2nd Sunday of Advent
Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11;
Mark 1:1-8; 2 Peter 3:8-15a
COMFORT AND CHALLENGE:
A TESTIMONY ABOUT OUR CHANGING MINISTRY
There’s an old saying among pastors — perhaps you’ve heard it, too — that our job is to comfort the afflicted … and to afflict the comfortable. I prefer the word “challenge” to “afflict” (though sometimes my efforts to challenge do seem to afflict people). But comfort and challenge has always been a good way for me to approach trying to balance my ministry as a pastor.
It’s also one of those things undergoing a change as I experience the conversion that’s part of my testimony with you. As my experience of the Gospel undergoes a change, so does my living out of comfort and challenge among you as your pastoral leader. Comfort and challenge presents itself as another lens through which to view my testimony.
This morning’s First Reading opens the door by seeing the prophet’s message as one of comfort and challenge. To do so, we’ll need to look at the wider message of Isaiah and not just this morning’s slice of the message. As scholars have studied the Book of Isaiah over the last century, a number of helpful insights have become increasingly obvious. [Extemporize the following outline:]
Overview of the Book of the prophet Isaiah: we know that the 66 chapters of Isaiah were not written by one man, the prophet Isaiah, at one time and place. Rather, it was prompted by the preaching of an original prophet in the late Eighth Century B.C. to the Northern Kingdom of Israel as they faced a dire threat from the growing Assyrian Empire. Then, when many of his prophecies came true, his message was written down by students, who formed a sort of School of Isaiah. But here’s the interesting part: this school continued for two or three centuries to interpret and write the message of Isaiah for subsequent generations of Israelites — not just for the Northern Kingdom, which was defeated by the Assyrians, but also later for the Southern Kingdom of Judah in its encounter with the Babylonians. We now effectively divide the Book of Isaiah into three main sections:
First Isaiah: Chapters 1-39 — the central message derived from the original prophet Isaiah, ca. 720-700 B.C., who prophesied to the Northern Kingdom of Israel as they faced eventual defeat to the Assyrians in the early part of the next century (around 690 B.C.).
Second Isaiah: Chapters 40-55 — the message of Isaiah adapted to the situation of the Jews from the Southern Kingdom of Judah, living in exile in Babylon, ca. 525 B.C., having already been defeated and Jerusalem destroyed.
Third Isaiah: Chapters 56-66 — the message of Isaiah adapted for the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, ca. 500 B.C. and beyond, now under Persian rule, in the situation of rebuilding their destroyed homeland of Jerusalem and Judah.
This morning’s reading from Isaiah 40 opens the message of Second Isaiah, to give comfort to the Jews in exile in Babylon, with a message that God is preparing a highway of return for them to their homeland.
A prophet’s message as bringing together Comfort and Challenge:
Recall last week’s distinction between prediction and prophecy. To prophesy is not to lock someone into a certain fate. It is to challenge them to see when they are on a wrong path, one that leads to death and destruction, so that they may choose the right path, one that leads to abundant life.
Comfort comes primarily through the promise of God’s heavenly way of doing things coming to earth. It will be a time when God’s way of life reigns on the earth. Something very important to note: The Jewish way of seeing comfort and hope has nothing to do with ‘going to heaven when we die.’ You will not find even a hint of that message in the Hebrew prophets. Their message of hope always had to do with God’s heavenly presence coming to earth in a way that frees us and gives us life.
Jesus’ message stands firmly in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. But over the centuries Greek thinking has intervened in our thinking, which comes more from Plato than it does from Jesus. Plato believed that Creation of matter was from an evil source, not God, and the that the ultimate destination of human life is a disembodied existence in a heavenly realm of spirit. The traditional idea of going to heaven when we die is influenced more by Plato than Jesus.
And so we came to read the Easter stories of resurrection through Greek eyes instead of Jewish. We have misunderstood resurrection, thinking about it not as a return to life in God’s good Creation, but existence in heaven away from the earthly, material part of Creation. Resurrection of the body, seen through Jewish eyes, is about being held in God’s power of life when we die, until a day when we will rise again to a transformed life in the New Heaven and New Earth.
Jesus also complicates things by beginning the new age of God’s reign now! Through Jesus, God’s reign has begun to become a healing agent in Creation, moving it toward the Day of Resurrection. There is now an overlapping of two ages: the old age of sinful powers ruling in our lives and the new age launched by Christ with God’s reign of healing.
But the way this comforting message about healing comes to us tends to challenge our usual ideas of comfort itself. Mark’s story of Jesus, which begins with proclamation of comfort from Second Isaiah, will come to center its portrait of Jesus on:
Isaiah 53:3 He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. 4 Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.
It is a willingness to bear suffering together that will ultimately bring comfort. That faith-truth challenges any notions of comfort as achieving the absence of suffering. The mystery at the heart of a faith which places a cross at the center is the mystery of bearing suffering together as the way to true life. The prophet Second Isaiah brings together these two, comfort and suffering, as the truth which will epitomize the way of faithfulness of Jesus and his disciples. It is the way of discipleship we are called to in the rhythm of coming to this table of Our Lord, his body broken and his blood poured out for us, that we may be sent out again this week to bring a healing presence to the suffering of this world. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, December 7, 2014