Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; II Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8 Oremus Bible Browser

“Where will we go, to what will we listen, what will we follow?”

“see yourself in the story”

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

The second Sunday of Advent gives us an opportunity, because we’re not too far in and we’re also not too far away, so it’s a lovely point at which to take the opportunity to ask where are we going, maybe to reflect on what is it that is leading us, or perhaps, what are we following? And as we begin to contemplate those questions, also to look at what our expectations are - what is it that we expect to find when we get to Christmas?

Walking around the shops and around town, I’m not sure, but I just had this thought the other day that the religious symbols are starting to thin out and it was – I mean, I actually like Christmas, I like shops at Christmas - I’m really pleased that Myers have pinched - we had a discussion as to what some of the liturgical symbols might be over Christmas and things like the star came into it, that Myers rapidly adopted. But it’s not long ago, I don’t think, that you actually used to see nativity scenes in windows, you’d actually see some of the more natural icons of Christmas. Many of those have now been stylised, which is delightful - we still lust after an inflatable Christmas tree because they just look so ... different. The fastest selling Christmas tree at the Christmas shop this year was a black one - they’ve sold out of black Christmas trees - and just imagine how stunning it looks if you walk into a house that is fairly simple - white walls - and a beautiful black tree with silver and gold balls. You can almost picture that there’s an aesthetic delight that we are being given that is wonderful, but there’s a shift as we do it. It’s almost as if we’re reframing, recasting, the symbols, taking them out of their story, until such time as we’ve stripped the story of them. I just wonder whether, in a beautiful way, we are actually accelerating the secularisation of Christmas; we are moving faster than last year away from it, rather than toward it.

It therefore makes it harder for us to actually connect with, what are the questions that I’m holding at this time of year, because the distractions, the tinsel, the glitter, the delightful beauty, is there to feast us with, maybe to keep us away from asking, ‘Where is it that I am going, what’s leading me, what am I following, what do I expect to find?’

I also think at this time of year about the three wise ones, the ones that used to be called the three kings or the Magi. And I think about them because I think they’ve already set out on their journey, they’re actually on their way. And when they set out they’re unsure of where they’re going, but they’re clear about who’s leading them. They’re being led away from their own culture, they’re being led away from their own home and family, and they’re being led toward an expectation of a new rule, a new king, a new world order. And they’re on their way.

I’m not suggesting that we all nick out and buy three camels and start heading off. But if we stay with the question - that journey, the whole purpose of that journey being told is, it is a journey for us to make within, and also within community and within the world. It’s a journey that we are called to make. And if we look at the readings that we get today, because the whole - the readings of Advent really are there to assist us. Not so much to teach - you can study them for as long as you like and read the best minds on the readings and still draw a blank - or you can look at them and see yourself in them, see your face reflected in them and see that there is another way of seeing.

The reading from Isaiah - it’s really interesting because it too talks about movement. It talks about journey and the place of that is in the wilderness. ‘In the wilderness I will make straight, I will lift up, I will make low’ - there will be a becoming-level in the wilderness. We get that in verse 3; by the time we get to verse 5 we realise why all this wilderness road-works is going on: ‘Because then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed’. I wonder how many times we thought of our encounter with the Divine that way round? Remember the Church selling that package called conversion? You know – ‘we’ve got this, give to you and you’re converted, you’re now a Christian and everything’s OK’. What Isaiah says, I think is really, really helpful: it’s not going to come to you, it’s not going to be given to you, in the wilderness, there is a way being prepared, but only in walking that way - that’s where the ‘then’ comes, it’s a really important ‘then’, - then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. Sometimes I think we’re waiting for the glory of the Lord to be revealed - if I sit here, then it will be revealed at some point, then I can go on my journey. It’s the other way round.

Isaiah also calls us to repent - that doesn’t mean to confess to all those silly things that we do in our humanity, rather it means doing what the three wise ones have done. It means we will be called to turn and walk a different way, to go in another direction, to change, to move on a different path, and that movement will lead us to, can lead us to, the glory of the Lord that shall be revealed. The movement comes first, once we repent we make that change, we make that turn.

