Sermon: "Longing, Hoping, Watching, Waiting"
Sermon.12.06.20. Advent 2B
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Isaiah 40.1-11; Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3.8-15a; Mark 1.1-8
Hope, Comfort, and God’s Divine, Purifying Fire
Last Sunday we focused on the need to keep alert, to be on watch, to stay awake while longing, hoping, and working for the day the Son of Man comes. Today we will narrow our focus and look more closely at hope and comfort.
The reading from Isaiah 40 begins with “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40.1; NRSV). The prophet Isaiah is to “speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” to tell Jerusalem that her penalty for her sins is paid in full. Eleonore Stump notes the derivation of “comfort” is rather fascinating: “com” comes from Latin and means “with”; “fort” comes from the Latin word for strong. Giving comfort lends some of your strength. Given this, is it any wonder that another name for the Holy Spirit is the “Comforter” (https://liturgy.slu.edu/2AdvB120620/reflections_stump.html)?
Why does Isaiah 40 begin in this manner? The first 39 chapters of Isaiah, what is commonly called First Isaiah, set forth the sins of Judah and the nature of Judah’s relationship with surrounding nations. The siege and fall of Jerusalem are prophesied – events which transpired in 589 -587 BC at the hands of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II. Anyone who was anybody was subsequently deported to Babylon and placed in captivity which lasted 70 years. The period of captivity is an interlude between First and Second Isaiah which is not described.
Second Isaiah, beginning with chapter 40, picks up shortly after the Persian King, Cyrus the Great, defeated the Babylonians, and issued a decree authorizing the return of the captives. After years of lamentation, their hopes were realized. It was time to go home! Hence, the prophet says:
A voice cries out: “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. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Most of us have not only read these words but we have heard them in Handel’s Messiah. Despite this description, the trek home was undoubtedly less than easy, but Second Isaiah meant to portray this event as the second Exodus. Just as God led the people out of Egypt and into the Promised land, so God would lead the people back to Jerusalem. The reading then closes with this wonderful vision of comfort:
He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep (Isaiah 40.11; NRSV).
Although we cannot be certain the psalmist who wrote Psalm 85 had the captives in mind, some of the verses provide a powerful interpretation of events associated with the captives’ return. God has graciously forgiven the sins of the people; in return the people pledge to listen to God’s word. The situation is described thusly:
Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
The Lord will indeed grant prosperity, and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet (Vs. 10-13; BCP).
Don’t we find ourselves longing and hoping for the day when mercy and truth meet, when righteousness and peace embrace? Wouldn’t we too be comforted?
Mark opens his gospel by noting that it is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” A careful reading of Mark’s gospel gives one the impression that he has the perspective of one who is in a hurry, for he frequently uses “immediately”. Mark omits the genealogy we find in Matthew; he omits the shepherds, the star, and the angels we find in Luke. Mark jumps right in with “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah” (NRSV). Although this is the way the verse is rendered in the NRSV, a footnote tells us that other ancient authorities say, “As it is written in the prophets.” The latter is more accurate for Mark quotes both Malachi and Isaiah. In Malachi 3.1, we read: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts” (NRSV). In Malachi 4.5, we discover the identity of the messenger – Elijah: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (NRSV). Elijah was to call the people to repentance (Hamm: https://liturgy.slu.edu/2AdvB120620/theword_hamm.html ). As you may recall, Elijah was taken up in a whirlwind and supposedly never saw death.
Having noted these passages, let’s examine Mark 1.2b-3: “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,’” (NRSV). Thus, Mark has skillfully woven together the sayings of Malachi and Isaiah; he then portrays John the Baptist as the returned Elijah come to call people to repentance: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of 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 to untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1.4-8). In other words, “Listen up! The one you have hoped for, have longed for, the long-awaited Messiah, is coming after me!”
What about our reading from 2 Peter? The author (who in all likelihood was not Peter) addresses the fact that the promise of the Lord’s coming, the Second Coming of Christ, long expected and hoped for, which was to take place “before this generation passes away,” had not yet taken place. He tells the people to remember that a thousand years is like a day unto the Lord, that God is patient, “not wanting any to perish , but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3.9; NRSV). Nonetheless, he says, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”
Bear in mind, we do not know whether we are to understand this literally or figuratively. However, since these things will come to pass, the author asks what sort of persons we ought “to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening (i.e., working toward) the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 10; NRSV)?
And what are we to make of everything being dissolved with fire such that all will be disclosed? Might this fire be the purifying, divine fire of God’s love?
In the parallel scripture to today’s gospel found in Luke, John the Baptist, speaking of Jesus, says, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3.16b-17; NRSV). In Luke 12.49 Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled” (NRSV).
In Luke’s account of Pentecost, we read of another instance of divine fire: “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2.2-4; NRSV).
In 1 Corinthians 3, St. Paul speaks of having laid a foundation according to the grace of God, a foundation upon which others will build. Paul states:
Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire (Vs. 10-15; NRSV).
God’s fire will test our work. If our work has been accomplished in love, if it reflects God’s love, it will survive the test of God’s purifying, divine fire.
Given the state of our world, given the wars, famine, pandemic, and genocide, we who walk in love, we who engage in works of love, long for Christ’s return and the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. We long for our hope to be realized; we long to be comforted; we long to be subjected to God’s purifying, divine Fire. Be alert, stay awake -- the day is coming.