Dec 5, 2015

2nd Sunday of Advent -Turn away from, then turn to . . .

Almighty and merciful God,
may no earthly understanding hinder those
who set out in haste to meet your Son,
but may our learning of heavenly wisdom
gain us admittance to his company. 
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the 
Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. 

(Collect for Sunday)

The Evangelist Luke, somewhat of an historian as well, places the ministry of John the Baptist this Sunday in a specific historical period of the ancient world: in the “15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.”  He goes on to remind us of the other notorious characters whose names will play out in the story of the Christ:  Pontius Pilate, Herod, Annas and Caiaphas and the various other ruthless leaders of the ancient world. These leaders are the mighty and the dangerous.  It was a time of uncontrolled power and domination and the people of ancient Palestine knew well they were essentially powerless to overthrow this oppression – yet they were filled with hope that someone would come and lead them to victory – a Messiah. 

Without much notice, a charismatic figure, a “voice of one crying out in the desert” appears and invites everyone to “prepare the way of the Lord . . .” by submitting to a “baptism of repentance.” We have come to know him as John the baptizer or literally “John the dipper.” While his message was on the surface somewhat ominous in its unsettling theme (Mt 3: 11-12; Lk 3: 16-17) it also became an invitation to expectancy; a time to get ready for a greater person about to appear on the scene. A time when God would intervene and send a Savior described as John stated, “One mightier than I.” And so Luke reminds us that God reached down at a specific time and place in human history.  We hear it in the Gospel this Sunday and earlier in the Gospel narrative, we hear the same at the birth of Jesus. (Lk 2: 1-3). 

However, if we follow the order of the Gospels in a straight line, we know that John’s preaching was not done at the time of the birth of Jesus but rather about 30 years later when Jesus was about to begin his public ministry.  John and Jesus after all were nearly the same age. 

While we know that Jesus’ appearance was as unexpected as John’s this time in our liturgical year takes us back to Jesus’ birth.  The spirit of Advent is likewise a time to prepare and to get ready for God’s intervention in human history.  The Hebrew Scriptures spoke of a time, “in those days,” but without much specific detail.  So, when John appeared, many thought he may be the One.  

Yet, the main point of our readings this weekend seems to be one of hope in the midst of despair and helplessness. John’s message was ultimately one of hope and promise. Better days are coming so get ready! We will get to the adult years of Our Lord but right now we take ourselves back to recapture a sense of longing.  For us Christians today, we understand the story but it has become idealized and predictable for us. We may forget in all that can distract us from the true essence of this season, who is Christ; this is a time for conversion.  Advent is a graced opportunity to turn away from sin and to turn toward the “salvation of God.”

The Baptist uses images of nature to describe what we should do: “Make straight his paths.  Every valley shall be filled. Every mountain and hill be made low . . . the rough ways made smooth.” (Lk 3: 6). 

 So, God used one lone voice in the desert to cry out the culmination of all the Old Testament prophets in the imminent arrival of his Son.  For those of the ancient world thousands of years ago, Jesus’ birth went unnoticed as God silently in human form like all of us, slipped into our space, time and history in a tiny village of Israel called Bethlehem.  It is all by hindsight, then, that we come to understand what God was up to.

So, for today, Advent is the time to search our minds and hearts.  What has been keeping me from a real embrace of the spirit this season? What is my greatest hope?  What troubles me the most right now?  Where do I doubt that God has been and how have I tried to fulfill myself?  Through pursuing more and more stuff?  By trying to control everything about my life?  What sort of mountain or hill do I hide behind rather than search for God on the other side?

In  our first reading from Baruch, not a prophetic book we hear from very often, God speaks words of peace and hope to a despairing people in captivity: “Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery . . . For God will show all the earth your splendor.”  Then Baruch continues to tell the people that God will gather back together all his dispersed children from the east and the west and he will lead them with joy.

With such powerful reassuring words the people of Israel are reminded that God has not abandoned them and something, or someone will ultimately carry out this promise.

If we couple that with the hopeful message of the Baptist in the Gospel we can find hope that Christmas can truly be a time for great thanksgiving. I think it is good for us to be reminded that though John appeared and Jesus lived in a time of great earthly power and corruption, their voice alone still remains. 

As God promised to bring back the people of Israel through a message of promise, so the same is true for us today and for every generation.  The Holy Eucharist is a true sign of Jesus’ constancy with his people.  Our walk through this life is not alone but Christ walks with us and feeds us along the way. 

So, it is time once again to clear the path – to turn away from all that creates a road block between me and God and to turn toward that which helps us to make ready the way of the Lord.