The second reading from 2 Peter picks up in verse 9 a lovely image of Advent but from the other way round. ‘The Lord is not slow about his promise as some think of slowness, but is patient. He is patient with you.’ I think what we get in that reading from 2 Peter is Advent from God’s perspective - the Lord is not slow, but patient with you, waiting for all to come to repentance. There is a lot - we read a lot about the waiting of God, the waiting on God in Advent. It’s really interesting to see in this reading the perspective that says, God is patient, and the patience, the trust and the faithfulness, is toward us in coming to God. Pretty good to get, because there ‘s a paradox that starts to get set up. We start thinking, now hang a minute, who’s coming to who, who’s going to where; am I moving to Christmas, is Christmas coming to me? If I sit here and do nothing Christmas will still come. Am I moving toward the Divine or is the Divine going to be gifted to me at Christmas? Will the heavens be opened and this little child be given to us? Again, we go back to the question, where are we going; where am I going; what is leading us; what am I following, what are my expectations?

The image that Isaiah uses is the image of the shepherd: ‘He will feed his flock like a shepherd’ - another clue into this journey into Advent - he will feed his flock like a shepherd. Now Isaiah could have picked any image of feeding - ‘he feeds his child like a mother’ - any image. He chose this one, ‘he will feed his flock like a shepherd’. Like a shepherd, he will lead them to good pasture, he will provide the abundance for them, and the shepherd has an assumption that if I do that for my sheep they will eat. You don’t see many shepherds leading their sheep to green pasture, picking it and ramming it down their throats. The idea is that once led there, if the way is prepared we surely will walk the way; we’re not going to be spoon-fed, we’re being led by a shepherd who is patient and who will wait until we wake up and see the green grass around us and think, ‘That is what I will eat, that is what I will feed on’.

Certainly when Peter wrote this he wasn’t surrounded by shopping malls that had all those twinkling lights and black Christmas trees with their silver baubles as a distraction. So sure we might not yet see the way that is prepared, but there is a real sense that the way is prepared: the shepherd has shown us the way. It’s now up to us to initiate the movement that will then reveal the glory of God. So we’re actually in this state at the moment of stunning patience, and probably have been for two thousand plus years - the Divine patiently waiting for us to move, us patiently waiting for the Divine to be revealed. It’s a lovely time of year, but it is a time that requires of us movement.

What we find in the gospel reading, we begin to get an introduction to - I’m sure this reading is picked purely so that the echo of Isaiah, those who are a bit iffy about prophesy can actually find prophesies spoken in a more realistic way, a bit more up to date. John the Baptist is a little bit more historically available than these prophets that spoke God’s word. And what we find in that reading is, in verse 5, the people actually went out to John; John didn’t come to the people. Gosh, maybe we shouldn’t be sitting waiting! There was voice in the wilderness - John didn’t go round telling people, John was preparing the way and that required of people a movement to the point to even begin to start that journey. John is often portrayed as the forerunner, the herald, the one who brings the good news, but really - and we’ll come to that next Sunday, we will certainly hear more about John the Baptist – it’s helpful though to see John, as a possible proto-Christian, the prototype. It’s sometimes helpful to see many of the characters – Mary, Paul, Peter, Stephen, the one they threw stones at - see them as prototypes, archetypes of a way of being that is within us. And what we find is that people go out to John, they move in order that they can acknowledge the change that is required and the change that will bring about a change to the whole world order - the same change, the same expectation that has sent the three wise ones on their journey from the East. They’re moving towards it, others have gone out to John to hear it. Our decision now is, what do we do with it, where will we go, to what will we listen, what will we follow? One of the things that is also clear in the reading from Mark is that it is not John: ‘Don’t come and worship me,’ says John, ‘for there is another and the other is revealed in power’.

As we move towards Christmas maybe we also ought to be considering about where is the power in our lives, where are we empowered, where are we disempowered? Recognise that there is a power to be revealed that will change the world so that then the glory of God shall be revealed. Try and piece the story together that way round and we recognise that each of us, individually and together, have an amazing part to play in anyone’s expectations this Christmas.

Peter Humphris

Textweek Advent 2