God works ceaselessly on our behalf

  • November 28, 2008
Second Sunday of Advent (Year B) Dec. 7 (Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 85; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8)

It is difficult to speak to broken hearts and spirits. Affliction, disaster and pain often take their toll, leaving victims so dispirited that it is difficult even to imagine a future let alone prepare for one.
God’s instructions to Isaiah are very clear: speak gently and tenderly to Jerusalem for she has suffered much. There is no condemnation or criticism, only the healing words of comfort. The suffering is almost over. But there is more, for a wondrous display of God’s majesty and power is imminent. God is coming in power to lead the people back and restore the nation of Israel to her former glory. And God will take personal care of the scattered sheep of Israel, gathering them together and gently gathering them in. A way must be prepared, for God’s highway will be straight and level after every obstacle has been overcome.

These are some of the most inspiring and moving words of the entire Old Testament and they will echo across the centuries. The monastic community of Essenes on the Dead Sea used this passage to describe its own role in terms of preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness. And of course it was on the lips of John the Baptist as we will see in Mark’s Gospel. But did that display of power materialize? It is true that many of the exiles returned to Jerusalem but they found a ruined city. They did not enjoy political freedom and it was a couple of centuries before Jerusalem began to resemble even remotely the great city that it had been.

But this passage is meant to stir hearts and minds and to enable people to have hope. God has not abandoned them and continues to work ceaselessly on their behalf — God’s power is manifested not in force or violence but in His faithful love and our experience of love. This message is sorely needed in a world where hope can easily falter. It is important that religions provide inspiration and encouragement rather than moralizing and condemnation. We can prepare the way of the Lord by refusing to join in the chorus of negative and harsh voices that form so much of the background of everyday life in our time. 

But when is it going to happen? God’s timetable is so unlike ours for we are truly impatient people living in an impatient culture insistent on instant results. A “delay” is the occasion for many to slip back into old negative behaviour patterns. Conditions seemed beyond human efforts and it was thought that only God’s intervention could set things right again. The slate would have to be wiped clean and the Earth re-created according to the divine will. In the extended passage of time, violent and catastrophic images were joined to Isaiah’s message of hope so that the visitation of God was anticipated with dread as well as hope. The author of Two Peter offers some good advice: live each day and moment as if the end is about to spring on you without warning — not in fear or anxiety, but in joyful and holy living in the spirit of God.

John’s proclamation is fiery and uncompromising but there is a new addition: this visitation by God will be accompanied by a baptism with the Holy Spirit. An opening must be made for the Spirit, for the straight path of the Lord passes directly through human hearts. Selfishness, hatred and injustice are hills and valleys that must be levelled. What better way to prepare for the coming of the Lord than by a good old-fashioned practice — repentance? Repentance — metanoia — is a change of mind and heart. It is a humble admission, without excuses, rationalizations and the human tendency to denial, that we have not been following the law of God and that we resolve to do better. This includes a willingness to be open to new ideas and new experiences of God. We might be challenged to change the way in which we live or to adopt new values. We have an important part to play in God’s work on behalf of humanity. We can hinder it through obstinacy and spiritual hard-heartedness or hasten it by repentance, humble surrender and a willingness to do things God’s way instead of our own. The choice is ours.