Second Sunday in Advent–December 5, l976–CNR
The Book of Baruch, from which our first reading is taken, was written long after Israel’s exile in Babylon had ended. The words of the prophet throughout speak, however, as if Israel were still in exile, still longing for restoration to their homeland, still awaiting the transformation of a ruined Jerusalem to its former glory. In the passage we have heard, the prophet deliberately invokes the splendid imagery of Second Isaiah–every lofty mountain made low, depths and gorges filled in,”that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God”. It is as if the return from exile had still to be achieved.
And there was a sense, of course, in which that was true. Israel’s restoration to the Holy Land had not been the glorious triumph the exilic prophets had predicted. The rebuilt temple was a poor shadow of Solomon’s; the nation never regained its political power and unity; and the last centuries of the pre-Christian era did not know the sound of a prophet’s voice. The late literature of Old Testament times and many of the Psalms contain plaintive cries to God to wake up, to come again, to speak once more–“How long, O Lord, how long?”
And this is the context which St. Luke invokes when he begins his account of the public ministry of Christ with the long and cadenced announcement that “in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar…, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.” The days of silence were over; God had awakened and Israel once again could hear the word of God. The word that is now at long last being spoken returns again to the prophecy of Isaiah: “Make ready the way of the Lord, clear him a straight path. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be leveled. The winding ways shall be made straight and the rough ways smooth, and all mankind shall see the salvation of God.” The prolonged exile is over, and God comes on a glorious highway with salvation in his hand.
The imaginative re-use of the prophetic images in these two readings is a model of what should be happening in this our service. We are not here to listen to a lesson in ancient history, but to recognize ourselves in the exiled, in the disappointed, in the fearful, in the people hungrily longing for some word of God to break and shatter the silence of our loneliness. We are to recognize ourselves especially in those who hear now the long-expected word and are called to repentance and faith in eager expectation of the salvation whose light already begins to dawn upon our darkness. The prophet speaks to us, and we are by the Jordan listening to the Baptist.
That is all, however, only partially true. We are not expected, this Advent, to pretend that we are Old Testament people, or that Christ has not come, or that God has not spoken. Advent is a celebration of Christian hope. The OT symbols can speak to us now because thirst for the word of God’s comfort is also a Christian experience. But its specifically Christian form is described in the reading from Paul. “I am sure,” he writes, “that he who has begun the good work in you will bring it to completion.” Here is the Christian form of hope: built upon the good work which God has done in Jesus Christ, upon the good work which he has begun in us in his Holy Spirit, it rejoices in what God has given only in order more eagerly to press on to and await the more eagerly all that God has promised. We enjoy the longed-for salvation only in hope now; the Spirit is experienced as pledge and promise. God’s present grace is not a drug to deaden our sensitivity into complacency and resignation–it is a first passage of cooling breeze on a hot day, the first gentle touch of a consoling hand, the first quiet smile that promises the full communion of friendship and of love. Its present power is its future promise.
That is the situation of Christian hope. The good work has been begun–has been begun in us; within us the pledge and guarantee of the completion that still is to come. Only–and here is where St. Paul’s prayer has all its power–only we must treasure what has been begun and watch over its life and growth. “My prayer,” the Apostle says, “is that your love may more and more abound both in understanding and in all sensitivity.” The love of God for us, the love he has caused to spring up in the desert of our selfishness, are already precious gifts; and to be set fully free so that they can more and more abound, we must acknowledge this good work already begun and seek to let it grow in our understanding of ourselves and of our world and in our sensitivity to the good things such love enables us to perceive and to appreciate and to embrace. There is a harvest of justice promised us as the autumn of such love, and this is the time for growing.
None of this is obvious, of course; none of it can be seen and none of it can be proven. And there will be times in anyone’s life when return from exile will seem nothing more than cheap and disappointing fact or as unrealistic fantasy. Such experiences are the soil of hope, or at least they can be that if we do not simply surrender to a comfortable resignation, ignoring the good work begun or taking it for granted, spurning it because it is only a beginning and not a completion, despising the dawn because it is not noon. We can do that, you know, any and all of us; and when we are so tempted, it will be good for us again to hear the prophet and the Baptist and, above all, the Apostle, all of them servants of a promise, heralds of a hope that does not disappoint.