Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Second Sunday of Advent
December 6, 2020
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
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.’
A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
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, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
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,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
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.’
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
This year of covid just seems to be getting more difficult – the numbers going the wrong way, with precautions becoming stricter, and extremely frightening reports from the United States. No one knew it would go on this long. Back when the second wave began, the Prime Minister thought we could be having family parties by Christmas. Even with the good news about vaccines, we’ll need to get through the winter. And we rightly worry about long term damage to the hopes and dreams of young adults whose education and careers are being distorted by the pandemic. What will happen to the people who ran the small stores and restaurants that have had to close? What about people who need a job? It’s a scary time.
It is seldom that a life-defining moment is shared by every person in the world. All 7.8 billion of us will be able to pinpoint events in our memory by remembering whether they happened before or after covid. In a strange way, it draws us together, even though we know that there are vast differences between the experience of India or Iran and Canada, and even between downtown Toronto and Jane & Finch. The pandemic affects us all, though it affects us differently, through our race and gender and social location.
Perhaps what is worst about it is the sense of not knowing the outcome. And feeling that there is little we can do but wait. There are so few of the usual entertainments available that a trip to the grocery store seems like an event, and a quick porch exchange with a friend is precious. Our sense of the proportion of things has changed.
As a result, the words of Isaiah and John the Baptist may resonate differently this year. We may be longing to hear a voice in the wilderness. In the passage that Ruth read, the prophet speaks words of comfort. Isaiah promises that the suffering of the people will soon come to an end, and that they will be restored to the life they remember. Even though we hear it every year, this is a very welcome message right now. He may have written it to people who were living in exile in Babylon in the sixth century before Christ, but it sounds pretty good in Toronto as 2020 grinds to an end. We do hope for a clear path to emerge through the mountains and valleys of the pandemic, and we would be grateful for the care of a loving shepherd.
When John the Baptist strides out of the mountains to speak to the crowds who have trekked out from Jerusalem, he is embodying the prophet’s message. Even with all his strange clothing and diet, the people take one look at John and recognize the promises he embodies. They have memorized that passage from Isaiah. Get ready he says, for someone is coming. Repent of your sins, accept God’s forgiveness, prepare the way of the Lord.
But he reminds them to expect the unexpected. The one who is coming is in a whole different category, he tells them. You can clear the way for him, but he will surprise you. He will offer you something unheard of – not this water ritual and blessing, but a baptism in the Holy Spirit. It seems that John himself doesn’t quite know how all this is going to work – what’s a baptism in the Holy Spirit? In a way he is prophesying a mystery.
So are we. The faith we have isn’t predictive. We say, those who are in bondage will be set free. Broken hearts will be mended. The poor will be blessed. Goodwill among humans will abound. All creation will rejoice. But we don’t know how.
All we know is that we are called to prepare for it. To get things ready. In our own hearts and consciences, and in everything we do to move this weary world toward justice and peace. Our Advent invitation is to clear the way for the ancient love of God to be born among us and to flourish.
And for this we give thanks. Amen.
Image Credit: Tim Mossholder – unsplash.com