A former priest of mine used to tell a story that has really stuck with me. He was traveling in Europe and was able to get an audience with a monk famed for his wisdom. With great difficulty, through their language barrier, he was able to tell this monk of his plans and what he hoped to accomplish through his ministry: about moving, planting a church, and seeking out lost and wounded souls. As the story goes, at the end, the monk simply nodded and said, “It is a good beginning.”
I was thinking of this story again this week, since we are in a season of endings and beginnings. Last Sunday marked the start of both a new liturgical season, Advent, and a new liturgical year. Similarly, with the move this past week into December, I’m seeing a lot of speculation and dreaming about January and all the hope a new year brings. And, with news the COVID-19 vaccines will begin to be rolled out across the world within the month, even the pandemic seems like it may be entering its final phase. At the end of a year that has not gone according to plan for anyone, we are rightly wondering what comes next.
We see a similar sensibility in today’s Scripture readings. The Isaiah text speaks to a moment when the Exile was no longer the shock it originally was, but was the sad and depressing “new normal” for God’s people. The Gospel reading from Mark introduces John the Baptist and refers to John’s message of repentance as “the beginning of the Good News.” And, while I won’t be reflecting on it here today, the Epistle reading from 2 Peter speaks to a time when the early Christians were growing impatient with God; Christ said he would return soon. Where is he? What does it mean? What comes next for us if “soon” is a lot longer than we had been led to believe?
What comes next? What is God’s answer to our circumstances?
At first glance, it’s hard to see a tie that binds the answers these readings provide together. Isaiah offers comfort; Mark calls us to repentance; 2 Peter to patience. What’s going on here?
As I was thinking about this, I couldn’t help but think of the old preacher’s motto, “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” It’s the idea that if we’re speaking truth, our message will necessarily offer both comfort and challenge. It will be a needed soothing balm to some, and an equally needed kick in the pants to others. Or, rather, ideally, it will comfort people where they need comforting and challenge them where they need challenging. That is how God’s truth works.
This is what I think is happening in today’s readings. It may look like Isaiah and Mark are sending mixed messages, but they’re really sides of the same coin.
Let’s look at them more closely.
Isaiah’s oracle begins with that beautiful proclamation, promising a new beginning for God’s people: “Comfort! Oh Comfort my people!” Regardless of what happened in the past, the time has come for them to return home. Go before them, the prophet cries. Make a highway in the wilderness for them: God’s people are coming home! Shout it from Mount Zion itself, from Jerusalem’s rooftops and through all of Judah: “Here is your God!” God is coming with strength and power to tend lovingly to the sheep in his flock.
This last line is very reminiscent of last week’s reading from Ezekiel. There too God was compared to a shepherd, but there the relationship between God’s power and love is made more explicit: In order to ensure the sheep are safe, God must protect them from those who have attacked them, scattered them, or kept them from good pasture, growing fat while the flock grows weak and thin. The focus of Isaiah’s oracle is on those who need comfort, but the subtext is there: The Good Shepherd is none other than the Bridegroom who comes at midnight, or the Thief in the night — Here is your God! And God’s presence confronts reality head on, whether we are ready for it — longing for it — or not.
A few hundred years later, John the Baptist appeared in the Judean wilderness. While he drew great crowds, he rejected any claims of greatness, but humbly identified himself as Isaiah’s messenger, the one running ahead of God’s Next Big Thing to straighten its path. But while Isaiah proclaimed “Comfort,” John cries out, “Repent!” and offers a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This is what Mark calls “The beginning of the Good News.”
Again, at first glance it may be hard to square John’s call to repentance with “good news,” and far less the Good News. We tend to think of repentance in terms of doom, shame and guilt. But as I often point out, repentance is not the same as confession of sins (and even confession has little to do with shame, and less still doom!). Confession is most definitely part of the fruit of repentance but is not the tree, as it were. Rather, repentance is the renewal of the heart and mind, the recasting of one’s vision so that one sees the world with God’s eyes.
Because of this, the message of repentance confronts everyone differently, each in our own circumstances. For those who, whether by choice or because they are caught up in oppressive systems, harm others and profit at others’ expense, seeing the world with God’s eyes means confessing our sins and working to dismantle the systems that oppress others. For those who are sinned against, it means the hard (and nuanced) work of forgiveness, and developing a sanctified imagination that pushes back against helplessness and hopelessness, and insists that God wants better things for them and the world. And, of course, because of the truth of intersectionality, all of us experience both sides of this to some extent: the line between good and evil, saint and sinner, oppressed and oppressor runs through all of our hearts. Only by repentance can we see the world and our life as they really are, through the reality of God’s wisdom, grace, justice, and love. What then is the “beginning of the Good News?” It is the call to open up our eyes and see what God is doing. (Here is your God!)
And this is where our readings meet up with this week’s Advent theme, peace. Only by this kind of repentance can we hope to attain any level of true peace. For, if — as is clear from the Scriptures — peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of God’s justice, then it requires change in all of us. This kind of peace cannot accept a world where the wealth of some is built on the poverty of others, or where calm and security for some is build on war and terror for others. This kind of peace cannot accept a world where some people live in hopelessness while others feel entitled to their every whim. And so, the prospect of God’s peace — like truth and God’s presence — is both comfort and affliction.
And so as we head into this second week of Advent, let us walk holding Isaiah in one hand and Mark in the other. The coming of Jesus is comfort and challenge, a soothing balm for our our hurts, a promise of home where we are exiled, and a needed wake-up call to shock us out of complacency.
This is the beginning of the Good News:
Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!
Here is your God!
It is a good beginning.