Prophetic Preparation

Isaiah 64:1–9, Mark 13:24–37, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on December 03, 2023

My kid mentioned casually the other day that she has an emergency bag packed up in her room. This statement caused her parents’ ears to perk up. “What are you preparing for?” we asked. “Are you mad at us? Are you going to run away?” we teased. “Oh,” she responded, “No, it’s in case there’s a fire, or a tornado.” Hmm . . . now I’m very curious what’s in the bag.

Our dog, Ace, is prepared in a different way. One morning this week, he was curled up on our bed, while I was in the kitchen, cutting up an apple. Ace loves apples. The slightest piece of core fell off my knife and onto the floor. It landed softly. Ever so softly. I didn’t really even hear a noise. Ace, though, was ready. His head might have been tucked in and his eyes closed. He may have appeared to be sleeping but he heard that tiny sound. And he instantly realized what it was. In a matter of seconds, he had leapt down from the bed and was by my feet, snapping up that juicy morsel of apple.

This morning’s texts raise the familiar Advent refrain, “Prepare!” Of course, it’s important to be as ready as we can be for disasters and emergencies. Lack of preparedness can make bad news truly terrible. And yet, it seems we spend a great deal of our energy worrying, expecting the worst. Do we ever prepare for good news? What would that look like?

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Holy One, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”The first section of Isaiah describes the events leading up to the people’s exile in Babylon. The second section, which begins with today’s reading from chapter 40, focuses on their homecoming. The prophet clearly is assuming that the trauma of the exile—from the initial bloody slaughter to the generations of dislocation and mourning—is a form of divine punishment. “Jerusalem has received double for all her sins,” he declares. In my opinion that’s bad theology. While I do think God lovingly holds us accountable, I don’t believe in a punishing God. And yet I imagine we might identify with the exiles’ experience of alienation from God, their sense that God was far away and perhaps even irrelevant amid all the big problems of their world. The prophet counters this perception by portraying God as a force of tenderness, a power rooted in connection. This God proclaims comfort to a broken and grief-stricken people, tending them with the humble love of a shepherd—feeding, gathering, and even carrying the flock next to God’s own bosom.  

When the exiles made the literal journey home from Babylon, they would have had to follow the path of water. And yet the prophet imagines a metaphorical highway that plows a path straight through the Syrian desert. The striking thing about this image is that the road being built is not for the exiles to travel on. This highway is for God. God is the one who will return, the one who will close the gap. God is the constancy amid our human frailty. The exiles are not to wait passively though. They are to actively prepare the way for God’s coming—lifting valleys, leveling mountains, smoothing rough places.

The good news we are preparing to receive during Advent may not always appear positive at first glance. The first verse of Mark is not a complete sentence because it’s the title of the whole book. “The beginning of the good news [or Gospel] of Jesus Christ, the Child of God.” With this line, Mark invented a new genre of literature, the Gospel. One biblical scholar notes that the word gospel in the Greek language can mean something like “good news from the battlefield” or “good news from a place of struggle.” Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary, p. 30) Indeed, Mark’s Gospel, in particular, depicts the ministry of Jesus as an epic struggle to “bind the strong man,” to subdue the demons of violence, fear and worry that rule the human heart, to confront the cruelty and oppression of the Roman empire. The good news of Advent lives in the real world, a world of suffering and struggle. As the poet Ross Gay puts it, “What if joy, instead of refuge or relief from heartbreak, is what bursts forth from us as we help each other carry our heartbreaks?”

John the Baptist calls us to prepare the way for good news by undergoing “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Repentance is, literally, a turning. It is the seeking of a fresh perspective, an intentional reframing. Repentance is the construction, in our owns hearts, of a highway for God-with-us to travel on. This road brings the energy of divine love and transformation into our places of deep struggle. Here are a few examples striking me today. I have a friend who is waiting for some medical news. Is it cancer? What kind? If not, then what diagnosis explains the symptoms? Will surgery be required? The not-knowing is so difficult. It’s clear that something is not right so it’s not realistic to expect a clean bill of health. What good news might there be for any of us in such a time?

In my own life, I’ve been in a space of waiting and yearning for a difficult situation to change. Making things different, and better, is mostly not within my power. It’s work for someone else to do. I’ve realized, though, that it matters what sort of news I am prepared to receive. The other day, it occurred to me: maybe what looks like a season of total paralysis to me may actually be an Advent season, a time of gestation. Perhaps there is some process going on beneath the surface that is not mine to know about yet. Is a new day is coming, hidden in plain sight?

And finally, I’m thinking about the time of reflection I hope we will have as a congregation about the war in Gaza and our relationship with Jewish Voices for Peace. I think that in this situation, preparing for good news might mean being willing to discuss uncomfortable questions, questions that will create tension. Can our congregation speak and act about urgent moral issues in a way that respects our diverse perspectives? What role should the church play in pressing our elected leaders to act on the values we hold sacred, especially if one of these leaders is a member of our congregation? Are we willing to enter into new partnerships that will stretch us—that will agitate us—since justice will never simply be given to us, but must be demanded again and again.

It strikes me that part of what it means to be a prophetic community is to prepare to receive good news in our places of struggle, our deserts of pain, our wildernesses of injustice. Bad news is surely all around us; preparing for good news instead is a revolutionary act.