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Advent 2 Year B December 6, 2020

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:6-15a
Mark 1:1-8

“Comfort, O Comfort my people,” says your God.” In our opening reading, the prophet Isaiah speaks God’s word to God’s people who are still in exile in Babylon. It is important to remember that the word “comfort” comes from the Latin “con” meaning “with” and “fortis” meaning “strength.” Comfort—with strength.

The revered Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes of this passage, “In Chapter 40, at long last, when all seemed lost, now speaks the Holy One of Israel. This oracle is the voice of Yahweh, who breaks the silence of exile and by utterance transforms the fortunes of Judah. This speech breaks both the despair of Judah and the power of Babylon; it penetrates the emptiness of exile and fills the world of Judaism with possibilities….”  Brueggemann continues, “We may understand ‘comfort’ as transformative solidarity; that is, not simply an offer of solace, but a powerful intervention that creates new possibilities.” (Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, Westminster Bible Companion, p.16.)

As we hear these words read, we naturally bring to mind and heart the powerful and beautiful music of Handel’s Messiah, and this reaches into our minds and hearts and gives us hope in our own Covid-19 exile. God is telling us that, in the midst of exile there is hope. Not only that, there are new possibilities.

Brueggemann speaks of “transformative solidarity.” In the midst of this pandemic, we are being called to transform our world and our societies. We are realizing that this pandemic is hitting people of color and poor people harder than it is impacting people of means and white people. This reminds us of our Lord’s call to feed the hungry and give clothes, shelter, and other necessities to our brothers and sisters. But these differences in levels of suffering are also calling us to build into our planning for the future equal access to health care, more justice in wages and benefits, and other ways of insuring fairness in our nation and our world so that we all bear equally the burdens of challenges like this pandemic. In the midst of all this suffering, God is speaking a message of profound light and hope. “Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill laid low.” Things are evened out in God’s kingdom. People share.

And then we hear that a voice is crying out in the wilderness, and this takes us to our gospel. John the Baptizer is that figure, that forerunner named by the prophets, among them Isaiah. John calls out, “Prepare the way of the Lord. and make his paths straight.” John calls the people to a baptism of repentance. They confess their sins, and they ask God’s help in transforming their lives, and so do we.

The gospel tells us that John was “clothed with camels hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” Perhaps, if John the Baptizer were to appear on our Zoom screens, we might be quite shocked at his wardrobe. Very few people, even then, wore clothes of camel’s hair. John was not concerned about clothing or fashion. He had one mission: to prepare people for the appearance of the Messiah.

People thronged to him. He was the Biblical equivalent of a pop star. He didn’t center his ministry in Jerusalem where the people were. He was out in the wilderness and the people came to him. John had a huge number of followers.

John said, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Today, on the Second Sunday of Advent 2020, John the Baptizer is calling us to examine our selves and our lives, confess our sins to God or to a priest by phone or Zoom if we wish, and ask God’s help to get our lives fully on course. In that way, Advent is a kind of briefer Lent. It is a time for self-examination and metanoia, transformation.

John is a wonderful example for us. He is totally focussed, not on himself, but on the One who is to come. He is a shining example of single-mindedness, humility, awareness of who he is, and who God is. Even when he was a baby, John leapt in the womb of his mother Elizabeth when her cousin, Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, came to visit. Even then, the baby John recognized his Lord, who was also his cousin. Even then John was that aware and that faithful.

And this takes us back to our first lesson from Isaiah. The herald is lifting up his voice to shout good tidings. “See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him…He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” Here is the might of our Savior, and here also is his tender gentleness.

Here, in the tenth month of our exile, our loving God is giving us a powerful message of hope and transformation. He is calling us to walk the Way of Love in this time. He is calling us to take care of ourselves and each other so that we can walk together through this exile and follow him.

We can do this, with his help. Peter writes, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting you to perish…But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.”

