Second Sunday of Advent Year B 2020
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
“Comfort, comfort ye my people, speak ye peace, thus saith our God; comfort those who sit in darkness mourning 'neath their sorrow's load. Speak ye to Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them; tell her that her sins I cover, and her warfare now is over.”
That Advent hymn, originally written in the 17th Century, based on the words of the Prophet Isaiah, is one that I assume is well known to you. It centers on the themes that we hear reflected in the Hebrew scripture and the Gospel today. Words that offer us hope in a weary world; words that call us to new life in Christ.
In the Book of Isaiah, we start chapter 40, which is known as the turning point in the message that the prophet is delivering to God’s people. The first 39 chapters are about God’s wrath and judgment in light of Israel’s failure to obey God’s command. It’s a harsh tone that explains the suffering that the Hebrew people endure at the hands of invaders and captors, and details why the deserve punishment. But chapter 40 turns a different direction. Now we turn to hope. God has seen the suffering of his people, and they have finally seen their sin.
It’s a hard truth, that sometimes those that are deeply mired in sin can’t see their own failings until they are placed in hardship. It’s not unlike the old saying you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. You can’t always notice you are heading down the wrong path until you find yourself stuck in brambles. The people of Israel wander far from God’s command, and in order to call them back, destruction is the result of their choices.
In the midst of the darkness, the prophet brings then a message of hope. God is full of grace and mercy, we need only turn to him and we can work for a brighter day. Now of course, there are multiple ways you can read this, and perhaps this is also pointing us in the direction of the incarnation of the Messiah. But in the moment that these words are brought to God’s people, they are exiled, in captivity, crying out to God. The words of God, spoken through the prophet are that Jerusalem has paid her penalty and God’s forgiveness is meted out.
I realize that often to our modern sensibilities that sounds harsh. But consider, these people lived by the Law. The Law of God given through Moses. There were promises made. Covenants literally sealed in flesh, to live a certain way that set them apart. Worshipping the one, true God and keeping his ways. The very people who made those promises then failed to live up to them. Those choices led them down paths that took them further and further from God. What do you do when someone so completely disappoints you and turns away from you after making promises? It is indeed a loving response to show them the error of their ways.
We read in Isaiah, “A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah calls the people to remove the obstacles from their lives as they return to life in God’s grace. The phrase ‘make straight in the desert a highway’ is referring to an ancient practice of literally straightening roads, filling in valleys, leveling hills to make the path easier for the King on their travels. While that practice was common and the phrase understood, it is of course metaphorical, referring to those things that keep us from easily walking in the light of God. But that phrase takes on new meaning when John the Baptist proclaims it from the banks of the Jordan river.
“Hark, the voice of one that crieth in the desert far and near, calling us to new repentance since the kingdom now is here. Oh, that warning cry obey! Now prepare for God a way; let the valleys rise to meet him, and the hills bow down to greet him.”
John the Baptist stands in the wilderness, calling people to a baptism of repentance. The messiah has come to fulfill the Law once and for all. He has come to change the relationship between God and His people. He has come to set us free from the death, has come to ensure our salvation, has come to bring resurrection. That doesn’t mean sin is completely gone from our lives. Quite the contrary. We are always faced with choices, with temptations, with invitations from the deceiver to cloud the relationship we have with God. But the Good News is that nothing truly separates us from God no matter what we think or feel sometimes.
We hear about the hope that the prophet Isaiah proclaims and the call to repentance that John the Baptist issues in the season of Advent because in many ways we stand in the exact same in-between as those people waiting the incarnation did. We are waiting for Christ’s return, and one of the best ways to do that is contemplate how people prepared for his birth and his ministry.
Mother Fleming Rutledge, a priest and Theologian of this century writes in her book on Advent,
“In the church, this is the season of Advent. It’s superficially understood as a time to get ready for Christmas, but in truth it’s the season for contemplating the judgment of God. Advent is the season that, when properly understood, does not flinch from the darkness that stalks us all in this world. Advent begins in the dark and moves toward the light—but the season should not move too quickly or too glibly, lest we fail to acknowledge the depth of the darkness. As our Lord Jesus tells us, unless we see the light of God clearly, what we call light is actually darkness: “how great is that darkness!” (Matt. 6:23). Advent bids us take a fearless inventory of the darkness: the darkness without and the darkness within.”
John the Baptist stands in the midst of the River Jordan, proclaiming the advent of the messiah. We are called to repent, to look deep in ourselves and search out the hills and valleys, the crooked roads. What stands in our way to let God in? What holds us back? What is the sin that we stumble on time and time again? That is the sort of work we have to do in Advent, really at all times in our lives. But this season of Advent reminds us that sometimes when it gets dark, we have work to do to prepare for the coming of true light.
“Make ye straight what long was crooked, make the rougher places plain: let your hearts be true and humble, as befits his holy reign. For the glory of the Lord Now o'er earth is shed abroad; and all flesh shall see the token that the word is never broken.”