Second Sunday of Advent; 6 December 2020; Advent IIB (RCL); Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8.
For over a century, biblical scholars have recognized that something shifts in the Book of Isaiah at 40:1. The voice speaking is no longer Isaiah of Jerusalem, who is speaking judgment and forecasting the siege and capture of Jerusalem as punishment for her sins. Instead, the frame of reference now shifts to post-exilic times. Jerusalem has paid for her sins, and God is returning to her.
Other prophets imagined a time when those exiled from Jerusalem and Judah would return along a straight and level road through the wilderness, unlike the 40 years of wilderness wandering of the Exodus. Some even imagined that the northern tribes, exiled by Assyria, would join the return to Jerusalem. Not even a fool could wander from this new way through the wilderness.
What makes Isaiah 40 unique in the prophetic tradition is that the highway is for God’s return to Jerusalem. The glory of God will travel along that road. The imagery is still the imagery of Exodus, when God’s glory travels with the tabernacle through the desert. In this section of Isaiah, Jerusalem awaits God’s return along the wilderness road.
Mark contributes a stunning bit of theology by quoting this passage from Isaiah (mashed up with a quote from Malachi about Elijah return before God’s return) as the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. An Elijah figure is in the wilderness, announcing the preparation of the King’s Highway for God’s return. And then Jesus shows up in the wilderness.
Mark is announcing God’s return in the person of Jesus. Like Paul, Mark sees the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the inauguration of God’s new kingdom characterized by God’s righteousness. Like Paul, Mark expected the completion of that return soon. The thirteenth chapter of his Gospel signals that expectation.
The passage we hear from 2 Peter deals with the delay of that expectation. The imagery is Stoic, imagining the elements of the world dissolved by fire, so that the demiurge can remake the cosmos. But we are still living with that delay.
What does it mean to think we are living in the inaugural period of God’s righteous reign? I think the human tendency (certainly it was the tendency of the Stoics) is to think that perfection lies in the past. Once upon a time, everything was as it should be, and things have been decaying ever since. For the Stoics, change always meant decay. In our circumstance, we look nostalgically to the past, and bemoan how things are changing, socially, culturally, economically, politically, etc.
I think fundamentalisms of all sorts live in this nostalgia. Back when we all believed the Bible, everything was the way it should be. Back when the Constitution was written, things were the way they should be. Back when the country was all white (and the only non-whites knew their place), life was the way it should be. Back when we all lived in small towns, life was great. Fundamentalisms let us combine our religion with our political ideologies, but they always look back to a world that never was.
Isaiah and Mark are expecting a future in which God will be present among us. This is not to make the liberal theological mistake and think that we can bring about the kingdom through progress of whatever sort, but gives us a say of critiquing the way things are now, without longing for a past that never was. It also gives us hope — we are living in the inaugural phase of that new future, but it remains incompletely realized.
The prophets’ critiques of the present day sound all the more clearly when held up to an imagined future, rather than to an imagined past. What kind of community would we build if we could? That is what God invites us toward. And, to my mind, the stunning thing about the Christian imagination, is that this new imagined future does not involve the punishment of God’s enemies. The Book of Consolation (Isaiah from chapter 40 onward) sees the suffering of the servant as redemptive for the rest of the world. Mark’s Gospel, following Paul, sees Jesus’ death as the final vindication over death itself. God has accepted the worst humans can do to one another into the divine self, so that we need exact that vengeance from one another.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says our God.