Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says our God” (Isaiah 40:1). I wonder, where do you find comfort? If you’re like me, perhaps there are certain comfort foods like mashed potatoes and gravy that always satisfy and stir warm memories. Or maybe, music you play again and again lifts your spirits and fills your head and heart with the vibration of beauty and joy—like late night jazz. Maybe it’s a walk along the lake front, the forest preserve, or the Botanical Garden. Or maybe your very best most comfortable comfort place is your bed.
So, I find it a little shocking that, apparently, for the people of Israel, the promise of comfort came not with food, or music, or at the park, or in their beds –but in the wilderness. “A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God (Isaiah 40:3).
Today’s gospel comes from the very first words of Mark’s gospel, chapter one, verse one. Mark was the first to write the story of Jesus. He is the inventor of the gospel. Mark became the principal source for both Matthew and Luke. Mark wrote: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).
Mark doesn’t begin with the birth of Jesus, or with stories about him as a little boy. There are no angels, no shepherds, no wise men –not Zechariah, not Elizabeth—not even Mary and Joseph. Instead, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” begins with John the Baptist shouting in the wilderness, “repent!” Mark announces good news by weaving together lines from Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3. “In the wilderness” John the water-baptizer announces the coming of one who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (verse 8)
Mark begins with ancient words written 500 years before Jesus’ birth. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God…In the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make his pathway straight.” (Isaiah 40: 1 & 3) Mark begins with words of the prophet Isaiah written in the aftermath of conquest and slavery. Virtually the whole population of Israel at that time was carted off. The story of a people gathered by God into the Promised Land had ended in war and devastation. Once, their ancestors had been freed from slavery in Egypt; now they were again held captive, imprisoned by a foreign king, and separated from their home by another cruel and harsh desert. Into this bleak reality words from Isaiah 40 broke like water in a dry land.
Comfort, O comfort my people. Build them a highway from Babylon to Palestine. Lift up every valley. Make every mountain low. Make the uneven ground level and the rough places into a plain. Remove every barrier that separates my people from their home.
The proclamation of John the Baptist, according to Mark, is the promise of freedom. It is a promise of safety. It is a promise that included everyone, young and old alike. It is a promise of streets to live in, and places to love and to be loved. Comfort is no comfort without human dignity. Comfort is small comfort if it is only about what we do privately and alone. True comfort flourishes in community where all God’s people have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But we can’t get there from here. Our second Exodus is impossible. We cannot cross into the promised land today any more than our ancestors could cross the cruel desert by themselves to return to Jerusalem from Babylon. We cannot get there, that is, without a big dose of gospel medicine John the Baptist called repentance. The advent of our God is powerful medicine administered like a giant horse-sized pill by John the Baptist who breaks the door to our sick room shouting the word, ‘repent!’ Mark’s gospel begins with some tough love. We are met in the wilderness of our soul by God’s love and judgment (which it turns out, are the same thing).
John the Baptist offers the gift of repentance, so we may hear again God’s invitation to be joined again in the undying life of the Trinity. Repentance –or metanoia—literally means, “to change one’s mind,” or “to turn around.” It is to change, not for just a moment, but through a complete turnaround or transformation of thought and action. True comfort, John the Baptist promises, comes through the death of our old self, and the beginning of our new life in Christ. Comfort comes in the waters of baptism and at the table. It comes in the living Word proclaimed in scripture and lived out among our siblings here and now.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes in Gospel Medicine that God’s “Judgment is above all about being known…all the way down. It is about being seen through, seen into, and known for who we really are. It is about the total failure of our defenses and the abject poverty of our pretensions. It is about stepping into the light, or having the light turned upon us, so that every nook and cranny of our being is illuminated for examination. It is about standing before God without our armor, our masks, our possessions, and our excuses, with nothing but our beating hearts and the slim volume of our life histories to commend us, waiting to hear God’s true word about ourselves.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995, p. 130)
Mashed potatoes and gravy can take us only so far. True comfort comes to our bed when we have good reasons to get up and get out again each morning. The beginning of the good news God’s loves. Despite your faults and your big bag of transgressions, God declares peace be upon you. Just breath. Now go into that desert of yours and help free your siblings who are still lost in their fears and imprisoned by the culture and economy of death. The power and presence of grace, incarnate in the world and in our lives, stands ready to break us open and turn us outward. Through repentance, we are set free from thinking only about ourselves.
Mark announces God’s surprising message from the prophet Isaiah—our story with God is not at an end but beginning again. There will be a second Exodus. The story of our ancestors has become our story. It is the story of our personal exodus into freedom through baptism into Christ Jesus. It is a story told by John the Baptist –a gift wrapped in camel’s hair, mixed with locusts and wild honey. The advent of the good news of Jesus Christ comes unexpectedly. Here the peace that passes understanding again to mend our hearts and renew our spirit even as the world around us remains locked in fear and darkness. The healing light of grace and forgiveness comes like the new dawn.