The Holy Gospel according to Mark.
Glory to you, O Lord.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight, “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ.
Now let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and Redeemer
When I was in seminary I often thought eventually I might want to be a college campus pastor, or maybe teach in a seminary. I have always enjoyed that age group and our current generation of college students is uniquely resilient, having emerged through the COVID pandemic. But the more time I spend in parish ministry I realize that it’s not just college students that have become resilient but our society has as well. We all have lived in a time when talking about mental health is encouraged and not taboo. We have learned the language of self- awareness and emotional intelligence.
Influenced by the Me Too movement, we daee cultivated an appreciation for clear boundaries, we have strong ideals regarding justice, and we possess strong moral opinions about right and wrong, good and evil.
We have become more are in touch with our beliefs, our needs, and our visions for an ideal world. This is a good thing. There are shadow sides to this self- awareness, though. Boundaries can become dividing walls. Advocacy can turn to judgment. Self-care can turn to disengagement. Emotional self-protection can lead to entitlement or defensiveness. This can all lead to rejection of or even disgust with the normal human experience of discomfort.
We as a society are frequently talking about how to normalize discomfort as a necessary and valuable part of personal development. We also continue to wrestle with how best to equip ourselves and our society with the skills to navigate discomfort and how best to support each.
In our Isaiah text he proclaims words of comfort to those who have experienced something far beyond discomfort. Israel is emerging from destruction and exile, suffering and devastation beyond what we would ever try to describe simply as “character building.” For these exiles, comfort comes through the prophet’s words. Comfort sounds like the assurance that the worst is over; it looks like a return home. It feels like creation restored and a clear path forward. Comfort resides in the glory and might of a victorious God, and it is poured out in God’s promises.
But let us not forget, it was the desire to remain comfortable that led Israel to the wilderness of exile in the first place.
Early oracles in the book of Isaiah proclaim God’s judgment against all the ways the people have mortgaged faithfulness for comfort: hoarding wealth, protecting privilege, and garnering favor through political and military conniving. It seems, from reading Isaiah, that there is a clear distinction between being comfortable and receiving comfort.
Being comfortable involves the pursuit of self-interest, even seemingly well- meaning self-interest. We speak of things like “creature comforts.” We refer to the ability to attain basic luxuries with relative ease as “making a comfortable living.” Tried-and-true methods, ideas, and even relationships are described as being “as comfortable as an old shoe.” These idioms represent values of familiarity and ease. They convey feelings of suspicion about newness and change.
Receiving comfort, on the other hand, is what God promises to those who navigate the wilderness. The wilderness is inherently a place of discomfort. In scripture and literature, wilderness represents that which is unknown, uncontrolled, and challenging. It evokes a sense of vulnerability and exposure. But wilderness also implies growth, journey, and the possibility for divine encounter. Think Moses and the burning bush, Elijah and the still-small voice, Hagar and the well, Jesus after his baptism, and, in this week’s gospel reading, John the Baptizer.
This is where we find ourselves this second Sunday of Advent. The music of carols on mall loudspeakers and the virtually constant bombardment of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus, The Grinch, White Christmas, and more. Advent is the season of preparation. The Advent wreath’s first candle has already begun to burn lower. This weekend we light the second. Now, it is time to address some significant questions. In our world today.. What are we preparing for? Who needs to be prepared? Who will prepare them?
What we are preparing for is the easiest question. Our songs and texts of Advent make it clear that we are preparing for the kingdom of God. Think of the words we pray so often: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” That is what we prepare for and work for, today, and every day, here, and wherever we are.
Fortunately, we do not need to invest in camel’s hair and leather wardrobes, or check out the Internet for a good source of locusts and wild honey. We do, however, need to be very clear about who it is who needs to be prepared and who will do the work of preparation.
The answer to the second question, of who needs to be prepared, is much bigger for us than it would have been for Isaiah. Isaiah spoke to those who believed themselves to be God’s chosen people. Abraham was the one whom God told that his descendants would be a witness to God’s presence in the world. They grew from a tribe of nomads into a small nation of sheepherders, farmers, and merchants. They may have been the main characters in the familiar stories that make up the Hebrew Scriptures, but they were very minor players in the empires that came and went in that part of the world.
In this time of the global economy, for us, the answer to who needs to be prepared is the whole world. It is everyone included in the instruction to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Now, let us consider the final question. Who will prepare the way? Isaiah and John have become the stuff of legends. The disciples are history. But we are gathered today as a community of believers.
- We believe that God so loved the world that he sent his only son that we might have eternal life.
- We believe that all who choose to truly repent will be forgiven.
- We believe that nothing of this earth can separate us from the love of God.
Like John, we are not the way, but we know the way. It would seem that we are today’s prophets. We are the ones who can give voice to the good news that Christ has died. Christ has risen. And Christ will come again. We know what we are getting ready for. If we do not share that, who will?
We can thank American humorist Finley Peter Dunne for coining the phrase “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” He was talking about newspapers, but his words have theological merit as well. The promises of God are not comfortable. Mountains will be brought low and valleys raised up. The powerful will be humbled and the vulnerable lifted. These reversals bring comfort to those who are despairing and in exile, even as they bring discomfort to those who are accustomed to privilege.
Discomfort is holy, when it leads us to deeper love for God and neighbor. It is sacred when it spurs our hearts to love and good deeds. It is a blessing when it drives us to seek justice and liberation. It does not cut us off from God’s promises of comfort but rather makes space for us to receive them.