Isaiah 40 1-11, 2 Pet 3 8-15a, Mark 1 1-8:
Hymns: Lo he comes, 28; On Jordan’s bank, 27; Lead us heavenly Father 224; Hark the glad sound 30
‘Comfort thee, comfort thee my people,’ is being sung this month in many Messiah performances. And we speak of the Holy Spirit as ‘The Comforter,’ of God covering and comforting his people with wings wide-spread, of Jesus comforting the children. But comfort is a two-sided coin. Isaiah indeed offers comfort – yet accompanied by an implicit demanding challenge. Peter challenges us to be ready for heaven on earth, the basis of many millennial movements trying to hurry that to completion, by living without spot or blemish, unachievable when taken literally. John, making way for his Lord in the stony wilderness, challenges and guides us to make our way straight in our own desert.
Isaiah 40 is the start of what has been called the ‘Gospel of Isaiah,’ ending at chapter 56 and including the carol service’s Chapter 53, foretelling the coming of Christ. A group of exiles had ‘served their term’ in Babylon, for an unexpected outcome of Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon was his letting exiled Jews go home. The text cannot mean that Israel would sin no more, for apart from the ubiquity of sin, more exile and more war awaited them. But it does point in the next section to the revealing of the glory of God, picked up later in John’s words.
Tucked into this comfort text is Isaiah’s comment on Israel’s past sins which, reading the preceding chapters, were primarily three. The first is the worship of idols, whether taking an object as the end aim of worship rather than a means to think beyond to the infinite, or of the worship of things or ideas such as money, a person, even culture. The second and third, as ever in the Hebrew Bible, is failure to live out faith in God by supporting justice and mercy for the oppressed, whatever their rank, status or origin. The three heralds, to the Israelites, John the Baptist and Jerusalem and Judah, echo this, making clear firstly that we are freely forgiven if we follow God’s guide, secondly that the Christ will come, and thirdly that God is gentle, strong and enduring.
In saying Jerusalem was forgiven, Isaiah was talking of the future yet referring to the past. And thinking and going forward means realistically reflecting on, soberly accepting and then letting go of the past, a letting go we are not always good at, as Bonhoeffer points out in his New Year poem:
‘Yet this year just passed still vexes our hearts,
And those bad days still weigh us down.’
It is worth thinking, in this ‘second-chance’ time after Advent Sunday and before the secular New Year, how often we try to correct God, who has forgiven and forgotten our repented sins, by holding on so passionately to our special, even favourite, sins of commission as if to a holy perpetual penance and those sins done against us as counting to our holy virtue! How unhealthy is that! Letting go is hard if we do not forgive ourselves, do not accept God into our lives, do not accept that we are acceptable to God as we are and accepted by God, preferring to dig over dead ashes, hold onto old bones. The ash and old bones of repented sin belong in the garden, growing new life.
If we would live fully in the present on behalf of the future based on the experience of the past, we must act and act now: preparing, smoothing, ordering, being ready, as Peter says. Yet writing as he does of ‘waiting for the completion of all things in Christ,’ he also gives a guide of how we should live in heaven on earth, in the bonds of peace, justice and mercy. This is a tricky and even dangerous passage. If being continually ready ‘without spot or blemish’ is demanded of all who relate to Christ, that is an impossibility which can lead to abandoning the effort as hopeless or living in a state of arrogant self-delusion. Lived in wise balance, ‘being ready’ is a valuable reminder to try to live in right relationships, and to make right skewed relationships, with people on earth as a reflection of our relationship to God. Taken too far, being ready can lead people to focus only on justice and mercy in heaven, whereas Peter is clearly talking of heaven on earth. Without petty or mean-minded judging, our generous God gives comfort, care and grace, and challenges us to do the same.
And that, of course, is what Mark tells us, starting his Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God so abruptly with ‘This is the story, the Gospel, of Jesus Christ.’ But why does he launch into a description of John who looked a mess, and as we know from other sources lived a celibate, probably rather hungry and possibly smelly life, and had attracted an equally odd collection of reforming Jews to his group? It was just this John, whom we might shrink from as the rich man in James shrinks from the poor man on the pew, who signalled the coming of Jesus the Christ, ‘making the highways smooth for him’ in a re-use of Isaiah’s Babylonian song to the god Nebu. And there is no Jesus without John. Just as John baptised Jesus into a life of unremitting challenge, so too do we accept Christ not to gain a complacent self-centred life, nor a life which air-blows challenge away, but to risk living the life we are given in daily awareness of God, our neighbour who is all, and our self, mindful that ‘the flowers fade and the grass withers, but the word of our God endures for ever.’
So in this liminal period, waiting for Jesus and between the two New Years, let me finish with more New Year lines from Bonhoeffer:
And even if you pass us a heavy cup
Brimming over with pleas and pains,
We will still take it thankfully with nary a tremble,
From your much loved and gentle hand.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping