Like last week, we’ll start with the Gospel Reading, Mark 1:1-8.
We begin at the beginning of the book of Mark! But…what was going on just before this? Honestly, I’m not sure that I had three Sunday School classes in my whole life talk about what happened between Malachi and Matthew, but it’s important. I’d like to do a review of the history between the Old and New Testaments so we can orient ourselves to the timing of Mark.
The Old Testament closes with the book of Malachi and the restoration of the Jews to Jerusalem. Recall that the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been defeated and dispersed by Assyria while Judah held firm. The Southern Kingdom of Judah was defeated by Babylon as had been foretold by several prophets. Then Jerusalem was restored following this defeat. The restoration happened in three basic waves–the books of Ezra and Nehemiah document part of this. The Temple was restored, along with basic Temple practices like sacrifice.
Malachi came along around 430 B.C., two generations removed from exile and return. People had forgotten to be grateful and to live lives set apart. It happens fast–that’s the time span since approximately World War II for us. Malachi was there to remind them of who they were, to call them back, and to remind them that they needed God to save them. All of this happened while the Jews were under Persian Authority. They had been allowed to move back but were not governing themselves. The rulers were Cyrus, Darius, and Artexerxes.
God speaks through Malachi, and then silence for four hundred years. Not one word from God. But what was happening during that time?
In the mid-300s, Alexander the Great defeated EVERYTHING he could get his hands on. His kingdom stretched from the Western Mediterranean east all the way to the Indus Valley in the Indian subcontinent. In the process he hellenized the defeated lands. Hellenization was the bringing of Greek culture, learning and language throughout the “known” world. As another part of his effort to unify this enormous kingdom, Alexander introduced king worship (known as a ruler-cult) and promoted himself as a deity. He allowed worship of other gods, but he required his subjects to recognize him as a god, too. He only started doing this in the last year of his life, so it didn’t have time to take a firm hold on his kingdom. It DID, however, give his successors a great plan.
Alexander died without leaving a clear successor, and three generals emerged to take over. They ended up dividing his kingdom along basic geographic lines (after a lot of fighting). They were:
- Ptolemy: mostly Egypt and that area
- Antigonas: mostly Macedonia
- Seleucus: old Babylon, based in Syria (and including Jerusalem)
We are most interested in Seleucus and his successors, known as the Seleucid Dynasty.
The great thing about a ruler-cult (from a governance point of view) is that it can serve to unify a diverse people pretty quickly. But for the Jews, it was a bad thing, because their commitment to the One True God of Israel stood out. As long as the ruler was tolerant and allowed other practices alongside the worship of him, they were fine. But if all other practices were banned, the Jews were in trouble.
And that is what happened under the Seleucids. They tried to enforce a ruler-only cult, banning all Temple practices. The Jews fought back under what is now known as the Maccabean revolt–and they won! (Fun fact: Chanukah is a remembrance of God’s faithfulness during this victory.) The Jews gained self-governance under Judas Maccabaeus, who became the first of the Maccabean dynasty. This is also known as the Hasmonean dynasty, depending on what book you read.
Frankly, there is lots of interesting history that happens with this dynasty, and I’d encourage you to learn more. Handel even wrote an oratorio based on the revolt, Judas Maccabaeus. But for our purposes, it’s important to know that this period, around 160 B.C. or so, that the Pharisees and Sadducees first make their appearances. There had been infighting among the more hellenized Jews and those who clung more to the old ways ever since Alexander’s conquest. Eventually the hellenized Jews coalesced as the Sadducees, while the conservative group became known as the Pharisees. But under John Hyrcanus, an incredibly successful Hasmonean monarch, the two groups were brought together to rule in Israel.
Then–defeat at the hands of the Romans and Israel returned to status as a state in a huge empire. The Romans were of the opinion, though, that if it wasn’t broke, don’t fix it, and as long as Jerusalem minded her manners they wouldn’t step in. This is how the Pharisees and Sadducees retained their positions of power.
Take note of the culture changes that happened over these four centuries. Persia and the Mediterranean were Hellenized, and since the Romans loved all things Greek, they only encouraged that culture. This hellenization created one huge culture that was similar all over this part of the world, rather than being hundreds of smaller cultures. The communication and transportation over this area became easier. (Could this be “preparing the highways” that the writer of Isaiah mentions?) When the time came for Jesus’ missionaries to go out into the world, they didn’t step into unknown cultures. They understood better who they were talking to. There was far less culture shock than some our missionaries endure now! The groundwork was being laid for the good news that was to come from Jerusalem.
God was silent, but He wasn’t absent.
And then, He broke his silence. He talked to Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father. And then Elizabeth, and then Mary and Joseph…and the days of silence were over!
This brings us to today’s lesson, Mark 1:1-8. Mark sets his writing as the beginning of good news, which he will unfold over the next 16 chapters. First, we meet John the Baptist as an adult. His dress (camel’s hair) is meant to recall the greatest of the OT prophets, Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). His food recalls the Nazarite vows as found in Numbers. And the wilderness? John is just west of the Dead Sea, in some of the most barren land you can imagine. The wilderness, too, has a powerful hold on the Jewish experience since the entire Exodus takes place in it.
