Dec 7, 2014: 2nd Sunday of Advent (B)

1st Reading – Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11

Comfort, give comfort to my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her service is at an end,
her guilt is expiated;
indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD
double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill shall be made low;
the rugged land shall be made a plain,
the rough country, a broad valley.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Go up on to a high mountain,
Zion, herald of glad tidings;
cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Fear not to cry out
and say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God!
Here comes with power
the Lord GOD,
who rules by his strong arm;
here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.
Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
carrying them in his bosom,
and leading the ewes with care.

Today’s first reading is a commission to proclaim comfort to God’s people and prepare for the glory of the Lord, which will soon be revealed.

Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.

The plural form of the verb indicates that this imperative is addressed to more than one person.  It seems to be a kind of commissioning: God summons a group of people, likely angelic attendants, to speak God’s own words of comfort to Israel.

The phrases “my people” and “your God” are covenant language, suggesting that the covenant relationship between God and the Israelites, who here are are an exiled people in Babylon, still exists.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

The literal Hebrew is “speak to the heart.”  In Hebrew culture, the heart was considered the organ of reasoning; therefore, the phrase means “convince Jerusalem” rather than “be tender toward her.”

The city of Jerusalem itself was in ruins.  Here, it refers to all the exiled Israelites.

and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated;

Of what should Jerusalem be convinced?  That the Israelites had indeed paid their debt; their suffering was now over.

Perhaps they had to be convinced because there was no recognizable evidence to suggest — and so they did not readily believe — that their release was imminent.

Indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins.

This is not an excess of divine anger, but rather a proclamation that their intense purification process was now complete.

A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!

The voice may apply to prophets who were with the Israelite captives in the “desert” of their captivity, proclaiming that the Lord himself is about to lead a new exodus through the desert.   Alternatively, it might refer to one of the angelic attendants referred to in the first verse.

Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; The rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley.

The people are directed to act out their deliverance even before they see evidence of it. The picture sketched is a carefully repaired highway over which victorious kings or generals traveled in triumphant procession on their return home.

During the time of Isaiah, conquered peoples were often put to work building these kinds of roads for victors, filling in the valleys and cutting down the high places to make the road smoother. This would come to be referred to as the “king’s way.”

The image here is of the Jews in Babylon building their own “king’s way” back to their homeland. It would be Yahweh, their king, who would ride triumphantly at the head of their pilgrimage home.

Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,

Upon completion of the road, the straight path for Yahweh, they will behold the glory of their triumphant God.

and all mankind shall see it together; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

A distinct element of universalism. In Hebrew, “all mankind” is literally “all flesh.”

Not only the Israelites, but all humankind, will see the glory of their God.

Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; Cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news! Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God! 

A second directive is given to Jerusalem itself.  The city, broken and depleted, is told to announce to the other vanquished cities of Judah the approach of this triumphal procession.

Here comes with power the Lord GOD, who rules by his strong arm; Here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, Carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.

The message they are to proclaim is not theirs; it is dictated to them.  They are to be heralds of good news.

Note the easy transition from the image of Yahweh as king to shepherd. Though just, God comes with the solicitude of a shepherd, who attracts and even carries his people.

The builders of the highway are told to make God’s approach possible; the citizens of Jerusalem are told to announce to others the good news of this approach.  The highway builders are to complete their work before they see the glory of the Lord; the people in the city are to herald a procession they themselves have not yet witnessed.  In both cases, the people are directed to act out their release even before they have tangible evidence of it.  What they have is the word of the prophet, whose message employs verb forms that suggest that future events are already accomplished in the present.  The people’s faith in this word is itself the strongest evidence of their deliverance.

2nd Reading – 2 Peter 3:8-14

Do not ignore this one fact, beloved,
that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years
and a thousand years like one day.
The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,”
but he is patient with you,
not wishing that any should perish
but that all should come to repentance.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief,
and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar
and the elements will be dissolved by fire,
and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.

Since everything is to be dissolved in this way,
what sort of persons ought you to be,
conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion,
waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God,
because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames
and the elements melted by fire.
But according to his promise
we await new heavens and a new earth
in which righteousness dwells.
Therefore, beloved, since you await these things,
be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.

Today’s second reading is the only time that 2 Peter appears in the Sunday lectionary.  The Christians to whom he addressed this letter are not identified, though verse 3:1 may have been intended to identify the recipient(s) with the churches of Asia Minor, where his first letter was sent.  Except for the epistolary greeting, 2 Peter does not have the features of a genuine letter at all, but is rather a general exhortation cast in the form of a letter.

Modern scholars widely agree that 2 Peter is a pseudonymous work, written by a later author who attributed to Peter according to a literary convention popular at the time.  In fact, persistent doubt in the early church about the true authorship of the letter likely contributed to the great resistance that was expressed over including it in the New Testament canon.  However, it was eventually universally adopted.

Today’s reading contains three distinct yet connected themes: the delay in the return of the Lord, the apocalyptic dissolution of the world, and the manner of life required of a faithful Christian.

Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day.

Paraphrasing a verse from the Psalms (90:4), the author reminds his audience that what appears to interminable to short-lived human beings is as nothing to God, who is from eternity and who lives in eternity.

“Since it is written concerning the day of judgment that a thousand years will be like one day, who can tell whether we shall spend days, months or even years in that fire?” [Saint Caesar of Arles (after A.D. 542), Sermons 179]

The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, 

God is faithful and keeps his promises.  We know from 2 Peter 3:4 that the promise referred to here is the promise of his coming, the parousia.

The author is countering the influence of false teachers within the church, who flout Christian morality and deny the second coming of Christ.  They tried to justify their immorality by pointing out that the promised coming of the Lord had not yet occurred, even though early Christians expected it in their day.

not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

The delay of the Lord’s second coming is not a failure to fulfill his promise, bur rather a sign of his patience.  He delays in coming so that all might have the opportunity to repent and therefore be redeemed.  God desires salvation for all.

Such a notion is found repeatedly in Scripture, e.g. Exodus 34:6-7; Psalms 86:15; Romans 2:4, 9:22.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief,

Though delayed, the end-time will surely come.

Its timing, like that of a thief in the night, is unpredictable (see Matthew 24:43-44; Luke 12:39; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; Revelation 3:3, 16:15).

and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.

The author next employs apocalyptic imagery to describe how the total destruction of everything, both the heavens and the earth, will take place.

Though the idea was common in apocalyptic and Greco-Roman thought, this is the only passage in the New Testament that speaks of a fiery destruction of the world at the end of time.

Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire.

Christians should not grow weary or become careless in their waiting.  As God has been patient in the face of their sinfulness, so they must also be patient in the face of God’s apparent delay.

The author states that holiness actually hastens the Day of the Lord’s coming.  Thus the best reply to any challenge to the Lord’s coming is a life of patient devotion.

“As you wait for the end of all things, you must live holy lives according to the three laws – the Old Testament, the New Testament and the law of nature – and you must keep faith in the Trinity, which is the law of godliness.” [Hilary of Arles (ca A.D. 428), Commentary on 2 Peter]

But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which
righteousness dwells.

Unlike the Greeks, who saw recurring cycles of destruction, here the author maintains that this destruction has a saving purpose.  It is the prelude to the creation of “new heavens and a new earth.”

Centuries earlier, someone writing in the tradition of the great prophet Isaiah spoke of “new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17, 66:22).  For the Israelite people of the time, this was a promise filled with hope.  The old and sin-drenched world that dragged them down would be cast aside, and a new and innocent world would be brought to birth in the very midst of the people.  The universe will be transformed by the reign of God’s righteousness.

For the very same reasons, this message remained a promise of hope for the early Christians.  They too were awaiting a time of fulfillment.  They too were growing discouraged because of its delay.  They too are assured: it is coming!

Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.

The third theme, behavior that suits one who stands in anticipation of whatever is to come, is addressed briefly but succinctly.

First, apocalyptic judgment will purge the world of sin, then righteousness will dwell within the new heavens and the new earth.  The only behavior befitting such a transformation is a life of holiness and godliness, a life without spot or blemish.

Gospel – Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way.
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.”

John the Baptist appeared in the desert
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
People of the whole Judean countryside
and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem
were going out to him
and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River
as they acknowledged their sins.
John was clothed in camel’s hair,
with a leather belt around his waist.
He fed on locusts and wild honey.
And this is what he proclaimed:
“One mightier than I is coming after me.
I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.
I have baptized you with water;
he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Today’s gospel reading is the beginning of the Mark’s gospel, which was likely the first of the four gospels to be written.

Although it is the shortest gospel, Mark often tells of Jesus’ ministry in more detail that either Matthew or Luke.  It recounts what Jesus did in a vivid style, with one incident following directly upon another.

Mark probably wrote his gospel in Italy for the Roman Christians, shortly after the persecutions of Nero (64 A.D.), when the community was still reeling from that tyrant’s cruelty.  Some Christians reacted to Nero’s attacks with heroic martyrdom, but others had betrayed the community or slipped away in fear.  Mark’s story of the crucified Jesus and his disciples who struggled to remain faithful would have been a powerful lesson for this early Christian church.

Unlike Matthew’s gospel, which was written for Jews who fled Jerusalem after it was destroyed by the Romans, Marks’ audience was primarily Gentiles.  Accordingly, he makes few references to prophets, and Jewish terms were translated within the text.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.

The opening verse serves as a title for the entire book.  Mark is the only writer to title his book a “gospel,” a word that comes from the Greek euangelion, or “good news.”

Just as the first biblical account of God’s creative work starts “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1), Mark’s account points to a new beginning of God’s manifestation to humankind.

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’”

The author interweaves the words of the prophet Malachi (3:1, 23) and Isaiah (40:3; cf. Exodus 23:20), reinterpreting them to announce the presence of the one who will herald the arrival of Jesus.  By using these two references to identify John the Baptist, the author is bestowing prophetic authority on him and identifying him as a messenger of God attested by scripture.

John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Unlike the ritual washings of the Essenes at Qumran (another Jewish group that went out to the desert to await the promised one), John’s baptism is open to all, not merely a select group.

“Note that Mark mentions nothing of the nativity or infancy or youth of the Lord. He has made his Gospel begin directly with the preaching of John.” [Saint Augustine of Hippo (ca. A.D. 400), The Harmony of the Evangelists 2,6,18]

People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.

Everything is astir as the people of “the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem” go out to him to be baptized.  The scope and character of the crowds that John attracts signal the spiritual hunger of the people.  Participation in this ritual of baptism expressed their willingness to change.

Josephus (Antiquities 18.52’116-119), a first century Jewish historian, also describes John
as a preacher of repentance who used baptism and attracted large crowds.

“Since the Victim had not been offered, nor had the Holy Spirit yet descended, of what kind was this remission of sins? … Fittingly therefore, when he had said that he came ‘preaching the baptism of repentance,’ he adds, ‘for the remission of sins’; as if to say: he persuaded them to repent of their sins, so that later they might more easily receive pardon through believing in Christ. For unless brought to it by repentance, they would not seek for pardon. His baptism therefore served no other end than as a preparation for belief in Christ.” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 370), Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew 10,2]

John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist.

He was dressed similar to Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). According to Zechariah 13:4, the hair shirt
was the garment of a prophet.

“John, too, wears a leather girdle about his loins; and there was nothing soft or effeminate in Elijah, but every bit of him was hard and virile. He, too, certainly was a shaggy man.” [Saint Jerome (ca. A.D. 415), Homily On The Exodus 91]

He fed on locusts and wild honey.

The motivation for this unusual diet may have been ritual purity rather than
self-deprivation. According to Leviticus 11:22, locusts and grasshoppers were clean animals. It could also be the food of a nomad, one who depended upon God’s bounty rather than raising food for himself.

And this is what he proclaimed: “One mightier than I is coming after me.

John got the attention of the crowds, but he quickly turns it away from himself.  He was not the long-awaited one; he was the one who prepared the way.

I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.

There is no spirit of self-aggrandizement in John; he did not even consider himself worthy of performing a servant’s task for this mighty one who was coming.

I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

John teaches that his own deeply spiritual baptism of water and repentance would be supplanted by the other’s baptism of the Spirit, effecting total transformation through the power of God.

If John really was the messenger attested by scripture to announce the coming of the mighty one of God, the messiah the people were longing for, then the advent of this long awaited one was close at hand.  This may have been the reason why so many people left the villages, towns, and cities and went into the wilderness — they were longing for the new heaven and the new earth, which now must be right on the horizon.

“Neither repentance avails without grace, nor grace without repentance; for repentance must first condemn sin, that grace may blot it out. So then John, who was a type of the law, came baptizing for repentance, while Christ came to offer grace.” [Saint Ambrose of Milan (ca. A.D. 380), Epistle 84]

Connections and Themes

The themes of the second Sunday in Advent both enhance and expand those of the first.  They include the wilderness as the prelude of a new creation, the future made present, and the need for contrite hearts.

Out of the wilderness. In the wilderness, God’s salvation comes to a broken people.  Such is the paradox of Christian hope, that in the midst of a seemingly impossible situation, it emerges with vigor.  Hope in this context, therefore, is an openness to surprise.  It is the surprise that God is in no way limited to the imaginings of human minds and the consequences of human history.  Such openness to surprise requires a kind of heart that can see the unexpected.  This, in turn, demands a certain vulnerability, which is always risky.  Nevertheless, the risk demanded is founded in hope, the kind of hope that is proclaimed out of the wilderness by John, that is proclaimed out of the future by the coming of the Day of the Lord.  It is the kind of hope that trusts that from the impossible, God can work a new creation.

The future made present.  There is something of a time warp in Christianity.  What is future is made present.  The prophetic oracle announces the future as if it is already happening.  This sense of the future-present prompts new ways of living.  As the future takes root in human lives, the present is transformed into a new creation and the Day of the Lord appears.

Too often we live out of the past.  Sometimes the remembrance of things past undermines our style of living.  Advent suggests that the key to a renewed way of life is the activation and vibrancy of the imagination.  To live the future in the present we live in the imagination of things yet to be.  We live as if we are saved, and thus we are saved.  We live in the promise, and with the human imagination triggered by the comfort of the God who comes from the future, we know the future made present.

The people of contrite heart.  God’s future comes through the wilderness into the broken city and inspires a brokenhearted people.  For such is the meaning of “contrite.”  The contrite heart is a broken heart.  It is an emptied-out heart, a hope-filled heart.  It is a heart that is unencumbered by the past and that lives currently in the passing of time and fragility of being alive.  The contrite, broken heart can be filled only by what is promised in the future.

In this readiness the contrite heart is transformed into a new creation.  Here again is the paradox of Advent.  In the middle of the wilderness God works the impossible in those whose hearts are ready for the surprise of hope.  God shapes a community of compassion and praise, a community transformed into a future humanity, a community that knows that all good things come from God’s future.

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