Sunday, December 07, 2014

Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8: Start the Car

Sunday, December 7, 2014 | Advent
Second Sunday of Advent
Year B

Isaiah 40:1-11
40 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lorda;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.b 
Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
“All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”
You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,c lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”
10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
11 He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young. [1]

Mark 1:1-8
1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,a the Son of God,  as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way” —
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’ ” 
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you withe water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”[2]

Start the Car
Rev. Charissa Clark Howe
Liberty Presbyterian Church

I grew up in Kansas. For some strange reason, people from the rest of the United States, especially in the east, are fascinated by people from Kansas and there are a few things people consistently ask me when they find out I grew up in Kansas. I get asked:
“Have you ever been in a tornado?” To which the answer is that I don’t know anyone who’s actually been in a tornado and lived to tell the story, but I have seen a few up close and right down the street. And the answer to your follow up question is that yes, they do sound like freight trains.
“Do you like corn?” This one makes very little sense to me because having grown up next door to a wheat field, it seems obvious to me that they grow wheat in Kansas. Corn is in Nebraska. But I suppose it’s easy to forget how huge the Midwest is and how vastly different things can be just one state away.
The question that drives me nuts is, “Do you have a dog named Toto?” or its sister question, “Have you ever been to Oz?” If I had a nickel for every time someone has jokingly called me “Dorothy Gale,” I’d be a very wealthy woman.
The question I love, though, is: “Is it really as flat as they say it is?” This is nearly always asked by a born and bred Pittsburgher who can’t fathom there are places in the world that don’t have hills. And it’s a fun question because the answer is, “Yes. Kansas is statistically flatter than a pancake.” I’m not sure who took the time to research that, but my guess is it was a Kansan with nothing better to do with their time because frankly, there’s not a lot to do in Kansas.
I love the Pittsburgh area. I’m even growing to love the hills here. But I learned to drive in Kansas. When we moved back here to be close to extended family, it was like I had to learn how to drive all over again. When you’ve never driven on anything bumpier than a pancake, the hills around here are terrifying. Not to mention the bridges all over the place. I’m pretty sure we were back here in Pittsburgh at least 6 months before I drove faster than 10 or 15 miles per hour.
It’s much harder to drive on hills and twisty-turny roads. You always make better time driving through straight stretches of highway than through the mountains. Which is why when they are building highways, they purposefully look for the straightest, flattest paths possible so that they are the most efficient – the fastest way to get from point A to point B.
Isaiah talks about making the paths straight for God. Taking the valleys and filling them in. This is an appealing idea for a relocated Kansan living in Pittsburgh. It’s not that God can’t overcome any obstacles that are in the path, but we need to make space on the human end if we are to get on the highway, so to speak. Sometimes, we are so consumed by the road blocks, by the twists and the turns and the hills, that we drive a frustrating 10 miles per hour. This is what the people were doing when Mark started writing the Gospel we read this morning. They were fretting about the roadblocks – about the hills and valleys and twists and turns.
The world in which Mark was writing from needed some Good News. They needed to know that there was room for God to work, but they were waiting to see God work on their terms. The political situation was appalling. There was great unrest in Mark’s time and the people were fed up with it. So Mark opens by saying this is the Good News of Jesus the Messiah – the Savior they have been waiting for – then starts talking about someone else entirely. In fact, Mark doesn’t even tell about the birth of Jesus. He jumps right in to John the Baptist proclaiming that Jesus is coming and straight into the baptism and the beginning of his ministry. Mark is saying, “There is preparation that has to be done before we get to the part you’ve been waiting for.”
Mark isn’t the only one of the Gospel writers that skips Jesus’ birth either. John doesn’t talk about it. He says, “A Great Light came into the world and John came to prepare the way for that Light.” Only two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, include Jesus’ birth in their stories.
But all four of them mention John the Baptist before writing about Jesus’ ministry. They all four talk about John coming to pave the way for Jesus. “PREPARE YE THE WAY OF THE LORD!” The preparation is key. Preparing the hearts and minds of the people for the great work of the Messiah is a step that they cannot leave out.
