Advent1 Prepare the Way of the Lord

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                          Advent 2011                    The grass withers, the flower fades,
               “The Beginning of the Good News”           when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
                 “Prepare the Way of the Lord”            surely the people are grass.
                   First Presbyterian, Warren            The grass withers, the flower fades;
          First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2011       but the word of our God will stand for ever.
                     C. Drew Smith, Ph.D.                Get you up to a high mountain,
                                                          O Zion, herald of good tidings;*
Isaiah 40:1-11                                         lift up your voice with strength,
                                                          O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,*
Comfort, O comfort my people,                             lift it up, do not fear;
  says your God.                                       say to the cities of Judah,
  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,                            „Here is your God!‟
  and cry to her                                           See, the Lord God comes with might,
that she has served her term,                             and his arm rules for him;
  that her penalty is paid,                            his reward is with him,
that she has received from the Lord‟s hand                and his recompense before him.
  double for all her sins.                                 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
                                                          he will gather the lambs in his arms,
  A voice cries out:                                   and carry them in his bosom,
„In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,           and gently lead the mother sheep.
  make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
  Every valley shall be lifted up,                     Mark 1:1-15
  and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,                  The beginning of the good news* of Jesus Christ, the Son of
  and the rough places a plain.                        God.*
  Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
  and all people shall see it together,                2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,*
  for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.‟               „See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,*
                                                          who will prepare your way;
6                                                      3
 A voice says, „Cry out!‟                                the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
 And I said, „What shall I cry?‟                          “Prepare the way of the Lord,
All people are grass,                                     make his paths straight” ‟,
 their constancy is like the flower of the field.

©C. Drew Smith, Ph.D., 2011
  John the baptizer appeared* in the wilderness, proclaiming a     important components that makes a story worth reading is the
baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people
                                                                   opening of the story. Any story worth reading must capture the
from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of
Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in       imagination of its readers through a good beginning.
the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed
with camel‟s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he
                                                                          The beginning of a story sets the stage for the
ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, „The one who is
more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to        remainder of the story as it develops in the imagination of the
stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized
                                                                   readers. Of course, in many narratives that we read, we often
you with* water; but he will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit.‟
                                                                   find that at the beginning of those stories our minds are placed
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was
                                                                   in a setting, a context in which the story begins. We are also, in
baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up
out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit     most cases, introduced to the main characters in the story,
descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from
                                                                   including the protagonist of the narrative. With the telling of
heaven, „You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well
pleased.‟                                                          each story, the author has some intention for how the story
                                                                   begins; the beginning of the story is not usually random.
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the
wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted
by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels                 The primary narratives of Christianity are known to us
waited on him.
                                                                   as the Gospels. Of course, we are aware of the four Gospels we
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee,             have in our Bibles today, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the
proclaiming the good news* of God,* 15and saying, „The time is
                                                                   Gospels we call the canonical Gospels. They are called the
fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;* repent, and
believe in the good news.‟*                                        canonical Gospels because they are the only four Gospels that
                                                                   made it into the Bible as it took shape in the first 350-400 years
       There are several parts to a story that make it worth
                                                                   of Christianity. There are several other Gospels that did not
reading or telling. A good plot, interesting characters, and
                                                                   make it into the Bible, and some of them are very interesting.
conflict and resolution are just a few of those characteristics
                                                                   But that discussion is for another time.
that make a story interesting. But, perhaps one of the most

