2nd Sunday of Advent
SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11 | 2 Peter 3:8-14 | Mark 1:1-8
Almighty and merciful God, may no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Son, but may our learning of heavenly wisdom gain us admittance to his company, he who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
THE first line of the reading from Isaiah is especially poignant and important today. “Give my people comfort. Free them from anxiety, from fear, from shame, from anger. Let them rest in the reality of my presence, my love for them.” I don’t think there has ever been a time when there has been more anxiety in human beings. We live in a very strange time in the life of the human race, because we’re going through the most amazing period of transformation — transformation and change— and it’s obvious that many things contribute to it. One of them is our ability to know what’s going on everywhere around the world, that we now seem to be more like a village, like the predictions of long ago that someday we would all be one place, not a bunch of separate places. But this coming together of different peoples and different cultures and different ways of seeing is really a traumatic, difficult experience. So I want to look at what is going on.
One of the things that is clear in this set of readings is that we have an image of the old and the new, the Old Testament and the New Testament. And we know that when this shift happened, it was because of an event called the Incarnation, that somehow God chose to reveal himself not simply through prophets and through law, but through an institution like the temple, but he said, “No, I want to enter into the human race. I want to be a part of you. I want to live inside you, so I will give you an example of what that looks like. I’m going to enter into a human being, and I want you to pay attention to what this looks like.” And the most exciting and, I think, amazing aspect of this is how normal it looks, how ordinary that someone could come into the world and be so filled with divinity that we call him divine, yet be as fully human as he is fully divine. And he walked the earth. He lived in a village, and nobody made much fuss over him. He lived a very ordinary life until one moment it became clear to him that he had a message to speak, and the message was phenomenal. “I want to open your eyes," he said. "I want to free you from prison, and I want to take away all this stuff that is so burdensome to you. I want to free you. I want to save you. I want to enlighten you.”
I think we often don’t hear, in that incredible message of Jesus and throughout the New Testament, this absolute promise on the part of God that he will do this. He will be successful. He will save us. He will open our eyes. He will free us from prison. He will give us a new way of seeing life when it doesn’t feel as if we can hardly stand the weight and the tension and the anxiety of it. He said, “I will do this.”
Now, what I find fascinating is how the church has dealt with this promise, and it’s not just the church, but all of us. It seems that, if you believe this promise to be a gift that is given to you and that you just need to open yourself for it, the fear seems to be that we’ll become presumptuous. We’ll become lazy. We won’t work for it. We’ll just sit back and become like spoiled children. “Everything’s taken care of. God is fixing everything. I don’t have to do anything.” Well, it’s interesting that in order for that not to happen, what the church tends to do is talk about a darker side to this New Testament message, and that is, if you’re not engaged in the work that you’re called to do, as one filled with divinity would do, then there’s an end that’s going to come, and if you’re not doing it right or if you haven’t received it or whatever, you are going to be burned to a crisp. You’re going to be destroyed. That image of fire coming down from the heavens and destroying the wicked city of Sodom is still in our imagination, that image of a fire is destructive, yet if you listen carefully, that fire is not destructive. The fire that’s coming — the fire continues to come over and over again — is a fire that transforms, exposes and reveals what is.
So we look at this first reading in Isaiah, and we see clearly that the promise from God is that he is going to come into the human race, and we need to open our hearts, open our imaginations, open our minds and our will to the reality that he is coming into us. Prepare a place for him. Prepare the way to come to him so that he can come to you. Open the door. And at the same time he’s saying that once you allow this mysterious presence of God inside you, you will be going through life, and it’s going to have deep, dark valleys; high peaks and rough roads; and difficult paths to go through. He’s saying all that is still there, but somehow it’s going to be different for you. You’re going to have some kind of inner strength that will enable you to not … when you go down deep, you’re not going to lose your way. When you’re struggling to get to the top of the mountain, you’re not going to give up. You’re going to do all of this because of something inside you, and then that beautiful gift of God living inside you is the key to understanding what the "new" of the New Testament is, because it’s described this way at the very end of the reading. It says — because this God that always existed in the law, in the Ten Commandments, in the ark of the covenant, the God that only spoke through prophets, that God has given way to another God. I can’t believe I said that. It seems like another God, but he’s revealed a part of him that he couldn’t reveal before, because people wouldn’t have understood it, wouldn’t have been able to digest it, but now he’s ready to say, “I am able to come inside you, and I will shepherd you every moment of your life, every day. Every process you go through to become more who you’re called to be, I’m there.” Incredible.
