December 6, 2020 / 2nd Sunday of Advent / Richard Holmer
1st Reading Isaiah 40:1-11 / 2nd Reading 2 Peter 3:8-15a / Gospel Mark 1:1-8
While We’re Waiting
Between a promise and the fulfillment of that promise, there’s the waiting. When someone gives you a gift, you have it in hand – no waiting required. When someone promises to give you a gift, you need to wait for it.
In the 6th century B.C., God’s people were living in exile in Babylon. They were strangers in a strange land, cut off from what was safe and familiar. Their future was very uncertain. They felt forsaken by God. Then to those exiles came a word of promise from the prophet Isaiah. God will make a way for their return home. In the desert there will be a highway. The Lord will care for his people like a shepherd cares for his flock. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. That promise came true. God’s people did return to their homeland. But not right away. It took a while. Their liberation did not come until Cyrus and his Persian army conquered Babylon and allowed them to return to Jerusalem. In the meantime, they had to wait.
Advent is a four-week season – a unique and blessed time for waiting and watching. Mary had to wait much longer than that. Mary waited nine months for God’s promise to her to be fulfilled – the amazing, almost unbelievable promise that she would give birth to God’s son. On the church calendar, March 25 is the date designated for the Annunciation, the day of the angel Gabriel’s momentous house call on the Virgin Mary. Do the math: count back nine months from December 25th, and you land at the end of March. Mary had a considerable amount of time on her hands: time to wait and wonder and perhaps to worry about what was transpiring in her womb.
It's an interesting coincidence that we have been doing our share of waiting and wondering and worrying for the past nine months – since the middle of March, when the pandemic became serious for us. We have been waiting for a return to something close to normal – a return that looks promising with the advent of potent vaccines. But we are still months away from widespread distribution. Challenging days lie ahead of us.
How shall we spend this waiting time? Waiting can be anxious and fretful. Patience runs short. We can feel that we are at the mercy of circumstances beyond our control – and in a way we are. We can live our days in worry and frustration. Anxious waiting is one option – or we can choose instead to be purposeful in the present. Instead of merely wringing our hands, we can make use of the time we have on our hands.
The exiles in Babylon are instructed to “prepare the way of the Lord”, to take an active part in the fulfilling of God’s promise to them. They are to be “heralds of good tidings” – announcing God’s coming salvation. They are not passive bystanders merely waiting for God to do something for them. They participate in their redemption, bravely lifting up their voices and proclaiming, “Here is our God.”
In our Second Reading, St. Peter has a lot to say about how we can spend our waiting time. For starters he says that we should be grateful: grateful that God is patiently waiting for us, granting us time to get our act together: “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish…” God is not slow – you and I are slow – slow to respond to God’s call. We are easily distracted and we busy ourselves with other things. Peter urges us to use this waiting time to take stock of our lives, to conduct a spiritual inventory – to consider “what sort of persons we ought to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness.” How are you doing with that project? What might you do to move in the direction of holiness and godliness? What would that look like? Peter suggests that you and I can actually “hasten the day of God’s coming” by becoming part of God’s plan of salvation. We help to fulfill God’s promise by growing in Christ’s likeness. God wants us all to come to repentance.
Of course repentance was the central theme of John the Baptist’s preaching. John assured all those who were waiting for the Messiah that he was coming soon – and that the way to prepare was through repentance: turning their lives around, forsaking their sinful ways, focusing their attention on the promised Savior.
Mary certainly had a sense of purpose and a clear focus as she awaited the birth of her son. Her first reaction to Gabriel’s announcement was surprise and amazement. How can this be? Why me? Why now? But she embraced the promise Gabriel spoke to her: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” So Mary didn’t sit at home, anxiously waiting. She went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was also expecting a child. Mary was a herald of Good News: see what God is doing. And while with Elizabeth, Mary declared her devotion to God’s holy purpose – in the words of the Magnificat. Listen to Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Mary’s beautiful song of faith:
I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
That’s creative and purposeful waiting!
The exiles in Babylon were waiting to return home. Mary was waiting to give birth to her son, God’s son. What are we waiting for?
Is it Christmas – the promise of some measure of comfort and joy conveyed by our celebration of Christ’s birth?
Is it a new year – the opportunity to move on from what has been an exceedingly difficult and distressing year?
It is the covid vaccine – and the promise of an end to this devastating pandemic?
Is it the Second Coming of Christ, a promise we claim each Sunday in the words of the Creed: “He will come again . . . “
Is it some reassuring sign that Christ is with us now, as he promised, saying “I am with you always.”?
All of these are blessings well worth waiting for. Bottom line: we are all waiting for God. God made great promises to the exiles in Babylon and to Mary. God has made promises to all of us as well. What God has not promised is a “return to normal”. People say (I myself have said) “I can’t wait for things to get back to normal.” The truth is, when the exiles returned to Jerusalem, it was not a return to normal. Their city was devastated. The walls were broken down. Solomon’s temple was destroyed. The work of rebuilding took a long time. And when Mary gave birth to Jesus, her life was then anything but normal. The holy family had to flee to Egypt to preserve their lives. Even back in Nazareth, raising the Son of God was far from a routine, normal life.
While we are waiting, what we can aim for is something more than normal. You and I can be active participants in fulfilling God’s promises. By serving as instruments of God’s grace, we can hasten the arrival of the promised Kingdom. Even seemingly small efforts of godliness can contribute to forming a world “where righteousness is at home.” Instead of worrying as we await what is to come, we can heed Peter’s advice and “strive to be at peace.”
God extends this promise to those who wait for Him: “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)
Thanks be to God.