Our reading this second weekend of Advent is from the first chapter of Mark:
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way” —
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’ ”
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And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:1-8)
As we continue to progress through our season of Advent let’s consider the first two references in our reading.
Mark’s gospel associates John the Baptist with two passages from the Hebrew passages that are conflated here.
The first is from Malachi: “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple.” (Malachi 3:1)
The second is from Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling:
‘In the wilderness prepare
the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.’” (Isaiah 40:3)
Although the text only references Isaiah by name, Mark’s author is doing something interesting by juxtaposing these two passages. The passage combines Hebrew prophetic imagery of God coming to cleanse God’s temple (Malachi) with language that originally referred to liberation from foreign oppression, specifically Babylonian captivity, and a path being made in wilderness for the liberated exiles upon which to return (Isaiah).
To understand this kind of rhetoric we have to look at what was happening in John’s and Jesus’ society when Mark was written. The temple state leadership had become corrupted, little more than a wealthy, elite class that helped maintain Roman oppression in Judea and the surrounding regions. The poor were getting poorer and the wealthy were getting richer through their complicity and cooperation with Rome. Many of the common people were simply trying to scratch out an existence.
In the context of Advent, John then arrives in the wilderness. This narrative element clues us in to the fact that John will be working outside the establishment. We’ll begin exploring this and its implications for us today, next.
(Read Part 2)