December 10, 2017 – The Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:9; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
During Advent every year we encounter John the Baptist. Jesus identified John as the person described by Isaiah in this morning’s Old Testament reading and referred to at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark: the voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord, a messenger of God. Jesus also described John as the greatest of all the prophets.
John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and people came from all around – city and country – to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. This year many of our Gospel readings will come from Mark. He does not include a memorable line of scripture, one that is found in both Matthew and Luke. They record that when John saw the people coming to him for baptism, he said: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” (Matthew 3:7 and Luke 3:7-8) Can you imagine what the Bishop would say if he heard that some adults had come to me expressing interest in baptism and that is what I said? Yet, we are told that John had a large following.
As some of you know, I love Charles Dickens’ short novel, “A Christmas Carol.” I recommend it for your Advent and Christmas reading. It is an interesting and powerful story of conversion. Many of Scrooge’s experiences with the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Ghost of Christmas Present helped to soften his heart and change his mind. Perhaps you will agree with me when I say that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, with his vision of a man lying cold, dead and uncared for, his finger pointing at Scrooge’s tombstone in the pauper’s graveyard, put the “nail in the coffin,” the final touch of terror that converted Scrooge.
I thought of this story and how Ebenezer Scrooge became a changed man when I was thinking about John the Baptist’s call to repentance, especially as Matthew and Luke described it. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” In other words, repent and let your lives show your repentance, or else you will be punished. Fear-driven repentance. Some Christian churches have manipulated their members with fear. You may know that from personal experience. The Bible certainly asserts in places that human beings should “fear” God. In this morning’s psalm we find the verse: “Truly his salvation is very near to those who fear him.” Those words may trouble you. Be comforted because the word translated “fear” would be better translated “in awe of.” “Truly his salvation is very near to those who are in awe of him.” In other words, God’s salvation is very near to those who respect God and God’s teachings, who have proper humility before God the Creator. A very different message.
John the Baptist always pointed to Christ. As recorded in today’s lesson, he spoke of Christ in these words: “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.” John the Baptist pointed to Christ. In the church during the season of Advent we prepare for Christmas, our yearly celebration of the birth of Jesus. But as I said last week, it may be better if we think of this season as a time of preparation for the second coming of Christ and the final establishment of God’s kingdom. We might then ask ourselves what we should do to prepare for the coming of Christ and the coming of God’s kingdom of love.
This morning’s Collect says it beautifully, in the words of the prayer: “Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.” That’s what we are waiting for, what we are hoping for: the coming of Jesus Christ our Savior.
In today’s reading from the Second Letter of Peter we heard the perfect question for Advent: “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?” How should we live now so that we will be filled with joy – not fear – when Christ comes? How should we live now so that when God’s kingdom of love, mercy, truth, righteousness and peace finally arrives, we will feel at home?
These are difficult questions. In some ways, the answers are clear and simple: follow Jesus, become more like Christ, live a life of love, mercy, truth, righteousness and peace. The difficult part is to do all that. If we are honest with ourselves, we easily recognize that repentance is called for as a first step. Who among us can say that we lead lives of “holiness and godliness?” Who among us does not have some need to turn back to God? So I ask again the question I asked last week, with different emphasis: what are we waiting for? The time for repentance is now! As Jesus said in last week’s passage from Mark (13:33b, 37): “You do not know when the time will come…. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
To close, I would like to share a reading I found in a book called “Speaking to the Soul: Daily Readings for the Christian Year” by Episcopal deacon, Vicki K. Black. The passage is from the book “Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Saint Francis of Assisi” by John V. Kruse, a theologian with expertise in Franciscan spirituality. In this Advent season of waiting, I think his words offer wise advice for our daily lives.
“Lord, being a Christian means that I am called to live a life that involves a degree of uncertainty. Like Mary, I am unsure what your call will require of me in the recent moment, tomorrow, or many years from now. Strengthen my trust in you so that I may be your faithful servant in the world. Lord of all longing, in our society of instant gratification, patience is not a cultivated virtue. Remind me that I do not need to immediately have all the things I long for and all the answers to my questions.
In the waiting, we often learn much about ourselves, come to a greater awareness of what is truly important in life, and gain a better appreciation for the things we must await. When someone or some circumstance causes you to wait today, slow down and view that person or circumstance as a blessing. Is it really that important that you immediately have what you want? What do you learn about yourself as you wait? What do you notice around you when you slow down to wait?”
I hope that we will all take time in the next two weeks to slow down, to think and pray about God’s call to repentance, to allow the Holy Spirit to speak in our hearts and help us take the next step in leading lives of holiness and godliness as we wait with faith and hope for the coming of Christ. In Jesus’ name. Amen.