Isaiah 40 shows up like an old friend every Advent, whether it is only being quoted to describe John the Baptist, or, this year, also read on its own. With Isaiah 40 comes another old theme, the Exile. In the Church, we keep coming back to Israel’s exile in Babylon, and Isaiah’s promise that the exile will end.
The Babylonian Exile forced the Judeans to rethink their faith. As it ended, two schools of thought emerged. One school of thought is expressed in books like Ezra and Nehemiah. It says that we need to turn inward. Jerusalem’s wall must be rebuilt. The Temple must be rebuilt, and its purity laws strictly enforced. Hebrews should only associate with other Hebrews, and under no circumstances may a Hebrew marry a non-Hebrew. The other school of thought is expressed in books like Jonah and Ruth—where foreigners are not only okay, but worth saving and marrying. And it is expressed in the latter half of Isaiah, where the whole world belongs to God. Jerusalem will be rebuilt as an open city, and God’s people are special, chosen, because God chooses them to call the world into God’s love. That’s why it is important that we hear Isaiah’s promise that the Exile will end. The future we anticipate is one where we call others to join us. The good news we preach is not that we are superior, but that all are welcome.
It’s really a question of who god is for us. Is God something we must guard and hide and protect from others, or is God someone public and powerful who we follow? John the Baptist clearly has the latter kind of God. He welcomes anyone who is interested to leave Jerusalem and come to the river to be pointed to God. Mark tells us John fulfils Isaiah: “As it has been written in the prophet Isaiah…it happened: John was in the wilderness.” Isaiah prepared the way by saying this would happen. Now, John the Baptist prepares the way, saying, “The one who is stronger than I am is coming.” Our picture of John is a conflation of all four gospel accounts and two millennia of visual artwork. In Mark, he is a preacher focused on the coming of the One Who Is Stronger.
Mark stops to describe John’s clothes. Mark…Mark’s a little bit of a fashionista. He’s the fashion critic of the New Testament. He doesn’t always talk about clothes, but when he does it’s important. John wears camel’s hair and a leather belt: standard ascetic chic, maybe channeling a little Elijah. In and of itself, not too interesting. Most of Mark’s other clothing critiques have to do with baptism and healing; that is interesting what with the man in today’s fashion column being known as John the Baptizer. In Mark’s fashion column you get a possessed guy in a graveyard who Jesus heals and who is found clothed. You get the woman with the hemorrhage who seeks healing by touching Jesus’ clothes. You get Jesus giving fashion advice to the Twelve when he sends them out to preach, teach, and heal. And you get this poor guy in Gethsemane who is wearing only a white towel. Maybe he was in the shower when Jesus said, “Dinner’s over; let’s go to the garden.” The mob comes, and someone seizes him, and he wiggles free but loses the towel in the process. He is probably the same guy sitting in the tomb on Easter morning, clothed in a proper white robe, who tells the women, “Go, tell Jesus’ disciples and Peter that Jesus is going ahead of you.”
The Gospel of Mark ends as it begins: Mark stops to critique a messenger’s clothing, and God sends someone “before you.” The One Who Is Stronger prepares the way for the women. Those women prepare the way for the next ones. They tell somebody—they’re the only link in the chain of witnesses Mark mentions. They tell of the (now properly dressed) guy in white, and how he pointed to God. When they tell that story, they point someone else to God. So does the next person. All of us in the Church encounter other people pointing out God to us. We don’t get to pick who the other people will be; people come and point to God. We don’t get to say, “Now that she pointed out God, I have God and I’m set for life”; we may be pointing others to God, but we keep needing others to point us to God.
God is wholly other. It’s one of Christianity’s paradoxes: God is incarnate, and yet wholly other. God in Jesus is a human being, just as I am. God is most certainly other than I am. In the Church, we join with others because they reveal God to us. The Church welcomes more others because they reveal God to us. The Church listens to others who have no intention of joining, because they reveal God to us. As the Jewish Theologian Emmanuel Levinas says, when we allow ourselves to see the face of another and be seen by the face of another, we get a glimpse of that person but also everyone else in that person’s life. I look at my daughters and I don’t just see them or their uncanny resemblance to my mother’s side of the family. In their eyes I see their friends and their teachers and the kids who ride the bus with them; there’s this whole life I am not really a part of, but I am responsible for a part of it. I am drawn out of myself and into God’s creation because of that.
