A sermon for the Parish Eucharist on 6th December 2020, preached at the recorded service for Sherborne Abbey on the second Sunday of Advent by the Revd. Christopher Huitson.
It is said that someone deciding whether to read a book or not will look at the opening few paragraphs or even just the first sentences and if their attention is caught then they will be hooked and will carry on reading it, but otherwise will discard it. We hear today the beginning of St. Mark’s gospel and those momentous words: “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” That certainly ought to grab the attention and St. Mark continues with quotations from the OT prophets – Malachi and the much-revered Isaiah.
Not all is as it seems though because more than one author has piggy-backed onto the name of Isaiah and those writings have all been placed between the covers of the one book. Our excerpt contains the words of Isaiah number 2 both in the second quotation by St. Mark in his opening verses and also in the passage set as our OT lesson today. From the context of the writings of Isaiah No. 2 he seems to have been one of those who had been carried off into exile in Babylon – a great city with high walls, magnificent gateways, huge buildings and paved streets which must have been an overwhelming experience. Not only that, the exiles would have seen the statues of Marduk and Nebu, the gods of Babylon, being carried in procession along a splendid processional route used for religious festivals. Archaeologists have traced the road for about half a mile so, for those times, it was an impressive length.
The exiles naturally were cowed and dispirited by their experiences and even wondered if the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the best of its leaders and people indicated the superiority of the Babylonian gods over the Lord God they worshipped. One consequence of all this is that the exiles thought long and hard about how their downfall had happened. They looked at their history and saw how they and their ancestors had constantly disobeyed God and justly incurred his wrath and how patient he had been with them despite their falling away from the right path.
But another imaginative prophecy pictures the forgiveness of God and the triumphant return of the exiles to Jerusalem. Isaiah builds on their experience of the processional road for the gods of Babylon and transforms it into a mighty highway miraculously constructed not for a few hundred metres but extending all the way from Babylon to Jerusalem so that the Lord himself could lead the exiles back to Jerusalem. It would be flat and smooth, chopping off the tops of hills and filling in the valleys – not unlike a modern motorway. The words have a familiarity, of course, because Handel set them to music in his great Oratorio “Messiah”.
But Isaiah is imagining, not a motorway which would be used for commerce and mere transportation, but a road fit for God and his people coming home in triumph. Would our secular age even think of a road built solely for religious purposes? Would not our age proceed to label it a gross waste of money and an unnecessary construction? I suspect it would.
St. Mark puts a different angle on these prophetic words and applies them to John the Baptist and sees these words of preparation as speaking of the preparation of the people for the coming salvation – the new creation of God. That preparation the gospel writers saw as being fulfilled in Jesus so that the quotation “Prepare the way for the Lord” can easily be applied to John the Baptist preparing the people for the coming Messiah – Jesus. Since the very name “Jesus” means “God saves” so preparation for the coming of Jesus is a preparation for God’s work of salvation determined by forgiveness and reconciliation.
As for us, well, the word Advent points us to the story of the Son of God coming into the world, born just as all human beings are. So Advent is meant to be a time of preparation for us. This year finds our material preparations compromised by lockdowns and uncertainty over how possible our celebrations can be. But there is no difficulty over our spiritual preparation. No edicts designed to prevent the spread of a virus can affect our own sense of getting prepared so that we can understand the significance of the coming of Jesus. We can read the gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus and enjoy listening to carols on radio or television. We can remember again that Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus and the coming salvation of God so that the end of the gospel is implicit in that great proclamation with which St. Mark begins his work. “The trumpet shall sound” sings the Bass soloist in Handel’s Messiah and the words of St. Mark beginning his gospel are indeed like a trumpet call reminding us of all that is important about Christmas and the coming of Jesus.