Isaiah 40:1-9

Mark 1:1-8

The Rev’d Jenny WilsonChristmasWreath

 In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

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.(Isaiah 40:1-2)

Advent is the time when we listen out for the voice of the prophets. In this morning’s reading from the Book of the prophet Isaiah we hear words that are well known. Words that we may have often heard ring out in music in the opening aria from Messiah by Handel.

It often helps to look at the context of a passage of scripture, especially one that is so familiar to us. And the context of Isaiah 40 is puzzling. Words that may be  strange are those found just a few verses before near the close of Isaiah chapter 39.

Isaiah said to Hezekiah, ‘Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. (Isaiah 39:5-6)

These words threaten terrible events – the destruction of Jerusalem and the forced removal of many of its citizens to exile in Babylon. How is it that only a verse or two later, this book has God speaking words of such deep comfort? Scholars tell us that the book of the prophet Isaiah actually contains three prophetic voices spoken at three different times in Israel’s history. The first voice in Isaiah speaks to the people before the destruction of Jerusalem and before the deportation of the people to Babylon. There is an immense break between chapter 39 and chapter 40 – a break that is historical, spanning about two hundred years, literary, involving a significant change of style and, most importantly, there is here a profound change in theology. The voice of God has changed. Chapter 39 anticipates the deportation of the people to Babylon and chapter 40 anticipates the people’s return. Inside this gap is the most appalling loss and suffering – the loss of home and temple and king, the loss almost of identity – into this gap is the experience of exile – and across this gap we see one of the most profound truths of God… what one scholar names “the fundamental message of the book [Isaiah], namely, that the judgment of [God] is real [but this judgment] is followed by [God’s] will for restoration that will follow according to [God’s] plan.”[1]

The poetry of Isaiah 40 “Comfort, comfort…”, the exhortation that those people are to be spoken to tenderly indicate that a profound gap has been bridged, the gap illustrated by the Dean last week in his image of the chasm. The change in tone in Isaiah’s poetry gives powerful emotional effect to crossing of the gap.

Cry to [Israel] 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.

There was sin, and that sin had consequences, historically the consequence of Jerusalem’s destruction and the exile, but that is enough, says God. The people have been punished enough for their sins. What matters is that this punishment is not the end. There is further speech, the poetry of the prophet continues. The end of the relationship between God and God’s people is not punishment. There is another voice. It is the Godly voice of healing, of restoration.

The prophet speaks words of good tidings:

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings;*
lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’
(Isaiah 40:9)

John the Baptist was one such herald of Good Tidings. We heard this morning the opening words from the gospel for this liturgical year, the Gospel of Mark.

The beginning of the good news* of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.* (Mark 1:1)

The gospel opens. And then leads immediately into the story of John the Baptist.

John the Baptist also works with the gap, the chasm.

John the baptizer appears* in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem are going out to him, and are baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Mark 1:4-5)

As is clear in the Book of the prophet Isaiah, the cause of the gap is sin, our struggle to live well the life God has given us. Sin is a strange word and one with which we can often find difficulty. We can imagine that we are pretty good people and so sin is a bit of a strong word for our petty failings. Or we can imagine that we are pretty bad people but that thinking about sin can just lead to a life of guilt. Either way, better not to think about it. In fact, John the Baptist and even more so the one for whom he led the way, Jesus, would have us ponder the reality of sin for one reason and one reason only. Freedom.

Sin is real and each one of us plays our part in it. It is part of what it is to be a human being. God’s great longing is that we look at our sins with God close by and hear God’s voice of forgiveness. John the Baptist names this process repentance, turning, and he images it with that most beautiful sacrament of baptism. The people from the whole Judean countryside and Jerusalem come to him and confess their sins and enter the water and are washed clean.

Repentance, turning. Turn away from your sins, isn’t that what we hear God say? It’s a strange thing but I have always thought that actually we need to turn towards our sins, first. Have a look at them, feel the discomfort of them, name them to God, hear God’s voice saying, “Yes you did do that. Yes, you can be like that. Go on your way now and sin no more.” Comfort, comfort. Your penalty is paid. Yes, we need, I think, to turn towards our sins first, before God washes us clean and sends us on our way. The whole of the first section of Isaiah seems to be about that, that naming of sin, that severe looking at it. And then with Isaiah’s second voice we hear, hear in the poetry, that we are forgiven, that the gap is bridged by God and we are free.

John the Baptist makes it very clear to those who seek him out that it is not he who brings this freedom, this life. This is how he expresses it:

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. I have baptized you with* water; but he will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit.’ (Mark 1:7-8)

Just another way of saying “Here is your God,” really. That is what John the Baptist is for. To help the people repent and to pronounce God’s forgiveness so that they are ready. Ready to see, to hear, to know. That God is here, here is Christ.

And then to speak. For its not just prophets who go up mountains, do you see? It’s not just heralds with trumpets who speak out the good news. It’s not just strange men dressed in camel’s hair eating locusts and wild honey who proclaim that God is with us.

There are good tidings to be told. Is it possible that we might lift up our voices in strength and hope? High on a mountain, in the context of the exiles of our world, in the midst of pain and suffering, might we be the herald who cries out “Here is your God!” Did you know … when those words are uttered …the world changes. Those words cannot be unsaid.

Have we experienced that? Have we heard those words? In a time of great struggle – perhaps when we found ourselves with a serious illness, or when someone we love has died, or when we are viewed by the world as outsiders for some reason or other, perhaps then, when someone stayed close, brought comfort, helped us find a way through, reminded us we were loved. When someone still believed in us. Whispered, or said silently through their presence, “Here is your God!” Have we experienced that? In the times when we felt far from home and perhaps knew that we were there either through our own fault, or because of the frailty of the human condition. Did God reach us?

The word “God” cannot be unsaid. The truth of one accompanying us in our exile cannot be wiped away. That we might glimpse that truth is an experience that can never be taken away from us. Poetry, company, the faith of a friend or our community can be that voice. We can be that voice. The voice crying out in a place of struggle, “Here is your God!”

[1] Walter Brueggemann An Introduction to the Old Testament p167.