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Introduction To The Scripture For The Second Sunday of Advent - Year B
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2,8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15; Mark 1:1-8

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Second Sunday of Advent - Year B


ISAIAH 40:1-11               With words of incredible insight and power 
the unknown prophet of Israel's exile in Babylon, sometimes called Second 
Isaiah, proclaims the good news God's people have been waiting long to 
hear.  Deliverance is at hand.  God's people are to be brought home to 
Jerusalem.  It is God who is doing this, as a shepherd leads his flock 
homeward at the end of the day.  Anyone who has sung or listened to 
Handel's "The Messiah" will recognize that he took the opening recitatives 
for his majestic oratorio from this passage.  The words of this Hebrew 
poetry are music in themselves.


PSALM 85:1-2,8-13            The same theme is repeated in this psalm, 
perhaps written during the same period when Israel's return from exile was 
imminent.


2 PETER 3:8-15               It is improbable that this letter was written 
by the apostle whose name it bears.  More than likely, its author was some 
unknown Christian elder, perhaps early in the second century AD.  He 
sought to encourage those of a later generation anxious that Christ had 
not yet returned as promised and as the church had long been teaching.  
The delay, this letter proposes, is due to God's patience so that no one 
may perish, but come to repentance and faith in a renewed relationship 
with God.


MARK 1:1-8                   Mark's Gospel begins not with Jesus, but with 
John the Baptist.  Immediately he quotes from Isaiah 40, transferring this 
reference to Israel's return from exile in Babylon in 639 BC to the coming 
of the Messiah.  The early church searched the Hebrew scriptures for every 
possible prophecy about the coming of Israel's Messiah, no matter whether 
they were relevant or not.  They understood the coming of Jesus Christ, 
the Son of God, into the world as the fulfillment of those prophecies.  

Now that God's love and purpose for Israel are being fulfilled, John calls 
everyone to prepare by repenting and being baptized.  


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS

ISAIAH 40:1-11   With words of incredible power the unknown prophet of 
Israel's exile in Babylon, called Second or Deutro-Isaiah by scholars, 
proclaims the good news God's people have been waiting long to hear.  
Deliverance is at hand.  God's people are to be brought home to Jerusalem.  
It is God who is doing this, as a shepherd leads his flock homeward at the 
end of the day.

Anyone who has sung or listened to Handel's "The Messiah" will recognize 
that he took the opening recitatives for his majestic oratorio from this 
passage.  The words of this Hebrew poetry are music in themselves.
 
Yet the poem contains a panoply of references to Hebrew history and 
theology.  The opening words of comfort also contain the promise of 
deliverance.  The long period of incarceration in a foreign land is ending 
and the prisoners are to be set free.  Retributive justice has been 
fulfilled, twice over (vs. 2).  Ahead lies the yet another desert trek, 
but on this road travelers will encounter no wandering as did the 
Israelites of the Exodus long ago.  Rather the high road leads straight 
home to Jerusalem and traveling will be easy along level ground (vss. 3-4) 
because this is the highway of Yahweh.  This message comes direct from 
Yahweh and is now revealed to everyone.

But there are still many questions.  Is this message of comfort and 
deliverance trustworthy?  Are the Israelites themselves to be trusted?  
Their loyalty has been as ephemeral as the grass and flowers of the field 
which today blossom forth and tomorrow vanish (vss. 6-7).  This is 
Yahweh's word, however, and it stands forever; it can be trusted eternally 
(vs. 8).

These good tidings must be broadcast from the highest point on Mount Zion 
to all of Judea at the loudest possible volume: "Yahweh's glory is fully 
revealed in these momentous events" (vs.9).  What about to happen is like 
the captain of a mighty army returning from a great victory bringing his 
reward with him (vs. 10).  No, not like that so much as a gentle shepherd 
leading his flock home at evening carrying newborn lambs in his arms with 
the ewe following faithfully behind.

It is not difficult to see why the early church turned to the poetry of 
Second Isaiah contained in Isaiah 40-66 in search of prophecies of the 
Messiah whom they knew as Jesus of Nazareth.


PSALM 85:1-2,8-13   The same theme is repeated in this psalm, perhaps 
written during the same period when Israel's return from exile was 
imminent or has already occurred.  It may have had a liturgical function 
at some national celebration.

