“Longing for the Messenger”Dr. Lee Carter Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8 Year B - The Second Sunday in Advent
How long, O Lord? How long do we have to endure the “new normal?”
How much more can we endure the delay until a long-awaited messenger brings us the news that our season of anxiety and fear is over?
Our patience is growing thin. Certainly, the antidote, the solution, the remedy is out there!
How beautiful will be the day when the herald announces that relief is finally coming, that this dreadful, restricting season is finally behind us!
Look what our confinement has done to our families, our marriages, our plans, our battles with depression. Our hopes for a quick resolution have been dashed. When will the news come that will bring us consolation and hope that the days of this scourge are finally coming to an end and we can all be restored once again to the glorious way things, at least as we remember them, were before?
I am speaking, of course, of the spirit of Advent. What? Did you think I was referring to the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic? If so, then maybe during this season of Advent we will be better able to share spiritual kinship with the people of faith in ages past who longed for God’s messenger to bring them good news of restoration and with it the motivation and empowerment to start over.
If you feel tired and spiritually depleted by wading through the frustrating and exhausting days of the “New Normal,” then perhaps you are ready to hear with fresh ears the familiar Scriptures that we read this time every year about longing, waiting, and trying not to lose hope until the day comes when the messenger of good news appears:
“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, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:1-2)
Thus, opens not only the familiar lines that begin Handel’s “Messiah” but one of the grandest passages in our Bible, Isaiah 40-55. Luke refers to the promises of these chapters as “the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25) for within them is contained not only the assurance that God has not abandoned His people but will restore to them back to wholeness, but the amazing prophecies of the suffering Servant of God, the “Righteous One who would make many righteous,” who would be “wounded for our transgressions” and “bear the sin of many” (Isaiah 53).
It is unimaginable that anyone who bears the name of Christ can fail to see in this magnificent passage the promises that God gave to the people of old about the future coming of his Messiah.
As an instructor in the Bible who was fortunate enough to teach in a good number of prisons in the state of North Carolina, I always enjoyed looking into the eyes of the incarcerated when I read the opening verses of Isaiah 40, as their faces beamed while they were no doubt daydreaming of the day when a messenger brought them the good news that their term of confinement was over, that they should prepare themselves to be released.
We can only imagine how joyous the news came to the Judahites, then quarantined along the rivers of Babylon, that their exile was coming to an end, that God would prove true to His promises, and that it was time to go home.
The good news of salvation and hope would come to them through a messenger, described in Isaiah 40:3 simply as a “voice.”
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3-5).
Within these verses is contained the hopes and dreams of all who long for justice and equity. The road to restoration is ever the design of God. And finally, everyone will catch a remarkable and clear glimpse of the ultimate divine plan.
Of course, Isaiah is not the only prophet who foretold the coming of this “herald of good tidings.” The final book of our Old Testament bears the name “Malachi,” not because that was the name of the prophet, but because the coming of God’s messenger was the grand theme of the whole book:
“See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 3:1).
The final climax of our Old Testament heralds the coming of the Messenger as the new Elijah: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:5,6).
How fitting then, that Mark, the first gospel ever written according to modern scholars, opens where the Old Testament left off:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”
In a moment of profound inspiration, Mark combines the two great Old Testament passages about the Messenger from Isaiah and Malachi, and points to their fulfillment in the coming of John the Baptist.
Mark tells us: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
John the Baptist pointed to the coming restoration, to the imminent consolation of Israel, to the arrival of the Lord’s Messiah. He called his people to gather in the wilderness, the setting where God first called them, where that marriage contract, that defined relationship with God called the covenant, was first ratified.
The wilderness, the scene of that first honeymoon between God and Israel as the prophet Hosea had put it, was a fitting place for Israel to return to its roots, through repentance and re-commitment.
Now this John was a rough and tumble fellow. He was as outdoorsy as he was outspoken. He was raw but he spoke the hard truth.
His attire was coarse and homespun, like the rugged, hairy covering of the original Elijah. His breakfast, lunch and dinner hardly consisted of the five food groups! Locusts and wild honey were his ordinary fare. But to him was passed the mantle of Elijah, the signature of the prophetic line from of old.
