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. Collect for 2Advent Episcopal Book of Common Prayer
We are barreling headlong towards Christmas (yikes!), a fact which becomes ever more real to me as I turn to the readings (found here) for the Second Sunday of Advent. This week’s readings highlight what is, for me, the true theme of Advent: preparing the way for Jesus.
Our reading from Hebrew scripture is from the prophet Isaiah, who foreshadows the coming of John the Baptist as a predecessor for the messiah. Beginning with the soothing words, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God,” Isaiah continues with the reassurance that God is coming to God’s people, and that nothing will stand in God’s way. Probably directed to Israelites returning from the Babylonian captivity, these words still resonate for us in a world where so much can feel uncertain, and God can feel so distant.
This theme is picked up in our gospel, which comprises the opening verses of the Gospel according to Mark. It’s likely that Mark thought of his words as a biography of Jesus; little did he know that he was coining a whole new genre when he referred to his writing as “gospel” – “good news.” The good news we hear this week is that a strange new prophet, a man called John the Baptizer, has come to prepare the way for the one to follow, the long-awaited Messiah. John evokes memories of Elijah with his strange dress and his preference for the desert, and he comes baptizing for the forgiveness of sins. We are so used to the specialized meaning of the term “baptism” that we forget that it means, in Greek, washing or bathing. John invited his audiences to be washed clean of their sins, their failings; although “baptism” as we know it was not a Jewish ritual, the notion of being washed clean was a concept Jews familiar with purity laws would likely have been comfortable with. John is calling the people to repent, not in the sense of saying that they were sorry so much as in the sense of turning back to God and to the way of life that God called them to. And John reminded them that God was coming to them and would offer them a whole new sort of baptism, the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
We have, of course, received that baptism, baptism with water in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The question for us now is how we live into that gift. As we prepare for Christmas, it is all too easy for us to lose sight of what that coming of Jesus meant and continues to mean for us. In the coming of Jesus we have the gift that truly keeps on giving, the gift of God incarnate, the gift of God’s abiding love and grace and mercy. How do we receive that gift? Do we take it for granted? Do we thank God for it? Do we share it freely with others? Do we appreciate it as we might appreciate the electronic devices, clothes, toys, and other coveted items that fill our Christmas lists?
This call to prepare the way for the One who is coming is not a message of warning, nor is it meant to invoke fear as were the readings we heard during the closing weeks of the season of Pentecost. Matthew’s call to preparation felt heavier and more worrisome than the ones we hear in Isaiah and Mark. Focusing on this God who comes to comfort us, to heal us and make us whole, with no hint of judgment, might be another preaching direction in this season that can be difficult for many who don’t feel the joy of others around them.
So where are you headed, preachers? Do you have an Advent theme going? Are you preparing the way with Isaiah? Or heeding the call of John the Baptizer? Share your questions, ponderings, and inspirations with us.