Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
This morning I am particularly struck by the words from Isaiah – you know why, of course – they remind me of Handel’s Messiah. For any of us who have sung all or part of Messiah – or who have heard it sung countless times –we hear these words, and immediately melodies, choruses, orchestral accompaniments all come into our heads. Try these words, and think about what you hear:
“Every valley shall be exalted”
“He shall feed his flock like a shepherd”
See? And as if that weren’t enough, we even have a bit of Brahm’s Deutsches Requiem here – “Den allest Fleisch es ist wie Grass” – All people are grass in verse 6 – of course, you have to be up on your German for that one, but I guarantee some of you were humming when that phrase went by too.
But back to Messiah. We give Handel all the credit for this piece; but did you know that the libretto (taken from the King James Version of the Bible and The Book of Common Prayer) was assembled by a man named Charles Jennens? I think his work is really first-rate. Of course Handel set it all brilliantly, but, since English was not his first language, he needed someone like Jennens to help him succeed. And it wasn’t only these two who contributed to the creation and success of the work—at this time in musical history, composers really just sketched out a work, and it was left to copyists to write out the parts, and the musicians themselves to fill in what was implied but not written. If those folks hadn’t known how to do their part, it probably never would have succeeded, and certainly wouldn’t have made it to our day. Together they all produced a brilliant work—and yet Handel gets all of the credit.
But listen to this: Handel wrote the music—that sketch—in 24 days. 24 days! Scholars say this speed was not unusual for Handel, or even for his contemporaries; and he did recycle some musical bits he had written years before, which was also customary for the day. Nonetheless, I find it remarkable that this, one of the most performed musical works of the Western World, was written in a little more than three weeks. If he had taken three months to write just the Hallelujah Chorus, I would still be impressed.
I guess George Frederic must have had a strong work ethic—he didn’t fool around. I also think that he was probably inspired as he wrote this work; maybe he knew it was something important, something great, and that it needed to be given his best, most concentrated effort so that it could be shared immediately. Anyway, I am glad he wrote it, and I look forward to hearing it many, many more times, both this Advent and Christmas and in the future.
These words in Isaiah are the initial verses of what is known as Second Isaiah. While this book appears as one in our Bibles, in fact it is a composite of the words of several different prophets from different periods of Israel’s history. Chapters 40-55 are called Second Isaiah, or Deutero-Isaiah, and they are attributed to an unknown prophet who was writing for an Israelite audience toward the end of the Babylonian exile—this is when the Jews of the Kingdom of Judah were captives in Babylon. Most scholars say this was somewhere between 587–538 BCE.
The prophet is writing to give the listeners hope – hope that their exile will soon end. He wants to give his people consolation and reassurance. They’ve been torn from their homeland and are longing to return, and comfort is what they need. The prophet soothes them with two very different images of God. He describes God first as one who is so mighty that he can do things humans cannot—lift valleys up, lay mountains low, make rough terrain as smooth as a plain. Such a God surely has the power to rescue his own people when they are in desperation. And yet God is also described here as a gentle shepherd, one who tenderly gathers those who have been bruised by the whims of the world into his arms, and carries them close to his heart.
It’s not hard to imagine that these words were comforting to the Israelites in captivity in Babylon—and likewise, that that this kind of God, who had so much power and yet was so gentle and loving, was also a comfort to the people for whom Mark was writing. These words had such power that Mark decided to open his story of the life of Christ by recalling this God with a quote from Second Isaiah.
Now, the other Gospel writers choose to begin with birth stories—for Matthew it is first the birth of Jesus; for Luke it is the birth of John the Baptist; and for John it is the beginning, or birth of time itself. But Mark starts with the words of the prophet, words revered by his audience.
And he makes it clear, right at the beginning, that this is GOOD news! None of this is an accident. Mark is speaking to a people who need good news – people who need reassurance. Remember that these listeners still see themselves as Jewish, but as Jews who have received their Messiah—they are becoming Christians. At the time of this writing—somewhere in around 60 to 70 CE— Nero is persecuting Christians, and Jews are revolting against Imperial Rome. It is an uncertain time. The gospel writer believes that the answer to their problems lies in the life and work of Jesus, God come to earth.
The people of Mark’s time needed assurance—and so do we. These are uncertain times, to be sure.
As we work through difficult issues, we must not lose hope. We should never forget that these words of comfort from long ago are also meant for us. Our God—a God of great strength and capability, and also a God of gentleness and caring—our God is able to provide what we need.
In this season of waiting, we are preparing once again to celebrate the coming of God to earth. But we are also hoping for better things in our future—that humanity will live into its better nature. The Good News that Mark reminds us of today is that God is able to make things better.
And how does God do that? Through us—God is anointing us to be God’s agents in the world. First through our baptism with water—as we take our place among the people of God in the church—and then through a baptism of the Holy Spirit, where we are able to see the gifts that God has given us to help a world full of need, both our own and our neighbors’ need.
God gives us the gifts—but we have to share them. We must bring them to the table. My prayer is that we do so out of gratitude for God’s bounty in our lives, and also because we long to be the messengers of Good News for others. In an uncertain time, we are dependent more than ever on each of us playing our role as part of God’s creation of a better world.
And we are to support one another as we do this work. We gather as a community to hold each other up in this important work. Just as God offers comfort to us as a reminder of God’s love, so ought we comfort one another. We are all called to support the community within these walls, as we are God for one another in our very best times, in our worst times, and all the times in between. And we are also called to work in the community outside of our doors. That commitment both within and outside our walls is at the heart of the hallmark of what it means to be the Church.
As we continue our Advent preparations—as we prepare ourselves to welcome Christ anew into our hearts—I challenge you not to be passive, but to take an active role in the world about you. To work to build the Kingdom of God here on earth. And as you consider what you will do, remember the lesson we learned today from Handel and his great work, Messiah: It takes a team of people, all doing their part, to make something succeed. Your contribution is vital to our success as a community, no matter what that gift is.
And always remember that what we do as a community matters; it is important work, urgent work, work that deserves our best. The time is now! Let us move with haste to affect change, and to bring God to one another and to our community.
As we await the night when we will once again tell the story of our God, who loves us so much that he came in our midst as a babe, remember that same God’s words for us in troubled times: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” Hallelujah! Amen.