Our exile can end. The darkness of the world is overcome!
First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
Psalm: Psalm 84(85):9-14
Second Reading: 2 Peter 3:8-14
Gospel: Mark 1:1-8
Over the next two weeks, the liturgy fleshes out the focus on the coming of the Lord by introducing us to the figure of the herald: St John the Baptist, who is presented to us at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel with a patchwork of quotations from the Old Testament prophets.
Isaiah is one of those prophetic threads, and we’re given part of his prophecy today. To the first hearers of this prophecy, there would have been a certain amount of confusion; as the text opens, we (and they) might assume that it is God speaking directly. But, if we look closely, we’ll see that it’s actually an unknown speaker who is crying out on behalf of God.
We learn that this voice is a joyful messenger. Notice how that description is repeated in quick succession; a common biblical marker that we, as readers and hearers, should pay special attention to it. We learn also that this speaker is to “shout without fear” in announcing, “Here is your God.”
In announcing this advent of God, though, this joyful messenger presents two very different pictures. The first is of God as a divine warrior, one who comes to fight. He is “coming with power” and “subduing all things”. This awe-inspiring depiction links us back to those images we heard about last week. There is a cataclysmic quality to God’s presence arriving on earth. It’s this depiction that the second letter of Peter elaborates on: “with a roar the sky will vanish, the elements will catch fire and fall apart, the earth and all it contains will be burnt up.”
But what of the other depiction? It’s jarring to read from Isaiah that we shunt from the image of God as warrior immediately to: “He is like a shepherd feeding his flock.” It’s not even an image of the shepherd guarding his flock from danger but of nourishing them, “holding them against his breast.” How are we to reconcile these two images? How are we to understand, as the psalm calls us to sing in response to these images, that “justice and peace have embraced”?
If we look back at the beginning of Isaiah 40, we hear the voice of the joyful messenger proclaim that Jerusalem’s “sin is atoned for”. John the Baptist appeared, fulfilling Isaiah’s words, proclaiming forgiveness of sins through a baptism of repentance. Fulfilling his role as herald, John pointed to the imminent arrival of the Lord Jesus’ coming as both warrior doing battle with the forces of evil (as we will see throughout Mark’s Gospel), culminating in the prize of his victory on the cross and as shepherd gathering his flock to himself through repentance and baptism.
It’s here we can see something of the two halves of Advent. In his first coming, Jesus fulfilled all that the prophets had foretold. Yet, as we have seen in Peter, there is a fullness of that which is still to come. John the Baptist’s message of repentance and forgiveness of sins rings out to us now, just as it did to his first hearers. There is still a coming of the Lord in power to expect, there is still a Day of the Lord to come. In the words of the collect today, our task is to allow no hindrance to our admittance to Jesus’ company so that we may not experience him as warrior but as shepherd when he comes.
Isn’t this all a bit negative, though? The focus on sin and the coming of the Lord in power? Remember back to the repetition that the messenger comes to us with joy. The message does tell us that sin and evil are real, and we all know that we’re touched and affected by that evil. We know that as individuals, but we also know that is true of the world at large when we see wars like those in Ukraine, in the Holy Land, and in so many other places that go unreported. The world can be a deeply distressing and dark place. But the good news, the gospel news, is that sin is atoned for in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that by renouncing sin, we can be welcomed home by the Father who loves us. That’s why it’s a message of great joy! Our exile can end! The darkness of the world is overcome! It is such a great joy to see it emphasised again next week.