Sermon for 12/6/20:  Can we still learn something from Biblical History?

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2 Advent

Psalm 85:1 – 2, 8 – 13 ; Isaiah 40:1 – 11; 2 Peter 3:8 – 15; Mark 1:1 – 8

*Comfort, comfort my peoples, says your God. Isa. 40:1

*John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.   Mark 1:4

*But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years, as one day. II Peter 3:8


The question of the hour is a simple one: What do these three excerpts, written centuries apart, have in common, and can they really provide answers or offer guidance to us in a time long removed from them all, a time that challenges our faith in God and in ourselves?  On the surface, they could not be more different.  I stand before you on this second Sunday in Advent to declare: Like the question, the answer is a simple one. They speak of hope in uniquely different and difficult times.

Back in the day, that is to say, in my former life as an academic when I would conduct literature seminars, I would challenge my students.  To understand a text, said I, they needed to address three propositions if they were to grasp fully what the author was sharing with the reader.  First, they were to try to set a text into the environment out of which it arose.  This required a bit of work on their part, namely, to take a look at historical events of the time.

Second, they were to try to understand the text without bringing their own prejudices to it.  This, of course, was most difficult as we all come to a text, an event, even an encounter with a fellow human being, shaped by ideas that were formed from our own cultural experiences.  (Did not my own decision to choose that novel, and not another, project possibly a bias on my part?)  And third, they were to see whether there were universal values or concepts, arising out of the text, which were timeless and not limited by geographical, tribal, or cultural borders.  This latter was a subtle attempt on my part to engage my students in interdisciplinary studies.

And what, you may well ask, has this to do with Advent?  Isaiah speaks words of comfort while John the Baptist applies the lash via harsh words, and the letter of Peter reminds us that we are only travelers, passers-by in a world that God has created and maintains.  You ask of me: Why can I not speak of Advent as the journey, at the end of which we find the “sweet little Jesus Boy, he was born in a manger?”  Must I, you ask, in these trying days of our own journey, deprive us of that bit of comfort?  A bit of softness, a soothing sermon in December 2020, could help relieve tension and address uncertainty.

I come immediately to my defense, for I see in our lectionary for this Second Sunday in Advent, every example—nay, strong examples—of comfort, promise, and hope.  I pray earnestly that I have not become immune to one of the two most important events, bookends as it were, to those who acclaim Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah of God.  Without Advent, we cannot get to Easter and the Resurrection.  These two events, the birth of Christ and his death and resurrection, are inextricably linked.  They cannot be and should never be separated.  The one has no meaning without the other.  Because they cannot be observed at the same time, for each has its merit, there is the risk of a disconnect.  I explain.

The Prophet Isaiah is given an assignment from the God of the Hebrews: First, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid” (Isa. 40:1 – 2)  And the gospel according to Mark, written centuries later, introduces to us another prophet, one John the Baptist who called to the people of his time for their misdeeds.  This is from our lectionary for the Second Sunday in Advent.  And I must ask, then, what was the circumstance that provoked each writer?

My first inclination when I hear the words “comfort, comfort my people, says your God…” is to think of the magnificent, moving oratorio of George Friedrich Handel’s “The Messiah.”  And one needs not have been a chorister to appreciate the beauty and the soothing tone of that work.  Handel’s music lulls and soothes us with its message of profound comfort; and this is underscored by the musical instruments that accompany the aria.  And, taken as a stand-alone, beauty hides reality, hides the reason that Isaiah spoke those words.  The prophet Isaiah captured in his poetic lines the human predicament.  But Isaiah was a one-person fact-finding commission that sought to answer two fundamental questions: How did we Hebrews allow ourselves to get into our present predicament, and how do we get out so as to avoid a similar disaster in the future?

Isaiah spoke words of comfort to Jewish exiles in faraway Babylon (today’s Iraq).  His words could have been sung by the Jewish exiles in Babylon.  We do know what they thought, as recorded in Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion… For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth…How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:1-4).

Cyrus of PersiaIn the year 539 B.C., Cyrus, the ruler of the Persians (or, as we know them 2020, the Iranians) conquered the Babylonians (or, as we know them 2020, the Iraqis. Does that sound vaguely familiar?)  The following year, 538 BC, as was his custom, Cyrus (of Persia/Iran) allowed those Iraqi Jews—or, as we know them 2020, the Israelis—to return to Jerusalem and Judea in order to resume their customs and traditions, provided that they recognized his authority.  Around the time of Cyrus’ decree, the prophet Isaiah wrote the words for our text today.

