The Second Sunday of Advent (Year B)
December 6, 2020
Merciful God, who sent thy 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; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Peter 3:8-15a, 18
In the Fall of 1988 I was a senior at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where I was very active in the life of the College Chapel, as both a chorister and chair of the chapel advisory board. I think I have spoken before about the Chaplain in those days, a man called Alan Condie Tull. In the late 1950s, he had been the first cradle-born Episcopalian ordained in the Diocese of Utah, having attended Stamford and General Seminary, from which he received his Th.D. with a dissertation on the influence of Poltinus and middle platonism on the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. He was an erudite man, the sort to make jokes that would hinge upon a Latin or Greek case ending. And to the extent that he was able to relate, he was also a man passionately engaged with the life of the world, especially with issues of social justice. He was, in short, a classic Anglo-Catholic: academic, high churchman, socially engaged.
Those of you who were around in those days will remember that 1988 was a heady time in the life of the world. The Soviet Union was collapsing, the Warsaw Pact disbanding, democratic revolutions succeeding across central and eastern Europe, and, most dramatically, the Berlin Wall was taken down in a popular and, to our astonishment, peaceful uprising. Father Tull and I would discuss these events and reflect theologically upon them. At the heart of all our reflections inevitably came the conclusion that we were living in Advent Times.
All around us were signs that God was unexpectedly breaking into our lives, making something new, something we had not expected or imagined, something that we could not really control. Those Advent times, as uncertain as they were, wondering whether our old enemy the Soviets would launch a last ditch effort to retain control, were none-the-less exciting and hopeful. Looking around us this past year, we can not also help coming to the conclusion that we are living through Advent times once again. This year, however, the signs seem not so much of promise, as they do of desolation and fear.
God is once again breaking into our lives, upending our reality, our complacency and, I believe, most of us were caught on the wrong foot as we entered 2020. Were we, as we have been warned, watching and waiting for the world to change in an instant? for our lives to be upended? for our faith to be put to the test as we watch and experience so much loss? I’m not sure I was. What we did do, however, once it came, once we realised that Advent times were here, times when our lives would be altered by dramatic circumstance beyond our control, was respond with our whole heart and soul and mind. As individuals we took on the responsibilities to which we were called and, as a community, we came together in whatever way we could for love and support, to help make meaning of our experiences, to express our love for God and for each other, for our neighbours, including our neighbours beyond our personal circles, beyond the confines of the Upper West Side.
We are in the midst of Advent, and not just because it is December. This pandemic has made that clear. We are in the period of watching and waiting for the signs of God’s in-breaking, that middle time when the Kingdom has clearly been inaugurated, something new has happened and life is changed, but all is not yet accomplished. We see signs of God’s love wherever we look—especially when we see all those who are battling the virus, working for racial justice, and have made extraordinary sacrifices to keep our communities safe, healthy, and whole. At the same time we also see leaders who seek only their own self interest rather than the common good; who have been all too quick to actively or (worse perhaps) passively make our communities less safe and at the same time subvert secular law and democracy, the will of the people, and (dare I say it) the expression of the Holy Spirit working among us.
Advent times call for clarity and judgement and we look for guides to help show us the way through our travails, as I looked to my chaplain in college. Advent is, in short, a time for prophets. There are many voices claiming to show us the way and we must discern which are the ones to which we ought to listen. On this Second Sunday of Advent we hear one such voice, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Listening to him, examining his life and work closely, we can gain insight into the true nature of prophetic speech and in we him find a pattern in our search for truly prophetic voices.
We don’t know much about John the Baptist, and certainly in Mark’s Gospel he appears fully formed: the radical prophet and leader of an austere Jewish sect. Luke’s Gospel tells us that he was a relative of Jesus on Mary’s side, that his mother Elizabeth was Mary’s kinswoman. Non-canonical sources and imaginative artists like Leonardo and others would have it that John and Jesus played together as children. There is something appealing about these stories in that they suggest that John’s turn to a life, “clothed with camel’s hair, [with] a leather girdle around his waist, [eating] locusts and wild honey” was a choice to give up a privileged existence for that of a wandering mendicant, very much in the spirit of the choice that would be made centuries later by Francis of Assisi.
Wherever John came from, he clearly chose to stand apart and name the evils he saw in the world, to proclaim that there was another way, to announce that God was inaugurating a new age, an age of monumental change, of a shift in priorities, and that this change would come with dramatic, even cataclysmic events. At the centre of this moment was the one who would come after him, who would baptise not with water, but with the Holy Spirit, who would be faithful to this new age, even at the risk of his own life, and who would overcome death to make us full partners in the new life that he brings. John declared that in this moment there was a choice for us to make and that we must recognise our sins, acknowledge those times when we have strayed from God’s commandments, and turn our hearts.
Standing up and announcing the unsettling of the world, John evoked the words of earlier prophets that preached about the coming of one who will bring Israel’s return from exile. By naming John as the “voice of one crying in the wilderness,” Mark immediately evokes all that Isaiah says:
A voice cries: “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. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Those hearing John preach would immediately remember this vision of a time when all that the world recognises as mighty and powerful will be laid low, and that which is marginal, defective, rough will be exalted. In this inversion of the world’s norms and expectations, the Glory of God will be revealed:
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, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
In this vision of worldly values re-imagined, in this new Advent, power and glory will look like the shepherd who, in caring for his flock, brings to his sheep, brings us, justice and love. We who are beset by predators, by self interested absentee landlords and politicians, are guarded, transformed, made new by our Good Shepherd.
We are called to trust in and embrace this new model of leadership. We are to accept it for ourselves and pattern our own lives upon it. As first Peter tells us:
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.
As long as we live in the Advent times that are between the incarnation and fulfilment of all things, we are to embrace the vocation of the Good Shepherd and return that love back into the world. We know not when the day will come that God will reconcile all things in all. In the meanwhile, in the midst of whatever we encounter, as frightening and uncertain as they are, we are to continue in God’s service, loving our neighbour as ourselves. While we wait, we are called to lives lived in accordance with the grace we receive and will receive again from our God. We are called to live as if called to account for how we act in the here and now. While we live in a world full of injustice and disease, in which we, too, feel as if we are lone voices crying in the wilderness, we can not lose hope. We can not give up believing that what God wants for us—love, justice, peace, and health for all, regardless of where we live, how much money we have, whom we love—is real and within reach. This life of hope and trust in the movement of the Kingdom of God to which we are called is a life of action, in which our hands and feet, our love and deeds, become those of God’s very body at work in the world.
While we hear news that frightens us every day, every hour as we scroll through the feeds on our phones, let us keep in our minds last week’s collect, let us put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life when Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility. We listen to the voices of the prophets who are calling us away from self-interest, away from death dealing choices, away from corruption and violence, and arm ourselves with love and light as we combat the forces of hate and darkness as we, like John the Baptist, make our voices heard, our actions visible, as we await the coming of God’s reign.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
4 December 2020
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume