Here we are at the second Sunday of Advent, traditionally the Sunday of Peace. You may be using different themes for you Advent Sundays and still choosing the lectionary. These texts speak to the chaos and challenge of today as much as they ever did, particularly the Isaiah and Gospel texts. Isaiah begins with a plea from God to comfort God’s people and ends with a promise of one who will lead gently. The Mark passage begins with the promise of one who will prepare the way and ends with a deeper promise of baptism with the Holy Spirit. These things speak to what might bring us peace in the midst of pandemic.
Let’s take a closer look at the Isaiah passage. The direction to comfort God’s people is given to the prophet. I suspect most people hear these familiar lines as a plea for God to comfort God’s own people. Yet, it is left to prophet to do the comforting. This isn’t the typical role of a prophet. Usually a prophet is discomforting the people of God by calling them to account. Yet, here the Prophet Isaiah is offering hope and visions of peace for God’s people. Out in the wilderness there is a voice crying out, telling the people to get busy making a way for God and who is listening?
Who hears the reminder that only God is forever and that better days are ahead? I wonder also, what comfort Isaiah offered to God’s people in that moment? And are we called to do the same in this moment? As preachers and teachers ought we to be offering comfort to God’s people, reminding them that pandemic will not be forever, and the future God holds for us is one filled with promise and peace? What might that look like?
Another thought is that the whole church, every congregation, might be called to step into the prophet’s role of comforting God’s people. If we take seriously the idea that God claims all people as God’s own beloved, then should we, as the body of Christ, be embodying comfort for all people in these times? In the midst of the wilderness of today, what does God’s highway look like? How do we travel in this way? What can we do to enfold our neighbors in God’s promise of peace?
Mark gives us an idea of what this might look like. John was out there in the wilderness preparing for the arrival of Christ. John cried out for the people to repent. Acknowledging where we have broken relationship with God, with our neighbors, with ourselves, or with Creation is the place where peace begins. Repentance can raise up the valleys and lower the mountains and put us all on equal footing before God. Naming the aspects of our lives in which we have gotten far from God’s holy ways opens us to the possibility of forgiveness and beginning again. These are appropriate activities for the beginning of the Christian year, for anytime, really.
Preaching repentance in the midst of pandemic may seem wrong. We might think our people are burdened enough. Yet, how often has pandemic life covered over God’s presence in individual or communal experience? How often has sickness, grief, loss, fear, anxiety, isolation and other similar feelings put distance between us and God’s peace? We cannot bring comfort to others if we are lost in our own despair. These passages remind us that God’s love for God’s people never ends, and is with us even now.
God did not send COVID-19 to test our faith, though our faith may be tested again and again. God did not send COVID-19 to punish humanity for our sins, though we may feel as if we are being punished. God did not send COVID-19. However, God is in our midst right now. No matter how pandemic obscures our view, God is present. God’s love is not withdrawn from us. This is the good news. This is the promise that will comfort all God’s people. This is how we can repent and know that we are forgiven. God wants us all to live on that highway that excludes no one, that highway that brings us through the wilderness and the baren places into deeper relationship with our neighbors and with God.
There is peace to be had in this chaotic season and we are called to embody it, even while we ask our people to repent so that God’s forgiveness may shine in and through us all. Then we can be a beacon of peace for those who are lost in grief or fear. What do you need to do for yourself, to claim this promise of peace as your own? What can your congregation do to embody this promise of peace for their neighbors? What do you need to complete the journey to Bethlehem this year? How is peace a part of your journey?
Please join in the conversation so that we may comfort one another and share in God’s promise of peace.
Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe is an author and the pastor of Living Table United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, MN. You can find links to her blog, video series, and books at Beachtheology.com.
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