“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way…”
Have you ever woken up, and you have no idea what time it is?
As parents to a six-month-old baby, this is an almost nightly occurrence for my wife and me. We hear our daughter start to cry and suddenly, from the deepest of sleep, one of us stirs. “What TIME is it?” I usually think to myself, if I can avoid saying it out loud and waking my wife. It’s time to wake up! There’s work to be done.
This is what our Gospel reading today is like. Mark is one of those writers who gets straight to the point, like a splash of water on the face in the morning, or the jolt of a baby’s cry in the night: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…” He hits the ground running with John the Baptist crying in the wilderness.
It’s appropriate, because this is really what John the Baptist was like to the people of that day—there in a dark, quiet night, a voice jolting them from sleep, “It’s time to wake up! There’s work to be done.”
Get ready, John says, someone is coming for whom you need to be awake and prepared.
Last week, Jesus’ words in Mark 13 were similar, warning that we must be ready when He comes again in glory to judge. These are Jesus’ words I ended my sermon with last week: “Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
In Advent, we prepare ourselves to welcome and receive Jesus’ coming again to us in the Incarnation, at Christmas; and as I said last week, we enter into a double-edged experience of waiting. As we remember of His first Advent, we watch for Jesus’ second Advent, his “coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
Today, our readings center on addressing two questions: “Who is it we are waiting for?” and “What is the purpose of the waiting?” As we look at how our Gospel reading and the reading from 2Peter address these questions, I believe we will also have an answer for our own day when we ask, “What time is it?”
Let’s begin with our Gospel reading, and the question, “Who is it we are waiting for?”
This is an important question for us to ask because it is so easy to pass this by in the preparations for Christmas. I want to save a little something for Christmas, but I think it’s necessary for us to say that the baby we are waiting to be born in Advent is God the Son.
Before a word even comes out of John’s mouth, listen to how Mark frames this: 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,’”
So, there it is: John is a messenger, preparing the way of the Lord, just like Isaiah said. Now, at first, this might just sound like a simple reference to our first reading—and it does reference our first reading—but just like most things in Mark’s Gospel, what looks simple and straightforward is in fact not quite as simple as it seems.
What do I mean? Well, if you take a quick look at our first reading, you will certainly hear something about a voice crying in the wilderness, but you might notice that Mark’s quote is a little different from what shows up in our reading from Isaiah.
In fact, the first part of that quotation comes from somewhere else entirely, from the book of Exodus. Listen to this quote from Exodus 23, verse 20: “See, I am sending an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.” And note this quote from Malachi 3, verse 1: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.” Then we pick up in Isaiah from our first reading.
So, what, is Mark lying? Did he get a D-minus in his Bible quotation class in seminary, or something? Not at all. Mark is certainly quoting Isaiah directly here, but he is couching that quotation with allusions to other passages, creating a mashup of scripture references that color in the lines of the prophecy Isaiah is announcing in our first reading. And I think Mark is trying, in as succinct a way as possible, to tell us a little bit about who this “Lord” really is in Isaiah, in John’s prophecy, and who exactly it is that we are waiting for this Advent.
Let me explain what I mean. When Isaiah speaks in our first reading about a voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord, you may notice that in our first reading, we use all caps for that word “LORD.” This might seem like a minor point, but it bears attention. In our translations of the Old Testament, when you see LORD or GOD in all caps, it isn’t just that the author wanted to make a big impression, like when we use all caps in an email or a text message. No, when you see this in your Bible, you know that the word they’re translating is a special Hebrew word, YHWH, the special name that God reveals to Abraham and Moses, roughly translated “I am what I am,” or “I will be what I will be.”
This name is a big deal. Such a big deal in fact, that when scribes were hand copying the books of the Bible in the days before the printing press, whenever they came upon this four-letter-word, like a proper name for God, they would stop, wash their hands, get new ink and a new pen, say a prayer, write the name, and then say a prayer, wash their hands, switch back to the other ink and the other pen, and get back to the rest of the copying. It’s quite a to-do! Even today, most observant Jews, and even many Christians, will not speak that proper name of God out loud, out of reverence for the Holy Name.
Now, the Gospels we have weren’t written in Hebrew, and the people who wrote the Gospels probably weren’t reading the Old Testament in Hebrew, but nevertheless, when they saw that special word “The LORD” in their Bible, they knew it was a big deal.
So what does this have to do with Mark, and with his case of Bible-quote-itis? Tons!
We can’t know for sure, because we can’t climb into Mark’s mind and know what he meant to say, but it seems like Mark is basically saying, “You know the Lord that John is preparing the way for, whom Isaiah speaks about? Yes, it’s Jesus, but do you know who He is? He’s the LORD! All Caps! The Big Holy God.
