Luke 1-2, Mark 1.1-3, Isaiah 40
John the Prophet
And, today we were reminded of a little baby boy named John. John’s birth was announced to his father by an angel named Gabriel. This was the same angel that told Mary about the baby Jesus. John was born to his parents named Zechariah and Elizabeth just months before Jesus’ own birth. This baby boy would be named John and would become the person who would go before Jesus to tell the people to change their ways. John was even born a few months prior to Jesus’ birth. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me begin at the beginning.
Our story today begins with a man named Zechariah. He was an aged man who longed for a child with his wife Elizabeth. Zechariah was a priest in the Leviticus Order. He was a priest who had waited a long time to offer incense for prayers within the Holy Sanctuary. This privilege was decided by drawing lots. Most priests were only given the privilege once in their lifetime (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 178). This act of offering incense would have drawn a large crowd around the Temple in Jerusalem that day.
And, on that day Zechariah had an encounter with God through his messenger, the Angel Gabriel. Gabriel appeared to Zechariah to deliver a most profound message to him. Gabriel informs Zechariah that his prayers have been heard. Here Zechariah is standing before the bowl of incense for the prayers of the people, and the Angel Gabriel announces that the time has come for Zechariah’s prayers to be answered. Zechariah cannot believe his ears! His wife will conceive a child in her old age, a son whose name will be John.
With this birth announcement comes a string of declarations. John will be a joy and a delight, and many people will rejoice at his birth. John will be great in the eyes of the Lord. What wonderful affirmations for a father to hear about his son! This must have been too much for Zechariah to hear; too good to be true. Doubt must have set in very quickly as the Angel Gabriel continued to instruct Zechariah that John could never drink wine or liquor as this baby boy was a chosen vessel for God’s Holy Spirit even before his birth. John would bring many people back to the Lord their God – Yahweh. John would be the vessel that would call father’s to their children.
The story goes on to tell us that Zechariah is struck dumb for his unbelief. On the 8th day as was the custom handed down by the Jewish Law, the baby boy was marked by circumcision and named John. And as his father writes out his name his lips are opened to proclaim the Good News of the coming Kingdom of God. Zechariah praised God for this great event in his life and the life of his chosen people Israel.
John grew up in the desert and wilderness of Judea until he began his public ministry to Israel. John was in the wilderness when he began calling people to be baptized to show their commitment to God. John was calling for repentance – a change of heart that would lead the people to live holy lives. John desired for his people to find forgiveness and reconciliation with their God, Yahweh. Everyone from Judea and Jerusalem went out to the Jordon River to hear the prophet John and his message of repentance. Even Jesus finds his way out to the river to be baptized. But John and Jesus had differing roles, and soon John would find himself imprisoned. After John was imprisoned, Jesus began his earthly ministry as a “prophet” in Judea and the surrounding countryside.
Today we remember together John’s ministry in light of the early church who believed John was the fulfillment of Isaiah 40.3, and Jesus the fulfillment of the Good Shepherd in Isaiah 40.11. John, Jesus, and Isaiah were all prophets from God who called the people to repentance. When we read the first passage in the Gospel of Mark (1.1-3), we are quickly cued into the author’s proclamation: both John and Jesus are the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah’s writings.
Wherever Israel strayed from its moral foundation, God would send a prophet call them back to right living. The words of the prophets contained words of coming judgment because of the people’s wrongdoings. These announcements came to liberate the people from sin. A prophet is someone – most often a male – who tells the people about what God is about to do. A prophet warns people when God’s going to punish them, or when God is about to do something wonderful like the Messiah prophecies. Prophets have a special role in God’s Kingdom. John was the last prophet from the Old Covenant Era to tell the people about the coming Messiah who would save the Israel people.
Prophets from the Old Testament were called on to warn the people of coming doom. But these words of warning also were paired with words of restoration and hope for Israel’s future. The prophets often lamented over what God told them about Israel. The prophets were not cold-hearted but wept over the saga of a people who refused to live according to God’s covenant. Not only are individual peoples called to repent, but the entire nation. Prophets are concerned with both the individual and the nation as a whole. The prophets were given songs to sing over God’s people when they recovered from their wandering to return home. Prophets would stand between God’s impending punishment and the people to illicit God’s mercy.
The prophet’s role is to bring a guilt-ridden and spiritually blind people before a holy God to face punishment and reconciliation, mercy and grace. The prophets possessed the Spirit of God that guiding them and gave them vision of the unseen reality just beyond the senses that guided the people into their future. Prophets are very much aware of standing between realities – what is, what was, and what is to come. Because of their unique spiritual awareness, they were a bit of a peculiar people.
The prophets of old were quick to point to their encounters with God as beginning points in their public ministries, not unlike the baptism and desert account of Jesus (Mark 1). Further, prophets were often led to live into the prophetic claims and announcements by acting out dramatic stories. When reading the prophetic materials, it’s easy to be distracted by their mystical language and harsh judgments. The key to understanding the role and words of a prophet is the call to repentance that undergirds every word and action. When you read the prophets, one must be prepared to repent, reestablish the moral foundation of the commandments, and love neighbor as yourself.
Isaiah the Prophet
There were many other prophets who announced God’s plans before John and Jesus came along. And, Isaiah is the most quoted prophet in the New Testament writings. Because Isaiah plays an important role in the New Testament writings, it is essential for us to understand the message of Isaiah.
