Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-11
One of the things I like to notice when I read a book is the opening lines. I’m interested in how writers choose to introduce what they have to say. How does it set up the rest of the story? How does it draw us in as a reader and make us a part of what follows? What clues does it give about what we’re about to read?
One of the books that will forever be on my ‘pick up anytime and be delighted’ list is Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It’s one of the few books I’ve handled so much that the cover has torn off. It’s best read in small portions and digested over long periods of time. It starts this way: “I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I’d half awaken. He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses. It was hot, so hot the mirror felt warm. I washed before the mirror in a daze, my twisted summer sleep still hung about me like sea kelp. What blood was this, and what roses? It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth. This sign on my body could have been an emblem or a stain, the keys to the kingdom or the mark of Cain. I never knew. I never knew as I washed, and the blood streaked, faded, and finally disappeared, whether I’d purified myself or ruined the blood sign of the Passover. We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence…” (pp. 1,2)
Annie Dillard goes on to write about her experiences and observations of the natural world around her house by Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. In an early chapter she talks about the act of seeing, about what we notice and what we don’t notice. What we let come through our open window, so to speak. She sees in her surroundings untamed beauty, as well as devastating violence. She feels an awareness of “something powerful playing over me,” all the while being baffled by its elusive presence. In other words, her opening description of the tom cat and the blood that found its way on her body serves as a metaphor for the rest of what she has to say.
A book that I read a few years back but was reminded of this week when a friend mentioned it in a post is Marilynn Robinson’s Gilead. This is written as a reflection of an aging Midwestern pastor. The pastor, John Ames, had married a younger woman and they had a son together and these reflections are written as if from this elderly father to his young son. It begins this way: “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don’t laugh! Because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them. It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If you’re a grown man when you read this – it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then – I’ll have been gone a long time. I’ll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I’ll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things.” (p. 3)
The rest of the book is a monologue of this elderly fictitious Reverend John Ames telling stories from his life. But the way the book opens reminds the reader that this is more like a dialogue, with the son always present, listening, as if he were still sitting on his father’s lap, or they were at the bedside together. It is a book full of life, and full of words, but also overshadowed by impending death and the silence that follows.
Both of these books drew me in from the very beginning, with their opening setting the tone for what was to come, helping define just what kind of story this was going to be.
Today’s scriptures in this second Sunday of Advent are also beginnings.
You can’t tell it at first glance, but Isaiah chapter 40 is the start of a new story, opening words for a new narrative that is taking shape. In its finished form, Isaiah comes to us as one book, but contains within it multiple books from multiple Isaiahs. Scholars believe that there are three distinct voices in the book of Isaiah, each speaking from a different time period, a different location, into different sets of circumstances. Rather than a single person, Isaiah is more like a prophetic tradition, a school of multiple generations of prophets. We could think of the final product of Isaiah as something like a trilogy, packaged together in one box set, so one can watch the whole thing unfold from beginning to end.
After chapter 39, when the first Isaiah has said all he has to say, there is a long pause. 150 years, or so, of silence. During this silence the nation of Judah is destroyed, invaded and conquered by the Babylonians. Many of its people are exiled, into Babylon — living as disoriented, displaced persons — grieving over what has been destroyed, longing for God to work salvation for them. Out of this silence, the Second Isaiah speaks, in exile, from Babylon. Book two begins, and its opening words set the course for where the story is headed. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the Presence of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’”
‘Comfort, comfort my people’ begins this story. Comfort plus comfort. Comfort squared. Extra fortified double strength comfort to meet the need of the double devastation the people have experienced. These are welcome words for exiles. They had fallen onto the hard, inflexible, unforgiving solidity of forces greater than themselves. The aspirations of an invading empire, points of spears leading them away from their homes, forging a new life in a foreign land — the harsh realities of the world that many people continue to experience who are displaced by violence. And now they are hearing words of comfort. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Words of tender speech. Like a parent speaking gently to a child at bedtime. Like life partners comforting each other. The hard edges are softened. The inhuman situation suddenly has a touch of humanity. The prophet speaks words of assurance and consolation. A way is being made for them. They’re not stuck where they are. There is a way being prepared that they will be able to walk. They haven’t been forgotten here or abandoned in exile. This is how this story begins.
I image we can each think of times when we have experienced words of comfort as having the power to open up a whole new path. We felt as though we were trapped in our worries and fears and self-doubts, as if we are surrounded by mountains and valleys that we can’t see around or climb over. And then words of comfort or assurance come to us, and we experience what Isaiah describes. “Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low, the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” And we see a way where before there was no way. There are times when we need this kind of message to disrupt all the other disruptions.
If you are a person for whom certain phrases instantly remind you of a song which in turn gets stuck in your head, you may find through Advent that Handel’s Messiah will have a steady presence in your brain. When writing The Messiah Handel chose these first words of Second Isaiah to be the beginning. Comfort, comfort. What unfolds in Isaiah and what unfolds through that music is a story about the offer of comfort, which changes the whole landscape of our world.
When Mark begins his gospel, he cites this passage from Isaiah as having to do with what he calls “the beginning of the good news.”
Mark’s can be a tricky gospel for the Advent/Christmas season – primarily because the Christmas story is entirely absent from it. In Mark there are no angels visiting Mary or Joseph, and no birth story. If we were to base our children’s Christmas play on Mark’s gospel it would be very low stress for all involved, with no lines to memorize. I say this at the risk of having you demote Mark as a lesser gospel, which it most certainly is not. Mark tells of the beginning in another way.
Mark’s first words are, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” In the next few verses Mark goes on to tell of John the Baptizer proclaiming a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins, and of Jesus who is fully grown when we meet him who hits the ground running with a quick baptism, wilderness trial, and is very soon proclaiming his message that the kingdom of God has come near.
Mark’s gospel does not begin as one of pure comfort. Right from the beginning he uses contentious language that sets the stage for later conflicts in the story. He calls his writing “gospel”, “good news” which was a term associated with Roman propaganda as decrees of gospel would be sent out to the far corners of the empire to announce a military victory or the coming to power of a new emperor. Mark claims another gospel. In referring to Jesus as the “Son of God,” Mark is challenging the emperor who also carried this title, and making a claim about what it really means to be a representative of God on earth. The first mysterious character on the scene, John the Baptist, also carries this sense of struggle. Aside from being someone who lived in the wild, wore clothes made out of camel’s hair, and ate bugs, his message also had an abrasive edge to it. His was a disruptive message. He was a whistle blower on people’s sins, especially those in power, calling them to turn around 180 degrees and walk in the other direction. Soon we learn that John is arrested, and later killed, for his message, a signal that not everyone found his message comforting. Annie Dillard writes that “we wake, if we wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence.”
But John’s message was one of hope. He was cutting a path through obstacles in people’s lives and clearing a way for a fresh start. He made the remarkable claim that people’s sins could be forgiven. That all those mountains of mistakes that had accumulated in people’s lives and all those valleys of deficits that people felt they had could be made level. It’s comforting to hear that no matter how deeply worn in our habits are there’s a possibility of a fresh start. A fresh start with God, and a fresh start in a community of baptized people who live under the order of forgiveness. John also said “One who is more powerful than I is coming.” I’m guessing that he found this personally comforting. That he recognized he didn’t have to hold everything together on his own, but that one more powerful than he would come along and build on his words and his mission.
This is how the story begins. This is how the Second Isaiah and Mark introduce what they have to share. And like the beginning of any good story, it sets the tone for what we can expect to come next. And unlike a book with a final page, it’s a story that’s still being written.