Second Sunday of Advent
The musical Godspell begins with John the Baptist’s character singing the opening song, which only has one line: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” The song begins slowly, broadly calling an assortment of characters to the song’s source. Once they arrive, John baptizes them. After an introductory sentence, this is how the gospel of Mark begins as well. The impression from both the biblical text and the musical is clear: John the Baptist is the one who prepares the way of the Lord. The focus on this forerunner is typical for the second Sunday of Advent. However, this should not make us too casual, as though we are very familiar with John; because he points to the way of the Lord, there will always be more to see.
This opening phrase is not original with the Baptist. It comes from Isaiah 40, where it is spoken by a voice crying out (40:3). In fact, this “way of the Lord” is described as “a highway for our God,” the building of which involves serious refashioning of the landscape. Mountains and hills are reduced to make clear its path, valleys are leveled, and uneven places are smoothed so as to facilitate its movement (40:3-4).
The passages for this Sunday do more than identify John as the voice. Psalm 85 speaks of righteousness personified as a messenger going ahead of the Lord (85:13). Using a quotation from Malachi, Mark makes a similar point about John (Mark 1:2). Isaiah states that the voice signals the end of the Babylonian exile, a homecoming for Israel, and God’s return to Zion. Jerusalem’s “penalty is paid” (Isaiah 40:2). The key word is the first of Isaiah 40 – Comfort. As Mark writes, this is “good news” or gospel (Mark 1:1). John, despite his rough appearance, is meant to provide similar comfort by serving as a “herald of good tidings” (Isaiah 40:9). As a messenger of this new exodus described in Isaiah, his arrival on the scene is indeed something fresh. God’s people are coming back from captivity to be restored by God.
The Advent texts presume that we begin in exile, as strangers in a strange land. And in this particular year, exile might be an appropriate word to use. A sense of loss is fairly common to everyone at this point in the pandemic, and a strong sense of expectation and even yearning for something new and fresh is also not foreign to us in this time. In the same way that Israel yearned for freedom from struggle and oppression and worked hard to patiently hold onto hope, we can easily find ourselves with the same feelings. To be sure, the uncertainties surrounding us can seem like living in a faraway land, prompting a desire to return – to face-to-face church liturgies and interactions, to shared meals with friends and family, to something closer to normal.
The hope of these passages – and the hope of Advent – is more than a simple return to normal, though. Returning to pre-pandemic conditions should not satisfy our desire, since it would not quench the need for justice and would ignore the oppression experienced by so many. Whether we are talking about racial prejudice and discrimination or gun violence in schools or economic disparities, we realize that “pre-pandemic normal” was not God’s normal. In fact, before the pandemic, we were in captivity to ungodly forces and powers, ones that we often took for granted but could easily go by the name of Babylon if we paid close attention.
Here is where the Advent texts remind us that our hope moves beyond that desire for normal. Psalm 85 makes it exceptionally clear by describing a beautiful new state of affairs:
“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, And righteousness will look down from the sky” (85:10-11).
What we see here is nothing less than the reality of God’s presence, or what Isaiah boldly announces: “Here is your God!” (40:9). To come into God’s full presence is to find salvation, a dynamic reality that restores and renews all things, a reality that is “at hand for those who fear [God]” (Psalm 85:9).
So what do we make of this “way of the Lord”? It is tempting to imagine it as a distinct path, traveled from Babylon to Jerusalem, a one-time historical moment. However, it might be best to see it, and John’s call to prepare, as a continuous task. We hear this in 2 Peter’s question: “What sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness?” (3:11).
It is no surprise that we find John in the wilderness, a formative place of Israel’s own relationship with God, but one that involved a great deal of waiting. Because “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Peter 3:8), then the Lord’s way is one characterized by patience and peace, and following this path is to “wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (3:13).
This path certainly involves time, but we discover that this waiting is not an empty season. God’s people are being formed, even as we wait. There is a hopeful anticipation in all of these passages, an eagerness about what God is doing, even if there is still a great deal of mystery about what exactly that is. But for now, we answer John’s call and join him in the wilderness to prepare for the coming of the Lord.
Image: excerpt from Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece