Excerpted from 2023 Advent Guide: A Season of Renewal, an Advent Guide for Lectionary Year B from the North Carolina Council of Churches.
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 all her sins.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass;
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers; the flower fades,
[[when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers; the flower fades,]]
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms
and carry them in his bosom
and gently lead the mother sheep.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.
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,’ ”
so John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And the whole Judean region 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 strap of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
For those well-schooled in scripture, a few verses can conjure an entire image. So it is with the Gospel of Mark directing our thoughts to the prophet Isaiah. Both proclamations come to people in distress (Isaiah speaking to exiles forced from their homes; Mark to the occupied living under the ruling force of another). Mark wants us to remember the long view, that perseverance and faithfulness to God pay off. The exiles came home, we remember; Rome will leave, we continue to hope.
It’s human nature to think oppressive situations cannot change without a violent overthrow. The powerful rarely give up power voluntarily—just watch the news. Isaiah’s image, “the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him” (40:10), makes me think of John Bunyan striding through the forest felling trees with the mighty swing of an axe. Oppression ending through brute force.
Much to my surprise the next verse from Isaiah paints a very different picture, a picture of gathering lambs and gently leading sheep. There is no strong-arming, but rather the patient care of one who wants only the best for us. And then I recall that the Israelites peacefully departed from Babylon under the gracious guidance of Cyrus. They didn’t even have to run away.
While we wait on the in-breaking of God’s kin-dom, how shall we prepare for the end of oppression? Not by gathering ammunition and storing weapons, the use of which only creates oppression by another name. Instead, we should consider creative measures that make a real difference in the lives of the oppressed. Often, it is the oppressed themselves who are the most creative and the rest of us should hear their suggestions. History offers numerous examples of the non-violent overthrow of oppressive situations. This Advent, we’re calling for creative preparation as we continue the work of ending oppression for women and the LGBTQ+ community. Join the voices crying in the wilderness, “prepare the way” (v. 3).