Today in the Spirit: Advent 2B

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Like many of our favorite movies, Advent 2 takes us, suddenly, to a flashback in time from the noise and upheaval of the Son of Man coming on the clouds to the silence of the Judean wilderness and the sight of a strange man dwelling there. In the Gospel of Mark, though it is shorter overall, the narrative it has in common with Matthew and Luke often provides greater detail.

Because of this, in the assigned Gospel reading out of Mark 1:1-8, we learn about, in addition to his clothing and diet, the content of John the Baptist’s preaching, that he appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (4). This, says Mark, in fulfillment of prophecy, is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (1)–a phrase so full that it might very well be considered the title of the whole book.

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The assigned OT reading from Isaiah 40:1-11 provides the worshiper with the context behind the quotation Mark cites in the Gospel. We learn here that there has been good news–comfort–concerning deliverance from sin all along, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord‘s hand double for all her sins (1-2). The appointed Psalm 85 permits us to sing out in worship of the hope of our salvation–Restore us again, O God; and with the assurance that what we have asked will be fulfilled: Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land (9).

The NT reading selected for this week is 2 Peter 3:8-18, Peter’s own prophecy concerning the day of the Lord, that phrase we heard often during the final weeks of the Pentecost season in Year A. Here we have the more nuanced words of a pastor who has endured with his flock a longer than expected delay in the second coming of Jesus. He will call for patience, just as the Lord himself is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (9).

The revered “Holy Scriptures” Collect, restored in the BCP 2019 to its previous placement with the Advent 2 readings, calls on us as worshipers to pray that, as we “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures in the lectionary before us, we will “hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life” until God’s movement for the repentance of his chosen people is completed. 

The Collect

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Gently Lead (Isaiah 40:1-11)

The grass withers, the flower fades,
    but the word of our God will stand forever.
Go on up to a high mountain,
    O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
    O Jerusalem, herald of good news;[f]
    lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
    “Behold your God!” 
Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
    and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
    and his recompense before him. 
He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead those that are with young (9-11).

Or, He will gently lead the nursing ewes (NASB). It is hard to imagine a more tender image of the Messiah coming himself to lead the lambs out of the place where the grass withers and the flower fades to a new home with pastures evergreen. Gently, we observe how he causes even the nursing ewes to keep up. The passage brings to my mind that great NT passage–one of the few places in the Gospels where Jesus is heard describing his own character–for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:29). 

Devotionally, in Advent, contemplating Jesus Christ, the Lord GOD himself, coming with might to shepherd his people, we find there is a great equalizing effect in this passage concerning his followers. I look around me, and what do I find? We are all lambs in the train of migrants. There is no mention of full-grown sheep, only young ones, and young ones feeding still younger ones.

Before the wrath of God who comes to trample down his enemies in the world and forcefully transform everything for the kingdom of the Father, there is then no one equipped to go out ahead but the Son. Though I may be called “pastor” by some, before the word of God here I take my place among the helpless lambs

Today, Holy Spirit, hearing from Isaiah, I am grateful to be a lamb in your flock. And as a Christian leader, young and dependent on you as I am, I offer to carry the infants assigned to me as needed.   

For He Will Speak Peace to His People (Psalm 85)

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
    for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints;
    but let them not turn back to folly. 
Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him,
    that glory may dwell in our land (8-9).

At the end, this psalm speaks words of hope we can imagine John the Baptist’s hearers might have on their lips as they respond to his call for a baptism of repentance (Mark 1:4, in the Gospel reading). It is hard to know who the me in let me hear refers to—maybe a worship leader if the psalm forms part of a liturgical setting, or maybe the psalmist who has himself resolved to turn his complaint into prayer (see the same in Habakkuk 2:1).

For us as Sunday worshipers it matters little. The point is to observe the positive movement of the song from complaint (Will you be angry with us forever?), to prayer (I will hearken to what the LORD God will say, BCP Coverdale), to envisioning a bright future by God’s hand (Yes, the LORD will give what is good).

