Advent 2, Year B: Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, 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.’ (Mark 1:1-8)
Part of what I love about this season is that in the midst of what are busy schedules, crazy days, upheavals of all sorts and kinds, in here we bring a gentle, holy focus, and some liturgical order to it all. I’ve heard several people over the past few weeks (me included) go so far as to say, “we need Advent.”
We gather in here and we breath and we hope and we pray. We light candles. We sing familiar hymns. We walk the labyrinth and center ourselves and focus our faith. We bring gifts for the family who came to us as refugees. We welcome into the household of God – we won’t baptize every Sunday in Advent but again this morning we will; today it’s Rowan Eugene Lane. And this season we hear the stories that no matter how long you’ve been a part of the tradition, they sound more and more familiar as the days pass. We’ve got John the Baptist this week and next. Then it’s Mary and Joseph, then angels, shepherds, an innkeeper, a king, and of course the child who was King too.
And through this gentle intention and liturgical unfolding we are called to become newly awakened. Advent in the church is sort of an alarm clock in the form of a series of chimes – clear but not too startling in its presentation. Perhaps that’s our Episcopalian showing, but I think that approach to Advent is ecumenical. This season, we’re called to be awakened to the promise, the promise that we are moving toward something. And we proclaim that something to be profoundly beautiful.
We are moving first into the memory of a child come to us, a savior given this hurting world by a God who so loved this world. And in this movement there is a need for repentance – witness the overwhelming response to John the Baptist: “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him,” the gospel says. In this movement there is a longing for God’s mercy – listen to the prophet Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort, o my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” And soon we’ll hear Mary’s song as she sings of God’s mercy in raising up “the lowly” and “filling the hungry with good things.” And in this movement there is also vision from Isaiah and other prophets, vision that speaks to the deepest yearnings of our hearts and the deepest groanings of this world, a vision of a place and time where there is peace, where exiles return safely home, and the light of the world is able to shine through the darkness for all the world to see. In Advent we are awakened to those voices inside and outside of ourselves – those voices that speak of repentance, that cry for mercy, that proclaim peace. And we pause here to let them resonate, one candle at a time. And they do.
The challenge I find, or one of them anyway, is that life doesn’t happen one candle at a time and as beautiful as all of this is, Advent itself – the coming of God – is often more jarring, more disruptive than we’ve become accustomed to it being. This challenge of the season is that while we lean into this gentle liturgical unfolding and the lovely awakening-by-chime, the way in which it really happens, in which God really happens, often doesn’t resemble this approach as much we’d like it too.
There really was nothing very gentle or orderly about John the Baptist. He was wearing camels hair and he ate bugs, and he wasn’t just suggesting repentance, he was out there shouting about it to the point of getting arrested for it. This season has a clear beginning and end for us, but really John the Baptist was never certain that his timing was right. Was there one candle or two lit on the wreath when he proclaimed repentance? Just how long until that one who was to come after, would come? These were John the Baptist’s questions. And Mary had them too. In the moment of song, Mary’s soul was certain but her awakening was anything but chime-like. In the not so gentle unfolding of what we now call “glad tidings,” Mary’s traditional wedding plans were dashed and her vision for her future family completely overturned. And Mary’s fiancé Joseph had to completely revise his understanding of what it meant to love another human being. Not to mention what it meant to love God. What did it mean to light candles when the familial support had backed out, there was no room in the inn, and Herod was going to be breathing down their necks before a new season could even begin to take hold?
So their Advent, that first Advent, wasn’t like this, really. Rather than settling, it was one disruption after another. One holy disruption after another. Because that’s how God came to them.
And so we need to leave room for that dimension of Advent too. Because it would be sadly ironic if in our intentional and well-ordered approach to this season, we missed the ways in which Christ is actually coming among us now. If in our intense focus on the gentle unfolding, we missed that some of the disruptions are the means by which God is birthing something holy, something of repentance and mercy and peace.
And so this season I invite you to light candles and to walk the labyrinth too. Gather here and breathe deeply here. Welcome Rowan Eugene and others into this household. But don’t fear the uncertainty, the disruptions, the interruptions. Instead know that there is likely to be grace in them too, because often that’s how God breaks in.
Remember that “Don’t be afraid,” were the first words spoken to Mary by the angel, and “Don’t be afraid,” was the message of the dream given Joseph. Leave room for some uncertainty around God’s timing, prepare to be taken slightly aback by the ways in which God loves us, and expect that the redemption for which we long will come in shocking and unsettling ways. There are after all, mountains to be made low, valleys to fill in and a new creation coming to be. And so the ground is bound to shake as the unfolding that is God’s takes place in the lives and midst of us all.