All Saints Margaret Street | Second Sunday of Advent HIGH MASS Sunday 7 December 2014

Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent HIGH MASS Sunday 7 December 2014

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses

Readings: Isaiah 40.1-11; Psalm 85.8-end; 2 Peter 3.8-15a; Mark 1.1-8

‘The beginning of the gospel 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.”’ Mark 1.1-3

Mark’s Gospel, which we heard the opening verses of this morning, was for long the poor relation of the four. Matthew was believed to be the earliest, because of its poll position in the canon of the New Testament and Mark an abridged version.  It is now generally acknowledged that Mark was the first gospel to be written and that Matthew and Luke base their work on it; adding material of their own and their own particular theological concerns; their understanding of Jesus.

Mark begins abruptly with the appearance of John the Baptist and the baptism of Christ. He does not root the life and ministry of Jesus in stories of his birth and divine origins, nor as John did, take Jesus back to before creation itself.  But that does not mean that he simply begins as if Jesus appears with no history, or that this is just the story of another human being, albeit a rather extraordinary one. 

Mark begins his gospel with the figure of John the Baptist, Like the other gospel writers, he has John the Baptist quote Isaiah: Behold, 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 oaths straight.”  By doing this he roots Jesus firmly in the history of Israel.

John is seen as representing the voice of prophecy which had long been silent in Israel. Prophecy in the history of Israel was not so much about predicting future events as it was about recalling the people to fidelity God and God’s law and pointing out the consequences which would follow from infidelity.  That voice is now heard again. It comes from one who models himself on the prophet Elijah: “the troubler of Israel.”

Preachers are sometimes accused of deliberately not troubling Israel; of concealing from their people the results of biblical scholarship which might unsettle and undermine their faith.  Sometimes these accusations are made by the evangelists of the new atheism; those who do not believe and who assume that other people will only reach their state of enlightenment by abandoning faith.

Sometimes it is just a matter of making money. The most spectacular instance of this in recent years is what one scholar has called the “Mary Magdalene Industrial Complex.” This claims that Jesus was not the celibate figure who died on the cross and rose again, but that he survived the crucifixion, married Mary Magdalene and had children with her. Throw in some melodramatic stuff about the holy Grail, the Knights Templar and the Vatican and, hey presto, you have a best-selling novel and a money-spinning movie on your hands.  Those who came up with this stuff and sought to pass it off as scholarship, are furious that Dan Brown has made a fortune out of it. The latest version of this stuff has appeared just in time for Christmas and gullible journalists swallowed it whole.  It is based on an ancient document which “proves” that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. It does nothing of the sort, it isn’t even about them, it’s about two people called Joseph and Asenath.

Preachers here have rather more integrity than to lie to deceive you about the results of biblical scholarship. We have been trained in its methods but we also know that, like all academic disciplines, it does not stand still, it works by research and argument.  Biblical criticism began by trying to identify the sources of individual passages in the bible and setting them in their historical context. Other scholars looked at the origins and uses of words in Hebrew, Greek and other ancient languages to make clearer the meaning intended by the writer. It has moved on to examine the ways in which individual writers or groups of them arranged their material to make theological points. It has recognised that one biblical writer is engaged in a dialogue, even an argument, with other writers who have gone before him.  It has looked at how later compilers and editors arranged what we now know as the canon of scripture its practitioners do not always agree with one another about the results of their work. 

Much of this is of great assistance to the preacher, although most of us need to have it in more accessible and digestible form than academic treatises, so we rely on the writers of commentaries to    distill it for us.  Reading what scholars have said about Mark or Isaiah is something the preacher should do before writing; as part of preparation for preaching, not its content. Most of you would not thank us for preparing Sunday sermons which were just lectures on biblical criticism.  You would be nodding off faster than students in an early morning New Testament lecture who had been up too late the night before.

Gospel, as most of you will know, means “good news.”  At the time when Mark was writing his “gospel,” it was used of the succession of a new emperor.  When Mark and the other evangelists, the tellers of ‘good news’, use it they are not just telling the story of an itinerant healer and teacher in an obscure corner of the Roman empire, they are making a statement for all time about who is the true ruler of the world; the one whose coming is good news for all people; the one who comes to rule with love not power.

But let’s do a little more biblical scholarship to help us with our readings this morning. Mark has John quote Isaiah. (In fact he adds a bit of Malachi as well, but that’s what preachers sometimes do.) During Advent we will hear a lot of the Book of Isaiah read in church.  So important has Isaiah been to the Church as it has sought to understand the significance of Jesus, that it has been called the “Fifth Gospel.”   “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,”  is the first use of “gospel – good tidings:” in the Hebrew scriptures.

