The Second Sunday of Advent, 6 December 2020
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Background: The Wilderness
So often in the Scriptures we find holy men and women going to (or should I say returning to) the wilderness. We must remember that the wilderness not only surrounded Palestine, but was also the stage upon which enormous events occurred: the freedom from Egypt, the giving of the Law, the pilgrimages up to Jerusalem, the return from the Babylonian exile, the retreat of the Essenes, the ministry of John the Baptist, and the place of spiritual refreshment for Jesus. The words that represent “wilderness” in Hebrew (there are several) appear nearly 300 times in the Scriptures. The most cogent reason for this wealth of references is that the wilderness really represents the roots of the people. The movement from being nomads to city dwellers was not absent the influence of the desert. Israel’s rituals, rites, and customs come largely from the wilderness, as does her God. It is not an accident that the Essenes escaped the city, and urban culture, to be refreshed and purified in the desert. All of this leads us to John the Baptist, and Jesus’ own spiritual habits.
First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11
This translation is from the Revised Standard Version (1952), but the layout of the verses is by Claus Westermann in his Commentary on Second and Third Isaiah.
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem
and cry to her
That her time of service is ended.
that her iniquity is pardoned,
That she has received
from the YHWH’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare
make straight in the desert
the way for YHWH
a highway for our God.
Let every valley be lifted up
And every mountain and hill
be made low;
Let the uneven ground become level
and the rough places a plain,
and the glory of YHWH shall be revealed
and all flesh shall see it together
for the mouth of YHWH has spoken.
A voice cries: ‘Cry!’
And [I] say, ‘What shall I cry?
All flesh is grass
and its beauty
like the flower of the field.
The grass withers
the flower fades
when the breath of YHWH
blows upon it.
Surely, the people is grass!
The grass withers
but the word of our God stands for ever.
the flower fades,
Get you up into a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings!
Lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings!
Lift it up, fear not,
say to the cities of Judah,
‘Behold your God!
Behold YHWH the Lord!
He comes with might
and his arm rules for him.
Like a shepherd who tends his flock,
he gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them in his bosom,
and leads those that are with young.
In most prophetic works, the prophet recalls the call given by God to speak and to announce. It is generally agreed that Chapters 44-55, represent another voice that has been added to the classic Isaiah. This second of the Isaiahs writes in the sixth century BCE, during the Exile in Babylon. There is no formal introduction, or recounting of a call in these chapters, although this pericope has several instances of an invitation to speak God’s word.
There are three “cries” that parse the oracle that this Isaiah is called upon to pronounce. The first cry is one of comfort, an announcement that the punishment promised in First Isaiah is now over and that a time of return is promised. In Babylon, those in exile would have experienced sacred processions upon the royal highways, and here Isaiah calls for “highway for our God.” Difficulties (valleys, mountains, rugged land, and rough country) shall be eliminated so that the journey with God might be completed.
In verse 6 we have another cry, “A voice says, ‘Cry’!” Here the command is not understood – “What shall I cry?” is asked. What is proclaimed may be a bit of a temptation. Being in exile, away from the land of the mothers and fathers, the exiles may have determined that their destiny has already be decided, “All flesh is grass…the grass withers, the flower wilts.” This is a lament (much like those in the psalms) in which the people seem resigned to something, a fading destiny. It is not like the word of God which stands for ever. So, there must be an additional cry.
In verse nine, on the top of a high mountain, the prophet or perhaps even the people themselves are invited to “cry out at the top of your voice.” What follows is an announcement (and here it is an excellent Advent reading) that god is coming with power. This powerful God with a strong arm is tempered with the vision as God as shepherd, that feeds the flock, and gathers the lambs. Israel is given the promise of not only return, but protection.
Breaking open Isaiah:
1. What have you been called to pronounce?
2. What is the good news for our time?
3. Who are the lambs and ewes in need of help in your world?
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 Benedixisti, Domine
1 You have been gracious to your land, O Lord, *
you have restored the good fortune of Jacob.
2 You have forgiven the iniquity of your people *
and blotted out all their sins.
8 I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, *
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
and to those who turn their hearts to him.
9 Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.
10 Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
11 Truth shall spring up from the earth, *
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
12 The Lord will indeed grant prosperity, *
and our land will yield its increase.
13 Righteousness shall go before him, *
and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.
Here we have a psalm/prayer that yearns for a return to the land of the fathers and mothers, and out of the lands of exile. There are three sections, a) Section I, verses 2-3, a recollection of the favor that God once held for Israel, “You once favored, restored, forgave, pardoned,” b) Section II, verses 5-7, a plea for restoration and mercy (this section is elided from our reading for today), and c) Section III, verses 8-13, in which the psalmist determines to listen for what God has to say. This final section is quite beautiful, almost romantic in its effect. Listen to the topics: peace, salvation, glory, love, truth, justice, and peace. All of these gifts will “spring up from the earth or look down from heaven.” A return to the promised lands will be of spiritual and earthly value. “Yes, the Lord will grant (God’s) bounty.”
Breaking open Psalm 85:
1. To what do you hope to return?
2. What has God restored in your life?
3. What are the gifts of your faith?
Second Reading: II Peter 3:8-15a
Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 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, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.
The problem that the author (most likely not Peter) addresses here is the problem of a delayed parousia. This is not a new problem, the Essenes at Qumran seemed to have wrestled with it as well. Thus, the author begins with a recounting of God’s view of time – “one day is like a thousand years.” This quotation from Psalm 89, seeks to serve as an explanation for the delay. There is a call for patience – a patience that is modelled on God’s own patience. God is taking God’s time because of the desire that all should be saved. So thus, Christians should bide their time and wait. The author does not leave us solely with the notion of waiting, but calls us to wait with purpose, so that we might be “without spot or blemish…at peace.”
Breaking open II Peter:
1. How do you deal with the anxieties of this time?
2. How do you wait for others, so that they might be saved?
3. Do you have “spots” or “blemishes” that need to be healed? What are they?
The Gospel: St. Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “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.”
There is no infancy narrative in Mark. He begins his Gospel in an almost stark manner, and indicates that this beginning (or origin, or foundation, or starting point) will lead to greater things. Before Jesus begins his ministry, Mark ties him to the salvation history of Israel. The “Isaiah” that he quotes is really a conflation of Malachi 3:1, Isaiah 40:3, and Exodus 23:20. We will find that Mark uses references to both Second and Third Isaiah a great deal, for they wrote to an Israel freed from exile – a model of what Christ would bring. It also places Mark in their tradition of “universalism”, a covenant with YHWH that could be enjoyed by more than Israel.
The John that we meet in this brief introduction appears to us as a prophet proclaiming, and a Nazirite living in his vows. And what does this voice cry out about? The strong words are those of baptism, repentance, and forgiveness. There is, however, more to his message, “One mightier than I is coming after me.” In the altar piece at Isenheim, John stands pointing at the cross, and says: “Illum oportet crescere me autem minui.” (He must increase, but I must decrease.)
Here Mark shows what he sees as John’s true purpose – forerunner, herald. Thus, Mark begins with an image redolent of the Hebrew Scriptures whose message points elsewhere.
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. How does today’s church need to emulate John the Baptist?
2. How do you point to the Crucified One?
3. How might you decrease?
General idea: Comfort for our time
Suggestion 1: How might Isaiah’s ideas comfort our time? (First Reading)
Suggestion 2: How might peace come to our time through the words of the Psalm 85?
Suggestion 3: What in Christianity might give us patience?
Suggestion 4: What might increase in our time, or decrease?
 Westermann, K. (1969), Isaiah 40-66, A commentary, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, page 31f.