The psalm consists of three rather distinct parts.  Vss. 1-3 celebrates 
Yahweh's initiative in Israel's history.  Vss. 4-7 plead for forgiveness 
based on the covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel.  Vss. 8-13 
recite the blessings that come from the mutual faithfulness of the 
covenant - forgiveness, righteousness, peace and prosperity.  

Scholars debate whether this is a lament or a liturgical prayer.  The Book 
of Haggai suggests a pertinent time of economic and spiritual depression 
when it could have been appropriate.  Yet there are no certain historical 
references.  Moreover, the latter part of the poem can be just as easily 
interpreted eschatologically.  On the whole, the psalm deals with divine 
initiatives which result in salvation, whether at a time of imminent 
danger or at the end of time.  For this reason it was chosen by the 
authors of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer as the psalm for Christmas 
Day.

In his *Everyday Psalms* (Wood Lake Books, 1994) Jim Taylor gives an 
alternate paraphrase which brings out a different point of view.  He gives 
the psalm the title of "An Unfair World" and cites the situation of a 
friend who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion.  Thus he paraphrases 
the psalm as a lament by one who needs greater comfort than Job's 
comforters could offer.  At vs. 8, he silences all pious platitudes 
because he needs to hear what God has to say.  He ends this paraphrase 
with these words: "Sorrow is holy ground; walk on it only with feet bared 
to the pain of every pebble.  Through the storm, the Lord of life comes 
walking on the salt sea of tears."


2 PETER 3:8-15   Although some scholars still cling to the view that this 
letter was written by the apostle Peter just prior to his death, this is 
improbable.  More than likely, its author was some unknown Christian 
elder, perhaps early in the 2d century CE using Peter's name to give his 
message authority.  This type of pseudographia was common practice in 
ancient times.  

A case has also been made for dating it in the 80s and 90s of the lst 
century as the second generation of Christians tried to come to terms with 
two serious issues: the end of the apostolic leadership of the church and 
the Hellenistic cultural milieu into which the church was moving even as 
it severed its connections with the Jewish culture of Palestine.  In *The 
Oxford Companion to the Bible*, (Oxford University Press, 1993) Richard J.  
Bauckman, professor of NT at St. Andrews University, Scotland, concludes 
his article on the letter with these words: "The letter is a valuable 
witness to Christianity's difficult transition from a Jewish to a 
Hellenistic environment, and provides an instructive example of how the 
message of the gospel was preserved through the process of cultural 
translation."

The brief three chapters appear as a testament or farewell discourse in 
the form of a letter.  Its purpose was to remind the reader's of the 
apostle's teaching and defend against false teachers who are casting doubt 
on the Second Coming of Jesus and advocating immoral behavior.  Four 
separate sections can be read as the author's testament interspersed with 
three apologies for the true faith and two exhortations to godly living.  

The present reading is taken from the third apologetic section and the 
final exhortation.  It deals specifically with the reason for the delay in 
Christ's return.  This is due to God's patience so that no one may perish, 
but come to repentance and faith in a renewed relationship with God (vs. 
9).  There follows a reiteration of the typical eschatological message 
found throughout the NT: The day of the Lord will come unexpectedly.  One 
can hypothesize that the repeated reference to destructive fire (vss. 10 & 
12) may reflect the possible provenance of the letter in the Roman church.  
Tradition holds that the persecution of Christians for the great fire set 
by Nero in 64 CE was the occasion for Peter's martyrdom.  Even a 
generation later, this would be lively memory in the Roman Christian 
community.  

Whoever the author was and whenever he wrote, he sought to encourage his 
audience to lead "lives of holiness and godliness while for and hastening 
the coming of the day of God" (vs. 12).  The certainty of the Parousia 
necessitated such holy living.  To accomplish this, moral effort on their 
part would required, exemplified by peace and purity (vs. 14).  They are 
to regard the patience of God as their salvation, not a source of 
spiritual frustration (vs. 15).  