Mark reminds the people of this by connecting the story back to Isaiah. They were traditionally a people in waiting. Waiting for the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham. Waiting for freedom from slavery. Waiting to be allowed into the Promised Land. Waiting for the Messiah. In order to truly understand the Good News, the people had to know that it connected to their history, to the prophecies that had come from long ago about the Messiah and the voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way. Mark is using the familiar words of Isaiah to remind the people that there is and always has been a comforting voice in the midst of their waiting. God does not leave them alone in the darkness.
            We’re all waiting for something. I’d even venture to say we’re all waiting for something important, even those of us who might not be able to quite say what exactly it is we’re waiting for. There is waiting for God to move in some way. There is waiting for God’s work in our lives. There’s waiting for things to get better, for the world to improve, for the second coming. We, like the Israelites, are still a people of waiting.
            Waiting stinks. And when we get to whatever it is we’re waiting for, we’d rather just forget the part where we were waiting. That’s a big part of why Advent often gets lost in the shuffle or conflated with Christmas. Even though Mark – and all the other Gospel writers, for that matter – say, “Oh, no! You can’t forget about the waiting! There is important preparation in this waiting!”
Our hearts have to be cleared of the road blocks. Things that aren’t standing in God’s way, but are in our way. Things we have to move out of the way so we can open ourselves up to God’s work. Just like John the Baptist came to prepare the way in the world for the work of Jesus Christ, we have work to do in preparing our hearts for the work of Jesus Christ.
            I’m not always the most patient person in the world. You may have noticed, but I frequently fly around at top speed trying to do ten thousand things at once. Sometimes, I hurry a bit too much. And this is one of the reasons winter drives me nuts. Winter mornings can force you to slow down. The first morning of any winter when I walk outside and realize my car is a ball of ice that needs to be melted is nearly always the most disappointing or frustrating day of my year. I want to be able to just hop in the car and go, but the car is not ready to go. I have to get into the car first – which sometimes requires a trip into the house for hot water to de-ice the door – and turn on the car. And then once it’s on, it has to run for a few minutes before the engine is warm enough for the heat to work. And sometimes you can scrape the ice or brush the snow before the heat’s up, but we tend to get that thick, unchippable ice around here that you just have to melt. The only way to deal with that sort of ice properly is to let the car run and warm up so that the ice can melt and thin.
            We can’t just take off into the life and ministry that Jesus has called us to without some sort of preparation of our hearts. We have to start the car and let it warm up before we can start driving. Advent slows us down, it humbles us. It warms the engine and thaws the ice. It gives us an opportunity to assess and deal with the road blocks that are preventing us from allowing Jesus full access to work in our lives.
Sometimes, it’s obvious what’s in the way in our lives. Sometimes it’s much harder to figure out. Sometimes we think it’s obvious what’s in the way, but when we stop to reflect and pray, we notice that it’s something else entirely.   It can be a frustrating process. It can feel hard and discouraging and lonely. Sometimes, it feels like God has abandoned us in the waiting. But there is a voice of comfort in the waiting. Listen for the voice in the wilderness crying out! It’s a voice that comforts and says, “THE LORD IS COMING!”
            Prepare the way of the Lord!
            Last week I talked about prayer and meditation and scripture and reflection on other devotional works as ways of preparing our hearts. Today, we celebrate communion. In the Presbyterian tradition, we call this and “sign and seal” of the Grace that God offers us. In the celebration of the sacrament this morning, we reach out in the darkness toward the Light: Jesus Christ. It is a time to allow ourselves to be swept up into the life of God. My prayer for our celebration of communion this morning is that it would be a time of hope and reflection. That in this time, each heart in this room will be opened up to the working of God. That the road blocks be moved, the paths be made straight. That the ice would be melted so that you can start the car.


a Or A voice of one calling in the wilderness: / “Prepare the way for the Lord
b Hebrew; Septuagint make straight the paths of our God
c Or Zion, bringer of good news, / go up on a high mountain. / Jerusalem, bringer of good news
[1] The New International Version. (2011). (Is 40:1–11). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
a Or Jesus Christ. Messiah (Hebrew) and Christ (Greek) both mean Anointed One.
e Or in
[2] The New International Version. (2011). (Mk 1:1–8). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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