©C. Drew Smith, Ph.D., 2011
       But what any casual reader of our four canonical             Matthew who tells us about the coming of the Magi. No other
Gospels might notice right off the bat is that each of these four   Gospel tells this part of the story.
tells somewhat different stories about Jesus. It is true that
                                                                            When we look a Luke, we find that Luke is also
Matthew and Luke are similar to Mark, and this is probably
                                                                    concerned with the birth of Jesus, but he begins with the
because those two Gospels used Mark as one of their sources.
                                                                    miraculous birth of John the Baptist, and then focuses our
And, if you read Matthew and Luke, you will find that they are
                                                                    attention on Mary as the mother of Jesus. In Luke, Jesus is born
similar to each other when they are different from Mark. For
                                                                    in a stable, and it is shepherds that come to visit the baby, not
example, both Matthew and Luke contain a large chunk of
                                                                    wise men.
Jesus‟ teachings which we call the Sermon on the Mount in
Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. But, even
                                                                            Coming from a very different perspective, the Gospel
Matthew and Luke do not always agree.
                                                                    of John does not narrate anything about the birth of Jesus or the
                                                                    miraculous nature of the birth. Rather, John tells us about the
       And, if our novice reader were to pick up and read the
                                                                    Word, who was in the beginning, who was with God, and who
Gospel of John, well he or she would find that John is very
                                                                    was God, but who became flesh and dwelt among us. John
different from the other three Gospels.
                                                                    pictures a Jesus who comes from heaven apart from any birth
       But among the differences that we find between our           to a woman.
four canonical Gospels is the way that each of them begin.
                                                                            But what about the Gospel of Mark? How does Mark
Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus, tracing Jesus‟
                                                                    begin his story, and what is the importance for the way he
lineage back as far as Abraham, and then he proceeds to tell
                                                                    begins his story?
about the miraculous birth of Jesus, but from the perspective of
Joseph, not Mary. It is Matthew that tells of the reign of terror
                                                                            We have to say upfront that Mark, as any autonomous
by Herod, who seeks to kill the infant Jesus. And it is also
                                                                    author, chose to tell his story in the way that he does with some

©C. Drew Smith, Ph.D., 2011
intention. He could have, of course, open his story as do                   Mark‟s beginning is packed full of intriguing and
Matthew and Luke, with some sort of birth narrative, and he         theologically rich ideas that set the stage for the rest of the
could have also opened his narrative like John, telling of Jesus‟   story he tells. From verse one, where Mark tells us that this is
preexistence with God. But he does not. Instead, he tells his       the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to verse fifteen,
story in his own way.                                               where Jesus announces the nearness of the rule of God, the
                                                                    opening verses of this gospel are chockfull of information that
         One historical note should be mentioned at this point.
                                                                    is not only of historical and theological value, but that also
Most scholars of the New Testament agree that Mark was the
                                                                    moves us still today as we continue to seek and follow the
first Gospel to be written, and it was probably written around
                                                                    Jesus about which Mark writes.
the year 70 A.D., approximately 40 years after the death of
Jesus.                                                                      During this season of Advent, as we travel through the
                                                                    next four Sundays before Christmas, we are going to take a
         Until Mark writes, as far as we know, no one sat down
                                                                    close look at the opening verses of Mark‟s Gospel. In doing so,
to compose a story about Jesus. Rather, what was probably
                                                                    we will not only try to understand what Mark was saying to his
going on was the spreading of various stories about Jesus
                                                                    first readers about the coming of Jesus, but also how and to
through oral traditions, and perhaps some written sources. This
                                                                    what extent his introduction to this story can shape our own
was the way these stories would have been preserved, and the
                                                                    Christian living in the 21st century.
author of the Gospel of Mark compiles them together into what
becomes known as a Gospel. So, when Mark sits down to write                 Although we read the first fifteen verses, as we will
his Gospel, he seems to be the first to do so. And, in doing so,    each week, we are primarily concerned today with the first four
he needs to craft a beginning that captures the imaginations of     verses of the story, of which, verse one sets the stage for the
his readers.                                                        rest of the story.

©C. Drew Smith, Ph.D., 2011
         Mark pulls no punches when it comes to the subject                I tend to hold to the idea that Mark intends both. Jesus
matter of his story. He is not writing a history of the Roman      is the herald of good news through the gospel narrative, as he
world or about any leaders in the Roman world. He is not           teaches his followers about the way of the Lord. But, we also
writing a history of the Jewish people, or just any Jew from the   know that this story is about Jesus, and the good news that
first century.                                                     Jesus has come to be our servant, who will suffer pain and
                                                                   death, but by the power of God, he will be raised from the
         No. Mark is writing about this person called Jesus and
                                                                   dead. That is the good news about Jesus.
specifically about the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of
God. Indeed, many scholars have suggested that verse one is                But, which Jesus are we talking about? Mark makes it
Mark‟s title to his story, signifying the entire purpose of this   clear that this is not just any Jesus. Rather, this is Jesus Christ,
story.                                                             the Son of God.

