Sermon for the second Sunday in Advent
Tt is the second Sunday in the season of Advent, and as I mentioned last week we are slowly backing our way toward Christmas. Last week’s gospel reading was a cautionary and apocalyptic teaching of Jesus, drawn from late in his ministry, and now both this week and next we move to the beginning of the gospel narratives to meet the figure of John the Baptist. This gradual backing up toward the nativity story will reach its completion on the fourth and final Sunday of Advent, when we finally tell the story of the angel Gabriel’s announcement to young Mary, but for now at least we’ll keep all hint of the Christmas narratives well at bay.
Except that in a very real sense in Mark’s structuring of his gospel what we just heard read aloud is his version of a birth story. Mark’s gospel is notoriously clipped, to the point of being almost terse. No long introductory lead-in here, and nothing resembling a back-story; just “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” or as Eugene Peterson puts it, “The good news of Jesus Christ—the Message!—begins here.” And in we go. There are two verses setting the story in the context of the writings of the prophets: from both Malachi—‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you’—and Isaiah—“the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” and then all of four verses into the gospel we are introduced the wild character of John the baptiser.
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Now part of Mark’s pacing has to do with his original audience, which would have heard those references to the prophets as being even more significant than we might think. I appreciate the light that the commentator Dennis Nineham sheds on this matter, when he says, “The Jews felt themselves to be in rather a trough.”
They looked back with yearning to the days of the prophets, for in their own day God seemed in some ways very remote. The Holy Spirit had not been sent since the days of the prophets and the voice of God which had spoken directly to the prophets was no longer heard direct.
In the old days, it was believed, God had been in the habit of piercing through the heavens to come to men’s assistance, but now, despite entreaties, that seemed a thing of the past.
There was still, however, a deep hope that in time God would again rend the heavens and intervene directly to save the people. By citing those prophets of old, Mark is pointing toward that very hope: “See, I am sending my messenger,” it is in motion right now.
But it isn’t just Mark who makes that connection, it is John the Baptist himself. All of those little details about where he lived, how he dressed and what he ate are actually a kind of citation of the prophets. Mark quotes these figures from the past, but John embodies them. I’ve made this observation before, but it bears repeating. John is engaged in a kind of performance art or street theatre. Everything about how he presents himself and what he says intentionally invokes the prophets of old, and both his original audience and Mark’s earliest readership would not have missed that fact. It would be as if someone in our own day put on the 18th century garb of John Wesley, rode up to the church on a horse, and started to preach spiritual revival. Some of us might imagine the poor guy was crazy, and some would assume he was simply grandstanding, but it would be hard to miss the idea that he was calling people back to something; perhaps to something we’d all but forgotten we’d been dreaming of.
That is precisely what the Baptist is doing here. He comes “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” Mark tells us, which is a message that had deep resonance with that of the ancient prophets. “Turn things around in your life,” John says, which is urgent business. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me,” and for John this means that the coming one will lay you flat on your back if you keep living the way you’ve been living. “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” warns John. And being plunged into the Holy Spirit will hurt like hell if you keep on going the way you’re going.
John is fiery, make no mistake about that. Yet his fiery speech is ultimately hopeful, both because he is convinced that God is about to rip open the dividing line between the heavens and earth, and because he really does believe that repentance—literally “turning around”—will make his hearers ready for the coming day of judgment. He thinks, in other words, that people can actually hear his call, amend their ways, and prepare the way. And in this sense, Mark is absolutely on when he connect the Baptist to the prophet Isaiah, who similarly embedded his strong speech with deep hope.
Now I’m not going to be quite so headstrong as to presume to correct John the Baptist or to set out for him a Bible study plan, but I do think it significant to read the fire of his speech against the background of what we heard this night from the prophet Isaiah. “Comfort, O comfort my people,” the prophet begins, and he is speaking to a people who had all but forgotten what it might mean to be comforted. Writing after the destruction of Jerusalem to a people trapped in the prison ghettoes of Babylon, Isaiah knows something of humanity’s failing and sin, and of human fragility. “All people are grass,” he writes, with no more permanence than a flower of the field. And though “The grass withers,” “the word of our God will stand for ever.” And yet this word is finally one of comfort. Yes, Isaiah is clear that, “the Lord God comes with might,”—something which fits very clearly with the message of John the Baptist—and that valleys shall be lifted and the mountains and hills be laid low. These are big images, you see, and yet ultimately he casts it all in almost startlingly pastoral and gentle terms.
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.
Isaiah points us right through the wildness and through the fieriness of John toward the reality of Jesus, which is why Mark made the connection in the first place. “[P]art of the point of Mark’s picture of John,” claims N.T. Wright, “is precisely that when he spoke of the Mightier One we look around and see Jesus. It is like that moment in Revelation 5 when, looking for a lion, we discover a lamb.”
And so with us, in this present season of Advent. Surely we are to be awake and prepared for what God is always threatening to do in our lives and in our world, and that does mean being aware of the messiness and fragmentation of our own selves. But you know, when we speak with expectation of the return of Christ, it isn’t something that should fill us with fear, for this Jesus is the one who has promised to “feed his flock like a shepherd (and) gather the lambs in his arms.”