First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11
Even though this reading is well beyond the halfway point of the Book of Isaiah, it is in fact a new beginning. Scholars are nearly unanimous in thinking we have here a different prophet speaking at the end of the Babylonian Exile rather than Isaiah ben Amoz, the speaker in most of the first thirty-nine chapters. We have a divine announcement in the heavenly council of the good news that the Exile is over. This announcement is followed by a listing of the marching orders to accompany this announcement. The announcement and enabling resolution are given as a call to the anonymous prophet who, as is the case with any self-respecting prophet, has some real questions about the whole enterprise.
The word for “comfort” is related to the names “Noah,” and “Nahum.” It has the sense of comfort, consolation, and relief from suffering. It refers both to the gift of rest and the activity of repentance. It is a word of release and restoration. It is the perfect good news word.
It is a word to be spoken in a particular way. “Speak tenderly,” God says, “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Speak the good news with compassion, from the heart. And then announce that God is coming to a people who long thought they had been abandoned. So “prepare the royal highway.” Get ready for the coming of the Divine Sovereign.
A voice from the heavenly council commissions the prophet to preach – to “cry out.” The prophet needs a bit more detail. Will anyone actually listen? Yes, they are all ears right now, when things are difficult, but won’t their attention just fade when things get better? The words that come from God are as likely to wilt these unstable folks in fear as to gird them up with hope. The anonymous prophet clearly is deeply experienced in preaching to religious folks who say “Good sermon, Pastor” on Sunday and get back to real, unhopeful life on Monday.
Yes, God replies, people are as frail as dry grass and fading flowers. But God’s word does not dim in power or promise. So, climb up the highest mountain and have at it! The meaning of the message is not determined by its reception. Besides, the evidence will be clear. God will come. God will set things right. And God will be the Good Shepherd for which the sheep have longed, “for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Certainly, our listeners long for comfort these days. They crave release from the exile of Covid-19, rest from the chaos of the political wars, hope for a measure of racial reconciliation, and perhaps a deep desire for God to set right the multitude of wrongs exposed in this cultural season of our country.
“What does startling comfort look like today?” asks Corinne Carvalho on the workingpreacher.org site. “The poem does not promise that all suffering will cease. It does not deny or change the brokenness of the human condition. It suggests that some of us may be called to be messengers of a declaration, which others may find hard to fathom. But no matter where we locate ourselves in this poem,” she concludes, “it ultimately reminds us that the unexpected can happen: God still sends comfort into our short and frail lives.”
There is no need for comfort unless one is afflicted. For the audience of the prophet, the affliction was obvious. But we preach to mixed crowds. Depending on the issue, some of us may be afflicted. Some of us may be afflicters. Some of us may be unaffected. In the midst of this marvelous gospel proclamation, there is the sting of the law as well. Reward and recompense mean different things for the afflicted and the afflicter. As we hear the words of the prophet, we are called to discern which we truly are. That may determine whether this text functions for us as law or gospel.
“Isaiah 40:1-11, then, represents the very best kind of preaching,” Michael Chan suggests in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “It is the kind of preaching that is grounded in proclamation and promise but shaped fundamentally by careful listening to those things that afflict the hearts of his audience. Great preaching,” according to Chan, “involves two ears and one mouth.” So great preaching requires that we discern for ourselves and our listeners the nature and extent of our affliction.
Chan describes one of the primary functions of preaching, to point (like John the Baptist next week) to Jesus. “Like all of us,” he writes, “Second Isaiah was forced to preach to an audience that had experienced trauma and whose relationship to God had been deeply wounded as a result. For this audience,” Chan concludes, “God’s hiddenness was far more real than God’s presence, and the preacher’s job, at least in part, is to point to those place where God is present (“Here is your God!” v. 9).” That’s a good word for us preachers now.
I’m struck by the prophet’s worries regarding human frailty. I think this is a profound temptation at this moment. People have been deeply and fully engaged in a variety of social justice issues in and beyond the church. The real challenge will be to sustain the energy, for example, in seeking to dismantle white supremacy and build beloved community. Will we be able to sustain such efforts, or will we wilt like grass and fade like summer flowers? That is an important Advent question.
Second Reading: 2 Peter 3:8-15a
“God may be slow sometimes,” old church wisdom says, “but God ain’t never late.” Of course, that’s a paraphrase of these verses from 2 Peter. Any delay in the Day of the Lord is not about God’s inability to keep appointments. Rather, it is part of God’s great mercy. God is “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” This should be a cautionary word to any who take perverse pleasure in the eternal destruction of some. That is not a priority that the Lord shares.
The reading assumes the Advent posture that God’s coming will be unexpected and surprising. So, the question is how we are to comport ourselves as we wait – what sort of persons we ought to be? We should “strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”
As noted above, our waiting is always purposeful and active waiting. The end will be a beginning because “we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” This means, among other things, that nothing good is lost in this life. Our works of love for the neighbor will be kept for eternity, treasured in the heart of God. We are not building the kingdom by our own efforts, but we are building for the kingdom, as N. T. Wright says.
We can’t know for sure which words of “our beloved brother Paul” are referenced in verse 15, but 1 Corinthians 15:58 is as good a candidate as any. After a long review of the nature of the Resurrection, Paul gives this brief summary of the Christian life: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
That is the best response to the good news we have received.
And there you have it…
Resources and References
Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T. Simply Good News: Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Ben Witherington III overview of Mark: https://youtu.be/EybjWFnj3nM
Seven-minute seminary overview of Mark: https://youtu.be/8J2LP9_f3SY