December 10, 2024

The Second Sunday of Advent

December 10, 2023

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

From the Gospel according to Mark, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. I speak to you in the Name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifying Sustainer. Amen.

     Today’s scripture lessons on this 2nd Sunday in Advent offer several themes all of which are relevant to our Advent preparations. But there is one overarching theme that I think as followers of Jesus it is easy to overlook. See, during these four weeks of inward examination of our values and maybe even a renewed commitment to amend our lives in anticipation of the birth of Christ long ago and his eventual return, we need to remember what today’s lessons affirm: We know and serve a God of second chances. And that today – just like every day - offers opportunities for new beginnings.

That is the message of our Old Testament reading from the Prophet Isaiah. Written during the latter half of their dreadful Babylonian exile, Isaiah proclaimed that the people of Israel had suffered long enough; God was willing to wipe the slate clean; it was time for them to get on with life and live into their Covenant promises with God and prepare for the arrival of their Messiah. Using almost poetic language, Isaiah speaks about valleys being lifted up and hills leveled, crooked paths made straight or, as our Revised Standard Version puts it, “the uneven ground … become(s) level” and rough places smoothed out. Those images hold significant meaning for the people of Israel and for us as well.

See, these images remind the people of how they lost their way in the first place: how idolatry had led them into slavery once more. It all began innocently enough. In an effort to keep peace with neighboring nations, the people of Israel allowed other gods to influence their lives and their culture in direct violation of the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods but me.” And like all sin, eventually it fooled them into thinking that because they were God’s chosen people, how they chose to live didn’t matter.

Now, it’s not that there were not religious. The valley Isaiah speaks of recalls how people gathered in the valleys to offer sacrifices. But not sacrifices to God, but to Molech, the false god of the Ammonites. And those sacrifices were human sacrifices: they sacrificed their own children. The hills and mountains became places of pilgrimage where people made arduous treks and upon reaching the top set up shrines to Baal and the other false gods of the Canaanites. And as for their paths, Isaiah recalls how both politically and religiously the nation of Israel had strayed so far from God’s ways that preserving one’s self-interest was now the most important thing in life; that it was okay to lie to and cheat their neighbor, and completely neglect the poor and needy. And their once great nation fell into ruin.

It is into this time of bondage that the Prophet proclaims that God has not forgotten them and aches to be in relationship with them once again. The Prophet says, “Get up.” It’s time to come home and be the people God has called you to be. He affirms that God has promised to send a Messiah – someone to redeem them – and Isaiah says God’s people will know the Messiah has come when they hear, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness ‘prepare the way of the Lord.’” And that cry will be good news.

     Over five hundred years later, Mark proclaims that today that promised redemption is here. And it begins with John the Baptizer, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” who cries out, ’Prepare the way of the Lord…’” Mark says this is the moment: the day of redemption has come just as Isaiah promised. Mark then goes on to describe John as, “clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt…, and (eating) locusts and wild honey.” Not only is his garb and diet reminiscent of the Prophet Elijah, but based upon the Book of the Prophet Malachi – and I urge you to read it this afternoon – Jews believe that the arrival of the Messiah will be preceded by a new Elijah and Christians believe that prophet was and is John.

And like Isaiah and, for that matter, Malachi, John proclaims that forgiveness is possible right now; there is always a chance to start over again regardless of how far you have strayed from God’s ways. How is that possible? John says that while he baptizes with water, Jesus Christ baptizes with the Holy Spirit” – the very breath of God - and the breath will change who you are and how you choose to live. All that one need do to know and embrace that changed life is repent, and return or commit to walk in the ways of God.

    Years later, Peter writes to a discouraged church that having been persecuted every day by political and religious authorities, and yet, still committed to walking in the footsteps of Jesus and the ways of God, grew tired of waiting for Christ to return. Peter reminds them that like Isaiah and all the prophets affirm, the Lord is not slow about his promises, but rather, God is patient “not wanting any to perish.” God’s timing is always a mystery and yet, the scriptures and history have shown time and again that God is always faithful to God’s promises. Therefore, Peter says, get your house in order: seek to lead “lives of holiness and godliness” for people who are holy and godly have this in common: They have no other gods but Yahweh; they walk with integrity and love their neighbor, and as Peter says, they are “at peace, without spot or blemish...” They, we, stand ready to meet Christ and to be Christ in our communities and the world. God’s people are walking examples of second chances. We acknowledge that God will always forgive those who ask and, as God’s people, we, too, must be willing to forgive, to offer everyone a second chance.

     Our lessons affirm that in spite of our circumstances, in spite of our fears, in spite of our bad choices, our sins or refusal to walk in the ways of God or uphold the values of God, God always offers a second chance – and another and another and another and another and another and another chance: an opportunity to embrace and truly embody all that God’s love calls us to embody and demonstrate. And that, beloved is good news. And it is made possible through the person whose birth we prepare to celebrate and whose return we await: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whose presence alive in us offers to change us and the world. That is the hope of Advent and the joy of Christmas.

     “Today is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. By God’s grace let us, as our opening Collect said, prepare our hearts and minds – prepare the way of the Lord – and greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ today and always. Amen.