Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Important Background Study

As I prepare to preach this Sunday, I am drawn not only to this week's readings but also to the passage that John the Baptist uses to define his own ministry. In the gospel lesson, when the representatives of the religious authorities ask John who he is and what he has to say for himself, John turns to Isaiah 40: "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord.'" It will be the second week in a row in which we will hear those words from Isaiah. Last week, Mark used them to inaugurate the ministry of Jesus through the proclamation of John the Baptizer. This week, John the gospel-writer also uses them but, unlike Mark, he places them on the lips of the Baptist. And all of that leads me to think that, if I want to understand John the Baptist and his relationship with Jesus and their collective role in the season of Advent, I had better spend some time studying Isaiah 40.

In this seminal passage of scripture, God interrupts the course of Israel's history to instruct the prophet to bring words of comfort to God's people: "Comfort, comfort my people! says your God." In this moment, God's words are words of compassion: "Speak compassionately to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended, that her penalty has been paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins!" Jerusalem, the capital city of the southern kingdom, was the epicenter of the Babylonian destruction, and the torment that her people had experienced was now over. On behalf of God, the prophet announces that the Lord is near and that the time to prepare the highway through the desolate places so that God and all of God's people can return to the city of Zion is upon us: "Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain. The Lord’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together; the Lord’s mouth has commanded it."

How does John the Baptist define his ministry? What does John the Evangelist think of this moment when Jesus appears on the scene? How does Mark envision the ministry of Jesus? This is their framework. This is their reference. This is their understanding of what God is doing in Jesus and what John the Baptist is doing to prepare the spiritual landscape for it.

In many ways, the birth of Jesus fits into the gospel as preparation for this moment. Luke's telling of the Annunciation and the journey to Bethlehem and Matthew's story of the wise men coming to bear gifts are all ways of saying that God is showing up in Jesus to bring God and God's people back together. In effect, therefore, we should skip ahead and celebrate what happened in the manger as a prelude to this Sunday's story of the "real" arrival. Of course, that's a terrible idea, and I don't endorse it, but it is worth noting that this Sunday isn't about getting ready for a birth but getting ready for what that birth will enable about 30 years later. That two very different gospel writers--Mark and John--both use Isaiah 40 to inaugurate Jesus' ministry through John the Baptist suggests that the first Christians identified this prophecy as central to the work of Jesus. This is what it's all about.

Don't climb into the pulpit or slide into the pew without taking some time to live in Isaiah 40, allowing the Holy Spirit to fill you with its words of hope.

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