This is the way

Sermon Title:  This is the Way

Date: 7 December 2014

Preacher: Kate Lord

Church Calendar Date:  Second Sunday of Advent 2014

Lectionary Reading:  Isaiah 40:1-11,  Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, Mark 1:1-8

 

In the name of our Trinitarian God.  Amen.

You may recall that, in last week’s sermon, I referred to the resurrection account in Mark’s gospel, in which the disciples are told to go back to Galilee.  From this, we understand that we are instructed to go back to the beginning of Mark’s gospel, to read it again and to be changed by our encounter with Christ.  How fortuitous that the gospel reading for the second Sunday in Advent this year takes us back to the very beginning of this gospel according to Mark!  Since we will be reading this gospel most Sundays for the next 12 months, and since this passage is our introduction to the gospel, I will be going through it today, verse by verse.  Because these 165 words have more hidden in them than you might have realised.

As we go through these verses, keep in mind that this second Sunday of Advent is about the prophets who were God’s messengers throughout the Old Testament.  We will be looking to learn from them about the coming of Christ.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”.  Scholars differ on what is “beginning” here.  Some suggest that, since Jesus will proclaim the good news, the work of John the Baptist is the beginning that is being announced.[1]  Others suggest that the good news is that the reign of Christ in the kingdom of God has been ushered in, and that the entire gospel is, therefore, the beginning of this story that continues today. [2]  I will be working with this second understanding, and taking this first verse as a title for the entire gospel, and this first paragraph as the introduction.

Mark tells us straight up who Jesus is.  He is the Christ, the Son of God.  As we read this gospel, we are to be in no doubt about this fact.  For the next eight chapters, however, Jesus will try to keep his identity secret from all who encounter him in the story.

This literary feature of Mark’s gospel is called “the Messianic secret”.  God the Father names Jesus, at his baptism, “my Son, the Beloved”, but no-one else hears the voice (1:11).  Demons name Jesus, “the Holy One of God” and “Son of God”, but he silences them (1:24-25, 34; 3:11-12).  People whom Jesus heals are instructed not to tell anyone (1:44).  It is not until chapter 8, verse 27, that Jesus addresses, with his disciples, the issue of his identity.  But you and I know from the start, and we need to read this into every story.

The very first thing we get, after the title of the gospel, is a quote from the prophets.  We are told that the quote is from Isaiah, but this is only half of the story!  We recognise, from this morning’s reading from Isaiah, the words “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3).  The people of Israel understood the context of Isaiah’s words, found at the beginning of his message of liberation.  At the time of the prophet’s writing, in the 6th century B.C.E., the Israelites were in exile in Babylon.  Isaiah encouraged them to look for divine intervention that would redeem Israel from captivity, like a second Exodus.  The writer of Mark’s gospel would have known the longing that would well up in the hearts of his Jewish listeners at the words of Isaiah.

However, the first part of the quotation, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”, is not from Isaiah.  It is from Exodus, with influence from the prophet Malachi.  We should not see this as a mistaken quotation on the part of the author, however!  It was not uncommon, in the literature of the time, to attribute composite quotations to a single author.[3]  The original hearers of these words would have been steeped in what we call the Old Testament, and would instantly have heard echoes of the stories from which they were taken.  The common thread here is the concept of “the way”.  In Exodus, an angel is sent to lead the way for the nation of Israel, from captivity into the Promised Land (Exodus 23:20).  The prophet Malachi, the final voice in the Old Testament, declares that a messenger is being sent to prepare the way before the Lord (Malachi 3:1).  Now, the writer of Mark’s gospel is declaring that a new messenger is being sent to prepare the way of the Lord.

It is at this point that John the Baptist enters the story.  Can you feel the expectation that has already been built up in the first three verses?!  After the allusions to three stories and prophecies, another messenger comes proclaiming a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins.  We are not told of the location of the wilderness whence John comes, but the concept of wilderness reminds us again of Israel’s 40-year sojourn in the desert, as well as Isaiah’s words.

