We Wait

So, I really did mean to leave everyone in the dark last Sunday.  How did it go?  Did you walk or sit in the dark?  What did you learn?  What did you let go of?  How is your Advent so far?

This week, we can still experience endarkenment as we wait.  Advent is all about waiting.  Waiting for God to act, waiting for word, waiting for the world to get a little less crazy, waiting for justice which seems like it will never come.  Especially, we wait for Good News.  At least we know where we are supposed to be able to find Good News.  All we need to do is turn to the Gospels.  Gospel means “good news.  Let’s see what we can find…

Each of the gospels begins in a different way, in a style all it's own.  Matthew begins with a family tree sure to please all the genealogists and aficionados.  In addition, Matthew's list of who's who provides a link of Bible big shots to connect the Hebrew and Christian scriptures through a most important royal lineage.  

Luke skips all that in favor of stating the purpose of his gospel to his dear friend Theophilus.  Luke makes clear that he is writing for the purpose of providing an orderly and true account of all the things that had been fulfilled regarding Jesus the Christ.  Luke then launches right in to the birth narrative beginning with Zechariah and Elizabeth and their inability to reproduce.  

John's gospel begins like a science fiction novel and appeals to those who prefer mystical and mysterious language.  It is as if John lays it all out and gives us a little time to start to put the puzzle together.  John does not name names nor put anything in historical context.  Instead, this gospel makes us ask questions and ponder the meaning of his cryptic message.

Finally, we look at Mark's gospel, our good news go to source for liturgical year B.  Mark does not bother to tell us any background material about the characters and story he is going to spin.  This is pretty characteristic of the gospel writer who likes his stories short, to the point, and filled with action to keep things moving along.  Mark calls it like he sees it and tells it like it is.  No mysteries to solve.  No puzzles to ponder. No endless waiting required. "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."  BADA BING, BADA BAM.  You know everything you need to know.  Just in case, Mark backs up into the First Testament to show you Isaiah's prophecy which confirms that you now know everything you need to know.  A messenger is sent from God to prepare the way of the Lord.  Then, SHAZAAM!  Mark introduces us to this character named John.

But wait just a minute.  This story is supposed to be good news.  The messenger sent from God is supposed to bring comfort and healing and hope to a people who are stumbling around with the weight of the world crushing them.  I think there must be something wrong with this picture.

Let's look at what was going on in the lives of the people of Israel that brought about Isaiah's prophecy.  God's people were in exile in a foreign land.  Living in captivity was not an ideal situation, in fact they were longing for the day when God would rescue them and their misery would cease. The people wait for  what seems like forever.

According to Isaiah, the first words out of God's mouth are, "Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 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."

"The word 'comfort' is repeated to show that the matter of comfort is of great importance to God.  There is no prophecy of doom and gloom here...  just an assurance of God's mercy.  The mood is one of joyful anticipation for a new era that is about to dawn which the people have been waiting for.  The point of these words is not to talk about Israel's punishment, but to proclaim a new salvation to people unworthy of it.  God wants Israel to know that her suffering is at an end, her sins are forgiven.  The waiting is over.  This comfort that God gives proves that the God of the universe is family to us.  "My people", and "your God" are covenant words.  

The call God makes to the people is not a one-time statement.  The word of comfort from God is continuous.  Not only was this word spoken to the ancient Jews through the prophet Isaiah, but that word is still spoken to us by God today as we wait.  God is a personal God who is aware of our hurts, comforts us, and cares for us.  The kind of comfort God gives is not merely a healing balm, but God the comforter is one who stimulates, awakens, and makes us aware of our potential and possibilities.

Isaiah continues the prophecy, "A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God."" The voice brings a message of great joy and a new decree to the Jews: you will be free!  You will return home!  The Jewish people have not been home for a long time.  The highway in the desert will lead from Babylon to Jerusalem.  It is the road that the Jews will take when they come marching home behind a triumphant God who will lead them to freedom.  So, for the waiting Israelites, someday their captivity will come to an end.  It was going to be quite a few more years, but at least they had this seed of hope planted in their hearts.  

