December 6, 2020
What Shall I preach?
December 7, 2014
Whenever I read the Isaiah text, I find myself reading it in the cadences of Handel’s Messiah, the beautiful Tenor aria that begins that oratorio. I have no idea how many times I have heard that music; it was an annual accompaniment to Christmas throughout my childhood and youth. Although it’s been years since I’ve attended or sung in a performance of it, the music remains in my memory.
I’m fascinated by the different ways in which we encounter and interpret scripture. Take Messiah, for example. If you’re familiar with it, it’s very hard not to hear it when you read, or listen to, the scriptures that Handel set to music. There’s a sense in which the music has shaped our experience and interpretation of the texts.
That makes our experience of Advent this year especially difficult. The familiar hymns are heard only in recording, we try to remember what it was like to join our voices with hundreds of others, or the sheer joy of attending holiday performances of favorite works. Our celebrations are muted, or transformed as we focus our efforts more intimately at home, with family and friends.
Music interprets texts; texts interpret texts. In the gospel reading, Mark draws on the language from Isaiah 40 to make it relevant for his own day. The words from Isaiah helped him to understand John the Baptist, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” and Jesus, especially Jesus. The reading from Isaiah includes the verses:
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,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
It’s imagery Mark picks up and uses for his own purposes, although our translations don’t make that clear. Mark tells us “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ” Good news, good tidings, Gk euangelion, also translated as “gospel.” Mark is identifying himself, and John the Baptist, with the one who climbs the high mountain and proclaims the good news, “Here is your God!” Mark is looking back to Isaiah and to other biblical stories as he attempts to convey to his readers the urgency and significance of the good news.
Mark’s John is not only a voice crying in the wilderness, drawing on themes from Isaiah. In his depiction of John, Mark reaches even further back, to the legendary figure of Elijah, depicting John in the very same terms that the prophet Elijah was depicted, wearing camel skins and with a belt around his waist. By the first century, Elijah had become much more than a figure from Israel’s ancient history. There were fervent hopes that he would return, and when he did, he would usher in the messianic age. In the gospel of Mark, both John and Jesus are mistaken for Elijah.
Mark uses all of this imagery from the Hebrew bible to impress upon his readers that the long period of waiting and anticipation is nearing its end. Israel’s hopes for God’s inbreaking into history are coming true. Mark is a herald of Good Tidings, a proclaimer of the good news. And the good news is “Here is your God!”
But there are other ways, other contexts, in which we interpret and read scripture. Primary among those other contexts is the situation in which we find ourselves. Covid case numbers are skyrocketing and the number of deaths reaching unimaginable totals, almost 3000 reported on Friday. At the same time, our mental and emotional exhaustion with the social distancing requirements meaning many of us are giving up, what words of comfort and consolation, what message of hope can be offered?
When I read those words from Isaiah, “A voice said, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” The prophet’s words become my own. Like so many, I struggle to make sense of what we’ve learned about our nation in these past weeks and months. I struggle too, to find words that can express honestly and faithfully my own heartbreak and what I think the good news of Jesus Christ might be in this moment.
For Isaiah, the question, “What shall I cry?” is part of a standard call narrative. That is to say, here, as elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, when God calls someone, there is often resistance. Remember Moses, called by God at the burning bush, responded that he wasn’t an eloquent speaker. Other prophets resisted God’s call. Jonah, for example, traveled in the opposite direction in order to avoid the responsibility God gave him. Here, the prophet’s question is followed by his observation that prophetic utterances don’t matter—human beings are weak and fickle; they come and they go like grass that flowers and then turns brown.
We know the futility about which the prophet speaks. We know the disappointment of dreams and justice deferred. We know a world in which the hopes of an earlier age have faded in the face of what seem to be insurmountable problems. In our own lives, we know the routine grind of daily life, our hopes for a brighter future crushed by economic realities, social change, illness, or personal failure. We know the grief we should be feeling, the extraordinary we should be taking, the exhaustion and despair that have set in.
We do know hope. Mark proclaims, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. Isaiah is told, “Get up to a high mountain … say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God’!” Our hope is that God is here among us; that we are God’s agents, helping to bring God’s reign into being in our world.
We also know comfort and consolation. In the midst of the disappointments and pain in our personal lives, in the midst of a world where injustice and violence seem to have free reign, the prophet’s words come to us, reminding us that in the midst of all our struggle and pain, God is present as well, that God’s love and grace sustain and surround us. The prophet’s image of God as shepherd, feeding and protecting the flock assures us of God’s protection and care in the midst of everything.
Advent is a time of waiting as we eagerly anticipate the coming of the Christ child. Advent is a season of discernment as we look for signs of God’s grace in the midst of a dark world. Advent is a season of hope as we look forward to Christ’s coming among us and as we prepare ourselves to receive him in our hearts and in our world. Advent calls us to kindle our faith as its candles are lit. Advent urges us to get up on a high mountain and shout aloud, “Here is your God!” May we respond to that call and offer words of comfort and consolation to our hurting world.