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The Second Sunday in Advent

Readings: Is. 40:1–11, 2 Peter 3:8–15a & Mk. 1:1–8.

Our Old Testament Reading this morning comes from the Book of Isaiah. These days, scholars agree there was one more than one author of the Book of Isaiah; in fact a number actually argue there were three. To avoid any unnecessary confusion this morning, we will assume there were two, and that both were responsible for writing different sections of the book. First Isaiah, was responsible for writing Chapters 1 to 39, while Second Isaiah is credited with writing chapters 40 to 66.

I don’t intend to speak in any detail today about First Isaiah, other than to say that he was writing in the 8th century BCE, at a time when the Assyrian Empire was the dominant civilisation of the day. An empire which had conquered the Northern tribes of Israel, and then unsuccessfully laid siege to Jerusalem, to also try and bring the peoples of Judah under its control. Second Isaiah, on the other hand, was writing some two hundred years, in the 6th century, shortly after the capture and destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire. Many of the people from Jerusalem, and the surrounding cities and villages of Judah, were transported as slaves from their homeland, and exiled into other parts of the Babylonian Empire. Second Isaiah lived among them, and he tried to ensure they did not lose their Jewish religious identity, which is what defined them as a people. Today’s reading (Is. 40:1–11) could be described as the “beginning” of the “Second Book of Isaiah”.

Try for a moment to put yourself in the shoes of those Jewish people who had been conquered and sent into exile by Babylon. Your homeland has been invaded, and you are now held captive by a foreign power, which has exiled you to a foreign land. Your home has been destroyed, and not only that, but the Temple in which you worshiped Yahweh (the creator of all the heavens and earth), has also been destroyed and ransacked. All of which might suggest, that your God, Israel’s God, was powerless to secure the safety and security of the nation. How might you be feeling?

The opening verses of Second Isaiah, offer God’s comfort and reassurance to the people of Judah. A message for the inhabitants of Jerusalem that she (the city) has suffered enough for her past sins. God will not permit any more punishment. The prophet brings a message to the people that they are to prepare the way in the desert for God. He is coming, and when He comes, His glory will be revealed to all people. God will let nothing stand in the way of the exiles from Judah (His people) returning to their homeland. All of humankind will know of God’s glory. This of course was a reference to the conquering of Babylon by King Cyrus of Persia, and the edict from Cyrus, that the Jewish exiles be allowed to return to Jerusalem and Judah, and that they be given financial assistance to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.

The passage ends with a balance of strength and tenderness. The phrase, “His arm” (in v.10), suggests power, the sort of power that God demonstrated in the Exodus event, while v. 11 signifies the love and care that God has for His people.

Peter alludes to this love and care when he writes in his Second Letter:

“The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” (3:9)

Peter then devotes the remainder of today’s passage, to the same message that has been at the heart of my sermons for the past three weeks; which is the need for people to prepare for the ‘second coming’ of Christ by living a way life that was revealed to us in the life of Christ. Peter describes this as:

“Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.”

In addition to this requirement, one other thing that Peter specifies that God requires people to do, is “to come to repentance.” (3:9b)

This was the message from John the Baptist, whom Mark tells us in today’s Gospel reading, was:

“proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (1:4b)

Mark also tells us that John was:

“the voice crying out in the wilderness”,

that the prophet Isaiah spoke of, which of course is a quote from our reading this morning from the Book of Isaiah. The positive response that John receives from the “whole Judean countryside” and “all the people of Jerusalem” to his preaching in v. 5, represents the “way” prepared for the Lord.1 It is a way “made straight” in the human heart: which is the act of repentance and conversion that prepares people to be receptive to the message and ministry of Jesus.2

John is therefore an important figure in Mark’s Gospel. Mark gives his readers another clue as to just how important John is, when he describes John’s appearance:

“Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” (1:6)

This is a reference to the prophet Elijah, who was described in 2 Kings 1:8 as:

“A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.”

Elijah was of course, the prophet who was taken up into heaven in a flaming chariot, and of whom it was said, would return before the ‘day of the Lord’ as the forerunner to the Messiah.

So in these opening verses of his gospel, Mark has already told us that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Jewish prophecy of the Messiah, and not just the Messiah; he is actually the Son of God. The proof of this, Mark also tells us, is through the witness of Scripture. Specifically that of Isaiah and 2 Kings, which are themselves fulfilled by John the Baptist.

Mark goes on to explain that important though John might be, he is nowhere near as important as Jesus. John himself acknowledges this, when he tells the crowds of people whom he is baptising that:

“One who is more powerful is coming after me. I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.”

At this point in the gospel, John more or less disappears from view, reappearing in chapter 6 when the story of his death is told. But he has served his purpose in Mark’s Gospel. He has testified that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

So what should we take away from our readings today? Well if we were to try and sum up the key points from today’s readings, we could say that:

  1. God loves and cares for His people.
  2. God will not abandon His people.
  3. While we wait for the second coming of Christ, we must live our life according to the example that he revealed to us in his own life.
  4. That includes being genuinely repentant of our sins, so that we might be fully open and receptive to the teaching of Jesus. And the final point is.
  5. Jesus is the Son of God, and we are redeemed in him.

The Lord be with you.

Reference:
1 Brendan Byrne, A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel
(Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2008), p. 27
2 Byrne, A Costly Freedom, p. 27

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