Sunday, December 10, 2017

(Un)comfortable Words

A Sermon preached on 10th December 2017, Advent II, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

Last week, on the first Sunday in Advent and of the new Church year, Douglas+ struck lucky and got to preach on one of the apocalyptic passages in Mark, so all about suffering, the sun darkening, the moon not giving any light, the stars falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens being shaken. All I get is the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, which is the Gospel most of our readings will be coming from this church year. This is because these first 8 verses also introduce John the Baptist and the second Sunday in Advent is John’s Sunday. 

The beginning of Mark is a very abrupt beginning! Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury has this to say:
“Mark pushes Jesus on to the stage without a word of introduction. He doesn’t tell you who this is beyond the name and his function – no family background, no Christmas story. The curtain goes up with a clatter and there on stage is the central figure … the anointed one.”[1] And that was just the first verse. Mark then moves immediately on to introducing John the baptizer. He also has no back story but just “appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4)

One reason why Mark introduces John so early on is because Jesus’ active adult ministry begins when John baptizes him, an event that follows the passage we heard today. The other reason is because his story about Jesus is good news, and there can be no good news without a messenger.  John, as a new prophet in Isaiah’s and Elijah’s succession, is the first messenger, the one who announces Jesus coming: “The one who is more powerful than I (…) coming after me.” (1:7)

Announcing something or someone is then one role of a prophet. We see that in Isaiah, who in this morning’s reading is tasked by God to announce that Israel will soon return from exile. Previously Isaiah had had to announce judgment and punishment, now salvation! That leads us to another role of a prophet often described as both “comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable.”  
Comforting the afflicted is certainly the role we see given to Isaiah. God’s first very clear instructions to him are: “Comfort, O comfort my people.” (Is. 40:1) And the passage that follows is full of words of comfort. The path back to Judah will be made easy and the Lord himself will lead the people home. “The word of (…) God will stand forever.”  (40:8) God is described in tender, almost feminine terms: “He will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” (40:11) And Jerusalem will become much more than just a city of the Jews. It will be a herald of good tidings to all of Judah and beyond. (40:9) The glory of the Lord, which was supposed to be contained in the Holy of Holies in the center of the temple, will be revealed to all people! (40:5) At the end of a week when the President Trump foolishly, dangerously and shortsightedly announced that for the US Jerusalem will be recognized – just – as Israel’s capital, this passage is a reminder that even in the Old Testament God’s prophets were preaching against an exclusive and for a universal Jerusalem, open and welcoming and belonging to all nations.

But Isaiah’s comforting words come with a couple of hidden barbs. The affliction that they are being comforted for and released from, their exile, was itself the result of judgement and punishment: “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.” (40:2) Israel had gone wrong, they had left God’s way of justice and peace. And before they get too proud and start putting “Israel first,” Isaiah reminds them of their mortality and that all human things and empires will fade:
“All people are grass; their constancy is like the flower of the field. … The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” (40:6-8)

Turning now to Mark, it would appear that John the Baptist’s specialty is more afflicting the comfortable!  In Mark’s hurried story telling we don’t hear what John calls some of the people who come to see him on the river Jordan. We have to turn to Matthew and Luke instead to hear John say to the crowds “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7-9) But even in Mark John’s teaching is uncomfortable. He wants people to change – and we never like doing that. To repent means to turn around and go the right way. He promises, looking ahead to Jesus, even more change. To receive the Holy Spirit, which like wind or breath is constantly on the move, is to be open to surprises, to new developments and by acknowledging God within us to keep our feet firmly on God’s way, wherever it may lead.

And yet this message is also a comforting one. Those who came to John were suffering. They were afflicted by guilt, uncertainty and by fear. John offers two comforts. Release through confession and baptism and hope when he points forward to Jesus who offers reconciliation with God and one another. Change is necessary for comfort. When we read between the lines, John’s message is not unlike Isaiah’s. God offers us comfort, we believe in the person of Jesus, but we have to be ready for it.

But we don’t just have this passage so we can hear about John the Baptist’s deeds as a prophet and herald … and then forget about them until next Advent. We have this passage because we are John’s successors in preparing the way of the Lord and as modern-day prophets. The Quaker writer Antoinette Doolittle has this to say:
“Every cycle has its prophets – as guiding stars; and they are the burning candles of the Lord to light the spiritual temple on earth, for the time being. When they have done their work, they will pass away; but the candlestick will remain and other lights will be placed in them.”[2]

We are the lights – because we have to light up the way. We are the prophets who have to afflict the comfortable, and remind them that too often their comfort comes at another’s cost – today’s poor, the Global South, and also when we ignore all warnings about the environment, of future generations: our children and children’s children. And we must remind them that their comfort is as short lived and as likely to wither as the grass and the flowers of the fields. Only the word of God will stand forever.

Likewise, we comfort the afflicted by working for change today, bringing justice and peace. We offer encouragement and strength by giving them, to use the language of the first Book of Common Prayer, comfortable words about the one whose way we follow. Like John, we point to the one who has the power of God. To the one we are not worthy even to be a servant too, and yet who accepts and welcomes us as his sisters and brothers and partners. To Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord. Amen.

[1] Rowan Williams, Meeting God in Mark, p. 25
[2] Found in Unearthly Beauty by Magdalen Smith, p. 58

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