Date: Second Sunday in Advent —December 7, 2014
Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8
Context: Our hope is in the goodness of God, and his victory through his plan of Salvation as described in his Word. Advent’s emphasis on personal examination and preparation might lead us to despairingly focus on our sinfulness and unworthiness, but this is not the intent of Advent. Rather, we are to focus more firmly still on the good promises of God, with no illusion that anything within us or of us is able to sustain and deliver us those promises. Either God is faithful or we are lost.
Isaiah 40:1-11 — The Word of God proclaims hope to his people, people suffering under the effects of sin, effects that include death and persecution and chastisement from God himself. The voice proclaims the coming goodness of God, the anticipated arrival of his blessing in full (vs.1-2). No obstacle will stand in his way (vs.3-5). What is to be our focus? What is to be our message? Can it be anything other than the goodness of God which is eternal and unchanging, unlike our fickle, sinful and death-ridden lives? How could we ever hope in ourselves? How fragile we are, and how transitory (vs.6-8)! As such, we must always focus on the unchanging promises of God. These promises are sure, and not even our own deaths can remove us from them (vs.9-11).
Psalm 85 — What God has done in the past He will do in the future. The hope of ages past is the hope still for today and tomorrow. God is not a blank slate with us, but rather has revealed himself to us through his work in time and space and history and geography, so that our hope might be grounded in him, rather than our imaginations (vs.1-3). Our hope is for restoration. In the midst of suffering of any kind, in the midst of joy and blessing we look for restoration, completion that exceeds our own limited imaginations and is defined by God himself (vs.4-7). If we doubt God’s intentions, we should listen to his Word. His Word assures us of his intent and exhorts us to live out our hope each day (vs.8-9). As we do this, we begin to see the fruition of his promises. While these experiences will be limited compared to their fullness in the return of the Lord’s Messiah, we begin to see them here and now, meeting each other tentatively, as though for the first time (vs.10-11). But the Lord’s promise is that these first fragile meetings of his blessings in our world and experience will endure forever.
2 Peter 3:8-14— We wait, and we wait badly and impatiently. We wait and imagine in our minds the perfect timing for our Lord’s return and grow bitter when God does not cede to our plans. Who is God? Are we, that He should do our bidding and jump to our snapped fingers? Or is it we who must learn the disciplines of patience and gratefulness and receive the gift of peace that settles our hearts and minds as we await his perfect timing? God will fulfill his promises in his timing, for his glory. When that happens there will be no doubting or mistaking his power or goodness.
Mark 1:1-8— Mark begins and ends his Gospel with a strong statement—that Jesus is the promised Messiah and the Son of God. Though Mark’s Gospel will accentuate the ambiguity of Jesus’ words and actions, the confusion of the crowds, the disciples, and the religious establishment, all of this is to be understood and experienced in the faith and trust that Jesus is actually the promised Messiah and Son of God. While his initial disciples were often confused in how to interpret Jesus, the miracle of the resurrection from the dead clarified and distilled their understanding so that you and I, hearers and readers of their words, might best understand him.
Scholars tend to treat the first eight verses of Mark as the first major section of Mark, dealing exclusively with things pertaining to Jesus, but not yet involving him directly. Mark begins with two quotations from Scripture, only one of which is literally from the prophet Isaiah. Verse 2 includes a reference perhaps to the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) of Exodus 23:20, or else Malachi 3:1. Verse 3 then draws on Isaiah 40:3, this quote being illuminated by the quote from verse 2.
Now that Mark’s hearers/readers have been reminded of God’s Word and it’s promise, we meet the Elijah-figure of Malachi 4:5 in John the Baptist. He looks and acts and sounds like the Old Testament prophet Elijah, though he is not Elijah reincarnated. Rather, he carries on the prophetic work of Elijah in calling God’s people to covenant faithfulness and repentance. To do so, John adds a new element—the element of baptism, something heretofore unknown in Jewish practice. For John, baptism is the first step towards repentance, towards a fundamental change of heart and mind away from self-centered sinfulness and towards obedience to God. He carries out his ministry along the Jordan River, a river thick with symbolic meaning and memory to the people of God as the way they were brought into the Promised Land under Joshua nearly 1500 years earlier.
John preaches from lesser to greater. People have come to see and hear him, but his intent is to prepare them for someone even greater than himself (impressive considering the wide appeal he is described as having here). John is not interested in self-promotion, but clearly sees his role as one of preparation of God’s people. Does this mean that John consciously is aware that his is the prophesied role of Malachi 4:5? It is clear that John does not completely understand the person and work of Jesus, or at least is prone to moments of doubt, as in Matthew 11:1-6. It is also not necessary that John understand fully his own role or Jesus’. John is faithful to his vocation as God has called him to it. As with the prophets of old, it seems as though John is aware of the truth and meaning of his actions and words perhaps in a limited fashion.
The one who comes after is greater than John in power. What John does partially, this one will do fully. What John does somewhat symbolically with water, this one will do actually with the very Spirit of God. As such, we can expect that the impact of this other one’s work will be more lasting than the work that John begins in his hearers, yet the two are related. Without repentance and a broken heart, one cannot hear the good news of the Kingdom of God coming near.
We might consider our Advent preparations in this light. The Word of God calls us to repentance, illuminates our need for salvation. The Law convicts us that we are rightly to be declared guilty before a holy and perfect God. In this state we can hear the Good News of Jesus, the forgiveness offered to us not on the basis of our good deeds, but rather because of the full and perfect obedience, suffering, death, and resurrection of the Son of God. This is where our hope is, this is the source of the life-giving Holy Spirit of God who enters and sets about doing fully what we could only attend to half-heartedly at best—becoming obedient sons and daughters of our Lord and King.