         But what does he mean by the phrase, “the good news               Let‟s make something clear at this point. The word
about Jesus Christ, the Son of God”? First, we should be aware     Christ is not Jesus‟ last name as some of my students have
that the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates      supposed. No, the term Christ comes from the Greek word
the preposition with the English “about” when it can actually      which means anointed one, reflecting the Hebrew term
mean “of”, as well. This raises the question as to whether Mark    messiah. Mark makes the claim that Jesus is the Messiah, the
intends to say that this is the “good news of Jesus Christ”,       long awaited deliverer who would be sent by God to redeem
which essentially means the gospel Jesus preaches, or whether      God‟s people.
the author means this is the “good news about Jesus” which the
                                                                           But the other title used in reference to Jesus also
NRSV prefers.
                                                                   signifies his importance. Mark pictures Jesus as not just any
                                                                   ordinary man. Rather, Jesus is seen as the Son of God.

©C. Drew Smith, Ph.D., 2011
        This title as it is used in reference to Jesus is important   Son of God, and therefore God is presented as the Father of
for much of Mark‟s story. Although Jesus never uses the title to      Jesus. There is an intimate relationship between Jesus and God.
refer to himself, as he prefers Son of Man, other characters do
                                                                              What I think is important at this point, and what is
use this title in reference to Jesus. First, the author calls Jesus
                                                                      important for our Christian faith, is that Mark begins this story
Son of God here. At the end of the story, when Jesus dies, the
                                                                      by focusing on Jesus the Messiah and the Son of God. He is the
centurion at the foot of the cross also calls Jesus Son of God.
                                                                      one sent by God as a continuation of God‟s redemptive plan for
But there are two other places where Jesus is called Son of
                                                                      this world. And that is the good news.
God; at his baptism and on the mount of transfiguration, two
significant events in the life of Jesus.
                                                                              In fact, Mark tells us this very thing in the next verse
                                                                      when he reaches back to the Hebrew scriptures to ground his
        Of course, what is important about Jesus being called
                                                                      story not only in the historical person of Jesus, but in the past
Son of God at the baptism and at the transfiguration is that the
                                                                      promises of God that Mark sees as coming to fulfillment in the
character that calls Jesus Son of God at these two points is
                                                                      coming of Jesus.
God, who speaks with authority from the heavens. God calling
Jesus “my Son” signifies God‟s closeness to Jesus.
                                                                              In reading verses 2-3, we find that Mark attributes these
                                                                      words from the Old Testament to the prophet Isaiah. Yet, the
        But, in designating Jesus as Son of God, Mark is not
                                                                      statements found here actually comprise a mixture of
just telling us something about Jesus; he is also telling us
                                                                      quotations from the Hebrew Bible, which are attributed by the
something about God. Simply put, we can propose that God is
                                                                      author of Mark to Isaiah. Here, Mark is actually quoting from
directly defined at this point as the Father of Jesus. Though
                                                                      three different Old Testament passages: Exodus 23:20, Malachi
there is no miraculous birth narrative in Mark, as in Matthew
                                                                      3:1, Isaiah 40:3. But, he clearly attributes all of these to Isaiah.
and Luke, we are left with the impression that Jesus is not just
the Son of Man, a title that refers to his humanity; Jesus is the

©C. Drew Smith, Ph.D., 2011
Why? Was he mistaken? Or, might there be some purpose                        Mark‟s use of these Old Testament passages and the
behind this seeming error.                                           attribution of them to Isaiah, are for the purpose of persuading
                                                                     us to understand his story within the context of the
        Like anything of this nature, scholars are divided, and
                                                                     eschatological hope found in Isaiah 40, and to see this hope
they have proposed various reasons, too many to point out
                                                                     coming to fulfillment in the coming of Jesus.
here. My view is that Mark‟s reason for bringing these verses
together and attributing them to the prophet Isaiah is due to                It is as if the author of Mark is using these quotations at
more than his need to identify a source. I think that Mark           this juncture in the story as a way of picking up the story of the
desires that his story of Jesus be understood against the            past and continuing the hope begun in that former time, in the
backdrop of themes that are found in Isaiah; specifically the        time of Jesus‟ coming. In other words, in the coming of Jesus,
theme of wilderness wandering that we find in Isaiah,                God is at work within Mark‟s story, fulfilling the promises of
especially because the emphasis in Isaiah is the hope of             the past.
eschatological salvation in the wilderness.
                                                                             The voice that cries out in Isaiah 40 proclaims that God
        Isaiah speaks about a new Exodus, which resembles the        is coming as ruler. By using Isaiah as the backdrop to the story,
Exodus from Egypt, and he tells about a messenger of good            then, Mark invites us to comprehend God‟s presence and
tidings. Mark has proclaimed that his narrative is about the         activity in the world.
good news of Jesus. Since Mark has introduced his narrative as
                                                                             This idea is carried further in the first statement that
a “gospel,” and has followed that introduction by naming
                                                                     comes from the Hebrew Bible that Mark quotes. “See, I am
Isaiah as the source of the quotation to follow, it is likely that
                                                                     sending my messenger ahead of you.” Clearly it is God who is
he desires us to understand this story in light the theme of hope
                                                                     sending God‟s messenger ahead of Jesus, who we know is John
that we find in Isaiah.