For with the arrival of God’s messenger, John, the spirit of prophecy, that was thought by many as hopelessly lost forever, had indeed returned. God was indeed about to do new things. The world stood under the precipice of change. A powerful earthquake, as it were, would reverse its entrenched power structures.
The messenger pointed to the coming of the one who would inaugurate God’s Kingdom, who would upend the “new normal” and bring this old weary world under the new, righteous and equitable management of God.
Hope fulfilled was just around the corner. The wait was over. The messenger of the gospel was here! The time of restoration stood at the cusp. God’s promised Messiah stood in the wings, ready to be finally revealed.
The gospel of Mark seems too intent on presenting Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as the crucified savior of sinners than to spend time on birth stories. He also seems to be in a breathless hurry to race immediately to the cross, where the identity of Jesus as God’s suffering servant, promised by Isaiah, would be revealed at last to humanity by the very man, a Roman centurion, in charge of the cruel crucifixion detail (Mark 15:39): “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
I have had students who have described Mark as a “lean, gospel-proclaiming machine.” That is not far off base. The Old Testament promised the Messenger. John the Baptist was that Messenger. The Messenger pointed directly to Jesus as God’s promised healer of the broken hearted, the One who would comfort His people, who would make every valley and mountain a plain so they could find the road to restoration, the path home again.
Through God’s suffering Servant we see the power of God at work even in our obstinate, unregenerate and recalcitrant world. Through God’s Messiah we see our own short-comings, our obsession with self, our desire to use any means necessary to further our own egoist aims and cravings for recognition, for power, for ill-gotten gain.
Our Lord has made clear to us what we need to be saved from. His righteousness puts us to shame but by His righteousness and His righteousness alone, he accounts us as restored to right relationship with God. As unfathomable as it is to say it, He thought we were worth dying for.
It is with joy, thanksgiving and mere wonder that we sing the familiar carols of Christmas. Our Lord’s coming does indeed mean joy to the world. Early in the season of Advent we often sing
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
The carol reminds the gloomy experience of Judah in exile in Babylon, as they waded through the “new normal” of captivity. Trying to hold on to a fading hope, they held tight to God’s promises of a better day. Perhaps we, who are so tired of quarantine, of frustrated expectations, and of unsettling anxieties about our troubled world, can learn something from those who felt so overjoyed by the message of hope and comfort promised by the prophet.
Perhaps our experience of awaiting the messenger who announces the promise of a successful vaccine might more keenly sensitize us to the meaning of Advent as expressed so touchingly by the carol:
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight
Of course, the carol does not end there.
We who trust in God affirm our faith through praise:
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel.
Just as those who experienced captivity in Babylon trusted God for guidance and wisdom in order that they not waste their time wallowing in self-pity, may God make us stronger in character, more mindful of the importance of gathering weekly as a church, more appreciative of our leaders, and more determined not to lose hope but to look for new and creative opportunities to express our faith and love through novel experiments in ministry.
May God help us not to waste what we have learned from our trials during the trying time of global pandemic and may God help us to grow as heralds of the gospel and as messengers of hope and good will.
May we learn to make ourselves this Advent season bearers of God’s comfort and joy.
About the Writer:
The Rev. R. Lee Carter, Ph.D., has served as pastor of the North Chapel Hill Baptist Church (Chapel Hill, NC) since 1994. He also is a professor of Religion at William Peace University (Raleigh, NC), and serves as the William C. Bennett Chaplain there. He is a graduate of Furman University, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been married to Pamela Weatherly Carter since 1975 and they have two grown children, Jonathan and Christa, two grandsons, Charlie and Sammy, and a granddaughter, Leila.
Scripture and Music:
2 Peter 3:8-15
Hope of the World
Canticle of Hope
Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus
Angels from the Realms of Glory
Hymn of Promise
I Was Glad (Hubert Parry)
They Shall Know Him When He Comes (Hal Hopson)
Let Our Gladness Know No End (Herman Schroeder)
There’s A Song in the Air (Lloyd Larson)
Noel Nouvelet (arr. Richard Zgodava)
O Holy Night
Mary, Did You Know
Then Shall the Righteous Shine Forth (Mendelssohn)