2nd Sunday of Advent 12-10-17
Our Gospel reading is the opening 8 verses of Mark’s Gospel. Mark chooses to begin with a quotation from Isaiah, chapter 40. Mark clearly has chosen carefully, and we need to understand why he uses Isaiah and how he uses the images in it.
Chapters 40 to 55 of the book of Isaiah are referred to as the “Book of Consolation of Israel.” Israel was overrun by the Babylonian army some 500 years before Christ. It is a story of great shame and loss. Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple looted and burned to the ground. The people were captured and taken from their homeland into exile. According to Isaiah, the refusal of the Israelites to follow God’s laws, and their unwillingness to obey God was the reason for this great tragedy. But now the Israelites are being forgiven by God, and they will be granted their long-awaited freedom and return to rebuild their homeland.
It is a time of reconciliation. Isaiah is told to speak tenderly to the Israelites, or literally to “speak to their hearts”. The expression is very maternal- suggesting that Jerusalem is the “mother city”, and the people are children returning to a mother’s love. Although their punishment was severe, the Lord is returning to their midst, and the Lord should be welcomed as a great and majestic King. The people will restore the road for God’s arrival, as God will restore his people. Once again the Glory of the Lord will be in the temple, and the people will know God’s presence. It is a level of joy only known to people who have suffered great losses and held against their will.
Purification was historically a big issue for the Jews. Ritual bathing was required after breaking any of a long list of laws before one could worship God again. In a land of deserts and limited access to water, washing took on a significance that is unfamiliar to us. Jewish tradition has it that Adam stood in the Jordan River for 40 days after he ate the fruit which was forbidden. The prophet Elisha had Naaman wash 7 times in the Jordan River to heal his leprosy. Traditionally, any one converting to the Jewish faith must do ritualized bathing in water. This constitutes a rebirth, and brings purity “like that of a child just born”. Sound familiar? The Essenes (the Desert Fathers), of all people, were baptized each morning!
So Mark is using Isaiah, the Prophet of all Prophets, to announce that Jesus, the long awaited Messiah, is coming to restore his people. It is obvious that John is the voice crying out, literally, in the desert. Mark knows that it has been some 300 years since Israel has had a prophet of God in their midst. John the Baptist looks and talks and preaches like an old-time prophet. John presses the people to repent of their sins and be right with God. Instead of preparing the road for the king, John was preparing the people’s hearts for the King. The Psalmist says it with poetic grace: Justice (John) shall walk before (the Lord), and prepare the way of his steps.
What was the attraction to John? It wasn’t the wardrobe. I think that we all are looking for second chances. We all, to some degree, carry around a burden of regrets for some of the choices we have make and the selfish acts we commit. We all have a little part of us that relates to the Israelites who thought they were smarter than God and ended up being homeless captives in Babylon. We find John in a scene stripped of the liturgical niceties; just a man in camel skins, in the barren land, next to a muddy river, providing what the people needed. Their religious leaders at the Temple were too busy with finances and politics. So the people from the countryside and people from the city of Jerusalem were streaming out to John. No vestments, no holy orders, no stained glass windows, nothing but raw confrontation of sinfulness and the urgent desire for forgiveness and inner peace.
But John’s purpose in life was not to only address the people’s thirst for reconciliation. He was to create anticipation, a longing for more. He was to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. The road that John was preparing was for One mightier and holier than John, One who would baptize with, not water, but the Holy Spirit. You see, people were confused about the messiah- would he be a fierce warrior who would battle the Romans, or a savior, who would bring salvation and peace? The Messiah had been promised in Genesis; people despaired he would never come. Psalm 90 answers, “A thousand years in (God’s) eyes are merely a yesterday.” Our 2nd reading from the 2nd letter of Peter, echoes that, saying, “Do not ignore this one fact…that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years..” But this letter does not leave the issue there. It goes on with, “…what sort of persons should you be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God…”
And that is where the road of Advent leads us: to ask the questions of “what sort of persons we ought to be,” and how do we “prepare the road” for the Lord? How do we wash away the old presumptions and excuses, realize our failings, open our hearts for the Lord’s arrival? How do we move toward holiness and hasten the coming of God? I think sometimes those teeny tiny energy-efficient lights we have on our Christmas trees are a symbol of how much light we really want to have shine in the darker places of our lives. But we have already been baptized with the Holy Spirit, so we pray, “O, Come Lord, O, Come Jesus, O, Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.”