Loving the Forsaken

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:9-14
2 Peter 3:8-14
Mark 1:1-8

Loving the Forsaken

She has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

In 1947 scrolls recording the Hebrew Bible were found in caves near the Dead Sea. These were written down with great care by holy men as precious and sacred vestiges of a whole lifeworld as the destruction of their nation and Temple would be completed in 70 A.D. So carefully was this work done and so careful were their successors, that our holy books today from the Hebrew Scriptures are virtually identical to these scrolls. Remarkable.

We should not be surprised to learn that the largest and best preserved among all of those scrolls is the Book of Isaiah. For our New Testament books attest to the fact that Isaiah held a pre-eminence among those who revere the Sacred Scriptures. Among all the books of the Bible, only the Book of Isaiah gives a full picture of the love story between God and His people in all its abundance — from the mountaintop experiences celebrated in the Messiah of Handel centuries later to the dark valleys represented by the Babylonian Captivity even unto the prophecy of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ including His crucifixion written half-a-millennium before Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. For this reason, Isaiah is known as "the Fifth Gospel."

What is this love story? We could say that its scope touches the entire sweep of salvation history. The Book of Isaiah's composition begins following a high point in Jewish political history, the reign of King Uzziah, one of Judea's greatest kings, and one who propelled Judea into a position of world prominence. Yet, Judea's trajectory going forward would be tragedy, even the destruction of its homeland and the demolition of Solomon's Temple. The Book is written in the shadow of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire, which was then absorbed by the Babylonian Empire now threatening the Southern Kingdom of Judea. In this fact, the Book of Isaiah looks back to a time when the Twelve Tribes of Israel were intact, a golden age when the Jewish people were united under King David. But just as the Kingdom of Judea seemed to reach the zenith of her prosperity, King Uzziah contracts leprosy; he is exiled to a leper's colony; and he dies. Before long his kingdom, ruled by his twenty-five-year old son, who was not prepared for the heavy weight of the crown, would be conquered, their Temple destroyed, and many of its leading people exiled to Babylon.

This is a brief political summary. But why did all of this happen in ultimate terms? How could God's people, led into the Land of Promise and showered with every blessing, fall so low? In the eyes of the Hebrew prophets, the answer is found in the language of a tragic love story as we read in our Old Testament lesson this morning:

For the Lord has called you
    like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit,
like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
    says your God.
For a brief moment I forsook you,
    but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing wrath for a moment
    I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,
    says the Lord, your Redeemer.
Yes, she has sinned, this bride forsaken for her adultery. To borrow the prophet Jeremiah's words, she has been "a wild ass ... in her heat sniffing the wind" roaming in the desert at night (Jer 2:24). Do you know what it is like to be espoused to the people Israel? the Lord God asks the prophet Hosea. Marry a prostitute, and you will learn about my love affair with the people Israel! For her many and incorrigible sins, the forsaken bride is cast out. Her family is taken from her. She is deprived of her house and household. She is the face of the blasted and the lost. And now she spends her days remembering the prosperous life she threw away with both hands. In political and social terms, the Twelve Tribes of Israel are irrevocably lost. The Northern Kingdom is permanently destroyed. The Southern Kingdom is now to be destroyed, and the Temple — the only place on earth where the Jewish people might commune with their God — is demolished unto a field of rubble.

We begin our readings this morning with Isaiah's Fortieth Chapter, which many scholars call the First Chapter of Deutero-Isaiah, which is then invoked by our Gospel reading, the opening words of the Gospel according to St. Mark, which is the first among the Christian Gospels. We might say, therefore, that our Gospel this morning marks the pre-beginning of the beginning. Isaiah Chapter 40 calls the sins of Israel back to the minds of those who have committed them. Being exiled to Babylon, the Jews had ample time to ponder their home, their Temple, their culture, and their prosperity. The Book of Isaiah, among other things, is a chronicle of their sins: their oppression of the widow and the orphan, their selfish pursuit of pleasure and money, their worship of other gods. They had ample time to consider all of that — all they had thrown away in their unfaithfulness. Yet, Isaiah announces, all is to be restored! Actually, two things are announced: remember your sins and your iniquities, and prepare to be restored to all that you had lost.

