Do You See What I See?
Look for the Prophets
First Baptist Richmond, December 10, 2023 The Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
Comfort, O 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.
The year was 1996.
It was my second trip to the Holy Land and I was there with a few dozen members of my church and my friend Jim Eastin, the Methodist minister in town, who had brought a dozen or so of his. We were in the Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem, a twelfth-century edifice with incredible acoustics. Every note that was sung in that place reverberated off the stone walls and vaulted ceilings, building in volume, growing stronger and sweeter until you could hardly believe it was the same note that had been sung only a moment earlier. Our little group was told that the softer we sang, the better it would sound, and so we sang “Amazing Grace” as quietly as we could and marveled at the way the music seemed to swell and the notes began to blend in a harmony we could have never produced on our own.
We waited until the last note died away, but then finally, reluctantly, began to move toward the door, because there is always somewhere else to go and something else to see in the Holy Land. I was getting ready to step outside when I heard a clear tenor voice lift up the first few notes of “Comfort ye, My People,” from Handel’s Messiah. Do you know that song? Christy and I used to listen to the Messiah on a cassette tape, in our car, all through the Season of Advent. When I
was by myself and that song came on I would sing along. I didn’t sound anything like that tenor from the London Symphony Orchestra, but this guy, whoever he was, sounded just like him. And then I turned and saw that it was my friend Jim Eastin, with whom I had shared many a slap-happy lunch at the local Hardee’s. He was standing there in the choir loft, singing like an angel. It transformed the moment. It transformed him. There I was, in the Holy City, and there he was singing, “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, and her iniquity pardoned.”
I got goose bumps.
But can you imagine how those words would have sounded to God’s people in exile, those who had been languishing in Babylon for more than two generations? Can you imagine how they would have rejoiced over the idea that their warfare was accomplished and their iniquity pardoned, so that after all those years of suffering they could finally go home? Friends, there are times when the Word of the Lord is the sweetest word you could ever hope to hear, but there are other times when it is not, when it is, in fact, just the opposite. In today’s readings from Isaiah 40 and Mark 1 we have a little bit of each, and yet both of these readings are found between the covers of a book we call the Bible, a book the church values so highly we have placed a copy in every pew. Take it out of the rack if you can. Hold it in your hands. Pass it to a neighbor. Feel its weight. Appreciate it for what it is.
I love the way Tim Mackie describes it in a video called “What is the Bible?”i He says, “The Bible is a small library of books that all emerged out of the history of the people of ancient Israel. And in one sense, they were just like any other ancient civilization (you can see them there in the video: an animated cartoon of
ancient people going about their everyday business). But among them were a long line of individuals called prophets,” Mackie continues, “and they viewed Israel’s story as anything but ordinary (and that’s when a wise-looking man with a long beard steps into the frame). They saw it as a central part of what God was doing for all humanity,” Mackie says (the man turns toward the temple and closes his eyes as a bright light begins to shine). “And these prophets were literary geniuses (and that’s when the man turns back toward the camera and triumphantly raises a quill pen over his head to trumpet fanfare).
Tim Mackie’s friend, Jon, seems skeptical that the prophets were really literary geniuses but Tim insists. He says, “They expertly crafted the Hebrew language to write epic narratives, and very sophisticated poetry. They were masters of metaphor and storytelling. And they leveraged all this to explore life’s most complicated questions about death and life and the human struggle.” His friend says, “So there’s a lot of different authors writing this book.” Tim agrees and says, “These texts were produced over a thousand-year period, starting with Israel’s origins in Egypt, then leading up to their kingdom with their first temple. But eventually, they were conquered by the Babylonians, who took them away into exile.”
I’ll leave Tim’s description there so we can get back to our readings for today, but I want you to know how much I appreciate what he says about the prophets, and the fact that he calls them “literary geniuses.” It reminds me of something I wrote years ago, long before I saw Tim’s video, in a poem that I dedicated to my atheist friends as a way of helping them appreciate the Bible. It’s called, “While Looking at Pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope,” and it goes like this:
Look at these:
Aren’t they amazing?
These are pictures of deep space,
the far reaches of the universe
and what can be seen in every dark corner
clusters of stars so dense
they dazzle the eyes.
There is an ancient text that claims:
“God is light.”ii
Work with me for a minute:
Imagine that it’s true,
that all the brilliant beauty in those images—
That He, or She, or It, is a luminous, swirling, benevolent
That fills the universe,
and touches every dark corner
And then imagine that here—
on this tiny blue-green planet—
among humans who have evolved slowly
over millions of years
have been especially sensitive to that
in love with the light,
listening for its low vibrations,
and that they have tried to put into words
what they have heard and seen,
tasted and touched.
Imagine that other humans—
not so sensitive—
have found meaning in those words,
some sense of connection
to something they cannot name,
so that they have gathered up those words
and written them down
on tablets, scrolls, and in books.