In Mark's gospel, we are told right off the bat that we are going to be hearing some good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Then we get a snippet of prophecy from Isaiah 40 so the gospel writer can make sure we don't miss the connection between Old Testament prophecy and the good news that is about to be shared.  If you were listening closely, however, you may have noticed that the writer of the gospel did not quote Isaiah word for word, but did a mash up of some Isaiah mixed with a little Malachi.  Any way we look at it, the writer's intent is to introduce us to the character of John the Baptizer who is a link between the prophets of old and the new age of God.  John quotes Isaiah, well, in a loosy-goosey kind of way; he dresses like Elijah: a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist; and John eats like a prophet...consuming locusts and wild honey, abstaining from meat and wine.  At the time of John's coming, Judaism was longing for a revival of prophecy.  John's appearance and his message caused quite a stir.  Before we get to the Good News however, we have to wait and listen to the announcer of the One who is to come.  

John is the forerunner.  John is found in the wilderness.  The wilderness is a space for rites of passage, rebellion, sacred instruction, community building, for meeting God face to face and for waiting.  The wilderness is also the haunt of demons and therefore a good place for God to confront the powers of evil.  Salvation traditionally comes from the wilderness.  The people would know this based on the stories about Moses, Elijah, and David.

"John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.". So, just exactly where is the good news?  A wild man in the desert telling/yelling? at people to change their ways and making them go for a dunk in the river?   I'm not convinced that all this is leading to good news.  In fact, at this time of year, John the Baptizer seems like a first century Grinch sucking the life out of everyone's good time.  

In spite of what we might think, people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  Why did he have that affect on people?  John the Baptizer was a bizarre figure who shook the foundations of first-century Palestine because he stirred up the people's hopes for renewal and liberation.  The prophetic word of God's presence intends to shatter and disorient taken-for-granted everyday reality to transform despair into hope and praise.  Such figures are often a serious threat to the established order and those in authority often must "deal" with them.

But John came preaching a message of repentance, not to be a party pooper or some kind of Scrooge, but in order for people to be prepared to meet the Coming One.  John baptized in order to prepare folks for the Coming One.  John did not preach a message of judgment, but he came to lay the groundwork so that people would be receptive to the message and ministry of Jesus.  

John knew that the Coming One was greater than he.  John said that he was unworthy to untie the Coming One's sandals.  This implies a relationship of greater social distance than a master and a slave.  Whereas John baptized with water, the Coming One was to baptize the people with the Holy Spirit.  Just what that means in Mark's gospel is a question to ponder.

It doesn't sound like good news, at least not  to me, not yet.  Mark's gospel summons us to the wilderness, not to Bethlehem. The wilderness may be akin to the darkness we reflected upon last week.  Just as the darkness has been maligned by tradition, the wilderness also carries similar connotations. We’d rather meet a cute, cuddly newborn savior, but instead, we find ourselves in the wilderness where we are assaulted by a wild man prophet telling tales about some super hero and throwing water on everyone.  Is this where you expected to be on this second Sunday of Advent?

We, like those exiled Israelites, long for a comforter.  Pain and suffering, and oppression run rampant in our world, too.  With eagerness, we enter into the hope of this message that kindled the hearts of the ancients.  Along with entering the hope, we also wait and prepare for God's second coming.  We are baptized.  We are fed at this table.  We are the forerunners of Christ in the in-between time.  We must repent, so that we can be open to receive the forgiveness God has granted us. We must point the way to the Coming One.  We must declare God's good tidings and tell what glorious things God has done for us!

We are the messengers this time.  The voices in the wilderness belong to us.  But, we don't have to smell like a camel or eat bugs for lunch unless, of course, one chooses that lifestyle. Far be it from me to judge… We've read the end of all four gospels and there is no mistaking the good news.  We wait now, but we will get there eventually.  So, why not take the Good News which you know very well and run with it.  Go out into the world and tell it. Shout it from the rooftops.  Proclaim it from the highways and byways; in the town square and in Times Square. 

But through it all, don't lose that expectant hope of the first Christmas.  And never forget that you are called to Prepare the Way of the Lord.  It's not about you, it's about what God is doing for you, for us, for the world.  As we wait for God to come back, it’s our turn to  spread the gospel message, it's essential for us to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable.  We need to shake things up so that however God surprises us next time, we will be expecting something new and different.

For now, we wait.  We wait for God.  We wait in darkness, but the darkness is pregnant with possibility.  We listen as we wait and take in what the darkness reveals to us of God’s love and justice. We then, venture out to all the dark places of this world where people wait without hope and are filled with despair.  We sit in the darkness with them and whisper God’s wonderful words of comfort in their ears.  Just as two little candles can make the darkness feel a little less lonely, may we all be messengers of joy and peace and shalom wherever people wait for something better

 © Victoria Moss 2020