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.”
This week we jump from the end of Mark’s gospel to the beginning. The idea of “waiting” is still present, but we are introduced to John the Baptist. His message is to repent and prepare. He baptises as a sign of forgiveness. In doing so, he adds a new word to our Advent as we repent and prepare. That word is change. It is a word that most don’t like to hear or do. Mostly, we are all set in our ways and pretty much satisfied with whom we are. In the comfort we feel, sometimes we forget that we can hurt others by what we do or say. It is easy to say repent and get ready for Christ’s coming, but do we really step back and take a close honest look at who we are. Jesus came at a time there was turmoil and disillusionment in the Jewish community. Many had wandered off from the teaching of the prophets, the priest, the temple and yearned for communing with God. John was an intriguing figure and they accepted him as a prophet or even maybe the promised Messiah. He was the attraction of his time drawing people from everywhere. His message was clear, repent, change, and wait for the one to come. I have always wondered why we use John in the desert preparing the people for Jesus’ ministry in preparing for Christmas. Yet, the liturgical year uses his message of repent and change at the beginning every year to prepare ourselves by calling on us in our season of wait to repent and change. Christ is certainly coming, first symbolically at Christmas, but also most assuredly to each of us in the future either near or far.
Today we start the new Liturgical Year, but we start it by going to the end part of Mark’s gospel to the prophecies of persecution and the times of tribulation and the destruction of the Temple. One thing standing out is the word in our liturgy today is the word and idea of “waiting.” Waiting for the Master who has gone away and will return at any time in the near or far future. Waiting for him to come at any time, any hour and to be prepared to open and let him in.
The first reading from Isaiah is from a time Israel had returned home to devastation and the ruins of their Temple. Very definitely there were gaps in their trust and faithfulness to God , gaps that they had to fill in to once again become his faithful people. The situation and state of the world seemed so hopeless for them, that giving trust and hope was difficult. God, however, responded to them giving them a “YET” in the promise of a coming of a savior. The when and where was unknown, but the “YET” was his only son Jesus who came to the world and to the Jewish people during a later time of occupation and subservience to Rome. The gospel today is from Jesus’ last days and after his account of the coming persecution and destruction of Jerusalem. It follows that as he tells them of the Master leaving and returning at an undetermined time. Ironically or unfortunately, almost every century has experienced the signs persecution and disorder and being cut off from God. Christianity has never been perfect, as mankind has never managed to fully and completely to be faithful. Our saving grace is that same “YET” we are reminded will come again to all who await God’s call. His call to wait, to be awake, to weather the times and persecutions to greet him when he comes, is still there. The season of Advent is here to remind us to watch and wait as we celebrate once again Christ’s coming as an infant in Bethlehem.
This week’s readings again speak of waiting and accountability and the end or return of Jesus. The parable of the talents comes at the end of Matthew and is part of Jesus final days and preparation of his apostles. Three servants are entrusted with either 5, 2 and 1 talents. A talent was a very large sum, an amount far surpassing a lifetime of wages for a typical Jew. The most interesting and at the same time, puzzling thing, was the reaction of the Master to the servant who had 1 talent and was afraid to act and use it for fear of his Master. The first two acted correctly and made a nice return on what was given them. Now this parable was meant for the apostles and the early church which was waiting for Christ’s imminent return. So we might ask, what is it Christ could have given to the early church that they could fail him in an accounting on his return. In fact, what today also? That one thing has to be love and sharing the faith, the foundation of church and community. All his followers are called to love and spread and teach the faith and spread Christ’s love to the world. So what our parable tells us, is that if we in some way bury or stifle our love we are not using our talent. Love is a thing that must be worked at to grow and spread. Growth and change are important parts of loving, as people in a loving relationship will tell you. When stagnation sets in, growth can stop and in Christ’s church the result can be harmful to it mission. The Holy Spirit is alive in the church to keep it active in its growth to bring all into a loving community. The church is a people, a community, not an institution or buildings. Change has always been in the church, yet never without many different voices challenging one another that lead to the many splits in the body of Christ through the centuries.
As individuals, we have been given our faith and are called to love as best we can. Surely the questions of the larger community is beyond us in a sense, but nothing prevents us from loving and sharing person to person on a daily basis as we go about our daily business. Nothing prevents us from be that loving person we are all called to be.