December 11, 2017
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Isaiah 40:1-11||Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13||2 Peter 3:8-15a||Mark 1:1-8|
by David Grant Smith
The Season of Advent is associated with the word “wait.” Waiting is most often considered in passive terms; when we wait, we usually are waiting for someone to arrive or for something to happen. But this week’s readings affirm the biblical notion that waiting isn’t passive – it’s active. Our passive waiting needs to be transformed into active preparation. God calls us to actively prepare in this moment for what will be in the next.
The first eleven verses of Isaiah 40 contain many beloved phrases which are often quoted during Advent. Most of these verses found their way into many of our hearts through the libretto of Georg Frederick Handel’s Messiah. In the context of that oratorio these verses speak of preparing a way for a messianic presence among the ancient Israelites. However, in its original context this passage was a message of hope and comfort, anticipating deliverance from being held in exile in Babylon.
In the exilic context, the first form of active waiting is to be done by the wilderness – the rugged terrain over which the exiles will return home will become a level pathway over which God will lead them home. The next active waiting is to be done is by the prophet himself, who is to proclaim that even though people’s lives are transitory, God’s word abides forever – an affirmation that God’s love and care for the people is ongoing. The final piece of active waiting is to be done by Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, who are to lift up their voices in songs of praise for God’s work among both them and the returning exiles. In short, the active work of waiting is to be done by everyone in anticipation of the new thing which God wants to bring about in and through them – even the wilderness! The preparation is being done collaboratively by God, God’s people, and creation itself.
The response to the Isaiah reading this week is found in Psalm 85. The psalmist begins by stating that God has extended grace to the people of Israel by returning them from exile (v. 1-2). The verses omitted by the Revised Common Lectionary form a lament, possibly in response to some calamity which has befallen the Israelites following their return from exile in Babylon. In verses 8-9, the psalmist takes on a prophetic nature assuring Israel that “God will speak peace to his people” (NRSV), or alternatively “is speaking peace to his faithful people” (The Book of Common Prayer). From a process perspective, this is an opportunity to reflect on what we understand to be God’s initial aim as an extension of the primordial nature of God, always luring life toward beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, love, and justice. Verses 10-13 form a prophetic hymn, anticipating the concrescences which will occur because of the Israelites doing their part to embody (or incarnate) the initial aim. This psalm sings of the interrelatedness of God and the world in exceedingly beautiful poetic language. It will be good to look at many translations of this psalm in order to select one which seems to “sing” and resonate most effectively with one’s congregation. Poetry can be made or broken by translation!
Fast forwarding some 600-or-so years from Isaiah 40 and Psalm 85, this week’s reading from 2 Peter is part of a discourse in which the author is charging the community of faith to both be patient for and be ready for what many scriptural passages refer to as “the day of the Lord.” Just a few weeks ago on 12 November (Year A, Proper 27), one of the options for the first reading was Amos 5:18-24, the first three verses of which resonate profoundly with this week’s reading from 2 Peter:
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it? (NRSV)
The implication in both readings is that there are those who are urgently hoping for “the day of the Lord” to come swiftly; but both Amos and the author of 2 Peter are saying to their communities “be careful what you pray for because you just might get it.” The day of the Lord was understood in both contexts to be a specific point in time (though when it would come, no one knew) in which God would cause all people to know whether they were living in accordance with God and God’s purposes – whether they were acting in love toward both God and their neighbors. It was understood to be a day of judgment.
The author of 2 Peter was urging the faithful to ultimately see every day as an opportunity for that kind of judgment and accountability. We need not wait for a moment in the future when God will act to bring that upon us; we can work together with God in the here-and-now to pave the way for that future time in which will come to fruition, as Jesus taught his disciples to pray, the notion of “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” The active work of waiting and preparation found in this reading is twofold: on the one hand there is the ongoing work of discerning how we can actively work to bring about God’s will in the here-and-now, and on the other hand there is the ongoing discernment work of repentance. It should be noted, though, that repentance in a true biblical understanding isn’t simply lamenting and being sorry for our sins (though that can be a piece of it). Rather, repentance is the ongoing spiritual discipline of the continual self-examination of our lives (Am I living in right relationship with God and God’s purposes, and am I loving my neighbor as myself?), and then constantly reorienting ourselves toward that ultimate goal of having God’s will be done on earth.
