Summoning Patience
  • Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Second Sunday of Advent

Isa. 40:1-11 • Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a • Mark 1:1-8

In a foreign land, among a foreign people, deprived of temple and the temple sacrifices, their sacred vessels in the hands of pagans, the Jews sat down and wept. This was their second great captivity. Just as they were slaves in Egypt, they became resident aliens in Babylon longing for freedom and home. The prophet speaks to their waning hope: “Comfort, O comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” (40:1). They are summoned to work out their salvation. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” And yet what do the people see? A siccative landscape of searing sun, blasting sand, curled and dying blades of grass, brave flowers bending toward death as the breath of the Lord moves over the face of the earth. What they see is their own lives. “All flesh is grass, and its glory like the flower of the field” (40:6).

Into this scene enters the impossibility of the possibility of God (Karl Barth). “See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him” (40:10). He rules with tender affection both for his people and the land upon which they depend. “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” (40:11). Thus, the people hope for home, for nourishment, for an affectionate embrace to restore their souls and their identity. The prophet bears his message in a barren land, a wild voice that howls in the wilderness. Will the people keep hoping? Will they hope right up to the moment of exodus?

The opening lines of Mark’s gospel speak to the most enduring hope of all, that all of life and all its joys and sorrows might meet an end of deep and enduring purpose. What is life for? Yes, we wither, but is that all? John announces with a voice like Isaiah, in a similar setting of sand and heat, “Good News.” The beginning of Good News, though about Jesus Christ, the one in whom we find hope and life, is a summons to metanoia (change). The Good News begins with the solemn announcement that change is possible, not without the prompting of grace, to be sure, but still possible. And John’s announcement is beautifully efficacious as the people pour in from the whole Judean countryside and Jerusalem. They go into the waters in hope of being new, clean, and whole. John’s praeparatio evangelica is a necessary moment, a wilderness cry that breaks hearts and awakens hope.

The reading from 2 Peter addresses a nagging doubt that the delay of Christ’s return means, in truth, that he will never return. At even greater distance from Christ’s earthly life, the Council of Nicaea stands firm in insisting that “he is about to come to judge the living and the dead.” St. Peter reminds us that theological time is like geological time, a flowing sequence of dramatic change imperceptible to human viewing. Christ is slow to return because he is patient, not wanting anyone to perish. Still, he will surely come as he has promised, and his promise is an incitement to holy conversation and piety. More simply, we are to live well as we await the One who is life itself. Even now, though waiting, we have a measure of what will be, for he has poured his Spirit into our hearts.

Look It Up
Read 2 Peter 3:11-12. Notice that hope provides direction in the present moment.

Think About It
When waiting for the arrival of someone we love, we always prepare.

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