Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11 ; Psalm 85:1-2,8-13 ; 2 Peter 3:8-15a ; Mark 1:1-8
In the name of Jesus, a name filled with hope and the promise of change. Amen.
The summer before my third year of seminary I went with a group of students and lay leaders to Israel, the Palestinian territories and the surrounding nations of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. We were taking part in an annual travel seminar whose mission was to expose leaders in the church to the people and cultures of the Middle East as it is today – not only as the religious backdrop for stories we hear from scripture.
It was the summer of 2001, a few months after the beginning of the second intifada, the period of violent social unrest that began shortly after the Middle East Peace Summit at Camp David fell apart in the summer of 2000. One of the reasons that peace process stalled out was intractable differences between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat over the issue of the “right of return” for Palestinians who were displaced by the 1948 war that helped set the border for modern day Israel. Nearly 750,000 Palestinian people were turned into refugees in that war – a war that took place sixty years ago – and those families have lived in exile ever since. Not welcome in the nations that surround Israel, and unable to go home, the original exiles and the families they have raised while in exile, represent a major obstacle to a peaceful resolution of affairs in Israel and the Middle East.
I met many children of the exile during my time in the middle east. Most had grown up in refugee camps hearing stories from parents and grandparents about the home they could not return to. One man’s story in particular has stayed with me. His name was Sofion, and he was my tour guide as we traveled near the ancient archeological site at Petra where “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” was filmed. He was a friendly and knowledgeable guide, and as we traveled with him over the course of a few days I enjoyed getting to know him.
Sofion had lived in Jordan his whole life, but his grandfather came from Palestinian land. Sometime between the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the 1967 war, Sofion’s grandfather was evacuated from his home by the government of Israel as a part of their program of expansion. Almost everything had to be left behind. As he left the home of his youth, Sofion’s grandfather took the keys to his house, saving them for the day that he and his family would be able to come home. They have yet to see that house again.
My conversations with Sofion uncovered the deep vein of anger and hopelessness that eats at Palestinians in the region. Turning to me after a long conversation in which he had speculated about why the world remains impassive to the plight of Palestinians and reluctant to hold Israel to the conventions of international law, Sofion said, “what difference does it make that I tell you this? It doesn’t change anything. We can talk about this, but what will change? I tell you, sometimes I think it would be better if we didn’t speak of it at all.”
Palestinians in the Middle East are a displaced people. We talk about Palestine as if it were a real place, but the fact is that there is no such country. When the colonial British troops finally withdrew from Mandate Palestine in 1948 it was only hours before the first Arab-Israeli war began. Through the wars that have followed, Palestinians in the Middle East have faced the choice of remaining on the land of their ancestors in refugee camps, or seeking new homes in neighboring countries none too eager to play the role of host.
Exile is not a pretty place. People become weary and angry the longer they are estranged from their homes. There is no good explanation to offer your children when they ask why they live in bullet-riddled apartments, with shelled-in walls. What are you supposed to tell them? That God is punishing them for their unfaithfulness?
My group had the chance to travel in Bethlehem, and the surrounding communities of Beit Jala and Beit Zahor. As we were resting along the side of a street a mother saw us and approached with interest. Tourism had dwindled, so a group of Americans like ourselves had become a rare sight. This mother was smiling as she drew near, and began thanking us for coming to Bethlehem in times like these. “It is good to know that some Americans still care what is happening to us,” she said. She and her children had not slept for most of the previous five evenings as Israeli troops shelled block after block in the neighborhood. “My children tell me that they hate the Jews, and I tell them that they must not hate the Jews. That the Jews are scared. That long before you were born, people tried to kill all the Jews, and that they just want to have a safe home. How else do you explain this to a child,” she asked. “My children ask me why the Americans hate us. What do I tell them when they find empty shells with casings made in America?”
Exile makes us ask questions for which every answer is unjust.
The situation of exile was real for second Isaiah, the prophet we hear in this morning’s Hebrew bible reading who delivers good news to the nation of Israel living in the Babylonian exile. “Comfort, O Comfort my people,” God says. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” God weighs in on the right of return for the people of Israel, acting to restore not only Israel but “all people” (Isa 40:5) so that God’s glory may be revealed.
