Comfort in the Wilderness  

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                                                          Dec 6, 2020

Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8

Imagine that you are part of a community in Rome that follows Jesus of Nazareth. Your community will become the first Christian Church in Rome, but for now you are just a small group and call yourselves Followers of the Way. The year is 70 C.E., about 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Stories have been handed down about many people who saw the risen Christ. You join with others in this small community who believe these stories and follow the teachings of Jesus—also passed down through stories—as best you can. Your scriptures are the Hebrew scriptures—the scriptures of the Jewish people. You are also beginning to see a few letters from the Apostle Paul written to various small Mediterranean communities, including yours, that follow Jesus. You treasure these letters, along with your Hebrew scriptures. In your community are both Jews and Gentiles. The Jewish members are particularly helpful in explaining the Hebrew scriptures and the teachings of Jesus, who was also a Jew.

Fear is running deep in your community right now. Rome is a particularly dangerous place to be for both Jews and followers of Jesus, for the Roman Empire had just destroyed the temple in Jerusalem after a 4 year-war with the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. You have just heard word that tens of thousands of Jews were killed—over one million civilians of various nationalities died in Jerusalem and 97,000 were enslaved. The Jewish temple was destroyed.

Your community is stunned and has entered a period of deep grief for what has been lost and rampant fear for what lies ahead. You are living in a time of limbo—so much is unknown.

As you read your Hebrew scriptures, searching for answers and for God’s guidance and comfort, you are reminded of a similar time when the second book of Isaiah was written to the people of Judah who had been exiled by their conquerors. Their population was decimated, their leaders deported to Babylon and the temple, along with the entire city of Jerusalem, was burned to the ground.

The second book of Isaiah is written to the exiles, assuring them that God has not forgotten them, but will comfort and lead them out of the wilderness of their exile back to their land. But when they return to rebuild their country, the prophet Isaiah warns them not to return to their ways of injustice. Isaiah urges them to look upon the rebuilding with new eyes that can better honour the most vulnerable in their midst.

As you read these words of scripture, you wonder. What if God is offering the same hope once again through the risen Christ? What would help you best follow the Way of Jesus? Well—for one, it would be very helpful to be clear about what the Way of Jesus is. You have heard so many stories about Jesus’ life and his teachings and you don’t want to lose them. So one member of your community by the name of Mark offers to write down these stories that have been passed on over the last four decades.

Inspired by your community’s discussion of the second book of Isaiah, Mark begins his account with the story of John the Baptist, who prepared the Way for Jesus. Mark quotes from Isaiah and Malachi, “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.’”

I have just taken you into a reconstruction of how Mark came to write what we now know as the Gospel of Mark. It’s just my educated guess based on a few theories and archaeological evidence, but I hope that it helps us understand why Mark began writing his gospel with quotes from the Hebrew scriptures, and in particular from Isaiah. Both Isaiah and the Gospel of Mark take us through three very difficult times. The Judean exiles had been deported to what was the wilderness of foreign captors. They were losing hope that they should ever return to their land. And then they heard the words of the prophet Isaiah who assured them of God’s tender comfort and promise to sustain them, feed them as a shepherd feeds the flock, carrying the little lambs and gently leading the mother sheep. But as you read further in the second book of Isaiah, these lavish promises of restoration are accompanied by a warning—this time, as the Judeans rebuild their temple and their homes, they must do so with justice that empowers the weak, feeds the poor and helps the needy.

These themes are echoed in Mark’s description of Jesus’ time. The Romans were exacting huge taxes from the poor and when any of the Jews began to protest, the Romans crucified them in the thousands along the roads. Jesus lived in a time of tremendous fear and suffering. When John the Baptist went into the wilderness and began to tell people that the Messiah was coming, they were more than ready. John quoted words of comfort and sustenance from Isaiah. Finally, there would be an end to their suffering! But, John added, they must prepare themselves and their community for the Messiah. Just as the Judeans were told to rebuild their society with overflowing justice, the crowds that gathered around John were told to repent of all that separated them from God’s way.

The third time of difficulty is the setting for Mark’s Gospel. The community of believers found themselves lost in the wilderness of grief and fear as they heard of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. Mark recalled Isaiah’s promise that God would comfort and restore the wilderness-bound Judeans, even as he recalled John the Baptist’s wilderness promise that the Messiah was coming. Surely, this was yet another time when God would bring comfort and hope to the Roman church. But just as the prophets Isaiah and John warned that the people needed to restore justice even as they restored their lives, Mark reminds the Roman community of Jesus’ ministry of healing and right relations where the least will become the greatest.

These three times of difficulty take us to today—yet another time of wilderness-wandering grief for so much that has been lost and fear for what lies ahead. We have not been able to be with friends going through difficulties, with loved ones who are dying, with family to celebrate special occasions and support each other in grief when loved ones have died. We have lost jobs and businesses.

Into this wilderness of loneliness, God offers these words, “Comfort, O comfort my people. The time is coming when the glory of restoration will be revealed and all shall gather in person and see it together.” But this time of restoration also comes with a caveat. God gently whispers to us, “Do not long for what was, because some of what was is best forgotten. Long, instead for a new world where the vulnerable will be protected and given dignity, where the weak, the poor and the sick will be given a living income, where the rich and the powerful will share more equitably so that all may have an abundant life of joy and health.”

This is the vision of God’s peaceable kin-dom, which we pray will come every time we say the Lord’s Prayer: “they kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” But even as we pray for the coming of this new world, let us look for the odd jewel that lies along the way in our wilderness wanderings. For it is in the preparation for the way of God, that we will find it.

I close with a poetic prayer by Sarah Are, mailed to me by Jean D. at the beginning of this pandemic when we were first shut down in March as we were travelling through our Lenten wilderness wanderings.

 

The Wilderness Is the Birthplace of Joy

by Sarah Are

 

I used to know the wilderness only as pain;

A land without food, a land without water.

But you rained down manna

And even water flows in your desert.

 

I used to think the wilderness was total isolation—

But the Israelites had each other,

And you had the stars in the sky.

 

So then I thought the wilderness must be time wasted—

Forty years of circles.

Forty years of wondering.

But then I realized, each step is a step,

And maybe there’s growth in that.

 

So then I concluded that the wilderness must be lonely spaces—

The woman and her well,

The blind man and his gate,

Martha and her kitchen,

Peter and his fire.

But then you showed up in each of those places,

To each of those faces.

 

So now I wonder—

What if the wilderness is the birthplace of creation?

What if the wilderness is where call begins?

What if the wilderness is where joy is birthed?

What if, between the dirt and the sky

And that wide orange horizon,

The wilderness is where we find you?