That God who led Israel with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night through the wilderness? That same God is coming through the wilderness again. That God whose glory filled the Temple? That same God is now being announced by John and is suddenly coming into His Temple again! Get ready. The one whose name is so holy, you wouldn’t dare even whisper it, whose face no one has ever seen? That God is on the way, but you will see that God with a human face. Prepare the way! Wake up!” This is who we’re waiting for.
But here’s the bigger question—the one we were talking about last week a little bit, when we talked about how hard it is to wait: “What is the purpose of all this waiting?”
It’s important to ask this question because when waiting gets hard, it’s easy to lose track of what we’re waiting for. We hear this in the Psalms all the time, and it echoes in our own hearts as well: “How long, Lord… How long must we wait?” Whether it’s justice, peace, an end to suffering in the world, or an end to one of the many long nights, loneliness, or any unanswered prayer and unfulfilled longing we have in our hearts and lives, if we are holding out for the hope of God intervening, the wait can be excruciating.
And even more specifically, when we think about all those things in our world and in our lives that won’t be fulfilled until the Lord returns, it’s hard not to wonder why the Lord is taking so long. Isn’t this what we’re saying in that beloved Christmas carol, O Holy Night, when we sing, “A thrill of hope/The weary world rejoices.” The weary world rejoices! We may feel weary… Are we ready to rejoice?
This seems to be what Peter is getting at in our Epistle reading when he says, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”
In other words, we live in the tension of two deep longings: The first is that we each have those places in our hearts where we ache and groan for things to be made right, for the world to be set back to right, for the brokenness of this world to be renewed.
But the second is that place where that brokenness, that place where the world is weary and in need of renewal is felt not just in the world out there, but in the world inside each of us. A weary world is filled with weary hearts, waiting to be made whole.
And this takes us to the purpose of all this waiting, of John’s message, and Peter’s message in the Epistle: The renewal we long for, the setting things to right that Jesus will accomplish when he returns, is something we prepare for now through the hard work of repentance.
Now that’s a really churchy word, and I recognize that it is freighted with all sorts of negative connotations in many of our lives. Whether it’s from past experiences of people in the church using that word like a stick to beat us with, or in the simple frustration we feel when we try to clean up our own lives and we come up short, repentance is a word that needs a little explanation.
When John shows up on the scene, preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” is he saying that once we clean up our lives completely, and turn away from every sin, never to sin again, then maybe God will forgive us? I don’t think so. What John is talking about is preparing ourselves for the coming of that Holy one, whose name itself is unspeakable.
The Lord who came at Christmas as a baby, the Lord whom John prepared the way to baptize with the Holy Spirit did indeed baptize with the Holy Spirit, but not immediately. At Pentecost the disciples had been prepared by the shock of the crucifixion and the resurrection appearances to receive in small measure what Jesus will bring in full when He comes again in glory to baptize the whole world with the Holy Spirit and with fire. But first they had to receive Him as a man—a walking, talking, eating, drinking human being. This was so that they could understand that the baptism that Jesus would bring wasn’t in contrast to their humanity—merely spiritual, but that it is the glorification of their humanity, the remaking of their humanity into the divine humanity that walked in their midst in Christ.
The world is being prepared to receive its King. “Let earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare him room.”
For Thanksgiving, my wife and I hosted both sets of parents, as well as a few friends for lunch. We moved into our house only a few months ago, and we have a precious baby who nevertheless still wakes us up and keeps our hands full, so there was still quite a bit of stuff in relative disarray in our house. But there’s nothing like hosting a feast to motivate you to start looking at what belongs there, and what is just junk that needs to be boxed up or shipped out.
That’s repentance. It isn’t having a perfect house. It’s beginning that process of looking behind the doors we previously just shut, into those rooms that have been filled with junk, and saying, Lord, what would you have me do here?
This is cultivating a heart and mind that is at home with Christ’s coming in glory, Christ’s coming in holiness. This is what Peter is saying. This is, I think, what Mark is saying when he’s quoting all that extra scripture before he starts quoting Isaiah: We are called into a new Exodus which God’s messenger is leading us. We are called not just to live in that promised land God leads his people into, but to be that promised land, to be that temple into which Christ comes.
John’s voice calls us, wakes us in the middle of the night. What time is it? It’s time to wake up. There’s work to be done. Advent season is the perfect time to prepare, to begin the hard work of repentance—To pick up the phone and make the call you’ve needed to make, to take a look in the mirror, to open up the doors of your heart, and just see how God shows up. The time is now. Prepare the way of the Lord.
“Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”
The Rev. Paul Wheatley is instructor of New Testament at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, Nashotah, Wisconsin.