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OLD TESTAMENT: Isaiah 40: 1-11
The passage that we read marks the beginning of what we commonly refer to as “Second Isaiah” (Chapters 40-55), which is probably set at the end of the Babylonian exile. Even though the “exile” was not slavery as we know it, it was still a major upheaval in lifestyle and culture. Most of the Israelites were allowed to have their own homes, come and go as they please, and even work and make a living. But it was a different culture, a different homeland, and they knew that everything that they knew before was forever gone. The “exile” was not so much one of geography, but of cultural, political, and religious upheaval. So at this point, the “former things have passed away”. They had to think that God had truly deserted them. And so their image of God had to be rethought and recast. They were trying to find God in the midst of a strange, new world.
But about the year 539 BCE, Cyrus, the ruler of Persia, conquered the Babylonians. Now he tended to be sort of a benign and tolerant ruler and so he allowed those who had been previously exiled from Jerusalem the chance to return home. So the people are beginning to return home, but to a home that was nothing like it was before. If you can imagine, these waves of people on this highway that leads toward Jerusalem—a Jerusalem that now lies in ruins. Now imagine this highway, a highway through the desert that, typical of the ancient world, was originally built to accommodate royal processions. Everything was done to make the highway smooth and clear. And God promises a highway, smooth and clear of mountains and valleys that would impede the process. God promises a holy highway built for a grand procession led by the Almighty God.
So the exiles are filled with a message of trust and confident hope that God will completely end this time of despair and hardship. Speaking to a city and a way of life that is all but destroyed, the exclamation is made that the exile is indeed about to end. God is coming to lead the exiles to the Promised Land, bringing redemption and restoration. In essence, God is coming to show them a new and different way to live, a new and different to look at life even in the midst of darkness.
Now notice here that God does not promise to put things back the way they were before. God is not limited to simply rebuilding what was taken away. No, God is recreating, making new, lifting valleys, lowering mountains, and ultimately, when all is said and done, revealing a glory that we’ve never seen before. “See, I am making all things new.”
The passage sets the stage for waiting for God, which is why it is appropriate for our Advent reading. It is important to try to read it in this context rather than “reading in” our New Testament context into it. The passage begins with God’s initiative—to bring home and comfort to the suffering exiles. This is not a detached God, but one that is here, bringing hope to the faithful. The end of the exile is here. Israel has received full promise and forgiveness. It is time to prepare for a new promise from God. But to use the image of homecoming without remembering the despair, the image of forgiveness without knowledge of the sin, is an offer of cheap grace. Remember…the former things have passed away. God is not rebuilding what was there before but rather creating something new. “Comfort”, then is not merely solace, but transformation. God has promised a new way of being and a new way of seeing.
The French Impressionist painter, Claude Monet, is probably best known for his incredible landscapes and works of nature as well as for his paintings of those things that were a normal part of his own life. But the most fascinating part of Monet’s work are those paintings that he did as part of several series representing similar or even the same subjects—his own incredible gardens, poppy fields, a woman with a parasol, and those unusual haystacks.
The paintings in this series of haystacks were painted under different light conditions at different times of day. Monet would rise before dawn, paint the first canvas for half an hour, by which time the light had changed. Then he would switch to the second canvas, and so on. The next day and for days and months afterward, he would repeat the process. In each painting, the color of the haystack is different not because it is a different haystack, but because the amount and quality of the light shining on the haystack is different. The subject is the same but the perspective from which it is viewed changes with the light.
Up until this time, color was thought to be an intrinsic property of an object, such as weight or density. In other words, oranges were orange and lemons were yellow, with no variation as to the lens through which they were viewed. But with Monet’s studies in light and how it affects our view of life, that all changed. As Monet once said, “the subject is of secondary importance to me; what I want to reproduce is that which is in between the subject and me.” Monet’s study was one in seeing things differently.
