I’ve been dreading writing this reflection in light of the warfare in Southwest Asia (at this point, who can speak of a “Holy Land” in which the innocent are killed along with the wicked?). People in our congregations engage in verbal battles about who is right, who to believe, which lives matter most and what peace looks like. What does it mean to write about Isaiah’s words that the hearer should speak kindly to Jerusalem and announce that her warfare has ended (Isaiah 40:2)? Who has time for speaking kindly while rockets and missiles pass each other in the air, ending lives and hopes wherever they land?
Children whose diapers I once changed now follow their fathers, whose land I farmed for and with them, into battle to rescue and redeem—but with tools that were designed to kill and destroy. Yeats decries, “The ceremony of innocence is drowned,” as once again rough beasts slouch toward places where peace should be born instead. This year, more than most, at the beginning of Advent I find myself in a wilderness into which I need a voice to speak comfort. Maybe you do too?
Hear the words of Isaiah: “‘Comfort, O comfort, my people,’ says your God. ‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for her sins’” (40:1-2). This isn’t a message for those unfamiliar with difficulty, loss and heartbreak. Instead, this is consolation for those who have lost relatives and friends in warfare. This is a word of hope for those who know what it means to be invaded and to lose their land to a foreign power.
Isaiah’s words don’t speak into a vacuum. The Babylonians had invaded the Kingdom of Judah and carried away thousands of people. Along with the Judahites, the Babylonians deported descendants of citizens from the Northern Kingdom of Israel who had resettled near Jerusalem after the Assyrians had ravaged their kingdom. As the returnees reestablished their neighborhoods and cities, the scroll of Isaiah continued to increase in popularity as it told the tale of a people walking with God through trauma, tribulation and occasional triumph.
This Advent, let us be people of consolation—not because we ignore history or the pains of the world but because we witness God moving in history.
But Isaiah isn’t an unalloyed comfort. There are those who have always asked how God could “repay anyone double for their sins,” as Isaiah asserts. Rashi, the great 11th-century French sage, paraphrases Rabbi Jonathan (from the second century) and Jeremiah 16:18 to argue that whenever God’s chosen land is filled up with corpses, God will mete out a double punishment to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
But it keeps happening. After the relatively enlightened reigns of the Achaemenid Persians and Ptolemaic Greeks, the Seleucid Greeks tried to impose cultural genocide and then mass murder. The Jewish Hasmoneans rose up, not as instruments of peace but as increasingly violent conquerors who forcibly converted Edomites and destroyed the Samaritan temple at Gerizim. The Romans were invited into Judea to settle a Hasmonean civil war but ultimately installed the converted Edomite Herodians as rulers. However, after Jewish revolts against the Herodians and Rome, the Romans crucified tens of thousands of Jews, murdered hundreds of thousands of others, destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, destroyed Jerusalem itself, rebuilt the area as Aelia Capitolina, barred Jews from living or even visiting the ruins of Jerusalem, and renamed the Roman province of “Judaea” as “Syria Palestina.”
That may seem like distant history to most of us, but for many hearers of Mark’s Gospel it was a lived experience or recent memory. When John comes as a voice in the wilderness for all those from the country of Judea (Mark 1:5), most hearers of Mark’s words hoped for the coming of the Lord as first described by Isaiah—as a rescuer who would smash the power of various empires and hostile forces. They all knew that life would never be the same as cataclysmic events rocked their hopes for peace. The early church expected the Day of the Lord to come at any moment. One glance around the world of the late first century and early second century revealed wars and rumors of wars, desecrations and massacres. The world looked like it might end at any moment.
Yet time rolled on. Different empires traded Jerusalem. Some Christians participated in these and other empires while others refused. In the words of church historian Alan Kreider, the “patient ferment of the early church” led to a growing community of the body of Christ that shared bread and wine, sorrows and joys, and a faithful hope that Jesus would come again and make everything right.
This Advent, let us be people of consolation—not because we ignore history or the pains of the world but because we witness God moving in history. As we wait for Jesus to come and make everything right, let us testify to how God has been faithful and intimately close while, as Yeats says, “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed.” Let us all be voices in the wilderness, announcing consolation and comfort, because God is coming to save us—all.