Into the wilderness

7 December 2014
Second Sunday of Advent
Advent 2B (RCL)
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Mark conflates several quotations from the Old Testament in this opening passage. Exodus 23:20-21 reads “See, I am sending an angel before you to guard you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared. Be attentive to him and heed his voice.” Malachi 3:1 reads “Lo, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me; and suddenly there will come to the Temple the Lord whom you seek, and the messenger of the covenant whom you desire.” And, of course Isaiah 40:3 reads, “A voice cries out: ‘in the desert prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God.” By conflating these three quotations, Mark manages to allude to the people’s first entry into the land (Exodus), the return from Exile (Isaiah), and the expected final return of God to the Temple (Malachi). John the Baptist is pressed into service to announce all three events. Jesus is the promise of all three.

Mark then tells us that John is baptizing at the Jordan. This would have been seen as a political act, calling into question the legitimacy of the Jerusalem regime. If John is gathering a people in the wilderness to enter the land through the Jordan, he is taking the place of Joshua, leading the people in the first time to claim the land. The locusts and honey would have been seen as famine food, just like the manna was on the first journey through the wilderness. Mark pack a huge sweep through the history of Israel in a few short sentences.

Isaiah invites us to see the differences between the first exodus and the expected return from Exile. The first time, the people wandered for forty years in the wilderness. This time, they will travel on a straight and level highway. It is interesting that Mark uses this image at the beginning of his Gospel; Mark is the Gospel which relates Jesus journey to Jerusalem in the most direct fashion. From start to finish, Jesus is directly on his way to Jerusalem. Blind Bartimaeus is the only character in Mark’s Gospel who follows Jesus “on the way.” He alone sees where all of this is leading. Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfill all three expectations: entry into the land, return from Exile and final establishment of the kingdom.

The reading from 2 Peter is there to explain the delay of the parousia. Paul and Mark had set up the expectation that these things would happen immediately, especially now that Jerusalem had been destroyed. The author of 2 Peter has to explain to his community that this might take a while.

For us now, it is an important reminder that we are still “on the way.” Mark’s expectations remain unfulfilled. Our hopes and expectations in many ways remain unfulfilled. Advent is a good season for us to go out again, with John, into the wilderness, and to be reminded that we will always be a people “on the way.” John baptizes people into a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of their (the people’s) sins. As the go out into the wilderness and then re-enter the land, they confess and repent of the sins of the people. They have to identify those sins, and then allow themselves to be retrained (that’s what repentance means) away from the sins. As long as we live in this meantime, on the way, we have to face the things that are wrong and begin to be retrained. It’s hard work, and we have to be willing to return to the wilderness, to see that the way things are is not the promise of God and that we are still on the way.

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