CNS photo/Paul Haring

God is patient, merciful in action

  • November 27, 2014

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) 

Anyone who has accompanied someone who is deep in grief or suffering knows how difficult it is to find the right words. In fact, most of the time it is better to say very little — presence and comfort go a long way. Above all, explanations or “answers” are seldom helpful. 

The one who wrote in Isaiah’s name was a witness to the grief and suffering of the people of Israel. It was the sixth century B.C., and they had been living in Babylonian exile for at least a generation. They were a crushed and subdued people, prisoners lacking the freedom to make their own decisions. But now things were different: the prophet was announcing their return to Judea and Jerusalem! 

The explanations were few. Whatever “punishment” they had suffered was over and done with. The only important word now was “comfort” — that is what the prophet had been commanded to do. 

He chose his words carefully — words that we could well heed — that this was not their doing, but solely God’s action. The only human contribution for this manifestation of God’s compassionate power was to prepare the way and remove all hindrances and obstacles. Crucial to this effort was the joyful and unambiguous announcement of the good news, along with the proclamation that God was present in a big and powerful way. 

That should have banished all fear and hopelessness, opening hearts and minds to receive the coming of God. The proclamations of God’s power and might were coupled with images of the care and tenderness of the shepherd. Waiting on God is difficult; people are impatient and prone to despair and hopelessness. 

In our own time, there has been a massive failure of hope and a tidal wave of all sorts of fear. We need to be reminded that ultimately God is in charge even though it may often seem otherwise. There are no shortcuts or quick fixes. 

Often individuals and peoples need to learn certain lessons and alter behaviours before things can change. Above all, the world needs a clear proclamation of the majesty, justice and compassion of God from people who really believe this and who can speak from personal experience. The most hopeful and encouraging words that can be proclaimed to our world are, “Here is your God!” 

The author of 2 Peter was fully aware of how difficult it was to wait for the Lord to act. God’s time is nothing like human time. A day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day. We tend to judge time by the clock and calendar, but God thinks in terms of the big picture. What we believe to be God’s delay is usually God’s patience and mercy in action, giving humans more time to work things out and come to a deeper awareness of their situation, its causes and their proper relationship with God. 

John the Baptist knew how to wait wisely, for he saw himself in the role of the herald in the above passage from Isaiah. His mission was to prepare the way for the Lord, to open the hearts and minds of an oppressed and desperate people, bringing them to a state of repentance and expectation. It worked. People flocked to hear him and to be baptized at his hands. 

What was it that attracted them? Only this: a clear and ringing proclamation that God cared deeply for the world and for the people of Israel. Their lives and their happiness mattered to God, who was preparing to exercise His compassionate power in very dramatic ways. 

Perhaps this explains a bit of John the Baptist’s strangeness. He was an austere, ascetical sort of prophet and he preached in dramatic and even frightening ways. He could sense and feel the awesome power that was ready to break into the world and the way God’s love would sweep all before it. He felt as nothing compared to the one to come — Jesus — and he never tired of saying so. 

God waits for a critical mass of expectant and spiritually prepared souls before making the first move. That is why it is so important for Christians to fervently proclaim the joy of the Gospel in word and deed to a world that is desperate to hear it.