The scholars tell us that in this morning’s readings, we have not one beginning but two.  The beginning of Mark is obvious – we started at Chapter 1,verse 1.   But our reading from Isaiah began at Chapter 40, verse 1: a long way in to be a beginning. 

What is not immediately obvious to us is that the Book we know as Isaiah is in fact two if not three books edited together.  They come from different periods in the history of Israel and Jerusalem.

  • The first 39 chapters, in which the prophet called Isaiah, often called ‘Isaiah of Jerusalem’, is set in the time after the fall of the northern kingdom to the military super-power of the time, Assyria. Judah is threatened, first by Assyria and then by the Babylonian empire which over threw it. 
  • The second section, often called for convenience “Second Isaiah,” – because we don’t know who wrote it – is set after the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of its leading citizens to Babylon and is addressed to the exiles tempted to despair as a message of hope. It is “good news,” the first deliberate use of this term in the Old Testament.
  • The final section of the book, from Chapter 56 onwards, seems to have been written after the return from exile, foretold by 2nd Isaiah.  After the exiles have experienced the excitement of return, they are now feeling anxious and depressed because the task of rebuilding temple and city in the midst of  a hostile and resentful population: those who hadn’t been deported because they weren’t important enough, or other peoples who had been transferred from their own homes to settle empty land.  The ‘Third Isaiah’ seeks to give them a renewed vision; one which reaches out beyond the confines of the Jewish people to embrace the gentile world. 

What binds all these together is the relationship between God and his people, Israel and Jerusalem, in the midst of the political ups and downs of the period.  First Isaiah, the one whose call takes place in the Jerusalem Temple, sees these as more than accidental events, but as ones in which God is at work. He acts to punish his people for their unfaithfulness to the covenant, the special relationship between them.

When we come to Second Isaiah, there sees that time of punishment as now over. The call in the Temple of the First Isaiah to speak to the people is paralleled in today’s passage.  The scene is the heavenly court where the prophet hears God speak to his messengers:  “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.” 

The prophet is called to make this known: “Cry out.”  He asks, “What shall I cry?”  The response at first does not seem very promising: “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 ….”

But the people are not to find hope in themselves, but in God, the God whose word “endures for ever,” the God who is constant even if they are not. Though he has punished them has not abandoned them.  It is he who will now restore them in a way which they could not have imagined, must less made happen by themselves. 

And why do we still read these Isaiahs? Are they anything more than familiar comforting readings for carol services or the libretto for Handel’s “Messiah?”

Well, the very fact that they are so rooted in the international power politics of their time gives them a relevance to the life of the Church in our own time.  Over the last century or more, the Church has been living through the clash of empires and ideologies. It has not come out of this well; often too compromised with the powers of this world to witness effectively to the kingdom of God against nationalism and imperialism, racist and totalitarian ideologies. 

So, the judgement pronounced by the First Isaiah is spoken again and needs to be heard by us and engaged with.  If we read the whole of Isaiah, we see that the commonly held idea that the God of the Old Testament is one of wrath and judgement, replaced for Christians by the merciful God of the New Testament is a caricature.  The God who speaks in Isaiah is both just and merciful.  The God we hear in the New Testament is merciful, but also righteous and calls us to repentance.   We human beings are not good at holding opposites together – but God us.  We like a God of mercy – at least mercy directed towards us – but we are less keen on the righteous God who judges us.  But the demand that we be holy that we heard in the epistle signals our dignity as human beings made in the image of a just, holy and merciful God.

In the old Christian lands of Europe, Christians can feel like exiles.  The civilisation built by our forebears, the foundation of our moral life, is ignored and derided by the cultured despisers, the opinion formers, of our time.  They are quick to point to the failings of religion, yet strangely blind to the much greater crimes of secular ideologies. So we are tempted, like those exiles addressed by God through the Second Isaiah, to sit down by the waters of Babylon with the psalmist and weep.  Or, like the returned exiles addressed by the Third Isaiah, we find the task of rebuilding Jerusalem in an apathetic or hostile world all too much for us.  It is in these circumstances that Isaiah with its message of God’s faithfulness and commitment to his people, and his power to bring freedom out of captivity and life out of death, can speak to us anew to bring us hope. That is why we must listen the “word of the Lord which endures for ever.”