Another approach to this reading from 2 Peter is to address the impatience which some people feel about whatever they feel “the day of the Lord” might be for them personally rather than cosmically. There may be some in our congregations who may not be anxiously anticipating Jesus’ return to be the judge of the living and the dead; but they are impatient with themselves, and how they want God to be acting in their lives toward whatever they may understand “the day of the Lord” to mean for their own lives – healing, deeper understanding, personal growth, quitting bad habits, faithfulness in spiritual practices, reconciliation in relationships. The challenges they face and the transformation they seek – whatever those may be – simply haven’t come to pass yet. Advent is a season in which we observe the cosmic reality of living life simultaneously in the already and the not-yet. Our lives, as well as our relationships with God and with others, are all in process – a constant state of flux. Because we haven’t “arrived,” though, doesn’t mean that there isn’t progress, that there isn’t a process. God is always present with us, always luring us toward better possible outcomes, always working for transformation in us and through us. We must learn to be as patient with ourselves as God is with us, and as loving toward ourselves as God is. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a Jesuit priest and paleontologist, wrote a magnificent poem, “Above all, trust in the slow work of God,” which would be worth sharing in the context of Advent. In a very pastoral manner, this poem lovingly frames the notion that while we want God to be at work in our lives, we need to trust that God’s loving presence and work are always ongoing, even when we can’t see it for ourselves. The poem could work well within the context of a sermon; but it could also work well as a responsive reading, and/or phrases of it could be used to help structure the congregation’s prayers, or even a benediction and/or dismissal at the end of worship.
The Gospel reading this week is the prologue to the Gospel of Mark, and includes a reframing of this week’s Isaiah reading, taking it from the context of the end of the exile and moving it into an anticipation of the coming of the Messiah (in Hebrew) or the Christ (in Greek). The baptism which John offered was one which marked the spiritual practice of confessing one’s sins (falling short of the commandment to love God and one’s neighbor) and repentance (reorienting one’s life toward the commandment to love God and one’s neighbor). In addition to calling his contemporaries to amend their lives, John also was urging them to be expectant of someone “more powerful” and more “worthy” than he was – someone who would “baptize [them] with the Holy Spirit.”
John’s message, brief as it is in Mark’s account, was a call to be active participants in anticipating something greater. The implication in Mark’s telling (as well as the other Gospel writers) is that they were to specifically be anticipating and looking for Jesus. But in broader terms, John’s message was a call to live life always being open to an ever evolving sense of great things happening in the open future which is always filled with great possibilities when God and humanity work together to change the world we live in. Advent recalls the expectation of the birth of a certain baby; but it also points us to the fact that we live in between the already and the not-yet. We have already experienced great things through the proclamation of the prophets and John the Baptizer, as well as the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But, as the United Church of Christ slogan points out, “God is still speaking.” Greater things than we have known are always part of the open future before us. How might we live our lives in anticipation of God’s greatness? How might we prepare ourselves to be participants in joining with the initial aim by bringing new and great possibilities to our world? To live in such active expectation is what it means to be waiting, putting passivity behind us, and actively holding an adventurous and open future before ourselves and each other.
The Rev. David Grant Smith is a priest in the Episcopal Church, and is presently pursuing the D.Min. degree at Claremont School of Theology, focusing his studies on process theology as a resource for parish ministry and spiritual care. While at CST, David is thrilled to be currently working as the student assistant for Process & Faith. He has served in both parish ministry (Episcopal Diocese of Rochester) and as a hospital chaplain (Christiana Hospital in Newark, DE; and the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD). Prior to ordination, David worked for many years as a lay professional, serving as pastoral associate, choir director, organist, and minister of music. In addition to his interests in weaving Process Theology in and through preaching, liturgy, teaching, and pastoral care, David enjoys travel, writing, tea, wine, and spending time with family & friends.