The Second Sunday of Advent, 10 December 2017

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

Background: Nazirite

The nazirite was someone who was “separated” or “consecrated to YHWH. Vows were made by these individuals and they were to practice certain abstentions from certain foods, such as: wine, vinegar made from wine, grapes and raisins, and nothing that contained any trace of grapes. They were also not allowed to cut their hair (as with Samson), nor could they suffer and contact with a dead body or a grave.  In making their vow certain offerings needed to be made: a burnt offering of lamb, a sin offering of an ewe, and the peace offering of a ram, along with grain and drink offerings. The vows were either for a set period of time, or represented a permanent state (again, as with Samson). Both men and women could make the nazirite vow. John the Baptist seems to meet the definitions of this commitment, but the Gospels do not explicitly identify him as such.

First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11

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 for ever.
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.

First Isaiah’s message of confrontation and punishment is ended in chapter 39, and with chapter 40 we meet a new Isaiah and a new message. What were a call to repentance and a return to YHWH is in the coming chapters something quite different. This new message begins with the theme of comfort. This prophet lifts up God and says, “Here is your God!” This is the message that is to be proclaimed to the cities of Judah. Again, as we have seen in the last Sundays, the shepherd image appears, and the prophet sees in the shepherd’s care and leading an example of God tending to the people and feeding them. It is a tender scene, quite different from what we read last Sunday, from an even later Isaiah. What Israel had experienced in the past where the arms of foreign kings were seen as God’s wrath, we now see a God who leads the flock back into the promises given long ago at Sinai.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.      What comforts you in these days?
2.      How does your faith comfort you?
3.      Whom do you know that needs comforting?

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.
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.

I am always amazed when the lectionary seems to elide portions of the text (here verses 3-7) that seem to comment on the reading, especially the first reading for the day. You may want to just scan then to get the full feeling of the psalm. Perhaps the reason for the elision is that the prayer requests of verse five are celebrated as completed acts in the initial verses. Such contrasts lead us to believe that this psalm was written after the Babylonian exile. The notion of “turning back” is a theme in the elided verses and it adds meaning to the remainder of the poem. The “turning back action” behooves YHWH to repent of wrath, and the people of their foolishness in not following God.  The sweetness of verse 10 resides in a much rougher context.

Breaking open Psalm 85:
1.     What graces has God completed in your life?
2.     What are you yet waiting from God?
3.    What are others waiting from you?

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.

What happens when the promise seems to be unfulfilled? And what happens when other teachers distort the good news for their own purposes? The author exhorts his listeners to wait in patience, and not to fear the coming day of the Lord. Time, as he explains in his initial verses in the reading, is flexible, just as our expectations must be. In short, we will be surprised. Rather than a wasted universe, the author sees the possibility of a new heaven and a new earth. Therefore we are called to wait in peace. All will be well.

Breaking open II Peter:
1.     What promises has God made to you?
2.     Which ones are you still waiting for?
3.    What can you do to make them happen?

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.”

We have an interesting conundrum here. Is Mark’s Gospel about Jesus or of Jesus? The Greek word archÄ“ can be translated either as “beginning” or as “norm.” It stimulates an interesting search in which we look for the norm of Jesus’ good news and message. Perhaps that is the task for this liturgical year – a search at the roots of the message. The quote at the beginning, from both Micah and Isaiah, refers to John the Baptist, but perhaps also to a long line of prophets who had normed God’s message for their time as well. Rather than setting us in a specific setting aside the Jordan River, we are given a much broader context of the preaching and teaching that flowed from the tradition. There is however more than the tradition, for there will be a new Spirit who will initiate the Kingdom.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How is your life normed by the Gospel?
2.     If you had to write a Gospel what would be its principal points?
3.    Who is God’s messenger to you?

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller


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