Preaching the Word

PREACHING THE WORD

Second Sunday of ADVENT

Prepare the Way!

A Dominican Friar (priest) reflects …

Advent is a time of waiting, listening, holding back, and watching the beauty of both the day and the night take place. It can be a good time for spiritual reflection by asking ourselves important questions like: “How am I different this year than I was last year?” “What has changed within me?” “What has changed around me?” “What seems to be the same?” “How do I need Christ in my life and my world this year?”  But let’s be real! Advent is also a time of preparing for Christmas.  This year the Fourth Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve which shortens our preparation time for Christmas all the more. 

The gospel reading this weekend points out to us that the struggle to prepare for the coming of the Messiah while being overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of our world is not new. While the introduction for John the Baptist’s proclamation “To prepare the way of the Lord” appears to be set against a background of peace and tranquility, we know from history that the Roman Empire had gained control over the lands that border the Mediterranean Sea. There was an enormous and complex system of business and finance dominated by international trade, an enforced system of taxation, and large bodies of slave labor. There was a diverse assortment of ethnic peoples, high government and religious officials, merchants, small business people, slaves, and minorities who were the poorest of the poor.

The writer of Mark’s Gospel solemnly declares that God chooses to intervene at this moment in history with all its complexities and challenges by quoting the Prophet Isaiah, “Behold I am sending my messenger ahead of you: he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’”   

A question that comes from the age-old struggle to keep Advent while preparing for Christmas is: “How do we wait and watch for God in the busyness of our Christmas preparation?”  I believe that we have to calmly and consciously accept the reality of the Christmas rush but at the same time cultivate a separate preparation for the coming of the Messiah.  This cultivation means being attentive not only to the beautiful and colorful Christmas lights but also to the women and men, often from third world countries, who manufactured the lights.  It means being attentive to not only the ringing of the Salvation Army bells but also the volunteers who are ringing the bells often in damp, cold and unpleasant winter weather. It means being appreciative of people whose effort and time have prepared various holiday festivities.  It means being attentive to our own emotional make-up that motivates us to be watchful in the first place.

I believe this reflective approach is in sharp contrast to the noisy busyness of the world’s preparation for Christmas.  It needs to be practiced and developed like learning to play a musical instrument, to use a sewing machine, or to master a computer program. I believe we need to grasp the urgency in today’s gospel reading.  It is time to get ready. There is work to be done, paths to be straightened, valleys to be filled, mountains and hills to be laid low so that what is inside us is as important as what is under our Christmas tree.               

A Dominican Friar (priest) reflects that God is the center of our hope.

Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11                        2 Peter 3: 8-15                                         Mark 1: 1-8

 

I think all of us have watched a child scoot or crawl along the floor to reach an object that is attracting his or her attention.  If it is safe, we may encourage the child with cheers and move the object closer so it can be grasped. If it is unsafe, we may move the child away or place the object out of reach.  Every year at this time, parents with scooting or crawling children have to decide whether to put a Christmas tree, with all its bright lights and ornaments, on the floor or put it up high and out of reach. 

Whether we know it or not, every time we move toward and reach out for someone or something, we are practicing the virtue of hope. Hope is an essential part of who we are as human beings.  It is hope that enables us to keep on crawling, to survive, and to conquer the tough times we encounter during our lives.

In our first reading today from the book of the Prophet Isaiah, the prophet is speaking to his community who is in captivity in Babylon. Their captivity has taken the Israelites from their land. It has taken away their hope. It is the loss of their hope which has reduced the community to shambles. But the prophet gives the people a message of hope. He promises them freedom from their captivity and all their hardships when the Kingdoms of Judah and Jerusalem are restored.

When the Isaiah speaks, “A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord!” “Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” We believe that the voice is coming from the prophet. But is it really? Isn’t it us who are crying out that we believe in a God who gets us through our cancer treatment, who stretches our social security checks to cover expenses, who supports us when there are family arguments, who gets us home safely during a Minnesota snow storm, and who, no matter what happens to us in this life, has invited us to eternal life.  

I think that John the Baptist is an example of hope at work. Exhausted with the search for worldly hope, John understands that human beings will only know true hope when we find that God is the center of our hope.  “One mightier than I is coming after me.” “I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.” I have baptized you with water but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

There is a phrase tucked away in the Second Letter of Peter that provides the basis for our hope.  “But, according to God’s promise, we await new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.” In other words, God’s promise is blessed assurance that what we hope for will be received. 

So Advent is not about hoping in God. Advent is about giving birth to blessed assurance in God’s promises. There are no boundaries to blessed assurance, because there are no boundaries to God. God keeps pushing back the boundaries we try to set when we just want to have only reasonable hope in this world. God tries and tries to assure us that our suffering and our dying will bring us to new life in the world to come.

In 1837, Mrs. Phoebe Knapp sat at a piano and played an unknown melody for a blind woman named Fanny J. Crosby. Fanny had become blind at the age of six weeks from a medical mistreatment of her eyes. Fanny use to say that although her blindness had kept her from crawling and learning like other children, had it not been for her blindness she would not have such a good memory. She knew a great many parts of the Bible by heart.  She had committed to memory the first four books of the Old Testament.  She had memorized the four Gospels before she was ten years old. As a blind person, this had given her reasonable hope that she could get through life.

But when Mrs. Knapp asked, “What does the melody I just played say to you?” Fanny responded immediately, “Why, it says: ‘Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine.” She then went on to instantly create the words for the first verse. It is believed that using different pen names, Fanny wrote more than 8,000 hymns before she died at the age of 95.

The Prophet Isaiah, the writer of the Second Letter of Peter, John the Baptist, and all of us, begin our lives scooting and crawling with reasonable hope. As we encounter and face the struggle of life, God encourages and supports us so that our hope becomes blessed assurance.

At the age of 8, Fanny Crosby’s reasonable hope became blessed assurance with God’s encouragement and support.  

Oh, what a happy soul I am,
although I cannot see!
I am resolved that in this world
contented I will be.

How many blessings I enjoy
That other people don’t.
To weep and sigh because I’m blind
I cannot, and I won’t!