st century Christians waiting for God in the midst of pandemic lockdowns.
The promise is and has always been that Messiah is coming soon.
As Isaiah says:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Take you pick of burdens that cause us to wait,
valleys or hills and mountains,
crooked paths and rough ways,
Messiah is coming for all it.
For people who need the tender compassion of God,
for people who need the swift kick in the pants.
For people who carry the burdens of work and communities,
Of sepearated families
Of caregivers living through hell
Of families grieving through unimaginable loss
Messiah is coming for all of that too.
And yes, not knowing when Messiah is coming, and having to wait is the hardest part of all.
Having live in Advent not just for 4 weeks this year but 40 weeks with no end in sight, with its questions about where God is in our world and in our lives is not easy. We want to know, how, where, when.
But the only answer is a promise, a promise that we hear every Advent again and again.
Messiah is coming.
Messiah is coming for a world in need.
Messiah is coming for people of faith who hate waiting
Messiah is coming for you and for me.
Messiah is coming…