Let Life Be Shaped By Hope: Advent 2

Let Life Be Shaped By Hope: Advent 2

The Second Sunday of Advent: December 6, 2020

Year B: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

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The perennial challenge during this time of year is to hear anew, to hear with fresh ears, to see with fresh eyes, the familiar stories we all know. We hear, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”.[1] We know what is coming for Christmas. Baby Jesus. Christmas pageants. Nativity crèches with the holy family, cows, donkeys, and shepherds. It becomes almost too familiar.

In part, that’s why we have the season of Advent. These four weeks serve to prepare the way for Christmas via a bit of liturgical wilderness. The penitential season provides a time of reflection and contemplation so that we can hear the good news of Jesus’ incarnation fresh and let the gospel sink more deeply into our lives.

The good news. Think of the beginning of today’s Gospel: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”[2] Amen.

I’m sure some of you would be delighted if that were the end of today’s sermon. And frankly, such a statement would make for a wonderful, extremely brief, homily. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We know right away just from this introduction that this is about Jesus Christ, about the Son of God, it’s about the good news of the gospel. Not a bad message to hear.

Today, this year, we need a bit more from that message. This year is a bit different, to say the least. For many, this does not feel like a joyous march from Advent to Christmastide. Hundreds of thousands around the globe will be spending their first Christmas without a loved one who has passed on due to the pandemic. Millions more will be attempting a celebration without their usual large and festive gathering, due to travel restrictions, due to concerns about the virus.

For almost the entirety of the year, we have been in the wilderness, we have been a people anxious and waiting in a year-long, lockdown Advent. We still await a clear path forward out of this dark season. Some of us want it to end quickly and refuse to wait. There are those of us who want to be able to go where we want to go, do what we want to do. I remind all of us a bit of Mark’s gospel today. In Mark, we have a storyteller who wants to tell his story quickly. In Mark’s gospel things happen urgently, swiftly, decisively, even imperatively. Mark’s rapid beginning is very different from the other gospels. Think about that beginning again. There’s no baby Jesus. No story of the miraculous birth in Bethlehem or detailed genealogy of Jesus’ family tree. No shepherds, wise men (or women) or star. No angels in the fields singing songs. Mark wants action and he wants it now, so much like many of us.

This has been a year full of waiting, of new experiences, of many unwelcome experiences, but it also gives us a way we can cast things in a new perspective, just as Advent casts things in new perspectives for us in our life in church. Because while the harshness of wilderness may be felt more deeply this year, the ageless truths remain constant. Maybe this year, we can see them more clearly.

The fundamental truth of this wilderness season is that we are waiting on an imperfect and broken world to pass. That’s true of Advent, that’s true of what happens to Jesus Christ in Christ’s life.

Nearly thirty centuries ago, Isaiah wrote to God’s exiled people who were longing to return home. God’s message to them is one of comfort. “Comfort ye, my people.”[3] The Lord is coming. On first hearing, Isaiah’s message hardly seems one of comfort though: “The grass withers, the flower fades…surely the people are grass.”[4]

That does not sound like a picture-perfect ending – and it’s not. The comfort offered in these verses is so much more complex than a “happily ever after” fairy tale. The comfort comes by putting things into perspective, into a divine perspective. All people will fade like grass, but God is mighty and endures forever. Think of what we say in our burial service, a time of discomfort if ever there is one, “but even at the grave we make our song, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”[5] That’s what Advent reminds us of. The goodness of God will prevail.

Isaiah doesn’t give us an immediate timeframe or an immediate solution to the heartbreak and suffering of the people in exile; what is offered instead is a message of hope for the future.

Our second reading is much the same; it’s written to a people longing for God’s return. The author’s message is not unlike Isaiah’s: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire.”[6]

All things will, in the end, pass away, but in the end, God’s justice will prevail.

While we don’t know the exact date of its writing, we do know that this epistle was written to a fledgling Christian community experiencing persecution at the hands of the ruling empire. They are looking for Jesus’ immediate return and immediate relief from their suffering. But God doesn’t descend with thunder from the clouds in triumphant salvation, instead, God’s word instructs the early Church to step back and to seek what I called just a few moments ago that divine perspective. “A thousand years is like a day, and a day is like a thousand years to God.”[7] Again, this does not seem like a happy fairytale message for a people experiencing immediate pain and anguish. And I say that’s true for us today. Not all of us are getting the happy fairytale endings we so desperately want.

 But here we are in God’s time, with God’s comfort, with Mark reminding us that John the Baptist proclaims in the wilderness proclaims in the wilderness a familiar message. John the Baptist proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and crowds flock to John. The reading says “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him”[8]—John still points away from himself and toward someone greater to come. John points to a hopeful future by promising one who will come baptizing, not with mere water but with the eternal Holy Spirit.”

Our readings show us that waiting is not a passive action. We are to live out our hope. In waiting for the fullness of the Kingdom of God, we proclaim God’s message of justice.  We are to name sin. We are to turn toward justice. We stand in the wilderness, pointing to the one who is more powerful than us. As the psalmist writes, “Righteousness shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.” Where we have righteousness and peace, we find God.

Our Advent message from John the Baptizer is not to adopt a bug-and-honey diet or de-clutter the closet to make room for the camel skins. The message isn’t even to level mountains or make a straight highway running through the desert! Our Advent message is that we are called to be a people who await the coming of the Lord. We are always in waiting—through victory and defeat, through triumph and loss.

There’s so much of that right now. But we are called in waiting, and it is our job as the church to proclaim peace on earth, goodwill towards all, and joy to the world. We stand in the wilderness to welcome all to journey with us in the power of the Holy Spirit. We are pointed to something better. We are pointed to Christ, the one who is more powerful, who is more patient, and more loving than we can ever be. We are to point to the Christ, the one who has come and is still yet to come.

This Advent, many of us are already in a wilderness. Some of us want to give up. I think the only way for us to keep from giving up when we find ourselves in these wildernesses (and we do again and again) is to stay faithful, to repent, and to believe in the good news, the good news that I see in the world around us. That I see in the Thanksgiving meals we have been able to provide, the Thanksgiving meals that God, indeed, has been able to provide and in the Christmases that will come.

So, let’s step and let’s pray for a glimpse of the divine perspective. Remember that all things here on earth are temporary and that we are called to embody God’s patience, and God’s grace and God’s love here in this world. Let our lives be shaped by our hope in the truth that God is coming and God does come. As our collect says, “let us live in such a way so that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.” Amen.

[1] Isaiah 40:3

[2] Mark 1:1, New Revised Standard Version

[3] Isaiah 40:1

[4] Isaiah 40:7

[5] Book of Common Prayer, Burial I, p. 483; Burial II, p. 499

[6] 2 Peter 3:10

[7] 2 Peter 3:8

[8] Mark 1:5

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