So then we look at this promise being fulfilled in the second reading with Peter, who is amazing, because Peter and Paul had a major conflict. Peter really felt that converts should take on the Jewish traditions, such as circumcision and all the laws and rules. And if you became a Christian and you were a Jew, you were supposed to continue those rituals, but if you were a Gentile, Paul argued, “No, you shouldn’t lay all that on him.” It’s almost like, “Don’t lay all those burdens on them. Don’t ask them to be circumcised. Don’t ask them to follow all those regulations.” And it was a very difficult time for Peter, because he really said, “No, you’re wrong, Paul. I’m right.” And then he had a vision, and Paul was right. The vision told him that everything that God makes is good. You don’t have to follow all these dietary rules that keep things out of your body, things that they’re told not to eat, which really seem to me to be exercises of obedience. But amazingly this major figure, the head of the church in the very beginning, has someone who claimed to be an apostle, though wasn’t there with them historically when Jesus was alive, but nevertheless, gave in. He changed. I love that. The head of the church changed. “I was wrong,” he said. We’re beginning to see more and more of that in the honesty and openness of someone like the Holy Father. Pope Francis seems open and ready to admit that there are things that need to be changed. But back to this image that we have of Peter talking about the process of salvation. It’s amazing. He’s talking about the promise — the fulfillment of the promise of Jesus that he is going to come into the world and he’s going to ignite a fire. Notice in the gospel, we end the gospel with John the Baptist as part of the Old Testament. Jesus is part of the New Testament, and John baptized with water, and Jesus baptized with fire, with spirit, with wind.
So the image of a fire that comes to consume and destroy the negative people of the world so that everyone else doesn’t have to go through that process, that’s not what this image is. No, it’s about a fire that begins, and rages, and the most poignant thing, particularly in today’s world, is the image that this fire is there to strip away everything that’s not real, not true, not essential, and everything is exposed. Everything is found out. The truth is seen. The illusions that we think are the truth that keep us in positions of tension and separation and destruction, all of that has to be seen through, and this fire that we often hear or feel —at least when I first started with these readings — I said, “Oh, here comes the end times.” And now it’s almost as if you were having a bad week and you had been great for a long time and now you’re back in your pathology and then the end comes … oh, what a lousy week to have the end come. I get caught, because if you’re not ready, if you’re not pure at that moment, you’re going to be punished, sent away, destroyed. I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think that the God of the New Testament, which is another way of saying the fullness of God finally revealed, is like the one of the Old Testament. It doesn’t mean that God has changed. It means that the only way he could persuade people that he was going to be on their side was to destroy their enemies, not convert them — destroy them. And that really was the way that God had to be in order for them to believe in him, because that’s where they were, but as they evolved over time, it’s clear that there had been a shift inside people, and they were ready — they were ready to receive something radically new, radically different.
You don’t get rid of evil by destroying it. You get rid of evil and its power by giving in to it, which is such a paradox. It means accepting it as part of the issue that we deal with, and when it is there, we don’t want to hate it, destroy it or try to get rid of it. We want to work with it and learn from it, and if there’s anything clear in the world today, it's that there are so many things that have been hidden, and they’ve been acceptable and destructive. And then you begin to see them for what they are, and they’re no longer tolerable. That’s salvation. That’s the way it’s working. Over and over again, every thought in our mind that says, “I will save myself by destroying everything wrong with me. I’ll save the world by destroying everything that’s wrong,” is so off. No, it’s, “I’ve got to accept those things and expose them and work with them and learn from them and then change the world.” It’s not about using our logic, but it’s the irrational way of God’s love to heal the world by loving it and accepting it, but never ever not seeing it for what it is.
Father, awaken in us the deepest conviction in your promise to save us, to bring us from darkness to light, from that which would destroy us to that which only brings life. As we trust in this gift, help us to endure the purification of your Spirit, your truth that can burn when it exposes the errors of the way we think, the way we feel, the way we misunderstand things. Give us courage to face what is wrong and know what is right and know that there is nothing more in your heart than you long for that transformation, never to punish, but always to transform and to bring to life. You are the way. You are the truth, and you are life. And we ask this through Christ, our Lord, amen.