10 December 2017

Getting Out of the Way

Second Sunday of Advent

The words burst forth from out of nowhere.  “‘Comfort, O comfort my people,’ says your God. ‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem’” (Is. 40:1).  Words perhaps best known from G. F. Handel’s Messiah, beautifully set to music.  This is the text that Handel chose for the opening of his masterful oratorio, it prepares the way for all that follows. 

And, of course, it’s the perfect text for Advent as it calls us to “prepare the way of Yahweh.”  Today’s lectionary pairs the Isaiah 40 text with the opening of Mark’s Gospel, where we find John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord ? make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3).  This is a season of preparation, of course, as we get ready to celebrate Christmas and anticipate the coming of Jesus.  It’s a season designed for prophets, because prophets have always warned us to prepare for the Lord’s coming—and not only during Advent.

How do we prepare the way for God’s arrival?  How do we prepare the way? Perhaps we first need to ask whether we’re really excited about the Lord’s coming.  How do you approach it?  With fear, thinking that God comes to judge the earth?  With joy, knowing that God comes to comfort a hurting people?  Probably a little of both. 

If we slowed down, maybe even stopped long enough to listen to our hearts, it wouldn’t take long to confess all the ways we obstruct and hinder God’s movement in our lives.  The Bible’s favorite word for obstruction is sin.  Sin is essentially separation and there are plenty of things that separate us from God, from one another, and ourselves.  There are plenty of ways we stand in the way of God’s arrival.  There’s selfishness.  Self-centeredness is a barrier.  So is our cold-heartedness.  Hearts that are “two sizes too small,” like the Grinch.[1] There’s our greed. Our hatred. Our fear of the “other”—whoever the “other” might be.  There’s our inability to extend mercy.  Our busyness.  Our cynicism.  Our skepticism.  Being too rational is a barrier, so is being too sentimental. There’s our obsession with perfection, our need to be perfect or correct.  Our need to control.  Our death-grip desire to possess things, and people, and ideas, even God. Our wealth. Our poverty. Our arrogance. Our lack of humility.  All the illusions we think are true, including the illusions and lies that we tell ourselves that this long, unsettling litany isn’t true. 

This is some of the “stuff” that keeps us separate from God, that alienates us from God’s presence, that keeps us exiled from God, lost, as in the wilderness. This is some of the “stuff” within us often worthy of God’s judgment.  What can we do? Work harder at being better?  Be more generous?  Relax?  We know something in us needs to change.  Didn’t John the Baptist preach “a baptism of repentance” (Mk 1:3)?

. . . .

What if all this talk about preparing for the way of the Lord has nothing to do with us? But aren’t we supposed to prepare the way?  Isn’t this what the text says here in Isaiah and Mark?  Yes, that’s what it says, but that’s not what it means.  I guess it doesn’t hurt for us to try to do our part.  But there are times when we need to get out of the way.  Here in Isaiah 40, you and I aren’t being asked to do prepare for anything—because God isn’t talking to us!

Stay close to the text with me and you realize that Isaiah is describing a conversation going on in the heavens, where is God speaking at a gathering of the divine council, the “government” of heaven.  God is attended by angels or messengers, a council that gathers around God, listens to God’s decrees, and then bring about God’s will.  God speaks to the divine council, “Comfort, O comfort my people” (Is. 40:1).  These gracious words burst forth from out of nowhere. 

Now, what you need to know is that Isaiah 40 marks the beginning of what is known as Second Isaiah, chapters 40-55.  This text was written while Israel was in exile in Babylon.  The fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE and the roughly five decades of exile in Babylon was a collective trauma to the psyche of the Jewish people.  They struggled for generations with how God could abandon them to this end.  The theology that emerged in exile claimed that the people were to blame, it was their fault for abandoning God’s will for the nation.  They came to see that God judges a nation when it sets aside true worship, when a nation fails to embody God’s justice, when it neglects care for the oppressed, when it fails to care for the vulnerable, the widow, the refugee, the disenfranchised (Is. 58).  Exile was God’s judgment.  That’s what you need to know.

You also need to know that between Isaiah 39 and 40 is approximately 150 years of silence. Isaiah 39:7 warns, “Some of your own sons who are born to you shall be taken away; they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”  So, when I said these words of comfort burst forth from out of nowhere, it’s true.  God was silent, but now God speaks.  “Comfort, comfort my people.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins” (Is. 40:1-2).  Enough is enough.  No more judgment.  It’s time for tender words.  It’s time for healing, for homecoming.

And, so, fulfilling God’s command, a member of the divine council gets to work and cries out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Is. 40:3).  Note that it’s not the people commissioned to build their own highway.  The divine council is put to work. Building the highway is heaven’s job.  For this is no ordinary highway, this is Yahweh’s superhighway that stretches from Babylon all the way home to Jerusalem.  This is an expressway.  Valleys will be lifted, mountains brought low to make it easy to get from one place to the other; the ground will be leveled out, nice and flat.  God’s army corps of engineers will construct a thoroughfare, a holy way to carry God’s people home, and a holy way that will also convey, carry the “glory of the LORD,” and all will see it; “the people shall see it, together.”  Why?  “For the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Is. 40:5).   

“Cry out!” a voice says (Is. 40:6).  The prophet hears the divine command—then resists. The prophet says, “What shall I cry?”  Things are so bad that even God’s prophet is discouraged; the prophet comes up with excuses, set up obstacles for why this will never work: people don’t pay attention, people don’t listen.  “People are grass.  They have no constancy.  The grass withers, the flowers fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it” (Is. 40:6-7).  But the divine voice will have none of this and counters the prophet’s complaint, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (Is. 40:8).

