Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
December 7, 2014
In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day with the refrain “Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” In 1914, all along the western front of World War I, allied and German soldiers came out of the trenches to celebrate together on Christmas before returning to killing each other. Since the angels announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds, we have struggled with the incongruity the promise of peace and the world’s harsh realities. Peace is the theme for the second Sunday of Advent, and we yearn for the fulfillment of Isaiah’s cry of “Comfort, O comfort, my people, says your God.”
As we will hear shortly from Mark 1:1-8, John the Baptizer proclaimed the way to personal peace when our hearts and our world are in turmoil. Confident in God’s comfort, during Advent we prepare spiritually for Christmas by confessing our sins.
When our world seems at odds with the peace of Christmas, it is easy to grumble about the sins of others. My friend Ted Ward, who used to teach at Michigan State, calls these “L” shaped amens. We cheer calls for others to repent while minimizing our own sins.
I was confronted by this when our Milwaukee son sent us a DVD of the musical Oklahoma! when we took the interim in Midwest City. I had played in the orchestra when my high school did it as a school play. The song Curly sings to Judd became popular. “Poor Judd is dead. A candle lights his head. He’s lying in a coffin make of wood, and the daisies in the dell let out a different smell because poor Judd is underneath the ground.” We all laughed at someone who was a “Judd” to us. But watching it recently, I had to say, “Ouch! That’s a terrible case of bullying presented in a way that normalized it.”
God’s comfort announced in Isaiah 40:1 is for the “Judds” of the world who have been beaten down and for those of us who regret that they are the ones beating them down.
I know scholars disagree whether all of Isaiah was written by him in the 8th century BCE or whether chapters 40-55 and 56-66 were written later by two other prophets. I posted a summary of that at the bottom of this post. Whether God spoke in advance or contemporaneously, all agree that this word of comfort was for Judah in Exile.
At the lowest point in their history, God’s word of comfort came. The penalty for their sins has been paid double, meaning completely, not because they deserved to be forgiven but because God is gracious and merciful.
Fading flowers and withering grass illustrate human frailty. People are weak and will sin again. But by contrast, God is mighty and gentle.
Mark 1:1-8 introduces Jesus starting with this prophecy from Isaiah. The first verse is really the title of the whole Gospel of Mark, suggesting that the good news keeps going after the cryptic account of Jesus’ resurrection that leaves us hanging.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And 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. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of a messenger crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” The image of highways in Isaiah suggests making connections between people. For them to be level and straight suggests that even the lame and feeble will freely connect to God.
In Isaiah’s and John’s times, highways were repaired and adorned to welcome royalty and dignitaries. But John’s way of preparing people for Jesus Christ and his good news was to proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Those who would be prepared were the ones who had been baptized confessing their sins. Bringing these two passages together in Advent suggests that confident in God’s comfort, during Advent we prepare spiritually for Christmas by confessing our sins.
We are uncomfortable with such spiritual preparation. We’d rather decorate, cook, shop and party. Preparing for God’s arrival changes us, which is what confession is all about. No status quo. No safe, sentimental piety. As James wrote, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” (5:16)
Preparing the way may be personal, but it is not private. Isaiah called Judah to proclaim good news from a high mountain. We add our voices to John’s, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Proclaiming good news is not wallowing in failure and shame but introducing Jesus! Isaiah wrote to proclaim, “Here is your God!” John the Baptizer announced, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29,36) What good news to connect with him!
I am convinced that introducing people to Jesus during Advent is a lot more profound that fussing about public pronouncements, advertising, or greeting cards that say “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” rather than “Merry Christmas.” I am afraid that makes us seem cranky to those who are not Jesus’ disciples. Instead of correcting others, I suggest asking the Holy Spirit to open opportunities to affirm how Jesus has comforted you.
When asked if you are ready for Christmas, ask yourself how you are doing with your spiritual preparation.
How many prophets wrote Isaiah?
You don’t have to be a scholar when reading Isaiah to recognize that a very significant change takes place between chapters 39 and 40 and a less obvious change takes place between chapters 55 and 56. Chapters 1-39 were clearly written by Isaiah to people about events that were happening in Judah in the 8th century BCE. Chapters 40-55 do not mention Isaiah or any of the people or events of 8th century BCE and speak quite directly to the conditions Judah was facing while in exile in Babylon. Chapters 56-66 also do not mention any people or events of the 8th century BCE and seem to fit conditions when the people of Judah had returned to Jerusalem after the exile in Babylon.
I grew up and was educated in a tradition that insisted that the prophet Isaiah wrote the entire book in the 8th century BCE. Very learned and responsible scholars marshalled the arguments and evidence for what they the called the integrity of Isaiah’s authorship. At some points this position became a litmus test (Shibboleth – Judges 12:6) of theological orthodoxy and scholarly acceptability. Most of these scholars recognize the three sections of Isaiah were written for these three distinct times in Judah’s history and say that God inspired Isaiah to write them in advance of the time they would be needed.
Many other scholars believe the second and third sections were written by other prophets than Isaiah at the time Judah needed those specific messages from God. Most believe that the prophet who wrote the third section (chapters 56-66) is likely also the one who assembled the book of Isaiah as we have it today. They also believe those two other prophets were likely descendants of the original Isaiah’s disciples who kept his message and ministry alive through the terrible years of exile. Though the three sections are distinct, they do share some common themes and literary approaches.Personally I would suggest that whichever approach makes the most sense to you, you should not treat it as a test of faith and condemn those who hold the other opinion. I certainly believe God is quite capable of inspiring Isaiah in the 8th century BCE to write what the people of Judah were going to need going into and coming out of exile. I also believe God is quite capable of raising up new prophets in the descendants of Isaiah’s disciples to speak God’s Word contemporaneously with the events to which it connects. Since Isaiah’s name and other people and events of his time drop out from chapter 40 on, I see no reason to postulate any factual contradictions if they were written by others. From a strictly literary perspective, Isaiah as a whole is commonly viewed as a towering pinnacle of human literary achievement in any language at any time. From a faith perspective, whether written by one or three prophets, I recognize Isaiah as God’s Word, Scripture divinely inspired, reliable and authoritative.