The Highway of our God
Here are the first words of Mark’s Gospel, chapter 1, verse 1:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: `Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'” [remember, that was in the Hebrew Scripture reading]
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
That’s it! That’s the beginning of the story for Mark. No baby Jesus, no shepherds, no wise men, none of that is here. And this is the Gospel that was written down first, our oldest Gospel. What it does refer to is the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically Isaiah.
This passage in Isaiah was written to people who were in captivity. Their country had been overrun by the Babylonians who came from a place we now call Iraq. They were well organized and well funded, and the army of the Israelites was no match for them. In the usual fashion, all of the top nobility were killed, and the lesser nobility and merchant class was forced to march to go live and work and pay taxes in a foreign country where they could be watched more carefully. Peasants were left behind, or not. It depended on the policy of the winner. What was an anomaly was when everyone was killed. We find this in the Hebrew Scriptures a couple of times, and it clearly was not the norm. It was more advantageous to have more people to work for you than to have dead people. On the other hand, you didn’t want revolts either! So moving them closer makes sense. It also increases the possibility for intermarriage, which means that in a couple of generations, you really didn’t have to worry about them. Jews were strange in the Middle East for not intermarrying.
The other thing that happens with Isaiah has to do with the universality of God. Up until this point, everyone’s gods were bound to the land. They were gods “of” the land. There was a common understanding that when the nations fought with each other, in some respect, their gods were fighting with each other as well, so that the winner of the fight on the ground reflected the winning god. Which also means that the folks that lost knew that their god was not as powerful as the god of the opposing army. Isaiah says no, this is not how it is at all. There is one God who is the god for everyone, whether they know it or not. The Babylonians may worship another god, but the reason that the Israelites lost the war and are now living in Babylonia is because they did not follow Yahweh’s commandments, not because Yahweh lost to Marduk, the god of Babylon. Furthermore, and this is critical, Yahweh is still the “god of the nations,” and will return the Israelites to their promised land. This beautiful language of Isaiah is written to people in captivity, people who have lost hope, and the people in captivity to Rome at the time of Jesus could relate to the prophecy of Isaiah.
Rome had a different strategy than Babylon. Instead of forcing the conquered people to leave and go into exile, they put a puppet government in place, complete with a secret service. So the Romans killed off the top echelon, of course, but it was not much more than the king and his immediate family of a couple hundred people. As long as the nobility would swear allegiance to Rome, and pay taxes, of course, they were not killed, they did not have to leave their ancestral homes, and life went on pretty much as before. The Romans got more taxes this way, and since they had the Roman roads which gave them the best communication system that had ever been seen in the Western world up to that point, it made sense. The one thing that was different was that in almost all of the other national groups that the Romans had conquered, one of the requirements was to offer homage to the emperor. It was a simple matter of being willing to offer incense, which was their way of acknowledging that the emperor was the son of God.
This is different from the understanding of the Buddhist offering of incense. In Buddhism, incense symbolizes the fragrance of pure moral conduct, which reminds us to cultivate good conduct. This is very different from saying “you are God.” Up until the Romans got to Palestine, all of the peoples they conquered were willing to offer incense to the emperor and acknowledge him as the son of God. The Jews were not willing to do this. They would fight to the death instead. This made the Romans tired, and it was counter-productive. When the Romans understood that the entire country felt this way, and not just a few people in the temple, they made an exception for the Jews. They still had to pay the high taxes, but they did not have to offer incense to the emperor. All of this is behind the question that the Jewish authorities put to Jesus about should they pay the Roman tax, and why his answer was so brilliant.
Finally, we have the image of the highway. Nowadays we shudder at the idea of taking off the tops of mountains and filling in the valleys! On the other hand, I remember as a child looking at the highway that went over the mountains from Los Angeles to Bakersfield. Back then, it was not the wide expanse of asphalt that it is now. It was winding, and went up and down. Every so often, on the down side, there would be a small lane of sand that went off to the right. I asked what it was, and the explanation made me shudder. That was for when the brakes went out on the trucks, they could stop by pulling off into the sand. There was just one problem. The truck would stop, but the contents in the back of the truck often did not, and it killed the drivers. Having been on the small roads that go up and down the high hills that make up Palestine, and thinking about trying to haul goods and people up and down them safely, never mind the robbers! I have sympathy for this image of a broad highway. But look at the definition of this highway: this is the place where the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all the peoples shall see it together. This is the “way” of God.
So that is a little of the background for this morning’s Gospel. Then we have the introduction of John the Baptist. The writer of the Gospel of Luke (and only that writer) says that John was the cousin of Jesus, and that is probably not true. What is clearly true is that John was a well known figure who was acknowledged by a lot of people as a major prophet, perhaps the modern day (to them) version of Elijah. There are several clear references to Elijah. John’s speech in today’s Gospel sets the tone of John’s ministry, according to the Christians – and to Muslims as well. John was the messenger who told people that Jesus was coming. John was the first act, warming up the crowd for the main event of Jesus. And what does Jesus do? He says “I am the way.” The people who heard him say that would have known Isaiah by heart. They would have made the connection, the sacred highway of God is now seen in the way of Jesus.
John gets the people ready for this by baptizing them. But there’s more to it than that. He baptizes them as a sign of their repentance, their turning from the evil that they have been doing. This was a big deal. This is like the Rockefeller Foundation acknowledging that they made their money on fossil fuels, and that now they are going to do something different. That is a sign of repentance, that kind of turning. He also says something very curious. I am baptizing you with water, John says, but the one who is coming will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. This is not an entirely new concept, but it is a new combination. Everyone was very familiar with the idea that the prophets were filled with the Spirit. We see a huge shift from the concept that only a very few holy people could be filled with the Spirit, when Moses said to God that he was totally overwhelmed, and suddenly all of the elders were filled with the Spirit. But that concept sort of receded, and it became more normal to think about just a few holy people were filled with the Spirit. What happens here is the proclamation that the prophecy of Joel has now come to pass, that everyone, male and female, rich and poor, all races, all stations of life, down to the lowest chambermaid, all people would be filled with the Spirit. Jesus came, and said, I am the Way, the Way of God is my Way, and you that follow my Way will be filled with the Spirit to do the work God has given you to do.
So here’s the question for this Advent: what is the work God has given you to do, now, and have you asked for the power of the Spirit so that you can do that work? We can’t do it under our own power, we need the power of God. And all we have to do is to ask for it. It’s God’s promise.