The gospel reading for this morning was the opening eight verses of the Gospel of Mark. And after a brief preamble, in which the evangelist writes, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” letting us know what sort of story we are going to hear, we get a quote from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah foretold of one who would come to make straight the paths before the coming of the Lord. Then, so there will be no mistake about who this text refers to, Mark introduces the wild and wooly prophet of the New Testament, whom he calls John the Baptizer.
This is how Mark bridges the distance of roughly five centuries. Mark reduces that time gap of half a millennium by following the words of the prophet Isaiah with the words of John the Baptist. In doing so, Mark reveals that the story of God's love, begun in the creation, is ongoing. As it was foretold long ago, so now God’s story takes up anew with the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God.
This gap between the Old and New Testaments is one more familiar to us. Even if you did not know how long a gap was involved, you probably already knew that there was a break between the two testaments. We encountered a similar break in Isaiah 40, though this one was less obvious.
The earliest Christian writers whose works were revered, but not included in the Bible are usually called as a group, the Church Fathers, and they wrote in the first five centuries of Christianity. These early commentators on scripture agree with modern scholars that there is a considerable gap of time between Isaiah 39 and Isaiah 40. In chapters 1-39, the prophet warns that if the people do not repent and return to the Lord then Jerusalem will fall to its enemies. History shows that this very thing happened.
In 587 B.C., the Babylonian army defeated Israel and took the bulk of the populace, including all of the leadership, into captivity in Babylon. The Jewish people remained in this Babylonian captivity for 48 years. Isaiah chapter 39 was written about Israel’s impending doom. For example, in chapter 39, verse 6, the prophet wrote, “Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left says the Lord.”
This prophecy did nothing to make Isaiah popular. You see, the people of Israel had assumed that as God’s people, God would protect them from any real harm. Surely God would not let Jerusalem and its Temple fall into the hands of the enemy.
Yet the prophets warned that the people were to repent – to turn away from sin, to turn back to God. The prophets warned that unless Israel acted like the People of God they were created to be, God’s protection would not hold.
Jerusalem did fall to the Babylonians, bringing a great social, political, and theological tragedy. After all, how do we know if God loves and cares for us when we see all we care about crumbling around us? Where is God when your dreams lie smashed at your feet?
Isaiah 40 comes into the crushing reality of defeat with a very different word from God. In the midst of the distress created by their defeat in battle and deportation to a foreign land, God sends the prophet to call out, “Comfort, O comfort my people.”
Then we get the words that connect this passage in Isaiah 40 to the opening of Mark’s gospel, for the prophet writes:
“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.’”
Prepare the way for the Lord. This was Isaiah’s message, and it is John’s message as the New Testament opens more than five centuries after Isaiah. Isaiah goes on with a not-too-comforting message, reminding us of how transitory human life is from God’s perspective. He writes, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.”
What then is permanent? What then shall we count on?
The prophet answers that it is God’s word that never fails. He writes, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” It is this word of God that endures.
Isaiah, having reminded the people of how temporary they are, then reminds them of the everlasting nature of God’s word. Why do this? Because it was God’s word that the people ignored before they found themselves in captivity. And it is this word of God that has the power to reinvigorate them and return Israel to acknowledging that they are God’s people and to living into that knowledge.
The prophet then describes the comfort God gives with a reassuring image, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” These were written as words of comfort to a people who had come to wonder if God cared for them. They were not worried whether God existed. In experiencing judgment, they more likely came to the conclusion that there is a God, but that God is unloving. Then the prophet gives these words of comfort, reminding the people that “the Lord is our shepherd.”
The pattern is all too familiar. Tragedy strikes and the question rings out, “Where was God when this happened?”
How can we account for all the chances and changes of this life, from child abuse to wild fires? Scripture does speak to those concerns, but one can have trouble hearing the voice of God in scripture if the context for hearing the answer is wrong. Tragedy strikes; then we run to the Bible for answers. The text wasn’t designed to work that way. The Bible is not a troubleshooting guide for life. The Bible is God’s living word created to speak to your heart each day.
This has long been the Episcopal Church’s way to encounter scripture – as part of a pattern of daily reading. The daily offices of The Book of Common Prayer were designed centuries ago with daily reading of scripture in the context of worship for all the church. Forward Day by Day, a free daily devotional booklet that the church puts out each year, was created to encourage that daily reading of scripture. The same lectionary readings that are used in The Book of Common Prayer for morning and evening prayer are used in Forward Day by Day. Either source will take less than half an hour to read each day.
With this brief commitment of time added to your morning routine or your commute time, you can marinate your life in God’s word. What this will do for your outlook over time is revolutionary. Rather than encountering issues in life and running to the Bible for answers, you will immerse yourself in the Bible daily and live into the answers from that new outlook.
From God’s standpoint, human life is as fleeting as the grass of the field. Yet God has given our fleeting lives something enduring to which we can anchor – the words of scripture. These are the words that bring comfort and challenge as needed after a long pause of being away from God. These are the words that reveal God’s glory.
Take the challenge. Transform this coming year of your life. Read the Bible a little each day, and in so doing, prepare the way of the Lord.