December 6, 2020
Mark 1:1–8 (Isaiah 40:1–11)
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.’
It feels different this year. The start of December and the beginning of the Advent. This season brings much that is familiar for Christians. We all know the story. We know the carols. We set up the nativity scene and decorate the tree.
It is familiar to mark again the four weeks of Advent as a reminder to prepare the way for Christ to come. The biblical passages of Advent have a wilderness, penitential theme which aim to move us into reflection and contemplation so that we can hear afresh the good news of Jesus’ incarnation and promise to come again.
But this year is different. So much is not familiar. For many reasons, this does not feel like the usual anticipatory trek toward Christmastide. Hundreds of thousands around the globe will be spending their first Christmas without a loved one who has passed on due to the pandemic. Travel advisories will impact millions who would have been attempting a celebration without the usual large and festive gathering. Many more will spend the holiday alone, if only out of the hope of being around to celebrate with others next Christmas. For almost the entirety of the year, we have been a people anxious and waiting in a lockdown-long Advent. It has already been a long, dark wilderness season.
This has been a year full of novel experiences, and so much of our lives have been cast in new perspectives. Yet, while the wilderness may be felt more deeply this year, the same ageless truths remain constant. Perhaps the goal is to see them in a new perspective.
The passage at the start of Mark chapter 1 recalls a time centuries earlier when the prophet Isaiah (today’s Old Testament reading Isaiah 40:1–11) proclaimed to God’s exiled people, who were longing to return home. They yearned for the familiar. God’s message to them is one of comfort. The Lord is coming! On first hearing, Isaiah’s message hardly seems one of comfort: “The grass withers, the flower fades… surely the people are grass.” That does not sound like a fairytale ending — and it is not. The comfort offered by Isaiah is more complex than a “happily ever after” coda. The comfort comes by putting things into a divine and cosmic perspective. All people will fade like grass, but God is mighty and endures forever. The goodness of God will prevail. The prophet does not give an immediate timeframe or a quick solution to the heartbreak and suffering of the people in exile; what is offered instead is a message of hope for the future.
Mark, at the very beginning of his writing continues this message. Without prelude or fanfare, Mark pulls us into the action in the wilderness where the prophet John proclaims a familiar message from the prophet Isaiah.
Now, a little context is helpful here: at this point in history, Israel has been invaded and occupied by the Roman Empire. John proclaims a message about a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Mark tells us, “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him” — yet John still points away from himself and toward someone greater to come. He points to a hopeful future by promising one who will come baptizing, not with mere water but with the everlasting Spirit of the Lord.
Today’s Advent reading tell us that even in the wilderness God comes. We are also reminded that waiting is not a passive activity for the believer. Hope must be lived. In waiting for the fullness of the Kingdom of God, we stand in the wilderness, pointing to the one more powerful than us. As the psalmist writes, “Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.” (Psalm 85:13) Where righteousness and peace are actively enacted, God is there.
Our Advent message from today’s readings is that we are called to be a people active in hope while we await the coming of the Lord, especially when we are in the wilderness. This year has taught us the challenge of waiting for a way out of a pandemic. But the truth is we have always been a people in waiting — through victory and defeat, triumph, and loss. It is certainly our calling as people of faith to proclaim peace on earth, goodwill towards all, and joy to the world. But it is just as much our job to be visible in the wilderness, calling people to repentance while naming injustice, oppression, and apathy as sin. The aim is not to cast judgment or to exclude people from our “in” group. We stand in the wilderness, welcoming all to go in a new direction (which is the meaning of “repent”). We point to something better. We point to the Christ, the one who is more powerful, more patient, and more loving. We point to the Christ, the one who is to come.
This Advent, in the wilderness of COVID-19 and in whatever way this pandemic has changed, limited, or frustrated your life, we wait. But do yourself a favor this week and step back from the disappointments and despair and pray for a glimmer of the divine’s perspective. While you do, re-embrace the truth that all things on earth are temporary and ephemeral. Then, take up your daily tasks as you embody God’s patience and love here in this world. Embrace the good news that God is coming. Soon we will greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.