2nd Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery AL
6th December 2020
It has been the tradition since the first common lectionary was put together in the middle ages that the Second Sunday of Advent would focus on the message of the prophets. And, so this morning we have the texts from Isaiah and the story of the John the Baptist as told in the Gospel of Mark.
The words of Isaiah are from the New Revised Standard Version.
But perhaps many of us are more familiar with the words from the King James translation.
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’S hand double for all her sins.
The prophet who is the subject of the text is anonymous. We don’t know his name. It is not the prophet Isaiah himself, who was a prophet about 150 years before the Babylonian captivity. The prophet in our text is a prophet who lived during the time of the Babylonian captivity. Scholars call him “Deutero-Isaiah” or “Second Isaiah”, but such a title does not seem to do the prophet justice. My teacher at Oxford thought it apt to name him the prophet “Comfort-ye.” Since these are the first words of the text attributed to him. I liked that name, so I will use it here.
“Comfort-ye”, was born during the Babylonian Exile. His grandparents and his parents would have been the generations to have been captured when Jerusalem fell in 586 at the hands of King Nebuchednezzer II. The capture of the Jews and the destruction of Jerusalem was brutal. The temple was destroyed, 10s of thousands killed, and leading citizens and members of society exiled to Babylon. The journey from Jerusalem to Babylon was a long, grueling forced march of hundreds of miles across the great Arabian desert. Many did not survive. It was a time of tremendous suffering and a cataclysmic event in the history of Israel. It shook Israel and its faith in YHWH, who they thought had abandoned them, to the core.
But the Babylonian empire, under which the Jews were exiled, had enemies. And, at the time of this prophetic incident, Babylonia itself was under threat from another great empire, the empire of Persia and Media, under the rule of Cyrus the Great. It is during this time of political unrest that our prophet “Comfort ye” hears these heavenly voices. They are voices of comfort and hope and promise. They alert “comfort ye” to the fact that something significant is about ready to happen.
The first voice burst into the scene with great force. “Comfort-ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God.”
What is not obvious in the opening line of the text “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people” is that the grammar is imperative plural. We don’t have a grammatical structure to capture this in English. So, the first voice which our prophet reports as hearing isn’t addressed only to him, it’s addressed to a multitude of hearers, to all the prophets who remain and who have ears to hear. And, those that have ears to hear the words are told the good news that the penalty for their sins and disobedience is over. God has dealt harshly with them, yes, receiving double, for their sins. But a new day of promise is going to dawn.
After this opening prologue. “Comfort-ye” hears a second voice which cries out,
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
This second voice instructs the exiles what they are to do as a response to this good news of God’s forgiveness. In the same way that the monarchs of the near east sent people ahead of them to clear out all the obstacles on long treks across the desert, the exiles are to prepare the way for the Lord. The sense here is both literal and spiritual. The exiles will have to walk back those 100s of miles across the Arabian desert again, but after nearly 60 years in exile, they are going to have to do some work on the hearts as well so that they will be ready for the Lord’s return. There is no room for pridefulness, but only of humility and openness to the way of the Lord.
Then our prophet “Comfort ye” hears a third voice which says, “Cry out”
“Comfort ye” responds, “What shall I cry out?”
And then a voice tells him what to say. It is the message Israel failed to heed before their captivity and what brought about their ruin in the first place. The message is:
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
In these verses the voice reminds “comfort-ye” and all those who are being addressed about where their true hope and promise lay. It lays in the Word of God, which stands for ever. All human beings, all human governments, all human wisdom, is transient. It comes and it goes. As we have seen in the past, each period of human history has eventually come to an end and is replaced by something else that is transient. The greatest tyrants in history have risen to power and also been defeated. The most benificent governments have come into power and have been defeated. And so the cycle will continue into the future, until the final coming of God’s kingdom. We cannot place our hope on anything that is not permanent. Which means we can’t place our faith and final hope in anything that is of the earth. We can only have our faith hope in God, who is eternal. And that is the message “Comfort ye” is to proclaim. And, that is the message of John the Baptist as well.
But now, I want us to pay attention to what is happening here in these next few verses. After the voice from heaven reminds the exiles that the Word of God endures forever, which is meant to bring comfort to them, the hearers are then told to get up on to a high mountain and preach this comfort they have themselves received to others! Listen to the text:
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
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.