©C. Drew Smith, Ph.D., 2011
the Baptist, who will be introduced in verses 4-8. John‟s role is    The “way” or the “path”, then, is both God‟s own way and the
very specific; he is sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus.       way of Jesus.

        An interesting problem presents itself, however, in                 If this is correct, then what is Mark up to by telling us
reading verse 3. In the statement, “Prepare the way of the           concerning the way of the Lord as God‟s own way?
Lord,” to whom does the word “Lord” refer? Clearly within
                                                                            Remember what we have said about Mark‟s story: The
the context of Isaiah 40, again, from which the statement,
                                                                     narrative has already implied the context in which we must
“Prepare the way of the Lord” comes, “Lord” refers to God.
                                                                     understand the meaning of the way of the Lord—within
That raises the question as to whether that author intends to use
                                                                     Isaiah‟s theme of God‟s victory. So, Mark is telling us that the
Lord in reference to God, as it originally did in Isaiah, or, does
                                                                     Lord, God, is active in the sending of Jesus to obtain the
Mark mean to place this title now onto Jesus? While it might
                                                                     victory promised in the past, specifically by Isaiah.
refer solely to God or solely to Jesus, perhaps it might refer to
                                                                            As God has been seen as active in sending the
        In fact, when we read verses 2-3, there seems to be one      messenger, John the Baptist, who is to prepare the way of the
path designated, but under two different names. “Your path”          Lord, so God is seen here as promising to enter into the
refers to Jesus, and the way, or path, of the Lord which refers      creation to go the way of victory. The way of the Lord, as well
to God. So it appears that Mark is setting out a very close          as being the way of the Son, is God‟s way, which God will take
connection between Jesus and God. In fact, we might say that         in entering the world.
in bringing about this close connection, one that we already
find when Jesus is called Son of God, Mark also sees Jesus and              So, if the way of the Lord is God‟s way, what is the

God as distinct from one another. Mark recognizes the                way of Jesus? One important thing about Mark‟s story can help

separateness of the two figures as well as their inseparability.     us understand this. The Greek word for “way” or “path” or
                                                                     “road”, as this word can be translated, occurs 16 times in

©C. Drew Smith, Ph.D., 2011
Mark‟s Gospel. Often we read that Jesus and his disciples are               Thus, even we are called to prepare the way of the Lord
on the “way” or on the “road”. Of course, the intent is to show      into our own world. Just as God‟s people were looking for
them as moving, but the term for “way” is also used                  hope and liberation from sin and injustice, so too our world
metaphorically. It is the way to Jerusalem, but it is also the way   longs for a sense of hope and a release from the power of pain
of God‟s destiny for Jesus.                                          and suffering. Will we be faithful like John and like Jesus?

       In Mark, Jesus is very intentional in his movement to                As we begin this 2011 season of Advent, let us not be
Jerusalem, where he will challenge the oppressive rule of the        distracted by the secularism and consumerism that always
religious leaders in Jerusalem and where he will face his death      dominates this time of year. Instead, let us prepare the way of
at the hands of the illegitimate rulers of the world, the Romans.    the Lord by proclaiming to all the good news of Jesus Christ,
                                                                     the Son of God, as the fulfillment of God‟s promises to God‟s
       The “way of the Lord” finds its fulfillment in the “way
of Jesus” who goes to the cross to suffer and die for
humankind. It is the way of God brining about victory over
God‟s enemies through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

       But the way of Jesus is also our way. As John proclaims
the way of the Lord, so to we are called to prepare the way of
God into our own hearts and lives. And, we are called to
prepare the way of the Lord in our world. In doing so, we are
called to open ourselves to God by following Jesus‟ way of
service and self-sacrifice.

©C. Drew Smith, Ph.D., 2011

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