Even now, he is building his kingdom, his shalom, and we are helping him by loving him and our neighbors. Now, as the days are getting shorter and the darkness is increasing, we can remember how John the Evangelist in his gospel reminds us that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” We can let our good shepherd lead us and carry us as we continue to walk the Way of Love. Amen.

Advent 2B RCL December 10, 2017

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

Our first reading for today comes from a point in history when the exiles were still in Babylon.They have been trying to go on with their lives, deepen their understanding of the scriptures, continue their prayer life as a community of faith. They have been in captivity for almost fifty years.

And now, they are receiving the news they have been hoping and praying to hear. At last, they will be going home. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” It is difficult for us to grasp how they must have felt to hear those words.

As we listen to these words, we cannot help calling to mind the beautiful music of Handel’s Messiah. The people are going home! It seems almost impossible, but it is true. Yes, we humans are like grass, here today, gone tomorrow, bending with every breeze. But God’s word will stand forever.  “He will feed his flock like a shepherd;  he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

The power and gentleness of this passage touch our hearts so deeply. This is the love of our God. No, we are not living in exile in Babylon as God’s people did fifteen hundred years ago, but we are living in difficult times, times of division and hatred and violence that seem very far from God’s shalom. In this passage, we are reminded that God is eternal and faithful, and God will lead us into God’s kingdom of peace and harmony.

In our reading from the Second Letter of Peter, the theme of God’s eternal presence is sounded again.  In God’s sight, a thousand years are like one day. God is patient with us, and God is building God’s shalom and calling us to help in that work. Christ will come again to complete the work of creation. The letter calls us to remain faithful to our Lord and to be ready for his coming again.

Our gospel for today focuses on John the Baptist, who appears in the wilderness calling us to “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” John offered a baptism of repentance. He called people to sincerely ask God’s forgiveness for their sins and turn their lives around. He invites us to turn to God and ask God’s help in our process of transformation, in Greek, metanoia.

John definitely did not follow the current fashion. He had a coat of camel’s hair, lived very simply, and when he said something, you knew he meant it. He was a great prophet and religious leader, but he did not base his ministry in the city of Jerusalem where all the power was centered. His home base was the wilderness, where there is no sky glow. Out there, you can see God’s stars and planets very clearly and gain a divine perspective on things. It is also quiet out there—no distractions, no human power struggles, just you and God.

For all these reasons, John had a completely clear idea of who he was and what he was about. He knew he was the messenger foretold in the prophets who had gone before him. He knew he was called to let people know that they needed to prepare for the Savior.

Thousands of people were attracted to John. He was the equivalent of a rock star in his time. People followed him everywhere. They left the big city to go out into the wilderness and be with him, so powerful was his message. But it never went to his head. He knew exactly who he was. He said, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John is a shining example of singleness of heart, the ability to focus on Jesus with every part of his being—spirit, heart, mind, intuition, everything. This Advent and every day, we can learn so much from John the Baptist.

Here we are, on the Second Sunday in Advent, in the year of our Lord 2017. What are these readings telling us?

Among many other things, our lesson from Isaiah tells us there is always hope. Just when we think it’s over, those little flickering fingers of a new dawn appear and the thing we had hoped and prayed for finally comes to be. And God will shepherd us every step of the way on the journey home, or closer to God, or wherever it is that God is calling us to be.

One thing our epistle tells us is that God is patient with us and with everything else, which is a great blessing because we can all can try God’s patience at times. And God is eternal. God takes the long view. But when the time finally arrives, God is going to build new heavens and a new earth. The creation will be made whole.

And our gospel? It tells us more than we can absorb. But we can say this. Here is this fellow, dressed as the great prophet Elijah was dressed, out in the wilderness attracting hordes of people. But there is no glitz, there are no lights or cameras. There is just this man, John, who absolutely tells the truth straight from God and who is here to lead us to the One we have waited for all our lives, the One who loves us so much that we are willing to follow him on the hard and joyful journey of transformation, the journey to his shalom.  Amen.