This reading should probably end before the sentence in modern versions 
(RSV; NRSV) which make reference to Paul.  The NEB, however, includes all 
of vs. 15 in that reference: "Bear in mind that our Lord's patience with 
us is our salvation, as Paul, our friend and brother said when he wrote to 
you with inspired wisdom." This may well be a reference to Paul's letter 
to the Romans and intended as proof that this letter is from Peter himself 
who knew that Paul had written to the Roman church.  More likely, however, 
it confirms the pseudographical character of the letter.  No church leader 
of the 2d century made any reference to 2 Peter.  Origen (217-251 CE) did 
not regard it as canonical.  The 3rd century historian Eusebius linked it 
with James, Jude, 2 and 3 John as "disputed, nevertheless familiar to the 
majority."  

While such scholarly intricacies may be of little consequence to most 
modern readers, a document such as 2 Peter can be very helpful to our own 
time and generation as we move from the age of Christendom to the culture 
of pluralistic globalism in the third millennium of the Christian era.  
Orthodoxy such as this letter exhibits can be an early casualty of any 
transitional period in church history.


MARK 1:1-8   Mark's Gospel begins not with Jesus, but with John the 
Baptist.  Immediately he quotes from Isaiah 40, transferring this 
reference to the prophet of Israel's return from exile in Babylon in 639 
BC to the coming of the Messiah.  Obviously, he intended that the Baptist 
be seen as the prophet who prepared the way for Jesus, the Christ/Messiah.  
This was an intentional use of the OT scriptures for a serious theological 
purpose.  The early church searched the Hebrew Scriptures for every 
possible prophecy about the coming of Israel's Messiah, no matter whether 
they were relevant or not.  They understood the coming of Jesus Christ, 
the Son of God, into the world as the fulfillment of those prophecies.  

Mark makes no mention of the condemnation which John's message included as 
Matthew and Luke reported.  He concentrated instead on the repentance John 
called for as the appropriate preparation for the coming of the Messiah 
(vs. 4).  He also downplayed his role and pointed instead to the one who 
would baptize the people with the Holy Spirit instead of water.

Much scholarly discussion still surrounds the character of John and his 
mission.  It would appear that he was recognized as one of the OT prophets 
whose habits were such as to draw attention to his ministry.  His call for 
baptism, however, must have seemed unusual to most Jews of his time.  The 
custom of baptizing proselytes cannot be attested prior to 100 CE.  If it 
was practiced as early as John's ministry (ca. 28 CE), it would have been 
regarded as an affront to Jewish self-consciousness.  There were limited 
baptismal movements in Judaism such as the Essenes of Qumran in the last 
centuries before the Christian era.  Some Hellenist sects also practiced 
baptism as initiation into their communities.  No final proof has yet been 
discovered to link John directly with any of these, although with notable 
differences he most resembles the Essenes.

The essential point of John's message was that all assumptions based on 
election and ethnicity was no longer valid.  Only a new beginning 
symbolized by passing through the waters of Jordan, as God had led Israel 
out of Egypt and across the Jordan, would suffice to restore Israel's 
relationship with God.  In the immersion of baptism these presumptions and 
the whole of old ways of life would be washed away.  Now that God's love 
and purpose for Israel are being fulfilled, John calls everyone to prepare 
by repenting and being baptized.  

Perhaps most surprising to us - and perhaps to his audience too - was the 
fact that John's style and teaching can be found in eschatological 
passages in Isaiah.  Mark 1:8 had its parallel in Isaiah 32:15.  His 
dwelling in the wilderness had its parallels in Isaiah 35:1-10, 40:3, 
41:18-19, 43:19-20.  The one who followed him endowed with the Spirit had 
its parallels in Isaiah 11:2-3; 42:1-4 and 61:1.  Was this the result of 
the exhaustive searching of the OT by the apostolic church, especially in 
the book of Isaiah, rather than historical actuality?  

Walter Wink states in *The Oxford Companion to the Bible* (Oxford 
University Press, 1993.  372) John "burst on the scene as a virtual 
mutant." His rite of baptism symbolizing rebirth had no precedent in any 
Jewish source.  This suggests that the story of John may be a theological 
metaphor pointing to the discontinuity of the Jewish and Christian faith 
traditions.  Wink further states: "The evangelists each employ the 
traditions about John in the service of the proclamation of Jesus.  Each 
handles him differently, but all see him as the one who stands at the 
beginning of the gospel story, demanding of the hearer a beginner's mind 
and jettisoning all previous securities, so that the new word can be 
heard."

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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