Others make us whole and enable us to commune with the holy. That is the precious insight of Isaiah, and the reason that we follow in the footsteps of Isaiah, of John the Baptist, of Jesus, of the poor guy in the white towel, and of the women at the tomb. We don’t serve others because we’re ordered to do so. Well, maybe you do. Maybe you’re special. But I’ve met people, and we don’t respond well to being told what to do, even if God is the one telling us. We all know better. We’re smarter. Just ask us. We’re happy to tell you how everyone else is dumb. We’re not going to serve people just because the creator and sustainer of all life—who draws us into the cosmic dance through all eternity and without whom we would die—says it’s a good idea. What does she know? God instead bursts into our lives as other people, whose needs and relationships become part of our web of responsibility.
We Christians are heirs of Isaiah’s open, welcoming theology. The temptation to turn inward and adopt Ezra-Nehemiah thinking is strong. The world is always changing, as it did for Judah: once nothing, then something special, then conquered and exiled and nothing again. Changes tempt us to turn inward and wall off ourselves. Instead, God interrupts us and calls us out of ourselves.
God interrupted us in Jerusalem, this week. When the US announced we would move our embassy to Jerusalem, our Arab Christian sisters and brothers begged us not to do it. Their voice is largely ignored in our press. We’ve chosen to forget that most of the world considers Jerusalem to be illegally occupied by an invading Israeli army. Our Christian sisters and brothers in Bethlehem are forced to live with dirty water, limited access to hospitals, storm troopers at checkpoints blocking the way to work each day, and construction crews that bulldoze their farms and orchards and can shoot residents with impunity. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land increasingly calls its members’ living situation “apartheid.”
We in the church have quietly allowed a bogus rapture theology to say, like Ezra and Nehemiah did, that we must rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple so God can return. Zionism contradicts Christ. I can’t find a politer way to say it. Christian Zionism—which is an oxymoron—is especially dangerous, because it does not care about the Jews and their safety. It’s a theology that wants the Jews in one place so that when God returns it’ll be easier for God to condemn all of them at once. The whole point of the theology is for us and our friends to be raptured to safety while this world burns. That is as far from Isaiah 40, John the Baptist, and Jesus, as east is from west and up is from down. And the Church in the West has quietly allowed this bogus theology to speak for Christians. We’ve tacitly allowed that the people of Palestine are faceless, and can die with no real loss to us. Well, we’ve been interrupted this week, by our sisters and brothers marching in the streets of Bethlehem. My Advent routine got fouled up when Bishop Younan of the ELCJHL wrote to the President, begging him not to take this step.
Contrary to what certain media outlets may claim, Christians in solidarity with Palestine do not enjoy seeing the American flag burned. Nor do we condone rocks and rockets being hurled at Israelis. We know why those things are happening. People rendered faceless and meaningless are fighting desperately to survive. This week, they got face time. This week, they interrupted us, as did protesters around the world. Be the protesters Christian or not, they are others pointing to God’s presence with the suffering, and drawing us out of ourselves. There is holiness in coming to see what happens to Christians in the town where Christ was born. There is holiness in heeding the words of Bishop Younan and his Arab Christian colleagues. They remind us that our faith comes out of Isaiah, not Ezra and Nehemiah. They pick up the chain of witnesses, like the women at the tomb. Heeding this call on this seemingly intractable issue may seem a tall order, but Christ is with us and the Holy Spirit is empowering us. They do that. They’re at work here, in this room, interrupting us today.
God interrupts us this morning, as we welcome the new: a new member, known to most of us, in Lauren; and a newly baptized Christian, known to most of us, in Hadlee (aka President of My Fan Club). In Holy Baptism, we are going to make ourselves permanently others to each other. Hadlee’s life outside of the early service on Sunday mornings will be a part of us, and our life outside of the early service on Sundays will be a part of her. We will draw each other out. We will call her out of herself, she will call us out of ourselves. We will point each other to God. There is holiness in that. We will be living out Isaiah 40, the call of John, the ministry of Jesus, and the witness of that poor guy in the towel and the women at the tomb, and, someday, folks will say, the witness of Trinity Lutheran Church of Valparaiso, and of Lauren and Hadlee.