Isaiah 40: 1-11 & Mark 1:1-8
When I was at Primary School, each student was assigned a day during the year where they didn’t go to class, but acted as a messenger who sat with the office staff during the day, but when called upon, could carry and deliver a message (usually written on paper) to a classroom teacher, who in turn would respond to the note or message.
Being somewhat shy and introverted, it was not a job I liked. It became even more difficult when the teacher got annoyed at you for interrupting their train of thought, or when the note brought difficult or bad news. I think it was during my times as a class messenger that I learnt the meaning of the aphorism ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’.
Today, in our Bible readings, the one who brings Good News is seen in three different people.
Firstly, from the Old Testament, is Isaiah, the prophet. The Book of Isaiah was probably written over several decades and indeed may have been written by at least three prophets or messengers.
In chapter 1 to 39 – First Isaiah – is the messenger who warns people about their sins and impending judgement. From Chapter 40 – including today’s reading – Second Isaiah, together with the Israelites, in captivity in Babylon – who speaks of hope, comfort, future release and the one who will come to save them from their physical and spiritual slavery.
This messenger tells his people to prepare the way, and make straight the paths. It is man and not God who waivers, so learn patience in the waiting for God’s appearance as the strong, gentle, caring shepherd who brings peace.
The second messenger is John the Baptist. He picks up the imagery of Second Isaiah – more than six centuries earlier.
The message of peace and restoration through a Saviour, would have resonated again with the Israelites at this time. For while they were not bound in slavery in a foreign country, they again were experiencing war and conquest and a lost faith under the iron fist of their oppressors – the Romans.
John the Baptist, like so many of the Old Testament prophets, had the same dress and habits. He stood at the edge of society looking in, but calling the message as it should be called, and therefore, like most prophets, he suffered for it. Indeed it was often the messenger who did get shot!
It is the author of Mark’s gospel, who indeed was the third messenger. Mark was writing at a time of great upheaval, probably in the aftermath of the Jewish uprising of 66 AD and the war that followed, which in turn saw the destruction of the temple, the laying waste to cities and towns and the diaspora or scattering of the people who became refugees in other countries.
Mark beings his message of Good News by affirming that God has come in Christ, in fulfilment of the promises of Isaiah 40 verse 9, ‘Here is your God’.
No messenger talks of peace in circumstances, but in the form of a peace to the spirit – a peace that passes all understanding.
John the Baptists thus is the immediate herald of God’s reign of peace. John is indeed preparing the way.
Isaiah, John the Baptist and the Gospel writer Mark are, all equally, convinced of one thing. The messenger who prepares the way for God’s coming must be responded to.
Isaiah and John the Baptist encouraged people to respond through confession, repentance, and in John’s case, baptism.
Mark encouraged response through choosing to follow Jesus and embrace his message and mission.
For all of them, the response is a necessary ingredient in ensuring that we do not miss God’s coming.
But there are three other ways to respond to the messenger.
- Is to shoot the messenger, who appears not to be bringing transformational Good News. For some hearers who then seek to obliterate the message. Others who find the news confronting may seek to wreak their vengeance on the proclaimer (God) through the messenger (think of the parable Jesus tells about the wicked tenants in Mark 12, who beat and killed many servants and finally the Son of the vineyard owner, when they came to bring a message to the tenants).
There are two other ways to respond which again are not helpful and even may be considered destructive.
- The first of the two is simply to ignore the message and its accompanying signs. We may feel uncomfortable in following it, it may put our lives at risk or it may cost us something. We ignore God’s messengers at our own peril.
- Finally and tragically, many people miss the opportunity to experience God’s coming into their lives and into our world because they do no hear, understand or recognise the message the messengers is bringing. So many Biblical stories give us the stark reminder of those who missed God’s coming in contract with those who not only recognised it, but embraced it.
How do we recognise and understand and be transformed. We know that this is an act of the Spirit, to some degree it comes about when we do the work for ourselves.
But often it comes through a messenger – through you and me – who know and live in the Good News – being ourselves transformed and thus outworking in our words and deeds towards others.
We don’t keep it to ourselves, we don’t leave it up to the minister or church leaders, and we become involved. We know that, as Christ’s message was in his whole being – it must be in ours.
What we say and what we do should reflect each other and look outward towards the other who has not heard or experienced the message.
Right now, as we journey through this Advent season, these ancient messengers speak to us again, inviting us to respond to the God who is coming.
They also remind us, in turn, to become messengers seeking to prepare the way for others to receive God’s coming.
(Sorry, no podcast this week. Someone turned off the recording device – oops!)