If we were to read Isaiah as social history, we do well to recall that oral tradition was much more powerful then than today, and one way to reinforce oral tradition was to sing it or recite it as poetry.  The prophets of Israel were poets. They were the hip-hop artists of their day.  Modern translations of the Bible are helpful because, unlike some older translations, newer ones arrange many of the words of the prophets in poetic lines and verses.  Not only was Isaiah a poet, there was then, and is still today, an inherently musical quality in many of his words that musicians throughout the ages have recognized.  Handel is noteworthy, but not alone.

Question: how did they get there in the first place?  If we lay aside the long geo-political, empirical, and imperial history of the area where the struggles of today play out (and [have] been the struggles for centuries) the response, stripped of all national and nationalistic verbiage, [is]: the Hebrews or Israelites failed to set an example of putting God first and neighbor as self.  They had leaders who failed them.  Leaders and the elite sought their own physical comfort at the expense of others, instead of remembering their role as exemplars, as a people whose call into existence was to show the wideness in God’s mercy. They had become smug, almost a private club.

The Jewish exiles in Babylon (Iraq) needed comfort; for they knew all too well that human flesh was as weak and frail as the grass and flowers that flourished briefly on the Judean hillsides before being blasted and withered by the hot, dry winds.  In their heart of hearts, they knew (or should have known) that the bubble, where they sought only their increase of wealth and power and forgot to take care of neighbor, would burst.  They knew or should have known and learned from history, the ancient story Joseph and the years of famine, where the Israelites should have, but did not plan; should have, but did not treat the earth with care.  The generation in Babylon is the consequence of those who had chosen to eat, drink and be merry.

They found themselves, because of policies of previous generations continued by themselves, subsequently financially and militarily outmaneuvered by the Babylonians (Iraqis).  They had seen the Babylonian chariots sweep down on them like the desert winds; they had seen Jerusalem and Solomon’s great temple burn like so much dry grass.  And like dry straw scattered, some of them had gone into exile in Egypt and some were taken as human collateral into Babylon.  Their leaders had failed to lead.  If the Israelites were to claim “one nation, under God, indivisible,” then they had responsibility to hear what God was saying to God’s people.  They chose not to hear and, in so doing, they discovered their nation divided and overrun by outside forces.  Their decline came from within.John_the_Baptist_in_the_Wilderness_Anonymous

This is the same message that John the Baptist delivered in his own day.  Ultimately, it cost him his life.  John wanted to bring his clansmen back to the Covenant accepted by Abraham, a covenant that needed to be renewed and restructured, generation after generation.  We, through our belief in Jesus of Nazareth, are linked to that prophetic tradition and to that Eternal Covenant that states God created and creates humans to be in community with each other.  The chroniclers of our day—called pundits, anchormen and –women, and commentators—have, many of them, overlooked or underestimated the good news that the Church brings if it is true to its calling; news that we bring throughout the year, but especially at Advent.

Whereas we bemoan the agony, the anxiety, the stress, the real physical calamity of ourselves and our fellow beings during difficult times, as we now 2020 experience at home and abroad, we, as believers of the eternal presence and goodness of God, are not a people without hope.  We reach out to each other and to those in need, not because it prepares us for heaven, but because it mirrors God’s plan for the Creation.  It is the contract that we signed when we were baptized into Christ’s fellowship.  That is our covenant with the Divine One.  In the vernacular I say to you, God is in it for the long haul, which is expressed so much more eloquently in the second letter of Peter: But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. (I Peter 3:8)

Advent reminds us that we, too, are exiles.  The exiles in Babylon were able to look forward to better times because, in recalling former times, they came to recognize that it was they who disavowed God, not conversely.

Like the exiles in Babylon, like the estrangement of the upper class from the middle and lower classes in the days of John the Baptist, whose voice cried out in the wilderness “prepare ye the way of the Lord,” we, too, live in challenging times;  2020 has taken its toll on nations through the world, not only our own.  And the world longs for a corrective course.  Should we here at St. James despair, or should we look thoroughly at resources available that may yet bring us forward?  We shall be worthy of the name “Christian,” if, and only if, we march on towards that goal that God’s Christ has set before us.

We know, as the letter of Peter reminds us, that God is constant.  If we would but listen and have faith, there is a future when we will be given a new song to sing, not a song of exile, but a song of triumph, because we listened to, heeded the voice of one crying in the wilderness of our own misdeeds “make straight the way of the Lord.” That all shall be well, should we only return to the source of our being—that is our 2020 Advent, a time not limited to four weeks, but a time that begins anew each day, when we arise from our sleep to share in God’s creation.  Amen




Comfort Ye:


John the Baptist:,_Saint_John_the_Baptist_in_the_Wilderness.jpg