Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
Here’s what you need to know about Isaiah to understand the peculiar mixed emotions of the passage we heard this morning:
Almost all of what comes before this passage was written in the time of a historical prophet named Isaiah. Isaiah served in Judah, that is, the Southern Kingdom of the Hebrews.
The Isaiah of history wrote as the Northern Kingdom, aka Israel, was being conquered by Assyria. His advice to the Southern King was basically “Let’s stay out of this: Those northerners have it coming to them. Unfortunately, dear King, so do we here in the south.” The proclamation of Isaiah is mostly pretty grim stuff.
Now fast forward. The second part of Isaiah, was written by that prophet’s followers like 150 years later, during a time of relative celebration. Yes, Jerusalem had been destroyed. Yes, the Judeans of the Southern Kingdom had been taken into Exile by new conquerors: Babylon.
But at the time of this writing, the captivity is ending. King Cyrus of Persia, who is in the process of defeating Babylon, will probably allow the captives to return to their lands.
OK, why does any of this matter?
Partly because the words we heard today make up the opening passage of this second part of the book. After all the doom and gloom of Chapters 1–39, Isaiah 40 begins with a word of comfort.
It’s not a bad first lyric from an Isaiah tribute band, right? It sounded pretty good when we sang it on this way in this morning, and the Bible’s version is worth hearing again:
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.
This is the sober celebration of a people who have been through the ringer and know they may not have seen the end of it. For the moment things are looking up, though, and that’s not nothing.
The rest of the passage is full of similarly mixed emotions:
Notice that although the forces “making way” in the wilderness are surely righteous, the preparations also bring upheaval. Making way for the Lord is literally remaking the geography.
Notice that the voice crying out also has a word of warning, tinged with memory and regret: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.” It’s as if these distant descendants of Isaiah cannot help but wring their hands: “What’s to prevent us from squandering our good fortune once again?”
And then notice that the closing words of the passage turn on a dime. The metaphors move beyond “mixed” into “almost contradictory”:
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
Notice finally that all this is the source material for yet another poetic tribute. This one came along later still and was compiled as a remix by the artist we know as Mark the Evangelist.
Mark draws on the collective memory of those exiles on the cusp of return to tell the story of John the Baptist preparing the way in the wilderness. This time, deliverance takes the form not of a benign foreign conqueror but a Savior who is from God and of God.
Even the proclamation of John the Baptist, in my reading, brings together those dueling impulses from Isaiah: dread justice and tender compassion.
If you don’t believe me, ask a person who’s had the tremendous privilege of baptizing someone, or hearing a private confession of sins. I don’t care how scraggly his beard was or how many self-righteous leaders he threatened; you can’t be The Baptizer and not have a softer side. You can’t be a prophet and long for justice only and not also the end of hostilities.
I believe we cannot help but talk about God’s mighty deliverance and God’s tender mercy in the very same breath. These authors certainly understood the deeply mixed emotions that come when we dare to hope during or even after a great struggle.
Such mixed emotions carry an important piece of spiritual wisdom for our times, and for the many challenges ahead of us.
The values of hospitality to the stranger, protection for the vulnerable, stewardship of creation, and a just peace on all the earth—these seem to be fast disappearing from our leaders’ list of national priorities.
You probably know someone who is burning hot and bright right now in response, a John the Baptist in his most hellfire-y mode.
Perhaps you’ve “raged out” yourself recently. I know I have.
This is as it should be. Righteous anger is an unparalleled tool for change, especially as it becomes discerning and directed and self-aware.
We need voices crying out in the wilderness. We need reminders of God’s high expectations for us. We need to each take our turn being those voices, on Twitter or the Congressional hotlines or in the classroom or around the dinner table.
We also need to speak tenderly, and be spoken to in kind. We need spaces where we let our guard down and entrust our souls to the people around us. We need intimate human connection, a moment of laughter with a friend, a quiet sigh of appreciation or awe.
We need … not escape or even refuge per se but the perspective and restoration that comes in the midst of sacred moments: of joy, of love, of trust. Those are the sustaining gifts we long to be shared among more of our neighbors more of the time, and to be a greater part of our own lives as well.
If we must find ourselves in the midst of chaos and injustice, Advent is an appropriate time for it. This season of waiting and preparation right on the cusp of hope puts that hope in perspective. And gives it a name.
For Isaiah’s followers, that hope was Zion, the long-awaited return to Jerusalem, to rebuild and worship freely. For us, it is a baby in a manger. Advent will help remind us of all we live and long for, if we let it.
So speak prophetically or tenderly, as the occasion demands. Strike the elusive but life-giving balance shown to us by the prophets, and given as one of many gifts from our saving Prince of Peace.