Sermon for High Mass – Advent 2 Sunday 10 December 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
The Good News begins with the sending of someone to prepare the way: a guide from the hearers’ past to their present and beyond. This is the pivot of salvation history, the moment when we move from covenant with God to encounter with God.
Soon we shall hear of Jesus sending people out to announce the good news, people whose name comes from that task, ‘apostles’. Sending out is a fundamental Christian activity; it represents the instinct behind all those centuries of Christian missionary activity, in which my own parents took part, but about which the church is become less certain in our time. And yet, as Paul reminds us, with impeccable logic:
How are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? (Romans 10.14)
Mark’s Gospel begins suddenly, ‘immediately’, as he is fond of saying. His first word is ‘beginning’ (there’s no ‘the’ in the original), which is intended to echo the first words of scripture: ‘in the beginning God created’ is now remade as ‘the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’; the new creation is announced.
Although he begins abruptly, Mark finds time to introduce a preparatory character, the sending of a guide to prepare the way. John ‘appears’: what he announces lays the ground, describes the geography of what Jesus is going to proclaim. John baptizes in the desert or wilderness as a sign of life. Water in the wilderness is a potent symbol which we, water squanderers all, rarely notice.
This wilderness is the place where the Israelites spent their forty years from the Exodus in search of the Land of promise: here they were formed into God’s people, here they experienced privation and danger and learned, through their testing to trust in the provision and protection of God. Many expected the Messiah to emerge from the wilderness. The voice crying in the wilderness in Isaiah 40, introducing Isaiah’s great vision of restoration, introduces a theme of the new Exodus, a new beginning in a wilderness transformed by the renewing power of Israel’s God. This is the right place to expect a new beginning for the people of God. The wilderness is, in the history of salvation, a turning-point, a sign of hope and fulfilment. Water in the wilderness; baptism; death & resurrection.
We are probably very familiar with this morning’s moment in Isaiah: ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God’. Handel’s Messiah has cemented the familiar repetition of it in Mark 1. But, in its familiarity, we shouldn’t miss the strength and mystery of this proclamation.
It is mysterious: an unnamed speaker calls on unspecified people to ‘comfort’ Jerusalem. ‘Comfort’ in Hebrew is, I believe, much stronger than in English: it is the opposite of that deadly phrase, ‘religion is such a comfort’. It is strong and active. ‘Comfort’ in Hebrew conveys a promise of action, of hope for the future: it is how a prisoner of conscience such as Asia Bibi, for whom we pray daily, would feel if told she were to be freed. That’s comfort. New life. Water in the desert. And our baptism.
Then comes a strange command from another voice to people, again unspecified, to build a highway for God in the desert. This probably refers, originally, to the building of ceremonial walkways in Babylon (where the prophet is in exile); walkways along which the images of gods were processed: so it transforms a symbol of hated idolatry into ‘the way of the Lord’. The image is complex: this is a ceremonial highway for God’s grand entrance, but it is also a route along which God will lead his people from exile in Babylon to freedom in their own land.
Gustavo Gutierrez, the pioneer of South American liberation theology, puts these two texts, Isaiah and Mark, together beautifully:
John baptizes in the desert as a sign of life, and he calls for repentance, namely to change what must be changed, to straighten what is crooked, to seek justice and to prepare earnestly for the encounter with the Lord who comes daily in the midst of what is insignificant to this world. … It is necessary to change the root of personal behaviour, but the results have to be substantial: the valleys will be lifted up and the mountains made low. This is not something superficial. With the Lord’s coming into history and into our lives, the panorama will be different with the advent of God’s kingdom.
That’s crucial: this celebration reminds us that our faith must make different people of us, not for a moment but for a lifetime. As our second reading, from 2 Peter (3.11), said to us:
What sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness.
John’s testimony is one of humility. He does not obstruct the Lord’s way but points it out. He bears witness to Jesus not to himself, as must we. The common ground of their two proclamations is the call for repentance: a change in personal topography. A Christian community which proclaims and affirms itself is hiding the presence of the Lord, not preparing his way, not being ‘apostolic’, not sending anyone or anything out. We prepare for God’s coming by being sent out that door; what we do together here is the pinnacle of worship but only because it nourishes what we do afterwards, which is worship also. To say that Advent is the time when we prepare for the Lord’s coming is to say that this season, and all our life in the Church, is the time given to us to prepare for our encounter with Jesus Christ.
Classical accounts of the spiritual life propose three stages of which this encounter is the pivot, just as it is in the story of salvation. We move from a covenant relationship with a distant deity to a personal encounter with the incarnate Christ, of which our baptism is the sign and pledge. The third stage is incorporation, full membership of Christ’s Body, as Paul describes it, which is enacted in the course of the liturgical year where the opportunity for growth is repeatedly offered to us.
The Lord will fulfil his promise, as he always does, and he invites us to a radical change in our topographical perspective; he sends us out from every Mass to look afresh at the world, with all the difficult geography of our life flattened out, the better to see and follow him.
Let us pray.
Stir up within us, O God of peace and mercy, a sincere desire for repentance, that baptized with the Holy Spirit and enkindled by the fire of your love, we may bring to every circumstance and setting the justice, gentleness and peace that the incarnation of your Word has caused to sprout up and blossom upon the earth. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.