by Rev. Dr. Helen Svoboda-Barber
Advent is the beginning of our church year. We liturgical churches use a 3-year lectionary which helps us hear the majority of the bible every 3 years. We have just started Year B which focuses on the Gospel of Mark.
Now Mark’s gospel was the first one written, several decades after the death of Jesus. (Remember – no one was following Jesus around writing down his words and actions. Our Gospels were written down after decades of word-of-mouth storytelling.)
So Mark was the first Gospel author who thought to himself, “Hey, all this Jesus stuff should be written down in one single place, so we can remember it all and share it with more people. I want to share the Good News of Jesus in this way.”
I like Mark because he is direct and to the point. He doesn’t elaborate on much, nor does he add lots of flourish. He tells us what happened, and then gets on with the next thing. Mark’s gospel doesn’t even have a story of the birth of Jesus. It just jumps right into his ministry years.
But not quite…
Before meeting Jesus, Mark has a few verses of set up. He has John the Baptizer introduce us to Jesus, and even before that he reminds us that this Jesus connects directly back to the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament.
Before we get into the Jesus story, we are reminded that Jesus is the culmination of prophets’ words over hundreds and hundreds of years.
Our Old Testament passage, too, is the start of a book. You might not immediately believe that since we’re reading from the 40th chapter of Isaiah. But biblical scholars agree that what we know as the book of Isaiah is really a few books put together. Isaiah chapter 40 begins “Deutero Isaiah”- the second part of Isaiah.
The first 39 books of Isaiah are critical of the world and leaders and they call God’s people back to holiness of life. But here at chapter 40, the writing shifts from pointing out what is wrong with the world and moves to focusing on the coming redemption of the world through a suffering servant, the redeemer of God’s people.
Reading Isaiah through the lens of Christianity, it is easy for us to imagine Jesus as the suffering servant that Isaiah wrote about. And the beginning of Mark’s gospel offers this interpretation for us.
Both John the Baptist and Isaiah are prophets. Now biblical prophets are not people who can foretell the future. No. The job of a holy prophet is to speak the word of God, to help us see the brokenness and sinfulness of our lives as they are, and to call us into amendment of life.
In this week’s “Fathers Know Best” podcast, Lizzie McManus-Dail described prophets as those who both point out plague and point out promise. That is such a great way to describe holy prophets — the people who point out plague as well as promise.
2020 is a year ripe for the work of prophets. We are literally in the midst of a plague. And both within and beyond that plague, there is great promise.
As we settle into our short season of Advent, how might you become a prophet for our time? In what ways might you change your own behavior, or call out society’s behavior? And where can you point to promise?
I’ve recently been reflecting on a few parts of my life that have undergone a change towards holiness during this pandemic.
Without my time spent commuting, it’s not simply that I have extra time in my day, but that I can use the time in my day differently. I’ll often roll out of bed and start work within 10 minutes, then take a mid-morning break to have breakfast and get ready for the day. Other days, I’ll stay in bed and read for a good long while before I start work. During this pandemic time, I am re-imagining work/life balance and am committed to moving into a rhythm that is more sustainable, flexible and holy.
I live with immense privilege. Shawn and I both have steady work, and we are both allowed to work from home. Our children are doing fine learning from home and are able to mostly manage themselves. Our community and our extended family are serious about precautions and are able to stay distanced. Very very few have gotten sick so far. We are white and educated which give us immense privilege in our society. Day by day, decision by decision I am working on being more aware of my privilege and using it to support others who have less.
I have great freedom to re-define my relationships. During the early days of COVID I realized I needed friends and family and colleagues and support systems way more than I wanted to admit. And so I chose to invest in these.
A few years ago, I talked to my siblings a handful of times a year. We now spend one evening a month on Zoom together. I’m spending time with like-minded clergy who are invested in learning the skills we need to minister in this time and in our post-pandemic world. And perhaps most daunting of all, the four of us in our household are learning how to be together 24/7 for months on end. We are learning how to allow each of us the space we need, and surprising to me, we have needed to learn how to build in moments of closeness–even though we’re never out of earshot of one another.
I have been my own soul’s prophet in 2020. I invite you into this journey, too. This Advent, which is both the end of our calendar year and also the beginning of our liturgical year, is a prime time to review this extraordinary year that was and to glean what you can from it. To perhaps change or clarify some behaviors. To cling to what matters most and give it more energy and time in your life.
It is also prime time to prepare for the year that will be. We’re not done with this pandemic yet. We’re really never going to completely go back to the way things were. And yet, there is much hope in the future. What behaviors and actions can you put in place now so that your soul is stronger by mid-2021? What do you need to set down that is just too heavy? What support or help do you need to ask for? Where will you find moments of connection and joy that will sustain you through these days?
This Advent, join with the prophet Isaiah and the prophet John, and all the company of prophets. Speak truth to yourself of plague and promise. And be strengthened by living more fully into your truth and God’s promise for you and for our world.
I speak in the name of the One, Holy, Triune God. Amen.