Second Sunday of Advent

December 4, 2011
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 40:1-11
Reading 2: 
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Reading 3: 
2 Peter 8-15a
Reading 4: 
Mark 1:1-8
By Bruce G. Epperly

Today’s passages involve both comforting the afflicted and challenging the comfortable. Ironically, this is good news in Advent, when we are tempted to be caught up in busyness and consumerism. There is wisdom in the platitude “Keep Christ in Christmas.” Amid the shopping and revels, we need to remember the deeper meaning of the holiday – God’s glorious gift to us that calls us to bless others.

We need to pause to notice our spiritual state and the quality of our relationships as a prelude to responding to God’s calls in our lives. We may not always like what we see and we need to be ready to change direction when we lose sight of God’s presence amid the quest for the right presents! Divine possibilities may not always appear pleasant, but amid the crucible of transformation we will discover new vision and a healing of our life purposes. (For more on the interplay of pause, notice, open, yield and stretch, and respond, see Gerald May, The Awakened Heart and Bruce and Katherine Epperly, Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.) 

Isaiah’s words speak of comfort and restoration. God is withdrawing punishment, forgiving their sin, and providing pathways toward tomorrow. God will care for the people with the affection of a spouse, parent, or shepherd, giving special attention to the most vulnerable among the flock, or community.

God is making a new pathway – one that involves a transformation of values and, dare we say, social location and status. The “1%” will be called to sacrifice, so that the “99%” will be elevated. This is not optional or a matter of individual generosity, but a divine command to be executed through the structures of economic and political power, given the nature of the nation’s governance. Isaiah mixes politics, economics, and religion as essential factors in national restoration.

In the midst of restoration, the people are reminded that life is brief. Cry out, “All people are grass.” We wither and perish, our national empires are eclipsed, and even the planet will dissolve in fire at some distant time. But, God’s words – God’s energy – will endure forever. We can make changes that involve sacrifice because we know we are in God’s enduring. We can depend on God rather than trusting our own power and achievement, especially when we walk through the valleys of death, disappointment, and destabilization. The fidelity of God, whose presence is revealed in possibilities, encounters, and energies, brings comfort in challenging times.

I need to point out one theologically challenging and problematic line in Isaiah’s words of comfort. The prophet, speaking for God, proclaims that “the land has received from God’s hand double for all her sins.” This hardly seems morally acceptable for a God who seeks abundant life for the world. While our sins and misdeeds have consequences in the causal order of life, this text implies that God intervenes to hurt us in ways that go beyond the normal impact of our actions. The text implies that God is really out to punish us; unfairly hurting people to bring them back to God’s mercy. To me, this sounds like an abusive parent who inflicts greater than warranted punishment to wake a child up to his or his erring ways. If anything, I believe that God moves within our personal and moral sins to help us experience repentance and a new life.

We may experience pain and suffering as a result of our behaviors, but God’s goal is for us to learn and to experience possibilities within the pain we’ve inflicted and experienced. Pruning may be painful, especially when we have to let go of harmful habits, feelings of entitlement, or the perquisites of our social and economic position; but the aim of such pruning is growth, and it is always contextual, never disproportionate. It is the healing of the surgeon or gardener who operates from love not anger.

2 Peter speaks of divine patience. The moral arc of history may appear slow to humankind, but God is at work bringing forth new possibilities for justice and transformation. In the spirit of Isaiah, 2 Peter also recognizes that life is brief and each moment precious. We need to cherish each moment by leading lives of holiness and godliness. This is not a “killjoy” spirituality but one that awakens us to God’s presence in human history and the non-human world.

Each moment is a mini-eschaton, divine possibilities and pivotal moments come like “a thief in the night,” and provide countless opportunities to move closer or further away from God’s pathways toward personal and social wholeness. Our moment-by-moment decisions open or close us to God’s coming realm. Small moment-by-moment decisions can lead to transformation of persons and communities.

Mark’s Gospel omits the birth stories and plunges straight into the ministry of John the Baptist. John offers good news through repentance. In confessing your sins and turning to healthy behaviors, we experience the joy of companionship with God. Confession is not about punishment or shame, but the recognition of our place in relationship with God and others. Do our words and actions, our thoughts and emotions, bring us closer to God or do they distance us from God’s visions for our lives? Are we growing or contracting in our care for others? Are we open to change or closed to new possibility? Confession is not about penance, but abundant life. In pruning the branches, the vine grows and we bear fruit beyond our expectations.

John’s call to repentance leads to personal and community transformation. We discover that each of us is called to “prepare the way for God” in our families, friendships, and communities. We are way-makers and way-showers in the spirit of Jesus and John the Baptist. Our preparation opens up pathways of healing, reconciliation, and blessing.

Today, such way-making involves a clear recognition of where we and our nation have failed to live up to God’s dream of the peaceable realm. It involves constructive acts – including political acts – that support the marginalized and bereft. It involves pruning away corporate as well as personal sin so that God’s realm might be on earth as it is in heaven.

Today’s readings are hopeful despite their challenges to us. They give us confidence that confession and honest self-awareness open us to God’s abundant life. They also invite us to explore the positive benefits of mortality. In recognizing our mortality – in numbering our days – we gain a greater appreciation for each day’s possibilities. “Don’t mess around. Stay awake. Seize the day. For this is the day that God has made, and I will rejoice and be glad in it.”

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He is available for lectures, workshops, and retreats.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He is available for lectures, workshops, and retreats.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He is available for lectures, workshops, and retreats.