The person speaking in today’s First Reading (Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11) does so with remarkable confidence and hope. In truth, however, there were no obvious grounds for optimism at that time. The hope of a new leader to emerge from the family or House of King David seemed to be shattered when the Babylonians invaded the country of Judah in 6th century BC. Its leading citizens and craftspeople were forced to live in exile in Babylon, about 60 miles south of Baghdad in modern day Iraq.
It was amongst these exiles, grieving the loss of their homeland, that a man of vision emerged to give us 16 chapters in the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament of the Bible which are known today as the ‘Book of Consolation’. In these chapters Isaiah presents God promising to comfort or console his people by leading them out of slavery, in a new exodus from Babylon, just as God had previously led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. But unlike that journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, this time the people would not wander and stray as their ancestors did for 40 years. This time, led by God, they would stick to the ‘straight highway’ or processional path across the Syrian dessert that God would mark out for them.
In his vision, Isaiah hears the voice of God calling on a crier or announcer to run quickly back to Jerusalem with this good news of impending deliverance. And it is here in this text that the New Testament writers found their word ‘Gospel’ as the title for their story of the life of Jesus. Gospel means ‘good news’. This crier in Isaiah, summoned by God, is to proclaim in the towns and cities the Good News of the people’s forthcoming liberation.
St Mark’ Gospel, the first of the four Gospels to be written, opens, as we have just heard, with the words ‘The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. He has taken that term ‘Good News’ from Isaiah to proclaim two things in that opening sentence of his Book – it’s Good News about Jesus being the ‘Christ’ (Messiah) and also being Son of God.
After this opening statement, St Mark takes a section of the First Reading to apply it to the role of John the Baptist’s in the ministry of Jesus. Originally that text in Isaiah was about the crier going ahead of God leading the Israelites home to Judah. Now Mark subtly changes it to present John the Baptist as the crier or forerunner to prepare the way for Jesus.
John appeared at a time when prophets were thought to have been a thing of the distant past. He lived a hermit’s life in the wilderness and had something of the appearance of a ‘strange man’. He called on his fellow Israelites to renew their commitment to God by repenting or changing the direction of their lives. And he asked them to symbolize this renewed commitment by getting immersed in the flowing waters of the River Jordan.
Why this action as a symbol of their commitment? Some Biblical commentators think that John took over the established ritual of immersion used at the time for when pagans converted to Judaism. The Jewish people as a community was born when Moses and the ancient Israelites escaped from Egypt and passed through the waters of the Red Sea. Converts to Judaism would submit to the ritual of being immersed in the River Jordan to signify their membership of this community. John gave the ritual a new meaning when he asked established Israelites s to do the same as a sign of their repentance and rededication to their relationship with God.
John’s ministry, according to the Gospels, was also to prepare people for the Lord who would come after him. Using the language of Isaiah in the First Reading, he asked them to create a smooth road or ‘straight path’ into their hearts for God to re-enter their lives in a new way.
In today’s Gospel, John asks the same of us.
As we prepare for a Christmas like no other – but still putting up decorations and the tree, buying in extra and more delicious food, splashing out on wine costing more than £5 and, possibly, getting our homes ready for a guest or two – we hear John calling on us at this time of waiting for Christmas to recommit ourselves to the Lord and allow his mercy and love to re-enter our lives.
So what change of heart or change of direction in your life and mine do we need to undertake at this time that will be pleasing to God and, perhaps, to others as well? What, if anything, do I have to do to strengthen my relationship with the Lord who began human life as a tiny and vulnerable child in Bethlehem?
Holy Name, Jesmond
6 December 2020