John was baptizing. The Jews had long been familiar with ritual purification baths like mikveh, which were undertaken on a regular basis. And when Greeks desired to convert to Judaism, they were required to have a one-time purification bath. But a one-and-done baptism like John was doing was new and different. John was getting a lot of attention and attracting many followers. And yet he was never pointing to himself, but to someone else who was to come.
Go back and read verses 1-3 again before we head to the Old Testament reading.
Old Testament: Isaiah 40:1-11
Imagine sitting in a theater and seeing the characters discussing an impending defeat. Not just a “well, they beat us” defeat–a bone-crushing, soul-sucking defeat that leaves ruin everywhere. And then, the theater goes dark. Total silence.
You sit. It gets uncomfortable.
And then…one voice. A command. “Go comfort my people. Go now!” The lights come back up and the most beautiful redemption is announced. Complete forgiveness, the end of punishment, the return of beauty and light and goodness.
THAT is what we see in the Old Testament today.
In the chapters leading up to our reading today, the Assyrians have laid waste to everything right up to Jerusalem’s doorstep, when they are saved by what can only be called a miracle. Judah’s King Hezekiah becomes deathly ill, repents, and then has an incredible recovery which he fully credits to God. Finally, in Chapter 39, and envoy from Babylon comes to visit. Riding on his incredible excitement from his recovery and promise from God, he happily shows the Babylonians everything in his kingdom. Everything. His gold, his weapons, the Temple, they get the full run-down. And then he tells Isaiah what he did.
You can almost hear the “face-palm” from Isaiah. “Hezekiah, you did WHAT?” He had given an enemy army all the information they needed to defeat Judah. Isaiah predicts crushing defeat for Judah, which God in his mercy will hold off on the defeat until after Hezekiah dies. Hezekiah responds with a “Well, okay, but it won’t happen on my watch! God is good.” This is the end of Chapter 39. But they were defeated, totally, and exiled by Babylon.
The timing on Chapter 40 is uncertain. Depending on how many “Isaiahs” there were, this passage is either a prediction and set after the time of the Babylonian exile, or it is written by second Isaiah 160 years after the close of chapter 39. Either way, there is a break, a silence. (I think if I were a Bible publisher I might try for a blank page or two in between Chapters 39 and 40!)
And then “Comfort, O Comfort…”
We can’t see it in the English, but this verb is the second person plural. God is speaking to his messengers. It’s time! Go tell them it’s over!! Their penalty is PAID.
In v. 3, a highway is built. Go back and read Isaiah 35:8-10. THIS is the highway that they are referring to in these verses.
In v. 9, we get two references to “good news” or “glad tidings.” This verse marks the first time in the Bible that these words are used. And what is the good news? “Here is your God!” Remember that we saw the same phrase in the beginning of Mark. The Good News–Mark is showing us “Here is your God!”
Finally, read v. 11, and then read John 21:15. This is what Jesus did, and exactly what he commanded Peter to do after him.
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
This Psalm isn’t as old as many that we read. It was likely written as the Jews came back from their Babylonian exile.
What are the attributes of the restored kingdom? Look at v. 10: love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace.
New Testament: 2 Peter 3:8-15a
In this letter, Peter was writing to remind one of his churches of two things: first, to live grace-filled lives as empowered by the Holy Spirit; and second, to hold fast to the truth taught by Peter, not letting it be undercut by false teachings.
The false teachings in this case directly attacked the credibility of Peter’s teachings. Basically, they said Peter couldn’t possibly be right because Jesus hadn’t returned. Peter said, “Not YET. But remember that we serve an infinitely patient and generous God.” (That’s a paraphrase.)
Earlier in Chapter 3, Peter lays out the opposition’s argument. The false teachers say that because Jesus’ return hasn’t happened yet, it won’t happen. Peter’s answer was NO! God created the world. It happened. One moment is wasn’t there, and then it was. It is here now, but one day it won’t be.
Then we come to our reading. Peter lays out the inevitable fact that God’s timing doesn’t look like our timing, and we need to understand that. And what looks slow to our human eyes is actually God’s patience and passionate desire to leave behind no one who will come.
Finally, Peter points out that this will be a real, physical event. I think sometimes when we read the Bible we get caught up in the metaphorical or symbolic aspects of some verses, maybe because they seem confusing or vague. But God is real, and the events described here are real. The universe will fall apart one day.
So what are we to do during this time? We are to watch and live in a state of readiness, but we are also to live in a state of peace and grace. In other words, we need to be busy doing God’s work, but we need to be watching and ready, too. And in all of that, we need to stay patient, remembering that God is using that time for the salvation of more people.
This week the readings really come together in a beautiful way. Advent lets us join with the Jews in looking for Messiah, as anticipated by Isaiah and John the Baptist. We can see that God was indeed faithful to his promises. And the readings then point us to anticipating the second coming of Jesus, which we can trust because we know God is faithful.
Wonderful music from these passages:
Check out more of Handel’s Messiah, too. I’m having trouble embedding another video but I think it’s just operator error.
Have a great week!