Year B — The Second Sunday of Advent

Commentary for December 4, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Isaiah 40:1-11  
The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” I live in the Appalachian Mountains. I recently ran across a coffee table book in a local book store. It was a collection of “Then and Now” photographs from various small towns in western North Carolina. The photographer had taken great pains in his 1990s shots to exactly recreate the camera angle and location of the 1880s photos in order to show how things had changed in 100+ years. As fascinating as the commercial changes in buildings roads and utility poles were, I was even more fascinated by the changes one could detect in the environment; changes that were not man made but were natural and ongoing. “Nothing lasts forever,” I thought. And then I remembered this text. These early Sundays in Advent remind us that to put our hope and trust in anything but God’s promises is a fool’s bargain. Whether we trust in technology or psychology or political movements or, or, or . . . it is all like the grass and the flower; they fade and wither and only God’s word, God’s promise of hope and blessing, will endure.
Psalm 85:1-2; 8-13  
(Look back to our post for Pentecost 8, August 7, for a very interesting note from regular reader Ruth Hamilton. It is a beautiful image of reconciliation drawn from medieval art and piety.)  

A very important struggle for those of us who embrace any form of the Social Gospel, the Good News for the poor and the dispossessed, is to avoid works righteousness. It’s a difficult tight rope to walk between the quietism of doing nothing and the activism of thinking the coming of the Kingdom of God depends totally on (our) human effort. This Psalm is a good reminder that God builds the Kingdom through us; we don’t build the kingdom for God. Verse 12:“The Lord will give what is good.”

II Peter 3:8-15a  

“while you are waiting,” Waiting takes up a lot of our lives. Waiting in traffic, waiting at the doctor’s office, waiting on hold, waiting in security lines at airports, waiting for the computer to update. I always carry a book or a newspaper with me wherever I go, so that I’ll have something to bide the time while waiting. As much as I hate listening to other people talking on their cell-phones in public, I do understand that it is something to do to fill up the emptiness of their waiting. We, the Christian Church, have been waiting for Jesus for a very long time now, haven’t we? Sometimes I think that a lot of what we do is the spiritual equivalent of doing the crossword, reading a novel or texting and talking nonsense on cell phones; just passing the time while waiting between getting saved and going to heaven. Peter calls us to another sort of waiting, an active waiting, a waiting full of striving for peace and justice in the world. As Peter says, the Lord is not slow, the Lord is patient, giving all every opportunity to get with the program.

Mark 1:1-8 

My son David was an early riser when he was 3 or 4 years old. His room was across the hall from our bedroom and my side of the bed was closest to the door. Most mornings I opened my eyes to find him standing in the floor by the bed, his cabbage patch doll Webster in hand, staring me in the eye from about an inch away. When my eyes fluttered open he would shout, “It’s day! Time to get up!” for several years, I began each day in a startled and confused state of mind.

Mark begins his Gospel in a similarly abrupt and urgent manner. No philosophical musing (John), no genealogical charting (Matthew), no historical scene-setting (Luke); just straight up proclamation. Like little David jumped right into the day, Mark jumps right into the Gospel and sin and salvation. “Baptism of repentance” and “forgiveness of sins,” show up in verse 4. In the Greek text, “metanoias” (repentance) is the 50th word of Mark and “amartion” (of sins) is the 53. WAKE UP! IT’S DAY!

by the Rev. Dr. John P. Fairless

It’s kind of a Southern thing – and it’s meant to be a statement of comfort and support. It’s also a subtle sort of way to evoke pity for a person that you really don’t pity much at all – sort of a genteel put-down…a back-handed compliment… I am speaking, of course, of the phrase, “Well, bless your heart!”
We Southerners use it as a genuine form of solidarity in suffering; for example, when someone loses a loved one, “well, bless your heart.” When there is an accident or a serious illness, the phrase comes in handy: “Well, bless your heart.”
There is also the more insidious usage, say when someone is prattling on about this or that which doesn’t really interest or concern us; it becomes more of a conversational foil or means of avoidance – “oh, well bless your heart.”
Then, there is the third-person form of the phrase – most often used when sharing a “concern” [hear the word judgment, or our really favorite form of juicy gossip.] “Yes, poor Margaret – I don’t know why she puts up with Ralph’s shenanigans, bless her heart!”
Comfort really is a curious thing, isn’t it? What does it require to comfort, or to be comforted, in a time of distress or need? At Advent, we wait for the kind of comfort that only God can bring. It is the kind of comfort spoken tenderly, offered graciously.

It’s not easy to wait. We are accustomed to fast food, fast (and friendly!) service, fast responses to our problems and issues (think of emergency departments and urgent care.) My colleague, Dr. Chilton, told me recently about sitting bemusedly, listening to a fellow customer at Jiffy Lube complaining obviously and ostentatiously about the 30 minutes — for heaven’s sake! –he would have to wait for his car to be ready.

But the gospel at Advent reminds us that we are only at the beginning of God’s great work in our lives; there is much yet to be told, experienced, endured, accomplished.

And God — the very God of creation and re-creation, according to Peter — is with us through every struggle and challenge and joy. God waits — with us. It’s a whispered refrain that accompanies us on the journey of our lives.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *    *
Now, I don’t know that God is a Southerner – or a Northerner, or an Easterner or a Westerner. I don’t suppose God is American, or British, or African or Asian, really. Rather, God is found on all points of the compass, in every race and culture. God is everywhere and always God.
But I do know that God’s intent is always loving, always with the best of our interest in mind – and that, with the coming of the Christ, God’s desire is to comfort – to bless our hearts – truly and indeed.

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