This verse also gives us a hint of the way that will be made: repentance and forgiveness of sins will make a straight path in people’s hearts, making them “receptive to the message and ministry of the Lord”.[4]

The statement that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to meet” John (Mark 1:5) need not be taken literally.  But it does give us an understanding, both of the scale of response that was required of the nation of Israel to prepare for the coming of Christ, and of the success of John’s ministry.[5]

The next description is both wonderfully vivid and highly evocative.  “John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey”.  When the early hearers of this story heard this description, however, they would have exclaimed, as did King Ahaziah in the book of 2 Kings, “It is Elijah the Tishbite!” (2 Kings 1:8).  You see, Elijah had also been “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist”.  John has been cast in the role of the returning Elijah, the prophet who had not died, but had been taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:9-12)!  And whom the prophet Malachi says would return before the “day of the Lord” as forerunner of the Messiah![6]

We now have the word of God to the Israelites at their Exodus, the example of Elijah, the hopes of Isaiah, and the prophecies of Malachi all pointing to the fact that John the Baptist is preparing the way for the Lord!  And all in the first three verses.

What is the message that John has for us?  First he tells us that he precedes one who is more powerful than he.  What does he mean by this?  We need to understand who has the power in this world.  It is the rich and the famous and the influential who have power.  And what is this power?  It is power to keep people captive.  Throughout Mark’s gospel, such powers will be referred to as demonic.  But Jesus is more powerful than all of these, and he comes to liberate people from the demonic forces that hold them captive.  Through the numerous exorcisms that Jesus performs, we will learn that he comes to reclaim human lives and human society for the freedom of the Kingdom of God.[7]

The second message that John has for us is that the coming Christ will baptise us with the Holy Spirit.  Just as Jesus, after his baptism, goes on to work in the Spirit to cast out evil spirits that hold people captive, so we, by virtue of our baptism, will be able to liberate those who are held captive by the powers of this world.[8]

This is ‘the way’ to which we, as Christians, are called.  Repentance of sins and forgiveness make a way in our hearts to hear the message of Christ.  When we hear the liberating teachings of Jesus, and when our hearts are open to the working of the Holy Spirit, we will join God in the work of setting people free from the captivities of human making, of our own making.

So what are the powers that hold people captive today?  One only has to turn on the news to learn this.  Intergenerational unemployment and poverty.  Drug production, dealing and addiction.  Crime and vote-seeking punitive measures.  Media-driven ideals of beauty and 24-hour news cycles.  Politics, and the popularity polls that seem to influence politicians more than the plight of people.  The diminishment of community and the fear that keeps us wary of strangers.  Capitalism and materialism, at the expense of the safety and dignity of overseas workers.  The hunger for energy that drives the manufacturing and entertainment industries, and the destruction of our earth to feed that hunger.  War and terrorism and famine and disease.  The plight of refugees, and the inhuman and inhumane treatment they receive on our behalf.

These are some of the demonic powers that hold people captive.  These are the powers that Jesus came to defeat.  The contest between Christ and the demonic powers of this world is underway.  Whenever human beings respond to the call of the gospel with repentance and faith, the hope of the coming of the kingdom of God is realised.[9]  You and I, as baptised Christians, are also called to exorcise the demonic forces of this world by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We are called to liberate humanity from captivity, so that all people might live in the freedom of the kingdom of God.

This Advent, may we prepare the way of the Lord by making straight paths in our hearts, repenting of the roles we have played in keeping our brothers and sisters captive.  May we understand the fullness of the forgiveness that is offered through Jesus Christ, so that we may be free to undertake the work of God through the Holy Spirit.  May we work together to continue the work begun John the Baptist, who cried, (sing) “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”.

 

[1] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (London: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), p. 33.

[2] Brendan Byrne, SJ, A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel (Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2008), p. 24.

[3] Byrne, A Costly Freedom, p. 25.

[4] Byrne, A Costly Freedom, p. 27.

[5] Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark, p. 37.

[6] Byrne, A Costly Freedom, p. 28.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark, p. 38.

[9] Byrne, A Costly Freedom, p. 8.