So, the divine voice tells the prophet, “Get you up to a high mountain. O Zion, herald of good tidings” (Is. 40:9).  Good tidings.  This is significant, because “the substance of this address is so crucial because this is the first intentional, self-conscious use of the term gospel in the Old Testament.”[2]  Zion, herald of the gospel!  “Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,”—the gospel!—“lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’  See the LORD comes with his might” (Is. 40:9-10).  God will prepare the way, construct the way, and then along that way God’s glory will come, and then become the way; God will carry them home, and care for them like a mother (Is. 40:11).  Israel is summoned to look.  Look, for God is on the way to liberate God’s people!

Sounds like the opening of Mark’s Gospel, doesn’t it?  The opening of the Gospel sounds like Isaiah, Mark alludes to it, but it’s actually a composite of several texts; Mark redacts or edits them, and his redaction exposes his theologically subversive intent.  Mark tells us, “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare the way for you’” (Mk. 1:2).  However, you won’t find these words in Isaiah, because they’re not there.  These words are similar to what we find in Exodus 23:20, “Behold, I send a messenger before you and to bring you to the land I have prepared for you.”  And they are almost verbatim to what’s found in the last chapter of Malachi, the last prophetic book of the Hebrew scriptures. “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord, whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” (Mal. 3:1).  The book of Malachi is followed by almost four hundred years of silence until we get to the Gospel of Mark.

And for nearly one hundred years prior to Mark, “the ancient rabbis and scribes held that true prophecy [had] ended with Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.”[3]  The rabbis felt that the prophetic voice had fallen silent forever.  Mark says to all of this: rubbish!.  Something new and different was stirring again in history, he believed, except it wasn’t happening in Jerusalem, the political and religious center, which as corrupt and blasphemous, collaborating with the Roman Empire. Instead, something new was beginning out in the wilderness, out on the edges of society—where God often hangs out.  God loves the wilderness.  That’s where we find John the Baptist. He’s a fringe element, a lone voice—the voice of a tiny, tiny minority—that’s wise enough to discern the coming of God.

The opening of Mark’s Gospel, with texts from Exodus and Malachi are combined with a modified version of Isaiah 40.  Mark refers to a voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  A way needs to be cleared for Yahweh’s advent, the coming of God.  Something new, however, is required to convey the arrival of God.  Even though most English translations read, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” Mark actually substitutes a verb not found in the Isaiah text.  Instead of “prepare,” Marks says “construct,” (kataskeuasei) construct a way. [4]

Just as God provided a way when there appeared to be no way in Israel’s exodus out of Egypt, just as God provided a way when Israel thought the way back to Jerusalem was cut off, God provides a new way, constructs a new way to convey God’s presence in the world.  God’s liberating way becomes the way of Jesus of Nazareth.  And as in Isaiah 40, it’s the voice of God that declares what should be done.  It is God’s decision to come toward us in a new way.  God takes the initiative.  The opening of Mark’s Gospel is ambiguous and can be translated in multiple ways, essentially saying, “Behold, I (God) send my messenger”—and the messenger could be either John or Jesus or even Mark—“before your face who will construct your way.”[5]

. . . .

The point here is that God loves to construct a way when there is no way.  God loves to construct a holy way that will convey God’s presence into our lives, into the world.  God provides the way and then God moves on that way.  The designation of Jesus as “the Way” is often associated with John’s Gospel (see John 14:6) and Mark is saying something similar, except Mark isn’t saying that Jesus is the way toward God, but that Jesus is God’s way toward us.  Jesus is the way, and God travels “on” him toward us.  Jesus is the new road God is constructing in the world, the superhighway that leads God’s people to liberation.  Later in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is often described as being on the way and disciples discover the kingdom of God—the “the turning of the world” when God’s justice and liberation break into our world—they “see” this when they’re on the way with Jesus.[6]  And, like them, we need to look for it.  Expect it.  Anticipate it.

We often think of Advent as a time of preparing for what is about to happen, whether it’s Christmas or the return of Christ.  But there’s another dimension to advent that’s often overlooked.  I alluded to this in last week's sermon and it’s the driving force behind what I’m trying to share today. And it’s this simple, yet profound claim: Yahweh is an advent-ing God who is always journeying toward us.  God is always coming toward us.  God is always providing a way where there is no way.  Good chooses first, again and again, to deliver and save and convey us toward the place of liberation and resurrection.  God constructs something radically new and different in the midst of the old world, despite our sin, despite all that tries to hinder, hamper, and obstruct God’s way.  Jesus simply arrives.  He comes.  He announces the arrival of God’s kingdom, and then, and only then, invites us to change, to repent, to do something about it.  For Mark, the order of salvation is not repent and then believe the kingdom has come.  It’s the other way around!  Mark says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mk. 1:15).  Jesus is God’s new beginning.  Jesus is God’s way.  And in Jesus, God is always on the way toward us, seeking to be with us—and there’s nothing you or I or anyone else can do to stop this.  This is the miracle of the Incarnation, this is the miracle of Christmas.

As old Grinch discovered, even though he did everything he could to stop the arrival of Christmas in Whoville, even though he tried his hardest to obstruct, hinder, and prevent the arrival of Christmas morning, he realized he was powerless.  On that day, he had to get out of the way and yield to what was before his eyes and open his ears:  
He stared down at Whoville! The Grinch popped his eyes!
Then he shook! What he saw was a shocking surprise!
Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN'T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same![7]

Somehow or other…it came.  

[1] Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (New York: Random House, 1957).
[2] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 20.
[3] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 125.
[4] Myers, 124.
[5] Myers, 124-125.
[6] See Mark 8:27; 9:33,34; 10:52
[7] Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Image credit: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (MGM Television, 1966).

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