Advent Sunday 2

Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
2 Peter 3:14-18
Mark 1:1-8

‘Console my people, console them, says your God. ‘Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call to her that her time of service is ended…’

It’s impossible for me to read or hear the quote above without also hearing the plaintive melody from Handel’s Messiah. Texts that are sung seem to take on a new life for me and I like to hope that in my old age I’ll have a bank of these to sustain me. There is something about the tone of the music and the fact that Jerusalem is personified, that makes it very poignant. Isaiah’s words are a message of hope after long years of exile and confusion. At last there is a promise of a new Exodus and preparations need to be made.

A voice cries, ‘Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low. Let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley; then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

Whenever I hear this section of Isaiah 40 I think of the stories told by one of our sisters who had spent time in Kenya. She told us that she actually had seen a road being built in the desert. It was built because the president was due to visit. There was nothing else, just one tarmac road. And the Kenyans were so proud of it. It’s easy to pass by the dramatic language of Isaiah’s ‘landscaping’ project. Everything is to be transformed so that God’s glory can be revealed.

Perhaps this year, more than any, we have a chance to think about our own ‘inner landscapes’. Where are the valleys that could be filled in? Where are the mountains that could be laid low? How ready am I to welcome the Lord?

Go up on a high mountain, joyful messenger to Zion. Shout with a loud voice, joyful messenger to Jerusalem. Shout without fear, say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God’. Here is the Lord God coming with power, his arm subduing all things to him. The prize of his victory is with him, his trophies all go before him. He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast and leading to their rest the mother ewes.’

We are spoilt for choice with images in this final section of our first reading. The Good news that the Lord has saved his people is told with joy, energy, triumph, tenderness and love. The message is all consuming. Isaiah’s words give me the sense of something which is so powerful that it cannot be contained any longer. There is similar energy in our Gospel passage.

Mark begins his Gospel by plunging straight into his message. There’s no setting of the scene or details of Christ’s birth to charm us. His purpose is clear: he is to tell the Good News (euangelion) of the Son of God. With his first sentence he catches the attention of his hearers. The term ‘good news’ was well-known in Roman culture and it was usually associated with the emperor. The birth of the emperor and any of his deeds were heralded as ‘good news’. Mark’s good news is this: the scene is set and all of Israel’s longing for the one who was to save them is about to be fulfilled.

The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah:

Look, I am going to send my messenger before you;
he will prepare your way.
A voice cries in the wilderness:
Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.

And so it was that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. All Judaea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him, and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins. John wore a garment of camel-skin, and he lived on locusts and wild honey. In the course of his preaching he said, ‘Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals. I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’

Scholars often point out that Mark slightly misquotes Isaiah and blends together parts of Exodus and Malachi. We can see this clearly this week as we can have the texts side by side. Ordinarily I don’t think I would have noticed this. All of these phrases are part of my Advent memory bank and I am happy for phrases to weave in an out, accurate or inaccurate. Mark’s point is that scripture is fulfilled and an immediate response is required. It’s not a matter of intellectual assent to some truths, it’s a matter of the heart. The word Mark uses for repentance is metanoia. This is so much more than being sorry for your sins. It’s about turning your life around and changing your heart.

Monastics throughout the centuries who follow the Rule of St Benedict know this call to a change of heart only too well. We take a vow which needs a little explaining: conversatio morum. It is variously translated ‘conversion of life’ or ‘conversion of manners’. Implicit in this vow are the more traditional elements of poverty and celibate chastity. The monastic commits each day to turn away from self and towards God. Sometimes this turning happens in a gentle manner. And sometimes this turning is abrupt and shocking.

Hard though John’s message is, it doesn’t seem to have deterred his hearers. Mark tells us that ‘All Judaea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him, and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins.‘ The people were clearly ready for this message. How ready am I this Advent to hear the call to a change of heart?

The depiction of John the Baptist sounds strange to our ears. It’s probably only the detail of the honey that is any way attractive to me. But Mark’s hearers wouldn’t have found the details odd; John the Baptist is living the classic prophet lifestyle, modelling himself on Elijah. It’s likely that there were many prophets of John’s kind at the time. What is striking about John is, that despite his success, he stands right back in order to point to Christ. In vivid imagery he declares himself unworthy to undo the sandal strap of the one who is to come. Probably today we’d draw back from this type of language. We are all too aware of how weighted the language of being ‘worthy’ or ‘unworthy’ can be. It’s all too easy to create a theology or model of church where we are ‘unworthy’. Perhaps the key here is to think of ourselves ‘at the service’ of Christ, ready to do whatever is asked. St Benedict sums this up in one small phrase, the monk is to ‘prefer nothing to Christ’. This simple phrase covers every choice you make in the monastery. It’s the work of a lifetime.

In this time of Advent can you prefer nothing to Christ?