Second Sunday of Advent, Year B RCL Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
I arrive at the water’s edge after a day’s walk. In this harsh environment of dusty dirt and rock, I see a crowd of people. They are listening to a man preaching wildly in his wilderness surroundings. When peering deeper at this man, I see he is wearing the scratchiest of clothing and as rumor has it, he eats only what he can find in his desert setting, bugs and stuff.
This seemingly deranged man isn’t telling me something I haven’t heard before. Nor would this even be the first time I have allowed myself to be washed so I could be ritually clean. But there is something different. It’s not just the wild nature of the surroundings and of this man but the charism of the people. I become more fascinated by what he is saying to the surrounding people and inch in closer until I become just one more in the multitude. Isn’t it a bit strange to being Jesus story right here.
We find that Mark’s Gospel account doesn’t have a birth narrative. Yet Jesus’ birth is important even if implicitly. The Son of God is a baby in the womb of Mary. God became human. So fully human that Mary nurses him and changes his swaddling clothes. Through God’s life as a human, Jesus experiences life as we do; joys and disappointments, tragedies and blessings.
This oldest and shortest Gospel has a sense of urgency. As we go through it this year we will find that “immediately” is Mark’s favorite word. I wonder if it is due to the urgency of his message that Mark found Jesus’ birth narrative unnecessary. This Gospel opens right here, in this throng of people all surrounding a desert man. This is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” For Mark, this is where the significance of Jesus’ life begins.
Before we get to the water’s edge with John the Baptist, Mark offers us a quote.
“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,’”
It is clear that Mark is trying to show that John is the prophet described in Isaiah’s poem. First, we see that this is a poem of comfort. “Comfort, Comfort my people,” it says. The comfort that God is offering is for those who have sinned and this comfort comes from the hardships of life. The Hebrews knew all too well the hardships of life; traveling for 40 years in wilderness deserts of mountains, crags, and rock. This comfort comes through these hardships in which God makes the valleys rise up, the mountains low, and the rough and rugged places level.
If we read just one verse more of this poem we would hear that we cannot go through the tough times without God. God will comfort us for we are like grass and our faithfulness is like a flower; both of which wither and fall. The only thing that has longevity; the only thing we can hold onto is the Word of God which endures forever. Knowing this truth, we are to go into these harsh places and pronounce the good news. The poem says, you who bring good news, go up a high mountain, go into the cities and say, “Here is your God!”
This is where we find John the Baptist in the wilderness at the river’s edge. He is proclaiming a baptism, a washing. This baptism is different from all the other baptisms that the people would have been accustom to. Those baptisms would make you ritually clean for a period of time or at least until you were defiled again. This baptism is more permanent. We repent, or turn our life in a new direction and confess our sins. Through this baptism of John we receive the forgiveness of sins.
Advent is about expectant waiting. If we were there on the banks of the Jorden we may be waiting to be baptized. As we enter the water we would likely confess our sins amidst the throng of people. Everyone would hear what was on our heart. With our now contrite heart, we would expect forgiveness of our sins. Even beyond this excitement, we hear John proclaiming something else the arrival of another more powerful person; Jesus. We hear of John’s expectation of the Messiah, the Son of God, the Christ.
John says he is unworthy to do even the smallest gesture for this person, untie his sandal. John can only offer us a baptism of water but Christ will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. John is preparing the way for the Lord and he is preparing us. Through John, we begin to understand who Jesus is. We are comforted by knowing that we are not locked into our past or our regrets. Christ is coming, freeing us from whatever it is that is holding us back. He is liberating us to begin again just as John the Baptist proclaims. John has prepared the way for us and the way for Christ. This is Advent, our original Christmas expectation.
We know that Christ didn’t just come and go. Christ is with us right now. Much as January 1st marks a new year and a new beginning, Advent marks our new beginning in which we should be preparing the way for Christ in our lives and in the lives of others. This preparation isn’t just a hope but it is our expectation. We like John are to go into the wilderness, into the world around us. We are to prepare the way of the Lord; not only for the future coming of Christ but so others can open their hearts and minds to know who Christ is in their lives.