Isaiah 40.1-11; Mark 1.1-8
Scholars tell us (and we believe) that a temporal gap of about 200 years separates Is 39.8 and 40.1. We must not ignore the probability that the final author, fully aware of the time factor, nevertheless had reasons for placing ch 39 and ch 40 in direct sequence. In ch 39, Hezekiah the King of Judah receives envoys from Babylon sent by their king to inquire after his health since his recent illness. Ever eager to meddle inadvisedly in international politics against Assyria, Hezekiah welcomes the visitors and discloses to them his total assets. Upon hearing this word, Isaiah the prophet tells the king that Babylon will remove everything that Hezekiah and his predecessors have accumulated for centuries, and even some of his own descendants will serve as eunuchs to the king of Babylon.
- Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, "The word of the LORD that you have
spoken is good." For he thought, "There will be peace and security in
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God...The Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him. - Is 39.8-40.1,10
The prophet of the exile, whom some people call "Second Isaiah," read the political signs of his times, predicted Babylon's comeuppance, and Cyrus's politically motivated permission for Judeans' return from exile. The comforting words of 40.3-5,9-10 mimic political jargon. Repairing roads, even building new and better ones, and despatching front-running messengers to prepare for a royal tour of the provinces constituted part of the trappings of imperial power. (In 1950, in impoverished post-war Japan, I witnessed workers filling potholes in the streets of Marugame City preparing for a visit from Emperor Hirohito. In carefully cultivated myth, Hirohito was said to be reluctant about the war and outflanked by military jingoists. Recent documents from Japanese archives reveal Hirohito's active participation in and prolongation of the war.)
To console those who suffered the ultimate consequences of Hezekiah's folly, the prophetic word cries out in anti-royalist polemic. Babylonian oppressors cannot live for ever, for, being fleshly, they wither like grass. Not Hezekiah reincarnate but the LORD in person will appear to all flesh [RSV Heb basar--including all sentient living beings; cf Gn 6.12] (40.4). Not Moses reincarnate gets "up to a high mountain" but (as Hebrew verb forms demonstrate) unnamed females do, in order to announce the good news to Zion and Jerusalem (40.9 NRSV margin). No thunder, fire, earthquake, etc., accompany this theophany. In taking kingly power, the LORD acts in true shepherd fashion, caring tenderly for the flock, especially the weak and needy (40.11), unlike the wicked ruler/shepherds earlier condemned by Jeremiah (23.1-4) and Ezekiel (34.1-16, Yr A Christ the King 11/21/99). By the time the message of "Second Isaiah" draws to a close, he tells how the LORD completes the democratization process by transferring the covenant mercies from David to "everyone" (55.1-5). In its immediate connection with the story of flawed King Hezekiah, the message of Is 40.1-11 implies a denigration of autocratic political power and a message of encouragement for victims of that power. MARK 1: 1-8
Unhampered by historical/critical method, the author of Mark correctly read the political, anti-imperial polemic of Is 40 and brought it home to his audience in contemporary terms. At 1.2a Mark says the good news begins precisely with Isaiah 40. Naming Isaiah in 1.2a, and in 1.3 beginning the quotation of Is 40.3-5, Mark shows his sensitivity to the political aspects of his own as well as the ancient time.
To introduce the allusion to Is 40.3 he writes in Mk 1.2b:
- See, I am sending my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way.
- The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight."
But the political polemic becomes most explicit in the very title to this gospel. Read Mark 1.1 against the background of imperial propaganda for the Pax Romana. That propaganda acclaimed Emperor Augustus, author of a stable world order, as "son of a god." It proclaimed the message of Augustus's accomplishments as "good news" to all the world. It promoted and praised the military force which kept revolt far from the center, poised to put down any unrest that might arise on the barbaric periphery, such as Palestine. (See Klaus Wengst, Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ, passim). In direct challenge to such official propaganda, Mark writes:
- The beginning of the good news of Jesus Messiah Son of God.
- denotes a king who is seated at the pinnacle of the socioeconomic pyramid over which he rules. To perpetuate his reign he maintains an army, collects taxes, and supports a temple that is serviced by a priesthood committed to the preservation of the divine order of his rule. Like David, who is the prototype, he may be a divinely anointed regent dedicated to social and economic justice. But the structures of the society that he governs are vertical and therefore, because they foster oppression and dispossession, are dehumanizing. (A Reordering of Power. A Sociopolitical Reading of Mark's Gospel. pp 144-5)
Following this attack on Roman political power, Mk 1.4ff proceeds to challenge Judaism's religious power structure. Mark describes John the Baptist as appearing "in the wilderness" (recall Moses and people on the march to the promised land), baptizing in the Jordan (recall the crossing of the Jordan, Josh 3.7-17, Yr A 31st Ordinary). Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus, lists several other populist uprisings building on messianic expectations and symbolically gathering at the Jordan). John offers forgiveness of sins in return for accepting baptism, a direct challenge to the priestly power structure monopolizing control of the temple's economy and the sacramental authority to declare forgiveness of sins.
The lections of Yr B Second Advent describe a coming which does not
frighten or overwhelm by cataclysmic natural phenomena, but which, directed
toward a downtrodden underclass, raises their hopes of the overthrow of
oppressive political and religious establishments. Rightly understood in
this biblical context, advent should literally comfort the afflicted and
afflict the comfortable. Most people in the pews of Presbyterian churches
are relatively comfortable. Thus, the challenge to the preacher lies in
knowing who the truly afflicted are and comforting them, and who the truly
comfortable are and afflicting without alienating them.
This pericope provides a healthy antidote to misguided expectations of an imminent and literal "second coming" of the Lord which Isaiah 64 & Mark 13 in last week's 1st Advent lections might have encouraged. At the time of 2 Peter's writing (late 1st or early 2nd century CE) scoffing skeptics doubted that the already long-delayed parousia would ever come. Leading up to our pericope in 3.1-7 "Peter" has two urgent points to make: 1] Delay of the "coming" (advent) does not mean falsification of that hope based on the apostles' teaching--the day of God will come, and it will entail judgment. 2] Judgment will fall upon those whose skepticism re the "coming" (advent) caused their declension into immoral behavior. In light of these two points, 3.8-15 then follows up with sound advice concerning believers' faith and life "in the meantime." This advice makes close attention to the pericope worthwhile.
"Peter" evinces continued bondage to belief in cataclysmic eschatology (note frequent reference to "fire"). Oxford Annotated NRSV notes the influence of the "Stoic philosophical concept of the return of all things to fire..." But the writer introduces a palliating concept: "...the earth and everything that is done on it will be *disclosed* [heurethe'setai] (3.10, not consumed as in RSV) with fire". Three occurrences of [ly'o] 3.10,11,12, could be translated "destroyed", but NRSV renders "dissolved". This translation shows sensitivity to a tendency toward moving away from the mythological fire/destruction scenario and in the direction of renewal. The "new heavens and new earth" of 3.13 alludes to Is 65.17ff, God's promise of a new creation, with no hint of catastrophic phenomena accompanying. Advent will be revelatory, not destructive.
Grasping for scriptural support to explain the delay "Peter" cites Ps 90.4: "With the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day." The "slowness" of the Lord, who does not want "any to perish," allows time for "all to come to repentance" (3.9; put this in the context of ABT's oft-reiterated universalism). Therefore we should "regard the patience of our Lord as salvation" (3.15).
Anticipating advent we not only wait for it, but we can actually hasten it (3.12). How can we hasten the coming?
- 1] "Peter" implies (not commands) evangelistic effort to help bring "all" to repentance. (See Mark 13.10: "The good news must first be proclaimed to all nations." Cf Mt's addition: "...and then the end will come" 24.14.) Millennialists count heavily on sattelite communication and electronic computer assisted translation techniques to hasten Christ's coming before the end of this century. What are we doing?
- 2] Our lives should demonstrate "holiness and godliness" and we should strive to be "without spot or blemish" (3.11,14). How can we convincingly emphasize morality without falling into condemnatory moralism?
- 3] We should pursue this active "waiting" and "hastening" in such a way as "to be found by him at peace" (3.14). This condition "at peace" placed upon Christians' action calls for repudiation of all triumphalistic evangelism (which does not mean reluctance to engage in evangelism at all). "At peace" also would prevent every attempt to hasten the return by, e.g., David Koresh type violence, confrontation with Muslims worldwide, or plans to destroy the Dome of the Rock and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.
Unaccountably chopped up by the lection committee, this Ps also anticipates an advent without frightening natural phenomena. Vs 1-2 declare that God has already demonstrated favor, has forgiven the people's iniquity, and pardoned all their sin. TANAKH, Jewish translation, renders all the verbs in future tense, expressing faith in what God will do (cf Ps 130.7-8 "O Israel hope in the LORD...for he will redeem Israel from all its iniquities" Yr A 5th Lent 3/28/93). In vs 4-7 (omitted from lection pericope) the psalmist contradicts those statements about what God has done by asking God to restore the people and asking whether God's anger will burn forever. Has God's attitude toward and treatment of the people really changed so radically? Or has the psalmist misperceived reality? The lection continues with vs 8-13, reaffirming the psalmist's conviction of God's goodness. "Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land" (85.3). Faithfulness springing up from earth and justice looking down from heaven (85.11) will characterize this advent.
(Comments to Arch email@example.com. Written 11/22/93. Arch is a former Japan missionary, Bible student/teacher.)