Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Advent marks the start of the Christian year and each year we follow a different gospel for our lectionary readings. The three year cycle covers the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, whilst John gets woven in here and there. This year brings us the gospel of Mark, however, we don’t quite follow it chronologically through the year. It is on this second Sunday in Advent that we get the opening of Mark’s gospel. Last week jumped further forward.
All of the gospels begin with an account of Jesus’ origins. Matthew and Luke start with a genealogy; an account of the physical ancestry of Christ. John begins with his Prologue, revealing Jesus’ heavenly origin. Mark, by contrast, introduces Jesus by means of his cousin, John the Baptist; we encounter Jesus through the preaching of his forerunner. By framing the story with the witness of John the Baptist, Mark is signalling the revolutionary nature of his message. In Christ, something new is breaking into human history.
The theme of repentance is central to our readings this morning. The people of Israel have served a penance for their sins and long for renewal. They thought of the Messiah’s coming in political terms: the Lord would arrive, rescue Israel from the power of Rome, overthrow all her enemies and set up a new kingdom of peace and prosperity in Jerusalem. This was the feeling around when John the Baptist entered the stage. However, John had a different agenda. The character of John the Baptist cuts a rather formidable figure. He had a very specific mission.
Mark identifies John with “the voice” in Isaiah. John is God’s messenger, preparing the way for God’s promised Messiah. When John told people to make the crooked ways straight and the rough places smooth, it wasn’t about highway maintenance. John introduces a new and surprising element to his pronouncement of the coming of the Lord. God will come, not to deal with Israel’s enemies, but to transform Israel herself. John was talking about the hearts of the people. In his call to repentance, John urges people to prepare their hearts to receive Jesus when he comes among them. Instead of the ultimate punch up between God and Israel’s enemies, what was needed was a radical repentance. John had a special means to help the people to do this: baptism. He baptised them with water in the river Jordan. It was a sign of their deep-seated confession of sin. Following John’s baptism of repentance, they were at last ready to meet Jesus.
In his second letter, Peter reassures us that God is patient with us, not wanting any to perish but for all to come to repentance. There is still much need for repentance in our world today:
- Robert Mugabe has stepped down as president of Zimbabwe but shows no contrition. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has suggested that Mugabe should be asking the people of Zimbabwe for forgiveness for ruining their country and killing their relations.
- The government and security forces in Myanmar need to admit their ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya community. More than 620,000 Rohingyas have now fled Myanmar in order to avoid sharing the fate of those who have been slaughtered.
- President Trump needs to repent of igniting further bloodshed in Israel and Palestine, following his ignorant and arrogant declaration that America will now regard Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city.
Sadly, these are just three of a myriad of examples that could be cited. But of course, as the saying goes, before we can change others we must also change ourselves; we must recognise the evil in our own hearts. This week’s collect pleads for God’s deliverance from the sin and wickedness which grievously hinders us in “running the race that is set before us”. Sin has both an individual and a structural dimension. We need to acknowledge our own sinfulness as well as working for a more just social order. We may not be responsible for deaths, but there will be destructive and selfish tendencies in our own lives that need rooting out.
One way in which we can try to become more self aware is the review of the day, which comes from the teachings of St Ignatius of Loyola on the Examination of the Consciousness, or Examen. It requires the discipline of setting aside time, however long or short, to prayerfully reflect back over the day in the light of God’s presence. We consider where we were drawn towards God and where we were pulled away from God. Ultimately, the Examen is about discerning God’s action in our lives but at the same time it can expose unhealthy patterns in our lives. There is then the opportunity to say sorry to God for anything that needs repentance. The prayer time concludes with asking for God’s help for what lies ahead. If anyone would like a simple outline for doing this prayer then let me know.
In our corporate worship, confession comes towards the beginning of the service, freeing us up to engage in the rest of our worship, absolved and renewed by God’s grace. It is helpful that in different seasons of the Christian year we have alternative versions of the confession, otherwise when the words become over familiar we easily lapse into auto-pilot and don’t think about what we are saying. It takes a conscious effort to be present to what we are saying, to actually mean the words that spring forth from our mouths.
We live in a blame culture. There is not much forgiveness around. Christ came to bring forgiveness and restore our relationship with God. We are reminded of this in the Eucharist, the ultimate sacrament of reconciliation. [The Eucharistic prayer that we use in Advent specifically calls for God to send his Holy Spirit on his people.] To be “baptized with the Holy Spirit” is the seal of our relationship with God. The Holy Spirit dwells in all Christians, acting as our guide and moral compass. The Spirit is God’s gift to us as we continue on the Christian path. The hope of an eternal vindication and glory enables us to bear witness to Christ’s Kingdom of justice and peace.
Peter writes, “what sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness”? (vs11) “[S]trive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish” (vs 14)
May we be open to the sanctifying work of the Spirit in our lives, so that we may be ready to meet Christ when he comes. Amen.
Rev Lisa Cornwell