A Reading from the Book of Isaiah (40:1-11)
“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
PSALM 85:1-2, 8-13
1 You have been gracious to your land, O Lord, *
you have restored the good fortune of Jacob.
2 You have forgiven the iniquity of your people *
and blotted out all their sins.
8 I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, *
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
and to those who turn their hearts to him.
9 Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.
10 Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
11 Truth shall spring up from the earth, *
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
12 The Lord will indeed grant prosperity, *
and our land will yield its increase.
13 Righteousness shall go before him, *
and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.
A Reading from the Second Letter of Peter (3:8-15a)
Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark (1:1-8)
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
About six weeks ago, Jewish congregations throughout the world celebrated the feast of Simchat Torah: “the Rejoicing in the Torah” or Pentateuch. Each year on that day, synagogues complete their annual cycle of readings from the first five books of the Bible by reading the last verses of Deuteronomy. That lection is followed immediately by the reading of the first verses of the book of Genesis, thereby beginning the cycle all over again.
Simchat Torah bears a similarity with part of our own observance of Advent. Last week, on the first Sunday of this season, we listened to readings about the end of the world as we know it and the culmination of all creation in the coming of the reign of God. But we looked at the end in light of Advent’s theme of a new beginning. By this week, that new beginning, or rather a series of new beginnings, is clearly in focus.
Today’s second reading, the one taken from the Second Letter of Peter, is still directed toward the new beginning that is to take place at the end of time. But our first reading and gospel announced new beginnings that are now part of the history of God’s people: new beginnings that carried with them a renewed hope for God’s work of bringing life to all the world. Both of those new starts are characterized by a spirit of expectancy and anticipation. But, as their stories unfold, they surprise and maybe even shock their hearers by the unexpected ways that God accomplishes God’s new life-giving work.
The opening of the second part of the book of Isaiah resounds with a familiar call of Advent: “’Comfort, O comfort my people,’ says your God… ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” The nation of Israel, along with the city of Jerusalem and the great Temple built nearly four centuries earlier by Solomon, had been destroyed. The leaders of the people had been led into exile. Judah was finished, and there seemed to be no reason for hope in their future.
Then came the words of the unknown prophet, proclaiming that God was about to make a new beginning. Those hearing that message must have wondered how God would do that. Would God somehow weaken the great Babylonian Empire and strengthen the small remnant of Judah so that their people could somehow break free and return home? Would God raise up a new king who, like David, would recreate the nation as an independent home for the Jewish people?
I doubt that any of them expected the answer that would come later in the same book (45:1): “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped.” “Cyrus? Are you serious – Cyrus? But he’s not one of us. He’s Persian. Not only that, he’s a pagan. He has probably never even heard of Yahweh, the God of Israel. God wouldn’t be working through a pagan – would he?” Yet that is exactly what God did.
When John the Baptist and then Jesus came on the scene, the Jewish people were also living in a time of great expectancy and anticipation. They were looking for a Messiah, but that word “Messiah” meant different things to different people. And there is no indication that any of them expected a Messiah who would come from among the ordinary people of Galilee, and certainly not one who would suffer a horrendous death and then have God raise him to new life. No matter what one’s portrait of the Messiah was, these things would certainly not have been part of it. This was not at all the Messiah that they expected, but it was the Messiah whom God had sent.
As believers, we live our lives in a spirit of expectancy. We essentially live our lives in Advent. We, too, anticipate the coming of God into the world in many times and ways. God has never been limited to the past. God’s mercies are new every day.
But we face the same questions that our spiritual ancestors faced, whether those in Babylon in the sixth century BCE or those in Galilee and Judea in the first century of this era. We are left with the challenge of recognizing the coming of God and those people through whom God is coming into the world in our time.
Where is God breaking into the world at this time and place? Are we, like the audiences addressed by Second Isaiah and by Mark, limiting our perspectives, assured that God works in this way and only in this way, through these people and only through these people? Or are the eyes of our minds and hearts open to recognize God wherever and however and through whomever God chooses to come to us and to our world?
Three chapters after the passage that we heard this morning, Second Isaiah, speaking in the name of God, asks, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Maybe that is the central question of Advent, one posed to all of us together and to each of us as individuals as well. Maybe, just maybe, God still has a few surprises left. Maybe, just maybe, God is doing a new thing in our time. Do we perceive it? Are we at work preparing, in the deserts of our world and of our lives, a highway for our God?