The political situation was just as dire for those who originally heard the opening words of the gospel of Mark, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” There was a war going on. Jewish radicals had revolted against Roman occupation and Jerusalem was under siege. The community was divided over how to respond: some urged surrender, others pushed for war. The emperor had died and next four men to take that title were assassinated. And here Mark goes calling Jesus Christ the Son of God, a title reserved for the emperor and carved onto Roman currency, “divi filius.” Claiming a place for the assassinated Jesus alongside the assassinated emperors.
Do you hear how political these texts are? Do you hear how attuned they are to the real time suffering of the people they were originally intended to address? I think this is so important for us to recognize and grapple with, especially in a season when everything seems to indicate that the Christmas we are waiting for is largely a private affair, something to be celebrated in our homes with our families.
So often when we come to church we listen to scripture and we look for ways to make its promises apply to us. We read “comfort, o comfort my people” and we look inward to ask ourselves what aspect of our lives requires God’s comforting presence. We privatize the good news of God in Christ Jesus. But the texts of Advent uniformly speak to an entire world in need of change, not simply a blue mood or an existential crisis. Each of these Sundays in Advent builds toward the incarnation of God in Christ, climaxing with the fourth Sunday of Advent when we hear the virgin Mary – not some meek girl unable to understand what is happening to and through her, but a prophet making sense out of God’s movement in her life – crying out, “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”
What I am suggesting this morning is that we may not be properly situated to really understand the urgency, the immediacy or the joy that Mark’s gospel rings with. We may not understand the plight of those who had spent three generations in exile, and so we may also not understand the depths of relief from the words of Isaiah when he utters on God’s behalf, “comfort, O comfort my
Or perhaps we do. Perhaps we live lives of quiet fear and desperation, prisoners in our own homes. Perhaps we are so devastated by illness and so uncared for by the healthcare system we cannot be at home in our own bodies. Perhaps the promises made in marriage have been broken and trust has been so badly violated we feel exiled from our own lives. Perhaps we can imagine ourselves into the situation faced by a nation of exiles.
All I mean to suggest is that we shouldn’t let go of the primary and political purpose these texts filled. And, whether we can relate to the experience of exile or not, we have a place in these stories.
The passage from Isaiah is full of voices carrying out God’s command to speak good news to defeated hearts. A voice cries out, “in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight a desert highway for our God.” A voice cries out, “the grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” A voice cries out, “God will feed the flock like a shepherd; and will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” And in Mark’s gospel a voice cries out, “the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…I have baptized you with water; but that one will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The good news in the readings for this second Sunday in Advent is that God does not leave people in exile. God announces that things as they are cannot continue, that things are becoming what they are meant to be. God commissions messengers of hope to bring good news to people stripped of hope. And sometimes those messengers are you and me.
Sofion asked me, “what will change? I tell you, sometimes I think it would be better if we didn’t speak of it at all.” But the woman in Bethlehem thanked us for being there, saying “it is good to know that some Americans still care what is happening to us.” As ephemeral as it may feel, our presence in the lives of those living in exile is a sign that there is still hope for change. When we gather as a church we’re like the children this morning running a relay around the edges of the sanctuary, passing the baton of the New York Times to one another shouting, “good news!” Sometimes we are the ones bringing the news, and sometimes we are the ones receiving it, but – as the newspaper attests – we are always living in a world in need of good news.
Let that be our mission – as people of God, as a church – to search out the exiles, whether they are in refugee camps, or on the streets of Lakeview, or sitting next to us in the pew. Let’s not wait for those whose hope has been crushed to come asking for help, but let’s imagine ourselves into the role of those whom God has sent to bring the good news. Let’s take our cue from the children’s relay and waste no time in finding someone who needs to hear that God is on the loose in our world and that we have been called to participate in the difficult and joyful and politically subversive work of setting the world right. Let’s join the ranks of Isaiah and John and Mark in racing to find those who need to hear what God has to say.
Good news! Good news! Help is on the way!