Advent 2 B 10-12-2017 A & C Isa 40 1-11; Mk 1 1-8
In Pretoria RSA, down the hill from the Union Buildings – the very imposing parliament – there’s a colossal bronze statue of Nelson Mandela striding out over the city. He has his arms stretched out invitingly, and he has a beautiful smile on his face. It’s a welcoming statue, very like Silvio’s beautiful welcoming Christ in the Crafers Memorial Garden. And yet it’s also a reminder – a caution. Mandela’s life, his words and his actions are the measuring stick by which people judge everything that is done in South African public life today. And sadly, much of what’s happening these days falls badly short of this gracious standard.
Every now and then, somewhere around the world, a woman or a man will emerge whose life and words carry a huge moral authority. These people tell us that the world’s mountains of injustice and wrong and misery can be dealt with, and we believe them. They challenge us and we listen. Even though they make us feel very uncomfortable, our hackles don’t rise in defiance, because we know deep down that their challenge is justified. So we try to change. Who is / has been like that in your life, I wonder?
We heard from two such people today: Isaiah and John the Baptist; just such people for the world of their time. Both of them called normal, decent people to turn from familiar, mundane lives and head off into the wilderness. They called people to leave things behind and risk going to unthinkable places. Isaiah called to exiled Jews in Babylon; leave your homes and journey into the desert. It was like Abraham’s call all over again. And J. Bap called people to leave their homes in Jerusalem and Judea and go to the wilderness to receive his baptism of repentance.
Isaiah and John called them and they call us to leave our habitual life behind; to set aside our routine priorities which insulate us from life’s big questions. Isaiah and John call us to the wilderness – where people come face to face with God. They call us to turn (repent); to risk being truly exposed to God. How can we do this now?
The scriptures we hear in Advent call us to turn; to give and receive forgiveness; a process that might better be called healing. It’s what happens when we are restored to fellowship with our God and our world; re-connected with the source of our life; being made whole again where once we were broken. Cf iodine’s sting.
There’s a close link between the lives of people in physical exile and the lives of people in emotional and spiritual exile. Neither experiences all that their life can be. Today we’ve heard how God longs to reach people who are disconnected; people who don’t choose it, yet are cut off; but also people who choose disconnection.
The Jews Isaiah cried out to in chapter 40 were born in exile. Babylon was all they knew. They were a subject people, but they could own land, and they did have some religious freedom. For slaves, they were pretty comfortable really. So what was wrong? What more could they want? Well they didn’t know what more there was. They were God’s people; they knew that. But they weren’t living in the land of God’s people. They were cut off from its promises; from its history; and also, as slaves, they were cut off from shaping their community life according to their calling as God’s people. Isaiah promises these people a healing re-union with God. They’re lost, but their shepherd God is coming; coming to take them home.
John the Baptist is like Isaiah; he also calls out to people who’d go on living a half-life if he hadn’t been sent to wake them up. But they are living in the Holy Land this time! What’s wrong with them now? John calls people out of their everyday lifestyles and into the wilderness. John quotes Isaiah to help them and us remember our ancestors’ exile. People responded and thronged to John. He’d reminded them that they were like their exiled ancestors; living oblivious to their disconnectedness. So they responded to his call to repent; to turn and discover a new and more complete way to be with God. He tells them to watch with him for the one who will come; someone so wonderful that the Baptist feels unworthy to undo the strap of his sandals. He’s coming, ready or not. And that’s the great challenge of Advent.
Are we ready? Do we even know we’re waiting, or who it is we’re waiting for? If we’re half asleep – or if our nation seems asleep to the piercing cries for justice, mercy, peace, forgiveness, generosity, and thankfulness – asleep to the world’s desperate need for God’s love – then Advent is what’s needed. Advent – waiting for the Christ-child to come – it’s a wake-up call. Advent says it’s time to wake the world up. Christ must be fully alive in us and speak clearly through us today. Wake up! Get ready! He might have gone for a time, but he will return. And we’d better make sure everyone’s fully conscious – not half-living; not content with a passive, out-sourced responsibility for our time here. We must be fully alive.
So in Advent, we remember why we need him to come. We turn from our own lost-ness; our brokenness; our disconnectedness and face God’s love for a broken world. Today’s scriptures call us to wake up and journey out to meet him. It’s a journey that leaves comfort behind and risks desert and wilderness to seek God who is coming for us, and who will call us to account for the state of the world. Each year we renew our commitment to this journey – our commitment to be ready to meet this one who’s come once and is coming again; this Jesus.
The Advent call is one to leave behind the comfort of what we know. It’s a call to wake up; a call to be ready.
God’s challenge in these readings is for us to turn to the desert – turn to the wilderness – and prepare to travel through it. But not prepare with a GPS and air-conditioning; not take our comforts with us. They’re not what it’s about – that’s half-living. If we listen honestly for the call, we will know which way to go. Isaiah and John tell us the call will come from a frightening emptiness. We listen for the call, recognise it for what it is, and together, set out into the wilderness. The heat we sense is the Spirit burning with life within us; and the honest sweat of doing justice. And gradually, ever more clearly, we will discern Jesus coming to meet us.
Our task in prayer for this second week of Advent is to listen for the call, to dare to turn towards it, and to step out in faith towards this wholeness.