Old Testament: 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.
The Response: 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.
The Epistle: 2 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, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.
The Gospel: 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
This time of year, we receive all sorts of bulk mail (a.k.a. “junk mail”) at our house, just like you do. There are many requests for money along with countless catalogs, the vast majority of which go right into the recycling box; but every once in a while, something on one of their covers catches my eye.
Recently, one of them had a picture of a sweatshirt on the cover; I had seen the same thing advertised a couple of years ago. It has three lines of print on the front. The first one reads, “Let’s eat [comma] Grandma”; the second, without a comma, “Let’s eat Grandma”; and the third, “Punctuation saves lives.”
Now I’m not sure that punctuation actually saves any lives, but the order in which we place our words can make a difference. In today’s gospel reading, as St. Mark introduces John the Baptist, he refers back to Isaiah 40:3, describing a voice in the wilderness, calling out to an unidentified audience to “prepare the way of the Lord.” That works well in Mark’s context; but that is not what the Isaiah passage actually says. Instead, as we heard in today’s first reading, it portrays a voice, presumably that of God, calling out to that audience to “prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness.” The voice is not in the wilderness, but the place where God is entering into the world in a new way is. And somebody is being called upon to prepare the way in the wilderness for that world-changing advent.
So who is the audience? Who is being called to prepare God’s way? In the case of Isaiah, it seems that it is the Jewish people, whom God calls to prepare God’s new way into the world. But, taken within the context of the church’s worship, and especially our Advent liturgy, the audience seems to be us. We are the ones who are being called to prepare the way for God, who is coming in ever-new ways into people’s lives.
Notice that God is coming into the lives of everybody in the world, not just into our lives. God’s advent is for everyone, not just for us alone. But we still have a vitally important role to play in that advent, for we are the ones who are commissioned to enable other people to recognize the God who comes, who comes to them as well as to us. Like Jerusalem, which is pictured in the Isaiah reading as calling out to the entire land of Judah around it, we are charged to be the “heralds of good tidings,” calling out to all the world around us, proclaiming to them (Is 40:9): “Here is your God!”
That is a very different role from the one that was presumed in the early religious training that many of us received. My early religion teachers – may they rest in peace – took the approach that only those who had been baptized, and more specifically only those who were active members of a particular Christian denomination, would share God’s life or, as it was put then, “go to heaven when they died.” That is the reason why so many babies were rushed to the church for baptism as soon as possible, some even before their mothers were well enough to be there with them. You had to get it done quickly, “just in case…”
What a horrible God that way of thinking presumes! What a narrow view of the Creator who passionately loves all people and embraces all people as God’s children! And what a distortion of the wider biblical portrait of that God!
After the Genesis 1-11 “pre-story,” the account of God’s great work of salvation begins with the call of Abraham in which God tells him (12:3), “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” From the very beginning, God’s plan has been to call certain people for the good of “all the families of the earth.” A minority was called, not for its own sake, but for the sake of the majority, so that all might share God’s life and love.
The second part of the book of Isaiah, which begins with the words of today’s first reading, is filled with images that remind Israel of God’s love and goodness extending to all people, not just to Israel. Instead, Israel’s role within that greatest of all love stories is to be a “light to the nations” so that God’s salvation might be known “to the ends of the earth” (Is 49:6). It was not Israel’s task to make everybody Jewish. Instead, it was Israel’s task to prepare the way so that everyone else in the world could perceive the coming of God and the grace of God in their own lives.
In the same way, the role of those of us who have been baptized into Christ is not to see ourselves as the only ones who share the life of God. Instead, it is to be a people who prepare God’s way into the wilderness: into the life of the rest of the world, so that all people, no matter who they are, can come to perceive and know the power of God working in their own lives. As Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple taught, the church is “the only society in the world which exists for the sake of those who are not members of it.”
A helpful image in coming to embrace and internalize that fact might be that of those who serve in our military. We have quite a few veterans here. When they were sworn into one or another branch of the service, they didn’t think of themselves as the only real Americans, who alone possessed the rights and responsibilities that come with that designation. They recognized that that designation includes all the citizens of this country. Instead, they chose to commit themselves to a special role within that much larger society: that of defending everybody else. They became a minority in service to the majority.
In the same way, we who were baptized into Christ committed ourselves to being, as the church, a minority in service to the majority. We affirm the biblical teaching that all people are children of God, that all people are dearly loved by God, and that all people are welcomed by God to share the life of God. That life comes, not because we decided to be baptized or because our parents decided to have us baptized, but simply as a free gift of God.
But that doesn’t mean that baptism makes no difference – far from it. For we also affirm that we are a people who have been set apart for a particular and vital role among and within and for everyone else. That role is one of proclaiming to the world, “Here is your God!” It is one of being “a light to the nations,” preparing the way of the Lord in what is sometimes the wilderness of the world in which we live, so that all people, no matter what their background or religion or nationality or culture, might recognize and embrace and welcome the God of advent: the God who is always coming into our lives and into the lives of all the people of the world.