Suppose that’s what the Bible is,
the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita:
books full of words that bear witness
to some greater presence
by those who have heard the low hum
of the heavens, singing,
by those who have seen the light
and called it by name?
It doesn’t mean that they got it all right—
this is testimony, not Truth—
but suppose there is a kind of truth there
for those who can hear it
and Good News (if you want to call it that):
The news that we are not alone:
That there is a luminous, swirling, benevolent
Watching over us,
Nurturing our slow growth
and stuttering evolution
Believing in us
Even when we cannot
Believe in ourselves,
And touching every dark corner
Remember that this was written for my atheist friends, a kind of gentle nudge in God’s direction, but to my Christian friends I might say that there have been people through the years who were especially sensitive to God’s presence, people who listened carefully for God’s voice, people who then wrote down what they heard, and they were called prophets. And whether or not they were literary geniuses I might say that we should thank God for people who take the time to listen for a word from the Lord, because not all of us can. You can’t do that if you’re a neurosurgeon, or a school teacher, or a factory worker. So, thank God that there are some people whose calling it is to listen for a word from the Lord and then share that word with people who need to hear it.
If you will indulge me, that’s my calling. And if you will let me, I’d like to say thank you. I am deeply grateful for people who make it possible for me to spend hours each week reading the Bible, and listening for the Word of the Lord, asking God: “What do you need to say to your people in this place at this point in history?” Most of us don’t have time to do that, but all of us need to come to worship, and sit for a while in God’s presence, and open ourselves to a word from outside ourselves: a word from the Lord. And if we are fortunate enough to have someone who has been listening for that word all week and thinking about how to communicate it to us so that we can hear it, then good for us.
We should feel lucky.
God’s people in exile were lucky. They didn’t feel that way. They felt like they were being punished for something they didn’t even do, something their ancestors before them had done. But while they were licking their wounds the prophet Isaiah was listening for a word from the Lord. His predecessor had been
the one to tell the people that if they didn’t change their ways God was going to punish them. And then God did punish them. He punished them for a long, long time. But now, as Isaiah strained his ears for God’s voice, he heard something new. “Comfort, O 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.” And then the music swells and the tempo quickens as the soloist sings about every valley being exalted and every mountain and hill being made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain, so that a highway can be paved through the desert and God can come to his people, bringing not punishment, but redemption and release. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd,” says the prophet; “He will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom.”
That’s good news! And sometimes that’s what we hear in church: the good news that God has looked upon our wretched circumstances and taken pity on us and come to deliver us. But then there are those times when the news doesn’t sound good at all. Hundreds of years after the exile the word of the Lord came to John the Baptist. He was out there in the wilderness, looking very much like the Prophet Elijah, with clothing made of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey, and if the truth be told he wasn’t much of a literary genius; as far as we know he never wrote a word. But he had a message from God and the message was this:
It doesn’t sound much like good news, but years later another prophet named Mark (who was a literary genius) introduced his Gospel with the words, “This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And it
wasn’t so much about repenting; it was about the reason for repenting. God was getting ready to do a new thing in the world: God was getting ready to come to his people in the flesh. Quoting the Prophet Malachi Mark writes, “See, I am sending my messenger before you who will prepare your way.” And then quoting Isaiah he writes about a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight.” You can almost hear the prophet singing “Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low. The crooked straight and the rough places plain.”
It’s exciting to think about God coming to us, but just like when you get the news that your rich uncle is coming to see you, you need to get ready. In that case you might race around the house, picking up the mess, putting a pot roast in the oven and setting the table with your finest linen, crystal, silver, and china. But in John’s case it was a matter of getting people’s hearts ready, getting their lives ready for the One who was coming. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. Why did they do it? Because of what John was preaching. This prophet, who had spent years in the wilderness, listening for the voice of God, was now preaching the Good News, saying, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
How do you get ready for that? You confess your sins. You repent. And if you need to, you get baptized. It sounds almost like bad news, this demand for repentance. But if you can see the reason behind it, if you can see that it is simply
the way you get ready for the One who is coming, then it begins to sound like the good news it is. “Repent!” says John, and the whole Judean countryside, and all the people of Jerusalem, come down to the river to get ready, to wash away their sins, to change their clothes to change their lives before the One who is to come, comes.
So, how about you, you who are sitting in the pews, opening your lives and your selves to a word from the Lord? Can you hear the call to repentance as a call to get ready? Can you think of anything in your life that would keep Christ from coming? Last week I talked about looking for the signs, and how, when you look for them, you begin to see them. This week I’m asking you to look for the prophets, and not only to look, but to listen, because when you really listen to what they have to say you begin to hear what God is saying, and what God is saying to us in this season is, “I’m coming.
—Jim Somerville © 2023