Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Second Sunday in Advent 2008

Isaiah 40:1-11

40:1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

40:2 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.

40:3 A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

40:4 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.

40:5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

40:6 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.

40:7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.

40:8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

40:9 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!"

40:10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.

40:11 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

85:1 LORD, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.

85:2 You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin. Selah

85:8 Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.

85:9 Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.

85:10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

85:11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.

85:12 The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.

85:13 Righteousness will go before him, and will makea path for his steps.

2 Peter 3:8-15a

3:8 But 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.

3:9 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.

3:10 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.

3:11 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,

3:12 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?

3:13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

3:14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish;

3:15a and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him.

Mark 1:1-8

1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;

1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'"

1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

1:5 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.

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 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.

1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
Isaiah can't wait. But even when Isaiah is told to speak, Isaiah wants to wait. The most famous line from chapter 40 is probably verse 6: "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." In the middle of this beautiful song of hope, at the beginning of what most call "Second Isaiah," in the period of the Exile, after Babylon has destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and taken everyone in Israel and Judea away, the voice of hope sounds:

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."
That's the good news in the middle of deepest despair. Israel has lost literally everything: not just their homes, not just their jobs, they've lost their place. They've been taken away from the Promised Land, and here God promises all the land is God's, and God will come in a triumph, in an adventus, a grand march, and the valleys will be filled up and the mountains leveled so no one can miss the parade! It's the promise of Advent, it's the scene Isaiah wanted to see last week, and here God says it is coming, and Isaiah says: "What shall I cry? All flesh is grass."

And the celebration, the hope, stops dead. The valleys deepen, the mountains rise back up, the parade is canceled. All because Isaiah doesn't think people are worth it. Not only are they not worth it, but the word of God just passes them by:

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.
What bright, fresh hope is this? What comfort is this to the people? Peter doesn't really make it any better:

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.

3:11 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,

3:12 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?
What adventus is this? If this is what we are waiting for, if this is what we are staying awake for, maybe we should get a little sleep.

Ours is an age of anticipation. We are anxious for the next thing to happen, for the future to get here now. When I was young, it was flying cars, and we couldn't wait for them to show up. When I was young, it was Christmas, and waiting for Christmas morning and Santa Claus to come was sweet agony, because we knew the day of Santa Claus was a day that would fulfill all of our expectations, and we couldn't wait to see our expectations fulfilled. We learned young to live in the future, to ignore the present and look forward to living in that sparkling morning when all our dreams of material joys would be at last fulfilled, and for one shining moment we would have all we ever dreamed of within our reach.

We still live that way. People come to this website starting in November, looking for information about Advent, about St. Nicholas, about Christmas trees. They can't come soon enough, they can't know early enough about what is coming, so that by the time it comes it's already old and stale and they're looking forward again, to the next new thing, to the coming novelty, to what will be different after this different has become familiar. We are always looking forward so rapidly we look past Advent and, on the day after giving thanks, go directly to Christmas morning without stopping at "Go," without collecting $200, which we'd spend immediately, anyway. Ours is an age of anticipation. We feel like, unless we already know what is coming, we won't recognize when it has passed. But we've forgotten what we're waiting for, and our hopes wither as we race past today in anticipation of tomorrow. All flesh is grass; here today, thrown on the fire tomorrow.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;

1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'"

1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Mark tells us what we are waiting for; tells us it has already come. That the messenger of the Lord will come and prepare the Lord's way, will make his paths straight. And what did that mean? Landscaping and civil engineering on a massive scale? A fire that would melt the elements and burn the heavens? Might as well; because John comes preaching a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins. This we did not anticipate, because this requires we do something besides simply give and receive gifts on Christmas morning. This requires we take stock of ourselves. This requires we prepare ourselves to be the way of the Lord. This requires the advent, the preparation for the Adventus. This requires we go to the wilderness.

John is in the wilderness because God is there first. Isaiah is told the way will be prepared in the wilderness because God is there first. God is in the city, too, but who can see God for all the man-made splendor of the place? Who can see God in the glare of the Christmas lights, in the shine that pours off the plastic Marys and Josephs and Baby Jesuses? Who can see God for the dazzle of the tinsel and the glitter of the glass ornaments and the bright array of packages we hope will be piled there? Where is God when the trees go up just after Thanksgiving, and the light strings appear, and the stores are thick with Christmas music?

God is still there; but who can hear God, who can see God, in all that visual clutter? So we have to go to the wilderness. We have to prepare ourselves to find the stable again, the manger, the hay trough with the baby in it who is otherwise unremarkable except the angels said so, except that new star in the heavens said so. We have to go the wilderness to hear John, and what we hear is a call to repentance. What? We have to be prepared for this?

Yes. We have to be prepared.

Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.

Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.

The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
Surely God will give us salvation, surely God will speak peace to God's people; but we have to be ready to hear. After all, Isaiah is right: all flesh is grass. It withers, it fades, it dies; but the word of God endures forever. We have to be ready to hear the voice of eternity, to see the Eternal in a baby in swaddling clothes lying among animals, born to dirt-poor peasants. "[W]e wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home," but if we are not ready, we will not see that righteousness is at home with us. We will not be prepared to receive the guest who changes everything. For he is coming, and he will not be delayed.

Let us not rush by this, anxious for the next thing. Let us give our attention to the here and now, to the ones the child came for. Speak comfort to the people. Show them the love God has shown you. Prepare ye the way of the Lord, for that is in your hands. Amen.

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