It is through this lens that the Jews of the first century viewed the arrival of John the Baptist. Judea again is occupied by a foreign empire — the Romans, this time. They, too, are the on the eve of the complete (and permanent) destruction of their homeland and Temple (rebuilt after the return from Babylon). They, too, are aware of their sins. And as Mark's Gospel depicts, a revolution of confession comes about:

And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem;
and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
If the woman at the well is remarkable in confessing to the whole town a double life that she had kept strictly secret for decades, then it is nothing less than miraculous that a whole nation should confess their sins publicly .... standing in line to be next, standing in water up to their waists, freely admitting their shames and their disgraces. And to whom did they entrust this sacred act of cleansing and the restoration of their lives? It was not Hosea, nor Jeremiah, nor even Isaiah, but to the greatest prophet of the Sacred Scriptures, recalling Jesus' estimate (Mt 11:11).

Sadly, we today have difficulty bringing John the Baptist into focus. We have mistaken him for (to draw the curtains of charity) an eccentric or some kind of "mountain man" or a hermit or even a homeless psychotic. I have heard priests characterize him as "a man in a hair shirt who ate insects." But that is not the way the Jews of Jesus time would have viewed him. He was, above all, a holy man — a Nazirite, consecrated to God from his birth, never permitting wine or spirits to touch his lips, and wearing the garb of the natural man, suggesting a kinship with Eden. He is clearly not a city man. The view of city-dwellers in this culture is that they were the descendant's of Cain, human history's first murderer. Consider the difference between, on the one hand, Abraham, who was called away from luxury and pleasure of the city, the glittering city of Ur of the Chaldees, and, on the other hand, Lot, who loved the life of the twin cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, who would, by that fact, lose his unfaithful wife, and then have incestuous relations with his own daughters after getting drunk. In the setting of this morning's readings, the city of Jerusalem was ruled by either Rome, the mother of all pagan depravities, or Herod, the perfumed Arab king whose own family history reeked of serial murder and incest. John the Baptist, on the other hand, was a descendant of Eden living in perfect harmony with God. He wore, not man-made materials, but camel skin and leather. He did not eat luxurious foods, but keeping the Noahic covenant, he was a vegetarian eating a kind of manna known as "honey cake." It was made from the flower of coriander seed. The Greek word for this "bread of Heaven," ενκρισ, was very close to the Greek word for locust, ακρισ.

He no more would have eaten insects than Adam and Eve in Eden! For John to have done so, as any student of the Bible would know, would have broken the Noahic Covenant. Recalling Psalm 81, we are able to understand the precise relevance of his diet:

"But my people did not listen to my voice;
    Israel would have none of me.
So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,
    to follow their own counsels.
O that my people would listen to me,
    that Israel would walk in my ways!
I would feed you with the finest of the wheat,
    and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you."
John the Baptist might be obscure to many of us today, but to Jews of the first century, he was unmistakable: living in the Edenic world with its creator in complete faithfulness while a different and darker kingdom spread like a mold and a fungus down to the roots of Jerusalem. Even the dark mind of King Herod was stirred to revere him. John was trusted to receive and hold the sacred gift of the sins of all the people, cleansing them and inviting them into a new life and restoring to them all that was good and worthy, which once they had.

Have you ever lost a precious love? Have you ever spent hours in solitude remembering that beloved and all of her (or his) words and qualities and ways? Perhaps reading old letters or poems. Have you ever called to mind a world of love so good and safe and sacred that it was a golden age of your life? For many, this beloved might have been a person. For others, it might have been children and family. For still others, it might have been a religious life carelessly abandoned or a diocese, that rare diocese having a holy bishop and serious priests. Have you ever lost a beloved, never to be regained ... because you were restless or reckless or stupid? I have.

Now, what if an angel should appear before you, telling you of a hidden road that led back to that lost and longed-for garden, that it might be possible for everything to be restored just as it was, and you would be restored to your former place of joy and grace. If all this might be possible, you would give anything, do anything, to be guided along this hidden path. And when you arrived, seeing all that was good restored to you, you would fall to your knees and weep uncontrollably, in relief and in gratitude, that you had been dead but now have new life, that you had been lost but now are found. And while you are still on your knees, remember: this what it was like to be in the sure and knowing hands of John the Baptist. This is what it is like to meet the Lord Jesus, This is what it is like to see with the purple of Empyreal Royalty and be rid of your sins forever.

Now is the season to confess everything. Now is the acceptable time finally to be rid of the disease of a double life. Erase that life ... or should we say, death! Break those heavy chains that pull you down to earth ... and worse than earth. Now is the moment of grace, with the approach of purple, to fall on your knees and receive God's forgiveness and with it the unbearable lightness of being that we call eternal life ... or should we say, eternal freedom.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.