Based on Mark 1:1-8, Psalm 85, Isaiah 40:1-11
Diaspora…it is an innocuous sounding Greek word. If one doesn’t know the true meaning of the word one could conjure up an image of a flower or mushroom or fairy princess – something with wings certainly, something soft and feathery. Yet the actual meaning of the word “diaspora” is a person or people who have been “dispersed from their homeland”. Currently in the world there are more than 65 million of these persons (roughly 20% of the population of the U.S.). About 1/3 of these people are under the age of 18, and one out of six has no access to education, employment, healthcare or ability to move freely. Every single day, war, persecution, famine and/or natural disasters force more than 28,000 human beings to migrate from their homes and seek comfort and a better life in an unknown and hostile world. [Data courtesy of UMCmigration.org] This is our world today – a world where many millions seek the comfort of a better life. It is also the world that we are drawn into via our scripture readings. It is a world that has long existed – a world where the powerful exploit the weak. The United Methodist Book of Resolutions in 2016 stated, “…Forced migration, in all its forms, is a denial of human dignity and a violation of humans rights….” Forced migration…diaspora, is a direct contradiction to the promise of God to provide a world where there are more than enough resources for all to thrive – to know the comfort of shalom. As we seek away forward in this current time; as we are plagued by discomfort of our own, let us seek guidance from our eternal God through prayer…won’t you join me?
The leadership of Judah has been in exile for 70 years – but this forced imprisonment is coming to an end. King Cyrus of Persia has defeated the Babylonian army and replaced its king. The Israelites are going to be released soon and will be allowed to go back to the ruins of Judah and Jerusalem. So the prophet’s voice in Isaiah speaks about the need for the people to be comforted by tender words and by the presence of the LORD leading the way from Babylon to Jerusalem. The difficult journey will be made easier and more comfortable as the way shall be straightened and the path made flat through the desert. God has returned to God’s people and the covenant is renewed – in the prophet’s words, “…she (Jerusalem) has served her term…her penalty is paid…” (Isaiah 40:2b)
John the Baptist recalls the words of Isaiah some 500 years later to announce that the long promised and long awaited Messiah was coming to baptize the people with the Holy Spirit. John was providing a baptism of repentance, whereas the Messiah, “…the one who is more powerful…” than John was coming to brings God’s salvation to the earth. The Gospel of Mark opens with the “good news” (the meaning of the word ‘gospel’) of Jesus being given to the people by a messenger. In this case, by Jesus’ cousin John, who was the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah. The Jewish understanding of the coming of God’s kingdom required that all of Israel repent of her sins. Thus, it is important to note that in verse five it says that people from all over Judea and all of Jerusalem were coming to confess their sins and be baptized in the Jordan River. These words and actions are a comfort to an enslaved and downtrodden people who have not heard from a prophet for some 400 years.
The Psalmist pens a prayer that hopes for a return of God’s favor; for God to remember God’s promises. In verse eight the writer is listening for God’s peace (shalom) to be spoken to the people – to the faithful. Those who are righteous and fearful of the LORD will find salvation in and through God. The Psalmist reminds God that in times previous the people had been forgiven of their sin and God had restored all of the blessings to the descendants of Jacob. I’m sure that this song has comforted many people over the years – reminding them that God has never truly left them and that their prayers and laments are being heard; that restoration of the divine relationship will occur.
Fast forward 2000 years and we find ourselves once again looking everywhere for comfort. Our lack of comfort is apparent in the many ways in which we search for relief. We try to find relief from our discomfort through distractions, addictions, idols which we create; no of which can ever bring comfort or consolation. We feel helpless in the grip of world-wide problems of war and oppression that reflect the reality of the brokenness of embedded sin. Evil, greed (both corporate and individual), self-centeredness, fractured community and family systems, loneliness – even when surrounded by people…where can we look for comfort in such a time as this? Who or what will finally provide us the consolation, solace and support for which we long?
Our longing leads us inexorably away from ourselves, our human frailties and failings and back to God. When we finally reach the end of our ropes – when we have run out of ideas on how to get out of the mess and darkness we are in…there we find God. During this season of Advent, we are led back to the same God that the exiled and enslaved Israelites prayed to – the One who first chose them and who never forgot them. We look to Emmanuel, God’s incarnation as a human; to the good news of Jesus the Christ (the Messiah) who came to set the captives free, to heal the lame, the blind and the dumb. The One who came saying, “…The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news….” (Mark 1:15, NRSV)
Because if we do not allow ourselves to believe in this partially fulfilled promise, this ultimate reality, this hope realized, then we have come to the second Sunday in Advent with nothing to save us – no hope for our future. The great good news of Jesus Christ is that God so loved each and every part of God’s creation that God manifest themselves as a human child. God did this in order that we might know once and for all that God is always with us – especially in our darkest and most lonely times. Scripture states it plainly, “…What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world….” (John 1:4-5, 9 NRSV) Jesus himself came to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah (9:2) that “…the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those in the region and shadow of death light has dawned….” (see also Mt 4:16)
Make no mistake about it – things were really dark in 1st Century Palestine for the Israelites. But God sent the Word to become flesh to dwell with them in that darkness – to dwell with us in our darkness. The darkness of forced migration, abuse, neglect, enslavement, grief and loneliness, mental illnesses, life-limiting diagnoses, under- or unemployment, unsupportive and unloving relationships, the poor, those who society marginalizes, those good people who look at the evil in the world and are overwhelmed and paralyzed into inaction. These are many of the darknesses that threatens to overwhelm us.
And yet…and yet, again we come back to the promise – to the reality that there is no darkness which the light of God has not already overcome. God’s greater light of love overcame the darkness of slavery and injustice and disease and marginalization and death – even death on a cross. God came to us all once upon a time in a manger as a helpless child born to poor and marginalized peasants. He became a forced migrant soon after his birth to escape King Herod’s pogrom. He came back to minister to all to set them free and to show them the way, the truth and the life. He will come again to continue His ministry of reconciliation and redemption – of salvation for those who believe in him.
This is what we proclaim…this is what we believe as Christians. This is the comfort for all of those who find themselves in uncomfortable situations seeking relief. To those who believe they are lost in darkness – the light of Jesus is always available. The light at the end of the tunnel is not the oncoming train – it is the light of life, Jesus the Christ. In this season of Advent, come once again to the reality that our Comforter came to us in the form of a baby. Take the chance and believe that there is an end to the darkness; turn and walk to the light – the light of the unconditional love and comfort of our Lord and Savior, Emmanuel, “God With Us”. May it always be so.