As we consider this holy pattern or prayer, we may stumble upon the reason we often cannot shake downheartedness, even despair, that sticks to us like glue as we walk in the world around us. What is often missing for us is that critical decision in the middle of the psalmist’s journey to listen to God, that moment of turning down to nil the volume on the voices speaking pure negativity while turning up the sound of God’s voice speaking peace (Let me hear what God the LORD will speak). The fundamental assurances of the psalmist as he turns to listening are these: 1) That it is the LORD God (האל יהוה—the One and only God) whom he can and will address; 2) That the God who has spoken to his people in the past will speak again; and 3) That what he speaks will be peace (שלום). All that—if we will just listen! 

Today, in the Spirit, who is in us to bring the peace of Jesus that the world cannot give, I resolve to follow the example of the psalmist who listens to God in prayer, following every lament of mine with silence to hear again the heavenly promises of a bright future.   

Godliness, Waiting (2 Peter 3:8-18)

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (11-13).

The Church would have us move in Advent 2 to the contemplation of the first coming of Christ in all the other readings but stay with (from the prior week) the second coming in the Epistle reading. In this selection from 2 Peter, the issue is how we shall live (what sort of people ought you to be), waiting for the second coming of Jesus. The apostle’s answer: Be patient, waiting in godliness, always conscious of the Lord’s gospel activity to bring about further repentance in the world from all those who, over time, have been chosen for salvation.

Devotionally, however, rather than simply mark the distinctions, we do well to lock in on some parallels. Though it appears to be hot fire coming out of John (repent now) in contrast with cold water from Peter (be patient and wait), there is urgency in them both: repent and wait purposefully. Make no mistake—God is on the move. Attend at once to the work God is doing in you, and watch carefully and patiently for what he is doing in others.  

Peter, I believe, develops his own Baptist-like sense of urgency in his use of the term godliness. The apostle uses the word godly or godliness five times in this short letter (1:3,6,7, 2:9, 3:11). The Greek term ευσεβία refers to piety and devotion to God that will provide a winsome witness in a non-believing world (see too 1 Peter 3:15ff). Our godly waiting and crediting Jesus at every turn will light a fire under those who have not yet repented, and they will turn to the Lord. I believe it is precisely on this basis that Peter can make the extraordinary claim that our godly behavior can serve the hastening the coming of the day of God.  

Today, Holy Spirit, just as the Son of God demonstrates an eagerness to do his saving work in coming once and then coming again in body, work in me this Advent season a renewed eagerness for godly living that you can use to draw others toward Jesus.  

Baptism of Repentance (Mark 1:1-8)

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
    who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”
John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Imagine a river called Repentance and people gathered on the riverbank called Law. A man named John calls people into the river to be immersed in Repentance. Though there is never any command from John to leave the river, everyone naturally does. Soon after, another Man named Jesus comes to the river and says, Repent and believe the good news! (Mark 1:15 NIV).

Once again, people go into the river, become immersed, and start to leave, and the Man says, “No, follow me from within the river.” “But,” the people say, “We are wet, and it is harder to walk in the water, better to go back on the shore called Law and follow you from there.” The Man replies, “The first man never told you to leave the river, and I tell you, you cannot believe the good news and follow me unless you stay in the river called Repentance.”

We hear John, and we hear Jesus, and somehow have developed the habit of occasionally jumping into repentance (changing our minds about the way we live and confessing our sin), and then climbing out again to live as before, settling back into various forms of self-righteousness. At Advent, we hear the cry of the Baptist to repent and make straight the paths to our hearts for Jesus.

What if this time, we stayed in the waters of repentance and waited there? What would that mean? Surely, we will find by Jesus’ transforming power it is more productive and more pleasant to walk in the water on the riverbed than to return to the dry land. Thus, Jesus will teach later, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37-38). 

Lord, thank you for being patient with me, so that I myself should reach repentance (as per the Epistle reading). Today, by your Spirit, I will hear the call of the Baptist, and you, to enter the river of repentance and stay there.

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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