Dec 6, 2020: 2nd Sunday of Advent (B)

Introduction

Advent is well known as a time to spiritually prepare ourselves for Christmas, but there is more to the season. While we certainly prepare to commemorate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (i.e. the first coming of Christ), we are also looking forward and preparing ourselves for the second coming of Christ at the end of time.

The lectionary reflects this two-fold focus. The readings in the first two weeks of Advent are concerned with the Lord’s coming as judge of all at the end of time. It’s only in the second two weeks of the season that the readings shift and serve as the proximate preparation for his first coming, in the flesh.

This Week

When placed side by side, the weekly Advent readings interpret each other, presenting a clear theme of expectation for the Lord’s coming:

Isaiah:  Prepare the way of the Lord.
Peter:  We await new heavens and a new earth.
John the Baptist:  One mightier than I is coming after me.

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.

The Old Testament readings during Advent are prophecies about the Messiah and the Messianic age, especially prophecies from Isaiah.

This week’s first reading is a command for Isaiah 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.

This oracle was addressed to the people of Jerusalem who had been deported to Babylon. When they were first spoken, many decades had passed since these people and the previous generation were forced to leave the holy city.

The phrases “my people” and “your God” are covenant language, suggesting that the covenant relationship between God and the Israelites was still in existence, despite the fact that they had been exiled and Jerusalem had been destroyed.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

If the people are sinning, the prophet’s role is to call them to repentance. However, if the people are suffering, it is the prophet’s role to rouse their hope, to remind them that God is faithful to his covenant — which is exactly what is happening in this passage.

Jerusalem represents all the exiled Israelites. The city itself was in ruins at the time.

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

Precisely what should be spoken to Jerusalem? That the Israelites had paid their debt; their suffering was now over. Their release from exile was imminent.

When the Israelites lived in the holy land, they understood that God was keeping his promise to love and protect them by giving them their king, their kingdom, and their temple. They believed that none of these could be destroyed.

After the Babylonians destroyed their kingdom and their temple and physically removed them from the holy land, the Israelites wondered if they had misunderstood their relationship with God. Are they still God’s people? Is God still their God?

Isaiah is answering these questions with a resounding “yes.” God is faithful. God does still love them. God will act powerfully in their lives and return the people to their land.

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 definitively complete.

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

It’s unclear who the voice belongs to. Perhaps it was a prophet who was 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.

The four gospels see these words fulfilled in the ministry of John the Baptist, as well will see in our gospel reading.

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 words spoken by the mysterious voice, inviting them to set out for Jersualem, fills the people with hope. They are directed to act out their deliverance even before they see evidence of it. The picture sketched is a painstakingly created 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.

And this is, in fact, what happened. Cyrus, a Persian, acted as God’s instrument. He defeated the Babylonians and let the Israelites return 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’s dictated to them. They are to be heralds of good news.

The prophecy easily transitions from the image of Yahweh as warrior king (“rules by his strong arm”) to shepherd. Though just, God comes with the solicitude of a caregiver, who attracts and even carries his people. This is the first time in scripture the simile of “flock” is applied to the people of God, one of a number of figures of speech used in the Bible to describe God’s tender care of his people (Jeremiah 23:3, Ezekiel 34:1ff, Psalm 23).

Note that in both the case of the highway builders and the proclaimers in Jerusalem to the other cities, 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 prophecy 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.

For the first three weeks of Advent, the second readings help us interpret the meaning of the mystery of Christ and provide guidelines for how we are to behave while we await his second coming.

Today’s reading is the only time that Peter’s second letter appears in the Sunday lectionary. It 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 Psalm 90:4, the author reminds his audience that what appears 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 542 AD), 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 Christ’s second coming.

The author is countering the influence of false teachers within the church, who flouted Christian morality and denied 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 the early Christians expected Jesus to return within their own lifetimes.

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

The delay of the Lord’s coming is not a failure to fulfill his promise, but a sign of his patience. He delays 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; a few examples are Exodus 34:6-7; Psalms 86:15; Romans 2:4, and Romans 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 428 AD), 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, the 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 sin-drenched world that dragged them down would be cast aside, and a new and innocent world would be brought forth in the very midst of the people. The universe would 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.

Apocalyptic judgment will first 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 Mark’s gospel, which many scholars believe was the first of the four gospels to be written. Although it is the shortest gospel, Mark often tells of Jesus’ ministry in more detail than either Matthew or Luke. It recounts what Jesus did in a vivid style, with one incident following directly upon another.

Each year, the figure of John the Baptist dominates the gospel readings for the Second and Third Sundays of Advent. In addition to the baptizing activity he is known for, John was a prophet and the forerunner to Jesus, which are the roles we focus on today.

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.”

Mark sets the tone of his entire work by infusing its opening line with post-resurrection insight: Jesus is both the Christ (the Messiah) and 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.’”

Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark has no infancy narrative. His gospel begins with the ministry of John the Baptist.

Mark interweaves the words of the prophet Malachi (3:1, 23) and Isaiah (40:3, from our first reading), 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 other Jewish groups (for example, the Essenes at Qumran), John’s baptism is open to all, not merely a select few.

“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. 400 AD), 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. Their participation in this ritual expressed their willingness to change.

“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 (370 AD), Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew 10,2]

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

Mark describes John as being dressed like Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). According to Zechariah 13:4, the hair shirt was the garment of a prophet.

In the Jewish faith, Elijah was expected to return “before the day of the LORD comes” (Malachi 3:23).

“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. 415 AD), 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 diverts it to the Messiah. John 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 the 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. 380 AD), 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 prophesied by Isaiah about 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, with the remembrance of things undermining 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 now, 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 “contrition.” 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.