Dear People of God,
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
This week’s readings take up ideas about waiting and preparation which we heard last week and will hear all throughout Advent. This is the season of waiting for the One who is to come, after all. But this week’s readings take us to a different place than last week. In last week’s letter, I wrote to you about what it means to wait and watch and the consequences of truly watching. This week, we are given some insight into why we are waiting and a glimpse of how things will change when the One who is coming finally arrives.
This passage from Peter’s second letter is near the end of this short epistle. As he’s winding up his thoughts, he impresses on the reader that he knows they are waiting for the Lord’s return and that waiting is a difficult task. Some of them may even be wondering why the Lord is so slow to come. Peter has just explained, before this passage, that when the Lord returns it will be with judgement. So he says to his readers “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3.9)
Peter underlines the necessity of making our best efforts to live holy lives because when the Lord does come to judge, it will be without warning and we wish to be found in a suitable state. The Lord’s apparent slowness in returning to judge the world is not God being late, but rather God giving us the gift of time to prepare for that arrival. “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.” (2 Peter 3.14-15)
Peter’s letter seems awfully present and appropriate this year. Advent always comes with themes of long-waiting and prayers of “Come, long-expected Jesus” and “O Lord, make haste to help me.” This year, the themes of waiting seem even more poignant in the midst of a pandemic; political upheavals around the world; outcries from so many communities about their unjust treatment; story after story about millions of people without homes or food and a handful of others who grasp at wealth enough to feed and house every one of them, but keep it hoarded like dragons atop piles of gold.
Prophets and preachers—not always the same people, those two groups—have been telling of the coming judgement of God for generations. The passage we heard from Isaiah today speaks of the gentleness and mercy of God’s judgement and the comfort to be had when God is present. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” (Isaiah 40.11)
Like Peter, Isaiah calls our attention to the need for preparation. Isaiah uses metaphors drawn from the natural world, speaking of valleys lifted up, mountains laid low, and rough places made into plains. All of these great differences of height and traversability will be made equal and, when this is done, then the glory of the Lord will be revealed. Isaiah’s metaphors about the smoothing of a path in the wilderness are beautiful and wonderful because they speak of what is to come in so many ways. Not only will of all Creation know and respond to the coming of its creator, but the glory of the Lord is revealed in its response. But more exciting than this, for me at least, is the connection that these images of Isaiah’s prophecy make with the Gospel.
Today’s passage from Mark’s telling of the Gospel is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” (Mark 1.1) and it begins, quite appropriately, with the Forerunner of Christ, John the Baptist. Here we are given the image of John the Baptist as a man of the wilderness: wild hair, clothed in camel’s hair, a spare belt around his waist, and surviving on only the food offered by the wilderness. He comes to the people of Jerusalem and speaks to them of a need for baptism of repentance in the river Jordan and the confessing of sins. He warns, just as Isaiah has and Peter will, of one who is coming with great power who will do more than baptize in water, but will baptize with the Spirit. One who is so great that John is unworthy even to untie the thong of his sandal. (Mark 1.7)
John is the very embodiment of Isaiah’s wilderness imagery. John is, all at once, mountains and valleys and rough places, but he comes speaking of the coming glory of God and calls people to make straight the paths of the Lord. He calls people to a baptism of repentance but assures them that another, greater One is coming with a greater baptism. He is so persuasive and speaks so obviously with the Spirit that some theorize that he may be the promised Messiah. John holds all of these contradictions in tension in his person and, in so doing, is an ideal Forerunner of Christ.
Whenever we hear about the coming of Christ and the Kingdom of God that comes with him, we hear about these sorts of contradictions and tensions. I wrote a few weeks ago about the surprising list of people who will be present in the Kingdom of God revealed in the Beatitudes. (Matthew 5.3-12) People who are poor in spirit, meek, and mourning will be blessed and welcomed in this Kingdom. These are not the people for whom the mortal kingdoms of the first century had much time or love.
Perhaps even more startling than the Beatitudes is the vision of the Kingdom of God offered by Mary. When John is still in his mother Elizabeth’s womb and the pregnant Mary visits her, Elizabeth asks how it might be that she is to be visited by the mother of her Lord. Mary offers a song in response, known today to many Christians as the Magnificat. In it she sings,
[God’s] mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. Luke 1.50-53
Mary is describing the Kingdom that her son, Jesus, will usher into the world. It is the same kingdom described in the Beatitudes and heralded by John the Baptist and his many contradictions: a Kingdom where the world as we know it has been turned on its head. The lowly are lifted high while the powerful are made low; the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away wanting; the delusions of the unjustly proud are made clear and their fantasies are dashed to pieces. It is nothing like a mortal kingdom. It is a complete overturning of the injustices of our world and a place in which the worth of all people is seen and known and loved.
And it is for this that we watch in Advent.
We know not the hour or day of Christ’s return, but with the voices of Mary, Elizabeth, Isaiah, and John in our ears, we have glimpses of what it is that is coming. We have glimpses of what it is we are called to be. And it is glorious.
Yours in Christ,
The Rev. Andrew Rampton
PS: Though he is overshadowed by Sunday this year, today is also the Feast of St Nicholas. I hope you all woke to find your shoes filled with candy and toys and your day filled with reminders of the Christlike kindness for which St Nicholas was known. -AR
This pastoral letter was written for the Parish of Holy Trinity, Winnipeg.