We know the passages we heard this morning well. We have heard them many times before, so that we may have trouble grasping how deeply they probe into our human condition. In the reading from Isaiah, we hear the prophet’s commission to speak words of comfort and new life. In the reading from Mark, we hear how John the Baptist intentionally grounded his ministry in these same words of comfort and new life.
At the centre of the readings, we see the affirmation with which Mark begins his gospel: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” I have a friend from Afghanistan who was arrested once on his way back into the country, carrying Mark’s Gospel on MP3 players. He told how his luggage was searched at the airport in Kabul and the guard found the MP3 players he was carrying. The guard asked what these players were for, and my friend said they were for his friends. Then the guard began to push buttons until the player began in the Dari language: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” When the guard heard these words, he held the player up in the air and yelled, “I got one!” Uniformed people came running from every direction, and my friend spent the next week in jail being interrogated, before they allowed him to spend time with his friends.
The guard had it right: These passages are more revolutionary than we realize. They recognize the broken condition of our world, and they call us to healing and new life when we have lost hope that such is possible. Listen to the texts with me.
The Children of Israel had spent 70 years in exile – from about 600 years before Christ to about 530 BC. Now their exile is about to end. The prophet tells the story.
Verses 1 and 2: Through the prophet, God announces comfort and relief. Israel’s sin has been paid for, and Israel therefore receives tender comfort in place of a bitter and painful time. The proclamation makes a statement and raises a question.
1) Although not all misfortune in life comes directly from our own sin, in Israel’s case, her exile was indeed the result of her own rebellion. Exile was the just reward for Israel’s rebellion.
2) The just reward has been paid, which asks a question: Why can’t God just forgive Israel? The people were truly sorry for their sin; isn’t that enough? Why must she “receive at the Lord’s hand double for her sin”? We will return to this question.
Verses 3 to 5: A voice [I assume, God] calls out the announcement:
1) Prepare the way for the King to come [if you prefer, roll out the red carpet]! Remove all obstacles in his way. The way the prophet phrases this announcement highlights the size of the obstacles and suggests that in fact such a massive engineering project is something that only God can achieve, but God calls on God’s people to do it. In fact, God has already done it, as verses 1 and 2 say.
2) God’s coming reveals God’s glory, which everyone in the world will see.
Verses 6 to 8: The voice bases our confidence in God’s coming on the permanence of God’s Word. Human actions and words are temporary; they die. We die. Isaiah puts it starkly: God breathes on us, and we die. As human beings, we are made for this earth and for a short time.
God does not die. God does not end. God will do what God intends to do. The reference to God’s Word – “the word of our God endures forever” – is picked up in John’s gospel as “the Word made flesh”. It is no accident that we read this prophecy of the Return to the Promised Land in the Advent Season. We wait for God’s Word, who is eternal and forever.
Verses 9 to 11: All of this is for our benefit. God is coming – to gather us in, gently and forever. It may be that we, as human beings, are made for a short time on this earth, but we as God’s people [his flock] are made to be with God forever.
So the voice announces God’s coming with a shout: “Here is your God!” Shout it from the mountain tops! Shout it from the roof tops. God is here, and our lives are changed forever!
Now of course the Return from Exile was less dramatic than this announcement. God’s presence was veiled again over the next 500+ years until Jesus was born. For a few years, Jesus shone on earth, and the first church burst into life, but then the veil fell again over the light of God’s presence. God is here, but God’s presence is often veiled. We are waiting again for God to come, waiting again for God’s Return.
Verses 1 to 3: Mark’s gospel begins, as we noted earlier, with the title, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” Mark then connects this good news with the passage from Isaiah 40. He uses this connection to call on the people of his day – and of Jesus’ own day – to prepare the way for God to come.
Verses 4 to 8: In verse 4, Mark defines the preparation as repentance. The work that was already done [repentance and forgiveness] in Isaiah 40 is the work the people now need to do. They immediately set to work, confessing their sins and receiving John’s baptism.
Mark mentions John’s unusual diet and dress, but only in passing. Rather, he moves directly on to the message: “You are repenting, as is right. Now the Messiah will come, and he will give you God’s Holy Spirit.”
God’s coming is both political and spiritual – all of life is changed when the people repent of their rebellion and turn to God.
Why This Emphasis on “Repent!”
We have this basic situation in both passages. Life is hard. At least some of the problems the people face, they can trace clearly to their own choices. The people recognize that they have disregarded the people they should have listened to, and more importantly, they have rebelled against God. They repent, but, for some reason, they must “receive at the Lord’s hands double for their sins.” We have the old saying about sin, “it must be paid for.” Why? Why can’t God just forgive? Why did they have to pay?
You have heard of the various scandals in the USA, as well as in Canada, about sexual harassment. The most high profile situation this past week involved the senator from Minnesota. I will not detail the actions that led to his resignation, but note only his careful and thorough apology at the beginning to the first and most serious of the accusations. One of the facts that becomes evident is that there is no apology good enough to prevent the senator from paying the price. The old saying is true, “It must be paid for.”
Another recent apology comes from our Prime Minister to the First Nations of Canada, most recently to survivors of Newfoundland’s residential schools. As we waited for the apology, I read a comment from one of the survivors, who said that he was not impressed with any words Trudeau might say. He was waiting for actions, he said. To put it another way, “‘Sorry’ isn’t enough; it must be paid for.”
We know this in our own lives. Words are easy, and an easy repentance does not deserve forgiveness. If we know this in our own lives, why would we expect any less of God? True love will not accept easy words of repentance. God knows us too well to accept what we don’t mean. Rebellion must be paid for so that the rebels mean it when they end their rebellion.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this kind of thing in his classic work, The Cost of Discipleship (in German, Nachfolge – the act of following). He writes:
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….
Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins…. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.
Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
We can see Bonhoeffer’s idea of costly grace in both Isaiah 40 and Mark 1: Salvation is created as God comes on the scene – that is grace, and salvation comes because the price has been paid – that is costly.
What is the price? Real repentance. Real change. Isaiah calls on God’s people to prepare the way by removing all obstacles to God’s coming. Mark makes it clear that the work of preparation is confession and repentance. The trouble is that human beings cannot in themselves repent deeply enough. The abusers (whether making unwanted sexual advances, or abusing children in the residential schools) both apologize and self-justify. That’s the way we are. Only God can dig deep enough into our souls to bring about the full repentance necessary for God’s grace to have its full effect.
Working Our Advent Theme
How does all of this work with our Advent Theme? Last Sunday Julia Thiessen started us off with the theme “Let it be.” She spoke about the way that we find the light when we are willing to stir up trouble, embracing the darkness and broken bits of our lives. Next Sunday Lee will speak on the theme, “Let it be whole”, and on Christmas Eve on “Yes, Let it be now.”
Out theme this morning is “Let it Be So.” The focus statement states: “We long to be comforted, we long for change. Moving from uncertainty and fear, we call upon God to make things ready – the mountains leveled, the paths made straight, our hearts prepared.” Life is hard and full of pain, but God is coming. How do we prepare the way for God to work in our world?
1) We recognise God’s part and our part: We call on God to move mountains and fill in chasms. We call on God to do what we cannot do. In turn, God calls on us to do our part, which in Mark is “Repent”. Sometimes we think that we can fix whatever is wrong with us. Such thinking is simply wrong. We are not wise enough or strong enough to fix our world, so we call on God to do what we cannot do. Sometimes we think that God has to do everything for us. Such thinking is equally wrong. God enables us to deal with the problems around us, so we get to work and do what we can. As Garfield Todd (a former missionary and Prime Minister in Southern Rhodesia) said, “When Jesus came to Lazarus’ grave, he asked the young men to move the stone from the tomb. We do what we can, and we leave it to Jesus to raise the dead.”
2) We take responsibility for ourselves: Part of what we must do is repent of our rebellion. We are at fault for some of the problems around us. We ask God’s Spirit to show us where any resistance to God’s ways is at work in us, and then we repent and wait for God’s Spirit to go to work. God changes us and works through us when we confess our failures.
3) Look at the whole world: This is not just a matter of individual spiritual health: “Is your heart right with God?” The brokenness of our world is bigger than we can see. When God comes to set things right, God looks at the hatred and division of our political systems as well as broken relationships in a small town. God cares for the whole of creation as well as for hurting people in Steinbach.
This past month a group of six people from Providence travelled to Kachin State in Myanmar. Our President, David Johnson, led the group to participate in a ceremony in the Kachin Baptist Church, conferring an honorary doctorate on Samson Hkalam, president of the KBC. Samson studied at Providence 20 years ago, and he has provided critical leadership for his people through difficult times.
A bit of background: There are about one million people in Kachin State, of which 400,000 belong to the KBC. There are 18 divisions (we would call them “municipalities) in Kachin State, but the Burmese government has placed no Kachin administrators to govern them. The Burmese military controls the area, and there is a low grade ongoing civil war between the Kachin people and the Burmese government. As a result, there were somewhere around 80,000 IDPs in Kachin and Shan states (two states in Myanmar bordering China).
The KBC today hosts a number of camps, some of which members of the Providence group visited – 2,000 in one camp and 1,400 in another. The church has also collected money to build a hospital in the main city the group visited, since the government has not provided one. The church is engaged in a long-lasting major effort to provide for people in every area of life, when conditions under government control have deteriorated significantly.
Go back 40 years. In 1977, the KBC celebrated their 100th anniversary. Following the celebration, the church decided to appoint 300 evangelists to spend three years travelling around Kachin State in evangelistic work. They gathered the young men together, but they discovered that many of these men were scruffy, using drugs, drinking to excess, and clearly unsuitable for the work they had been called to do. But when they tried to send them home instead, the young men refused to leave. They said that they had been called and would do the work. So the church gave them some directions: No more drinking or drugs and get cleaned up, and then they gave them 40 days of intensive training.
The numbers are intentionally significant, our group was told: three years, for the three years of Jesus’ ministry; 300 young men for the number in Gideon’s army; and 40 days for Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. The result of their ministry was also significant. God has used these 300 young men to bring almost half of the Kachin people into the church. God has used their ministry to prepare them to deal with the problems they now face, especially the overwhelming need of the internally displaced people among them. They prepared the way for the Lord to come, and God came. Not the final return of Christ yet, but God came and is at work among the Kachin people.
God is still coming in Kachin State. Dave taught the pastors from the book of Romans, and Stan taught them from the book of Nehemiah. They asked hard questions, “How can we forgive our enemies [in this 20+ year-long civil war]?” Stan’s thoughts went back to our own Mennonite history in Russia, in which the State tried to kill our own people, and we have had to learn to live for peace – and to forgive.
God is ready to come in our lives also. We live on a much smaller scale than the one I have just described – in Steinbach, a small city of 16,000 people. But people here also need God’s presence, and we prepare the way for God’s entry into their lives, and into our own lives as well. Live is difficult and hard, but God is coming to bring comfort and strength and new life. Let it be so!
Steinbach Mennonite Church
10 December 2017
40 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
3 A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. 5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6 A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”
9 You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. 11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.
1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” – 3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.”