In these last few verses, those who were comforted are now the ones called to comfort others. Those who have endured the deepest suffering, where the very foundations of Israel’s self-understanding and relationship with God was shaken to its core, they are called to offer words of hope to others that have sprung out of that deepest suffering. And, out of that suffering is a faithful witness to this promised triumphal return of God. The God who comforts his people, who bringing an end to their struggle with the forgiveness of their sins. And, as we know, “Comfort-ye’s” prophecy would come to fruition a few years after it was made in 539 BCE when the Babylonians were conquered by Cyrus, the King of Persia and Media. It was Cyrus, who made the unexpected and edict in 538 issue an edict which would allow the Jews to return home to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. The Jews were liberated from Babylonian captivity and Jerusalem would be restored.
One of the activities I am doing during Advent is reading a daily meditation from a book called Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. The meditation for yesterday, Dec 5th, which accompanied my thoughts as I was writing this sermon, was written by a Jesuit priest named Alfred Delp, who was condemned as a traitor because of his opposition to Hitler and hanged in 1945. The title of his meditation was called, “The Shaking Reality of Advent.” Father Delp writes these words from his prison cell. As I read parts of his meditation, listen to his words with the experience of the suffering of Babylonian captivity and liberation in mind, as well as what it must have been like for a priest in prison during WWII. And, thirdly, listen to the words in light of your own experiences of deep suffering and personal crisis.
(Begin Excerpts from Delp) “There is perhaps nothing we modern people need more than to be genuinely shaken up. Where life is firm, we need to sense its firmness, and where it is unstable and uncertain and has no basis, no foundation, we need to know this too, and to endure it.
“We may ask why God has sent us into this time, why he has sent this whirlwhind over the earth, why he keeps us in this chaos where all appears hopeless and dark and why there seems to be no end to this in sight. The answer to this question is perhaps that we were living on earth in an utter false and counterfeit security. And now God strikes the earth till it resounds, now he shakes and shatters, not to pound us with fear, but to teach us one thing—the spirit’s innermost moving and being moved.”
“The world today needs people who have been shaken by ultimate calamities and have emerged from them with the knowledge and the awareness that those who look to the Lord will still be preserved by Him, even if they are hounded from the earth.
“The Advent message comes out of an encounter of man with the absolute, the final, the gospel. It is thus the message that shakes—so that in the end the world shall be shaken. The fact that then the Son of Man shall come is more than historic prophecy it is also a decree, that God’s coming, and the shaking up of humanity are somehow connected. If we are inwardly unshaken, inwardly incapable of being genuinely shaken, if we become obstinate and hard and superficial and cheap, then God will himself intervene in world events and teach us what it means to be placed in this agitation and stirred inwardly. Then the great question to us is whether we are capable of being truly shocked or whether it is to remain so that we see thousands of things and know that they should not be and must not be, and that we get hardened to them. How many things have we become used to in the course of the years, of the weeks and months, so that we stand unshocked, unstirred, inwardly unmoved.
“Advent is a time when we ought to be shaken and brought to a realization of ourselves. The necessary condition for the fulfillment of Advent is the renunciation of the presumptuous attitudes and alluring dreams in which and by means of which we always build our imaginary worlds. In this way we force reality to take us to itself by force—by force, in much pain and suffering.
“This shocking awakening is definitely part of experiencing Advent. But at the same time there is much more that belongs to it. Advent is blessed with God’s promises, which constitute the hidden happiness of this time. These promises kindle the inner light in our hearts. Being shattered, being awakened—only with these is life made capable of Advent. In the bitterness of awakening, in the helplessness of “coming to”, in the wretchedness of realizing our limitations, the golden threads that pass between heaven and earth in these times reach us. These golden threads give the world a taste of the abundance it can have.
“The first thing we must do if we want to be alive, is to believe in the Golden seed of God that the angels have scattered and still offer to open hearts. The second thing is to walk through these grey days oneself as an announcing messenger. So many need their courage strengthened; so many are in despair and in need of consolation; there is so much harshness that needs a gentle hand and an illuminating word; so much loneliness crying out for a word of release; so much loss and pain in search of inner meaning. God’s messengers know of the blessing that the Lord has cast like a seed into these hours of history. Understanding this world in the light of Advent means to endure in faith, waiting for the fertility of the silent earth, the abundance of the coming harvest. Not because we put our trust in the earth, but because we have heard God’s message and have met one of God’s announcing angels ourselves.” (End text from Delp)
We are called to be comforters in the same way that we have been comforted, by sharing the Word of God, which is eternal. Amen.
References: The sermon drew from two main resources.
O’Donovan, Oliver. “A New Message.” Sermon preached at Christ Church Cathedral, Dec 7th, 1997. In The Word in Small Boats: Sermons from Oxford. Ed. Andy Draycott. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010, pp. 9-15.
Delp, Alfred S.J. “The Shaking Reality of Advent.” In Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2001, pp. 82-95.