This study in light is such a wonderful reminder to us to be aware of the perspective through which we see things. The writer of Isaiah knew that and, just like Monet, he painted a picture of the city illuminated by a different light. He gave the exiles a way to look at life differently and be open to that which God shines upon them. There is a Maori Proverb that says “turn your face to the sun and the shadows will fall behind you.” Look, the light is changing. Look toward the dawn.
- What is your response to this passage?
- In what ways does this passage speak to you today?
- What is the difference between “repair” and “recreation”, between “fixing things” and true transformation? Why are we reticent to allow transformation in our lives?
- What does this say about the idea of “waiting for God” that is so prevalent in this Advent season?
NEW TESTAMENT: 2 Peter 3: 8-15a
Second Peter is one of the general or catholic (universal) epistles, along with Hebrews, James, 1,2,&3 John, 1 Peter, and Jude. It is not attributed to Paul and essentially addresses a group of churches, rather than one in particular. Even though it is presented as the work of “Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ”, most would ascribe the book to an unknown author writing under the name of the apostle Peter. There are no indications that 1 and 2 Peter were written by the same author.
The passage that we read is part of a section that could be considered an apology, or a theological explanation, for why the expected second coming (the parousia) has not occurred. The churches are here urged not to ignore or overlook God’s promise and forbearance. We are reminded instead that life is transient, while God is everlasting. What seems like a delay in our time is not a delay in God’s time. We are still promised a new heaven and a new earth and God always makes good on holy promises.
Now it is probable that the author of this writing assumed that the coming of the Lord was about to happen. But it would happen in God’s time. It did not depend on the action of the church. Instead, what we perceive as a “delay” is an act of patience and mercy on the part of God. Our salvation is found not in our own acts but in God’s mercy. God is waiting for us to respond, for us to proclaim God’s love and mercy. This is not a time of despair or darkness. This is not an “ungodly time”. This is a time of waiting for God. We wait in penitence and hope. We wait for the darkness and the evil to be pushed away by the light.
The writer’s focus is not a warning but, rather, a promise that one day the justice and righteousness of God will be all that will remain. Transformation will be complete and we will truly know a “new heaven and a new earth”. But in the meantime, we are called to live within that vision of what is to be. “Waiting” for God is never a passive thing. We are called to live “as if”—as if the coming of the Lord is now, as if heaven has already spilled into the earth, as if justice and righteousness were the only thing, and as if we knew no other way to live.
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only [they] who see, take off [their] shoes—
The rest sit round it and pluck blueberries.
(Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from “Aurora Leigh”)
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- How does this passage speak to the concept of “waiting” that Advent holds?
- What would it mean to live our lives “as if”?
GOSPEL: Mark 1: 1-8
These beginning verses of the Gospel According to Mark sort of jolt us back into that reality. Our experience with the other Gospels, leads us to expect either a birth story, as in Matthew and Luke, or a poetic meditation on Jesus’ pre-existence with God, as in John. But not here. The writer of this Gospel gets right to the point, not allowing us to risk drowning and staying in the beauty of the nativity. Here is a messenger, coming to prepare you for what will happen next. Here is a messenger, paving the path, preparing the way for the coming of the Lord. No Mary and Joseph, no baby, no stable, no shepherds, no magi, no angels…just…boom…the One is coming that will baptize you with the Spirit of God…the One is coming who will change your life and change your ways and change the world from what we know it to be…the One is coming who will bring us all into the Reign of God. Hold on…get ready!
The writer of Mark’s Gospel leaves us suspended in time, waiting, rather than living through the whole story together. Many spiritual writers call that a state of liminality, a point of being betwixt and between, the moment between what is and what will be, a place in which the old world is left behind but we’re not sure what the new one looks like just yet. It is a point between two times that intersect and become one. So, are you ready? Well, if you’re not, you need to get that way. Because in this Gospel, the good news has already begun, whether we’re prepared or not.
