The Second Sunday of Advent, 4 December 2011
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
II Peter 3:8-15a
St. Mark 1:1-8
Background: The Gospel According to Saint Mark I
Last Sunday we began Cycle B of the Lectionary. The Gospel readings in this cycle are largely from the Gospel according to Mark. Although Matthew is usually printed as the first Gospel in the New Testament, it is more likely that Mark precedes it. Tradition holds that Mark is the repository of the memories of Peter. Mark is identified with “John Mark” (see Acts 12:12,25, and I Peter 5:13). His names, a combination of Hebrew (John) and Greek (Mark) suggests that he was a Greek-speaking Jew. There are clues in the Gospel as to its origin, not likely that of Palestine, but rather the Gentile world. Mark makes no effort to connect his Christian message with the Hebrew Scriptures, but does explain Jewish customs, and to translate Aramaic words, offer some guidance regarding geographical references, and to explain the message of the Gospel to his pagan readers.
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD's hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."
A voice says, "Cry out!"
And I said, "What shall I cry?"
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
"Here is your God!"
See, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before 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.
In these verses that begin the Book of Consolation that comprises a major portion of IInd Isaiah, we are introduced to a new reality. There is no temple and there is no king; and there is a Jerusalem, albeit in ruins. The words of comfort come from the heavenly council, to console a people who have seen the worst. IInd Isaiah envisions a procession, something like the Exodus from Egypt, but here an exodus from the slavery of Babylon. In these grand phrases, this Isaiah introduces a wholly different idea that is beyond Jerusalem, the temple, and the king, David. These are all gone, and in their place stands an idealized kingdom, the rule of YHWH.
Finally, after all the divine pronouncements it is the prophet who speaks, or rather questions what his role and words should be. In balance to the verses that precede it, we hear of the frailty of human kind (all flesh is grass). In contrast is the gentle shepherd, YHWH who leads and gathers the people. That Jesus is pictured in the New Testament as the Good Shepherd is no accident, for these words have created the context and setting for this image of a savior. In this reading, however, we hear the “good news – the good tidings” that issue from the mouth of Jerusalem, the herald – a model for a later prophet.
Jesus is portrayed in the guise of the judge, who rules between the sheep and the goats.
Breaking open Isaiah:
- Have you ever been freed from some kind of oppression?
- What images would you use to describe that freedom?
- Did someone other than yourself free you? How would you describe them?
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 Benedixisti, Domine
You have been gracious to your land, O LORD, *
you have restored the good fortune of Jacob.
You have forgiven the iniquity of your people *
and blotted out all their sins.
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.
Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring up from the earth, *
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
The LORD will indeed grant prosperity, *
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness shall go before him, *
and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.
Here we have a poem that replicates the message of IInd Isaiah in the first reading. It is likely that this psalm comes from the same time and in the same situation, namely a time after the exile. In five separate instances the poet uses the phrase “turn back”, sometimes a demand of the people, and sometimes the request of the poet to God. The psalmist, like the reading above, idealizes Jerusalem and her situation, and pictures for us an idealized allegory about “Mercy and truth” and “Righteousness and peace.” These images of what the situation should be form a hoped for result of a God who turns back from judgment, and a people who turn back to God.
Breaking open Psalm 85
- When have you been asked to “turn back”?
- Have you ever asked God to “turn back” from something?
- What was it?
- What was the answer?
2 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 author of the Second Epistle of Peter wrestles with a profound problem, the delay of the second coming of Christ, the parousia. To approach some kind of solution, he reverses a quotation from Psalm 89:4 (one day is like a thousand years), and then begins a discussion of the forbearance of God. The behavior of the church is to be that of holy waiting, and a spotless life. The goal is to be found in a state of righteousness. In this manner, the second reading gives evidence of the “longer Advent” that prevailed up until its introduction into the Roman Rite, and its reduction to four weeks.
Breaking open II Peter
- How do you feel when a promise is not kept right away?
- How do you think the early church felt, when the second coming of Jesus seemed not to come?
- What do you think the second coming of Jesus is really all about?
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."
The Evangelist Mark makes his purpose clear early on in his book. He calls his work “good news” (euaggelion – Gospel) and clearly ascribes the content of this good news to “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” He then uses an prophecy from the Hebrew Scriptures (Isaiah 5, also stated in Malachi 3) to turn our attention to John the Baptizer. Thus he establishes John’s credentials as if with a voice from outside of time.
And what is it that John will proclaim? He points to someone else, someone different, who comes after him, with more power, and with the power of the Holy Spirit at his disposal. Thus Mark differentiates the ministry of John from the ministry of Jesus, much as Saint John the Evangelist will do in next Sunday’s gospel. The reading, as it is structured in the Lectionary, startles us, and leaves with a sense of expectation.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- What does the term Good News mean to you?
- How is Jesus the Good News for you?
- How are you like John the Baptist?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
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.