Scripture Readings: Isaiah 40:1–11 | Psalm 85:1–13 | 2 Peter 3:8–15a | Mark 1:1–8
When it comes to roads, Northwestern Ontario and Southern Manitoba are worlds apart. If you’ve dared to travel by car across Canada, you know exactly what I mean. In Northwestern Ontario, where I was born and raised, travelers must wind their way through some pretty rough terrain: skirting swamps and lakes, climbing hill after hill, slowly making their way through the many obstacles this beautiful and vast wilderness has to offer. But as you keep on heading West and enter into Manitoba, suddenly you find yourself crossing into the Prairies. The hills and trees start to give way to the wide-open plains, where the road is flat, and stretches straight on to the horizon. Nothing in the way, except the occasional transport truck. Though both of these landscapes have their own special charm, the straight road across the plains is certainly much easier to navigate. To build a highway as level and straight as it through Northwestern Ontario would be far beyond the wildest dreams of any engineer, and would cost far more than any government budget could afford.
For the foreseeable future, though they truly belong together, in this sense at least these roads will remain worlds apart: one is winding and wild, the other level and straight.
Today marks the second week of the season of Advent, the time of preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ our Lord. The theme often associated with this week is Peace; an important but sometimes misunderstood facet of the Good News. Sometimes we imagine peace to be simply about avoiding conflict… doing anything we can to avoid upsetting other people. This kind approach can easily turn into mere people-pleasing, or pacification… simply going along with the flow, even if it takes us far off course. The flip side of this, of course, is when we seek to put an end to conflict by pushing for our own way… using our power to keep others in line… intimidating them into going along with our plans. But the peace which Advent brings to mind is not simply about avoiding conflict, either through pacification, or intimidation. Instead, it speaks of the kind of peace that brings reconciliation. Restoring deep communion and wholeness again. At a time when division, distrust, and disconnection seem at work everywhere, let’s turn our hearts again to hear the message of God’s peace.
But in turning to our Scripture readings this morning, we are not stepping into some idealized fantasy. No, we are firmly standing within the familiar story of our world… a story of conflict, of suffering, of storms, and tragedy… where God’s people are waiting longingly for God’s righteousness to reign, and for all that is broken to be set aright again.
The Gospel of Mark introduces us to a man called John the Baptist, living in the Jordan wilderness in the early first century. John was no ordinary man, but rather he was a man with a mission, a message from the Living God, like Israel’s prophets of old. In fact, the author of Mark makes this connection explicit, introducing John’s ministry by calling to mind the prophet Isaiah:
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’” (Mark 1:2-3)
As we heard in our Old Testament reading today, Isaiah’s message goes on to describe what it means to prepare the way of the LORD. Isaiah 40:3-5 says,
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Valleys raised, mountains leveled, rough places made into plains… the imagery is one of dramatic and powerful transformation… which all fits nicely with how Mark wants us to see John’s ministry: not as words of pacification, or of intimidation, but of seeking peace with God through wholehearted repentance… with a sincere commitment of true life-transformation. John came calling for all of Israel to remove the obstacles in their lives, and to urgently prepare for the arrival of God’s good Kingdom. In his preaching and practice of baptizing his fellow Israelites, John was inviting God’s people to recognize their deep need for forgiveness and rescue, and to turn back to the LORD their God with their entire life.
NT Wright describes it all like this:
“They were to come through the water and be free. They were to leave behind ‘Egypt’—the world of sin in which they were living, the world of rebelling against the living God. They, the Israel of the day, were looking in the wrong direction and going in the wrong direction. It was time to turn round and go the right way (that’s what ‘repentance’ means). It was time to stop dreaming and wake up to God’s reality.” John was proclaiming that it was time for God’s people to pursue true peace: Not simply to try and appease God by making some surface-level changes… or to keep on pursuing their own ideas and agendas… but to prepare for the coming of God’s Messiah, God’s Anointed King, by humbly and wholeheartedly turning over their lives to the LORD. By being baptized in the Jordan river, they were seeking forgiveness and reconciliation with God. They knew they had been living worlds apart from what God had wanted of His children, and so they were looking to close the gap… to be reunited to their LORD.
This is all well and good, but it is not the whole story. But there is so much more to the Good News, the Gospel, then even our wholehearted repentance. The focus of our readings today was not on what the people themselves did: their acts of repentance. It’s not even on John’s ministry, as vital as both of these things might be. No, the focus is all on the One that John, and the prophets, had promised was on the way… the One who would baptize God’s people, not simply with water, but with the Holy Spirit… the One who was coming to rescue God’s wayward people, once and for all.
John was serving as a signpost pointing us onward to Jesus, to the Son of God Himself, sent to bring about God’s peace. To establish restoration and reconciliation far beyond our wildest dreams, and to reunite humanity with the LORD once again…fulfilling the message of hope which Isaiah had written of long ago. Isaiah 40:9-11:
“Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.”
He came, not simply to teach us how to be good, and how we can try our best to appease God and keep Him happy, or to give us the moral fortitude to make ourselves fit for the LORD… but rescue us, and fill us with the Living God’s own presence and life-changing power, so that His reconciliation and restoration can take root within us, and our community. So that the saving, life-changing peace of the LORD might be shared through the Church with our broken, wandering world.
As the rest of Mark’s Gospel will highlight, this peace all came at the highest cost. God’s Son, Jesus Christ, paid for our peace with His precious blood. Christ gave His entire life; was born, lived, died, and rose again, to bring God’s peace to our fragmented and fractured world; beginning in the Church, but overflowing everywhere.
Advent calls us to remember that Jesus Christ Himself is our Peace. He removes all the obstacles between us and the Living God. Though in our sins we had become wild and treacherously winding… worlds apart from how God wanted His children to be… at the cross, Christ has made straight the way for us to be reunited to God at last. He graciously binds the Church to Himself in faith, through baptism, sharing His new life with us, and through us, with the world. He immerses us in the Holy Spirit of God, who remains at work, empowering us to truly live as God’s peaceful people, even in the midst of conflict and tragedy.
By His power working in us, through the Holy Spirit of God, may our lives be shaped more and more by the truth of Christ's saving peace. May we give ourselves to the work He has begun in us through baptism, that we can faithfully serve as agents of His reconciliation. And in the midst of all the conflicts and storms we see around us, may we eagerly and patiently look for His arrival, bringing about God’s New Heavens and Earth, beyond our wildest dreams, where His righteousness and peace will be at home forever. Amen.
 Both Isaiah and Malachi are being quoted in these verses, but the author of Mark only references Isaiah.
 Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 2.