Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Second Sunday of Advent Year B

Second Sunday of Advent Year B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13; II Peter 3: 8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

Following decades of threats and finally destruction by the Assyrians and then the captors of Israel, the Babylonians, "Isaiah" hears an unidentified voice that announces: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.... Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed." The dialogue between the unidentified voice and the prophet continues: "Cry out," demands the voice. "What shall I cry?" the prophet asks. State the obvious: human existence is transient and fragile. Then declare the not so obvious: "the Word of God will stand forever." Like the warrior and the shepherd, "the word of God" protects, restores and nurtures. With no justification, the prophet places hope in the act of announcing the power of "the word of God," to rescue and renew.

The psalmist invokes a past-future vision. As in the past so we can look forward in the future: God rescues by speaking. When God speaks (and is heeded) the result is distinctive: "Kindness and truth have met/ justice and peace have kissed."

Anticipation of the return of Christ was an essential claim of the gospel in the early church. The writer of second Peter provides a standard summary of that belief, but heightens the drama by asserting the total destruction of the earth by fire. However, this destruction is for a specific purpose: "a new heaven and a new earth "where righteousness is at home" will come. Anticipate that new reality by living it now, he instructs.

Jumbling phrases from various sources in the Hebrew scriptures but attributing them to Isaiah, Mark portrays the well-known work of John the Baptist, (even Jospeheus mentions him in his contemporary history of the Jews). Mark casts him as that "voice crying in the wilderness." People leave the capital city and travel into the hostile wilderness. They find a man, who, in appearance and message, is depicted with details that evoke stirring memories of the ancient prophets. His ministry is marked by a cleansing with water, but One is coming, he declares, who will cleanse/renew with spirit/fire.

One of Jacques Derrida's most influential essays is his meditation on Plato's Timaeus, entitled "Khora," in On the Name (1995). Derrida contemplates "an apparently empty place-- even though it is no doubt not emptiness." (p.103) He is considering that place/time that we intuit that is outside/beyond any human success to conceptualize, master, assert, force, penetrate. Later, although discussing the specific role of philosophy in the Western imagination, his insights are useful when applied to all human language/conceptualizing: "The bold stroke consists here in going back behind and below the origin, or also the birth, toward a necessity...." (P.126)

Isaiah's "voice" in the barren wilderness is outside, beyond human origin. It begins as an inarticulate cry, a wail even. In dialogue with the prophet it endows a message, an announcement: with no human origin source or participation, "the Lord's glory will be revealed." From somewhere outside/beyond human invention, which flourishes then always fades and dies, "the word of God will stand forever."

What is distinctive and authentic about this "word of God?" It protects and saves from threats to our well being, as a shepherd cares for his sheep. Or, as the psalmist rhapsodizes, kindness and truth become one and justice and peace embrace and kiss.

Mark does not begin his story with a birth narrative. It starts in the barren wilderness, near but alienated from the capital of human religious and political enterprise, Jerusalem. It is an announcement out of the blue. It reduces its own importance by announcing that the One who is coming and all that Mark will write about his words and deeds is the bold, game-changing action of God.

The landscape of the "wilderness" around Jerusalem is extreme. Where there is no water it is as barren as as a lunarscape. But where there is water it is lush with growth and spectacular flowers. These passages grow out of that biblical experience of extremes. They describe an existential extreme contrast: without the hope and content of the "word of God," (which by its nature exceeds and surpasses any human origin; Genesis testifies that God "spoke" and
then there was life!) human existence is barren, harsh and often feels futile; but when God "speaks" and those words are heeded and treasured, life flourishes, it is rescued, renewed, "righteousness is at home."