This tone is true to the writer of the Gospel of Mark. Throughout this Gospel, there is a sense of urgency, a sort of abruptness, that somehow compels us to get on board with it, to not tarry with things that do not matter and do not prepare us for the coming. The writer of Mark cuts to the chase: humanity has waited and prepared itself for this for centuries. We are reminded of that as the passage pulls in the words of Isaiah, the foretelling of that time when God would come and be among us, when God would come and save us. Now is the time. The Christmas celebration for all its splendor and all its beauty and all its twinkling lights is first and foremost the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation. This IS the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
The writer of Mark’s gospel sees John as the forerunner to Jesus. Those who would repent, have their sins forgiven, and be baptized by John were those that had prepared themselves for a God who has already drawn near, already filling hearts with a Holy Spirit. Essentially, John was providing a receptive audience for what was to come.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes the point that it is here that Advent becomes a time of self-examination. As he says, “We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it [stories of babies and mangers and shepherds and angels] and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience…We are no longer alone; God is with us.”
But there is another implication here. In this Advent season, as we wait with expectant hope, we are also reminded that our expectations are limited by our own lives. God has so much more in store that what we could ever fathom. Maybe that’s why the writer of Mark quickly takes us to the wilderness. You see, God will not be plunked down in the middle of the bustling city of Jerusalem. God will not come in the way that we plan or imagine how God will come. Rather, God will emerge in the wilderness of our lives and we will realize that God has been there all along. We do not have to go to Jerusalem or prepare a grand entry to encounter God. God comes to us. We just have to be open to whatever God’s coming is. And we have to be willing to enter a new beginning. What we are living is not the prelude; it’s the beginning of the story.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What concept of “waiting” does this bring about for us?
- What does the whole notion of “God with us” truly mean?
- Why is it so difficult for us to be open to God’s coming in the way that God comes?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
A dreamer is one who can find [his or her] way in the moonlight, and [whose] punishment is that [he or she] sees the dawn before the rest of the world. (Oscar Wilde)
Permit me to say without reservation that if all people were attentive, if they would undertake to be attentive every moment of their lives, they would discover the world anew. They would suddenly see that the world is entirely different from what they had believed it to be. (Lusseyran, Jacques, 20th century French author and political activist)
One of the saddest lines in the world is ‘O come now—be realistic.’ The best parts of this world were not fashioned by those who were realistic. They were fashioned by those who dared to look at their wishes and gave them horses to ride. (Richard Nelson Bolles)
While others are making lists of things we have enough of, you come: to offer us salvation, that one gift we cannot purchase.
As the world prepares to entice us with more and more, you come: to fill our hearts with all the hopes you have dreamed about us forever. When skepticism and fear callous our hearts, you come: to bathe us in the soothing lotion of compassion. When stress scoops out potholes for every step we take, you come: filling the emptiness with serenity as tough as your grace. As the clock turns faster and faster each day, you come: to swaddle us in a shawl woven with patience. When others push past us to get to the front of worry’s line, you come, so we can clasp them so close to our hopes they can hear your heartbeat…
Into the silence of chaos, your voice cried, Comfort of the Ages, your Word flinging open the doors of goodness and beauty, the Spirit speeding over the waters to bring peace to all creation. Refusing to wait for all which you had promised to us, we made straight for death, running down the dusty road of sin. Prophets cried out to us while we were in this wilderness, but our tantrums drowned out their invitations to return to you. Since peace was your hope for us, and salvation is your steadfast gift, you sent your Child, Jesus, to become the Way for us.
So, with those who have waited in every time and place, and with those who try to lead lives of godliness and goodness, we lift our voices filled with longing for your omforting presence: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of creation. The exiled of the world await your coming. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is the Comfort who comes in your name. Hosanna in the highest! Amen.
(from “Lectionary Liturgies”, Wild Goose Publications, available at http://lectionaryliturgies.blogspot.com/2011/11/second-sunday-of-advent-year-b.html, accessed 28 November, 2011.)