Isa 40.1-5, 9-11;
II Pet 3.8-14;
Our first reading from the prophet Isaiah would have been very familiar to pious Jews. It is full of potential energy waiting to be released. Isaiah promises that God will come among his people. A messenger announces, “Here is your God.” In one sense this will be a comfort: “he is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms.” How reassuring! But there are also images of huge disturbance – a straight highway across the desert, every valley being filled in, every mountain and hill being laid low. Let’s think of building a huge motorway: enormous machinery, the movement of vast quantities of earth or rock, scars on the landscape, embankments, cuttings, tunnels, and bridges. Isaiah paints this alteration as part of the action taken in expectation of the Messiah.
Opening the first page of a new book can be exciting. The Gospel According to St- Mark has a special writing style. Mark opens his story with the words, “The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”: The Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God has been building up for generations, stretching as far back as the creation of the universe. However, Mark decided to refer to a previous writer’s anticipation of the coming of the central character. It is Isaiah’s prophecy that a messenger will come to announce the imminent arrival of The Messiah. With hindsight, we can see His coming prefigured in the events and words of the Old Testament. Mark the Evangelist also prepares the ground before introducing Jesus Christ by opening his account with the figure of Saint John the Baptist.
As a man, John was a striking, figure. His message struck a chord in the hearts of people who were steeped in the Jewish tradition of expectation. A Messiah would one day come and God would achieve greater works than had ever been seen. Saint John the Baptist, the voice crying in the wilderness, brings the whole of this message, both the reassurance of comfort and the promise of upheaval on a scale hardly imagined. The Fathers of the Church sometimes see John the Baptist as the bridge between the Old and New Covenants. He opens up a new era in which God’s promises will be fulfilled. We can imagine the apprehension in the hearts of people who heard him preaching in the Judean Desert. After hearing this, can we go back to feeling reassured, comfortable, and cozy in our faith?
Many who encountered Saint John the Baptist in the desert were probably comfortable in their spiritual lives before the meeting. I doubt whether they felt comfortable afterward. In the Gospels, Our Lord brings comfort and peace to some troubled souls but equally brings trouble to those who had been comfortable and peaceful. People were called away from secure jobs or had their whole world disrupted by Him. This foreshadows the vision of the Kingdom of God in the Magnificat where the mighty are brought down while the lowly are exalted; where the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty.
Saint Peter’s words, in the second reading do at least reassure us that “the Lord is being patient with you all, wanting nobody to be lost and everybody to be brought to change his ways.” He also warns, “The Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then with a roar the sky will vanish, the elements will catch fire and fall apart.”
In Advent, we wait on God’s promises of fulfillment in our earthly lives and eternal happiness. The Old Testament and the New, and the life of the Church past and present, show that fulfillment rarely means a lifetime of comfortable religion. Yet, when the hills are torn down around us and the valleys are being filled in, God reassures us today that he is near at hand and is helping us prepare, with confidence and joy, to meet him.
Fr Joseph Osho