Isaiah is the prophet of Israel during the exile to Babylon and the subsequent return of the captives. There seems to be three writers of the book. The first 39 chapters is the original prophet Isaiah who was the son of Amoz and lived in Jerusalem (1.1) at least until the death of Sennacherib (37.37-38). The second Isaiah stretches from chapter 40 to 55 which emphasis the writings from Deuteronomy. And, the third Isaiah reflects the return of the Babylonian captives to Jerusalem in chapters 56 to 66. We know that the whole of Isaiah is quoted about 20 times in the New Testament, which gives this prophetic writing importance to the early church.
Isaiah lived during the 8th Century B.C. during the Babylonian Captivity of Israel. At that time King Ahaz of Judah calls on Assyria to wage battle with them. With this decision Israel became interdependent on other nations as their strength rather than God alone. We know from the text that Isaiah was a city man. He was born, raised, and married in Jerusalem. Isaiah was most likely a man of nobility. His uncle may even have been King Amaziah of Judah who during the early part of the 8th Century B.C. We know from the text that Isaiah was not a stranger to the inner court of the King Hezekiah (37.1-7), and served as his counselor.
However, it seems that Isaiah is directing his concerns with the upper class of Israel, an urban community that would have fit some of our famous soap operas. Isaiah describes the women of Israel as if they were high fashion models: pendants, bracelets, scarves, perfume boxes, handbags, fine fabrics, and fancy hair-dos. The people of Isaiah’s world are not so much interested in the land or having children, or worship. They are interested in community drama of commerce, government courts of law, military and clergy folks who would submit to the city life style of living.
Isaiah calls to the folks in his community to return to God and be faithful, work honestly in their government, exact justice in their courts, be wise counselors in their city, and act upright as business leaders. Isaiah proclaims that God is the real leader in the world, not humanity.
The Book of Isaiah
If you and I were to take the Book of Isaiah and really look at it together, we would discover there are three distinct sections. The first section begins in chapter one and continues through until chapter 39 with the understanding that God is Holy and his judgments are coming against the God’s people. The second section begins in chapter 40 and concludes at chapter 55 focusing on the Divine Plan of God for redemption. The last part of Isaiah focuses on the Chosen Remnant who would fulfill God’s promises in the new thing on the earth that stretches from chapter 56 to the end of the book in chapter 66. Each section focuses a name for God – Holy One, Redeemer, and Servant.
In the book as a whole there are several themes in Isaiah – God as Creator and Holy One of Israel, God has a Holy Nature, God has a Divine Plan, and God requires our Obedience. And, these themes are the same kinds of prophetic words that are uttered time and time again from every prophet which God has sent to his people, whether in days of old or today. Let’s take a closer look…
- First, God is the Creator, the Holy One of Israel. The Lord is seated in heavenly places high above all human rule and earthly power. Our Creator does not bow down to our exercise of “power” or “rights.” When we speak of the Holy One, we must understand the fear and utter dread that comes from standing in his presence. The fear is not one of human emotion, but of being in the presence of the One who is completely other than us. He is perfect in all He is and does. He is God, and we are not. If you come to church thinking you’re doing God a favor, you haven’t discovered his Holiness.
- Second, God has a Holy Nature that looks nothing like our pride. Isaiah looks out across the city at her people and laments that her people are so prideful. Isaiah is utterly disappointed in his own people. God has been a father to each one, and he has discipled his children with a tender hand guiding them into adulthood. But to what end? His response to proclaim that we together are a religious people yet we are an unclean people with unclean lips. We buy, sell, and trade to our own glory not taking into account the unrighteous ways of economic gain, and unscrupulous business deals. Pride is our downfall, says Isaiah. Pride makes us wise in our own eyes and shrewd in our own sight. Pride causes us to disregard God’s Word as necessary in our lives. God becomes a commodity that can be purchased with a tithe, and sold with a prayer. Pride causes us to think that learning about God’s Word is for the little children, or someone else that’s worse off than we are. Pride causes us to look around us at what we have accomplished with our own hands, our own hard work, and say look at all we have accomplished. Pride believes that God can be manipulated with empty rituals of prayers that are strangled in our selfishness and never reach the heart of love for one another. So, why has the church focused so much on the children? Perhaps because we adults think too highly of themselves and have sinned our way to being unteachable.
- Third, God has a divine plan. Just imagine with me for a moment what it would be like to release all of our wise schemes and dreams and plans for our future and the future of those around us. Just for a moment imagine what it would be like to lay it all down at the cross. According to this prophet, God has a plan Israel to help her overcome her sinful behaviors. God is always about change Israel’s heart from rebellion and pride to a heart of worship that relinquishes our right to be right, our right to think we can rule and reign. Just for a moment imagine with me what it might be like if we allowed others the opportunity to rise up in leadership, even if it meant watching them fail, trusting ultimately in God’s divine plan. Isaiah explains to us that his people draw near to God with their mouth and they speak honoring words with their lips all the while their hearts are not interested in God. All they know is rote memorization of God’s commands and prayers, but they do not know God in their hearts.
- Fourth, God desires obedience through trust and forgiveness. Isaiah desires for the people of his community to believe God, to trust God, and to live confident in God’s plan. Through the act of believing, trusting, and living confident in God, the people of Israel will become the city of God. Isaiah desires for his people to relinquish their endless efforts of self-preservation. As much as the people tried to establish themselves in their communities, they could not attain their goals apart God, and following his plan. God promises to establish his people, only when they are in right relationship of obedience, trust, and forgiveness.
Over the course of the next few weeks we will continue to dig deeper into the Book of Isaiah to discover the riches of what God has to say to us today through the prophets. But for today we let us focus on our need to heed Isaiah’s words of repentance.