Second Sunday of Advent – Year B
One thing we notice in the Advent readings today and in the next few Sundays, perhaps more so than in the readings for other seasons is the connection between the passages from the Hebrew Bible, which contain prophecy, and the gospel readings that show fulfilment.
Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
The first reading is taken from the anonymous prophet known as Second Isaiah and it represents the beginning of a different tone of prophecy from that of the first 39 chapters that come from the oracles of Isaiah of Jerusalem. The original Isaiah was addressing the political and social conditions of the mid-8th century BCE. Second Isaiah, writing nearly 200 years later is addressing the conditions of the Babylonian exile and is particularly dealing with questions like:
Has God abandoned us? Why are we suffering exile in a foreign land? Will we ever get out of this sorry mess?
One interesting feature of this opening is that the words of comfort are themselves a fulfilment of the much earlier prophecy of Isaiah 12:1, which promises that one day God will stop being angry and will comfort Israel. The words we read today are in the imperative form in Hebrew nakhmu, nakhmu ‘ami, comfort, comfort my people. We could imagine God giving directions to the heavenly court or bringers of good news: go and give comfort to my people in exile; tell them their time of suffering is over.
He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed
The image presented here is of God coming among the people and uniting them with care as a shepherd cares for his flock.
The people are urged to make a way in the wilderness for the Lord’s coming as it will usher in a new age of salvation, a new era when the relationship between the divine Presence and humanity will be marked with understanding, compassion and intimacy.
The eyes of the spiritually blind will be opened and the people will be transformed to see and experience the beauty and satisfaction of walking in the way of goodness.
Later, in the writings of Third Isaiah, the prophet will set out the mission statement of the messiah, which is to bring good news and relief:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, (Isaiah 61:1)
This psalm also sings of a new heaven and a new earth. It looks to a golden age, a time of enormous relief when tears will be wiped away and the people will return to their God. This acknowledgement of, and reverence for God is generally called ‘the fear of the Lord’, the psalmist is saying that when there is true respect for the place of God in the lives of the nation then justice and peace will flourish and embrace each other in fulness and tranquillity.
Imagine a country in our present world being recognised as a home where justice, peace and kindness blossom and touch the lives of all its people.
Sadly, it exists only in the imagination of poets like today’s psalmist. How could we make it happen in reality? Think of the power, wealth and ‘me first’ that would have to be let go.
2 Peter 3:8-14
Like the previous two readings, this passage refers to the Day of the Lord when there will be a new heaven and a new earth. This really amounts to the fulness of the community of God. When Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, he was echoing the Jewish spirituality of his time that looked forward to a transformed world. The Qumran community of the Dead Sea Scrolls also believed that the forces of good were going to overcome the forces of evil and set up a new heaven and a new earth. They were convinced this was to happen pretty soon because the occupation of the land by the Romans was as bad as things could get, and prophecy had it that the Day of the Lord would come in the worst of times.
The message of today’s extract is one of optimism, but it also exhorts us to be watchful;
not looking over our shoulder or living in fear and apprehension, but going about our daily lives, meeting our responsibilities, nourishing our relationships and growing in wholeness. In that respect we will always be ready, living in a state of blessedness.
John is talking about switching from drifting in mediocrity to commitment to growth
After all this talk of good news we now have its high point in the coming of Jesus. Today’s gospel extract consists of the opening verses of Mark’s gospel – the earliest surviving gospel written around 70 AD. Mark singles out John, the prophet of this era, who has embarked on a campaign of preparing his fellow Jews for the imminent coming of God’s anointed one. His native Aramaic name was Yokhanan, meaning God is gracious (Yo = short for YHWH; khanan = gracious). John’s message was that the messiah could be properly welcomed only by people who had tuned up their lives and returned to God in their hearts. He is not talking about being perfect, but he is talking about switching from drifting in mediocrity to commitment to growth. This return to God would involve a radical change of heart and mind, a metanoia, as it was called in the Greek writings of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
To symbolise such a personal shift John used the Jewish ritual of washing. He invited people who came to listen to his message to step into the river Jordan with him and be fully immersed in the water as an outward sign of an inward cleansing. This is obviously good psychology, getting individuals to give public witness to their preparedness to turn back to God and change the direction of their lives to goodness.
As a result of this ritual washing John was nicknamed John the Immerser. The Greek verb baptizein means to dip or duck, immerse, plunge. It is actually quite misleading to say he ‘baptised’ people, or that he is John the Baptiser, because most modern Christians would associate that with the sacrament of Baptism, which is a uniquely Christian ritual. Our translation says that people ‘were baptised by him in the river Jordan’, but it would be more accurate to say they were ritually washed or immersed by him in the Jordan as a sign of their change of heart representing a turning back to God.
John clearly stood out as a colourful character. Mark portrays him as a prophet announcing the coming of the anointed one, the messiah. Jewish tradition maintained that the prophet Elijah would return to herald the arrival of the messiah and so John is depicted as an Elijah figure, wearing a camel-skin garment, living rough and subsisting on locusts and wild honey, just like Elijah. Mark’s portrait of John, his connection with Elijah and his proclamation of the coming of Jesus, who will show us the way to the realm of God, are purposely meant to show prophecy being fulfilled. This is an uplifting message of hope and optimism.
Those who sign on to Jesus would be immersed in the Spirit of God
John’s person and message certainly had an impact on his contemporaries. One of his most powerful statements was that he immersed people in water but the one to come would immerse people in the Holy Spirit. In other words, those who sign on to Jesus would be immersed in the Spirit of God; the transforming Spirit of God would wash over them and fill their whole lives with empowering goodness. Imagine walking through a mist and your whole being is immersed in this misty atmosphere. Walking in the way of Jesus is being immersed in a Spirit atmosphere where the values of the Spirit fill and inspire our thoughts and actions.
The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new. Socrates
If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living. Gail Sheehy American author of bestseller: Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life.
Two kids went into their parents’ bathroom and noticed the scale in the corner. ‘Whatever you do,’ said one youngster to the other, ‘don’t step on it!’
‘Why not?’ asked the sibling.
‘Because every time Mum does, she lets out an awful loud scream!’