Advent 2: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalms 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
The Second Sunday in Advent is shaped around expectations of God acting in powerful ways on behalf of God’s people and the whole creation. The prophecy of (Second) Isaiah announces release and return to those who have been in exile for two generations. The psalmist similarly envisions a day when God brings forgiveness to the people and redemption to the land. The writer of 2 Peter assures the community that a delay in God’s deliverance does not invalidate the hope, but rather underscores God’s patience and desire to be gracious to all, even the slow of heart. Mark uses the announcement from Isaiah (in a mash-up with Micah and Ezekiel) to open the gospel story with the dramatic appearance of John the Baptizer.
All of the expectation and waiting that fills these texts lays traps for the unwary and incautious.
- The pairing of the Isaiah and Mark readings, already suggested by Mark’s use of a verse from Isaiah, can make it seem that Isaiah so clearly predicted Jesus’s appearance that anyone who “doesn’t see it” is blind, stubborn, or both.
Reading the account of prophecy and fulfillment in the New Testament as though the only thing that God meant to show the biblical prophets was that Jesus would come one day is inconsistent with what prophecy was – and is. The prophet speaks God’s word to the present day; in this case, Isaiah spoke to the sixth century bce. When a reader of the prophecy later finds more meaning in it for another time, as Mark does in the first century ce, we see the power of Scripture to speak life over and over again. We do not do well to take the life from one of those moments in order to give it to the other; God is both more faithful and more generous than that.
- The whole cluster of readings could be made to imply that biblical Israel, and therefore Jews, look only to a worldly, political savior, while Christians have a savior of righteousness and Spirit.
The vision of Isaiah certainly speaks to the “new Exodus” for which Isaiah looked as a way out of Babylonian exile and back to the homeland. The psalm’s reference to faithfulness and righteousness, steadfast love and peace meeting in a moment of redemption points to something more spiritual, and Mark shows John the Baptizer explicitly contrasting his water baptism with Jesus’s Holy Spirit baptism. The writer of Second Peter similarly speaks of “a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.”
Biblical Israel’s hope, especially in Isaiah and the psalms, cannot be restricted only to earthly hopes, though. The psalmist focuses exactly on the land’s restoration in this world; Isaiah elsewhere hymns the cosmic implications of God’s rule and redemption. Conversely, Second Peter draws visions of transcendent divine upheaval precisely to encourage very everyday, communal behaviors, and the locus of the kingdom to which Jesus will ultimately invite the disciples is in Galilee (14:26-28; 16:7). All redemption is from God, in all its multifaceted glory.
In this December of 2023, one can hardly engage with this set of passages without having at least one eye on the news headlines about the war between Hamas and Israel. It would be too easy to read the references to “Zion,” “Jerusalem,” “the land,” “the cities of Judah,” and “the fortunes of Jacob” in the Old Testament passages and compare the visions of Isaiah and the psalmist with the reality playing out in the current war. Faithfulness and righteousness bracketing the land? Glory dwelling in the land for those who fear God? A shepherd who gathers the flock in gentleness and compassion? How far from those images are the ones we see in a war zone and a massacre site!
How far, indeed. Yet we manipulate and weaponize the biblical passages if we use them only to choose sides and buttress our choice with the Bible. The underlying conflict of Israel and the Palestinians is a contest of nationalistic hopes in which both peoples have legitimate, experience-based identification with the land and few alternatives for their political self-expression. The Isaiah and Psalms passages are included in both Jewish and Christian scripture, including for Israeli Jews and Palestinian Christians. Both communities can use them to condemn the other, and neither one advances peace by using them in that way at all. Nor do we. The tragedy and devastation of the initial assault and the war it has precipitated are exactly what the prophet and the psalmist envision God bringing to an end, for the sake of all people and the whole creation. Our preaching this week does best when it embraces every human suffering with compassion and hears the promises of Isaiah, the psalmist, Second Peter, and Mark announcing that God has both a day and a way that lead us all beyond suffering to a kingdom that transcends human political divisions.