2nd Advent, 10 December Readings: Isa. 40. 1-11; 2 Pet. 3. 8-15a; Mk. 1. 1-8
Theme: ‘Home Sweet Home’
The saying, ‘home sweet home’ is one which echoes deeply for many people. It symbolizes in a pithy statement, the longing to feel safe and secure; to be with those who love us and whom we love, and to have things as we would like them, not as someone else imposes on us. In a nutshell, following a long time on the road, it is good to sleep in one’s own bed again.
This is very much the sentiment which runs through the first reading from Isaiah today, as the Israelites were coming to the end of their time of Babylonian exile in the sixth century BC and the prophet speaks on behalf of God reminding the people that God will restore hope and prosperity to them: “Comfort, comfort my people says your God…..proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins”. In other words, the time of punishment is coming to an end and the longed for hope of real comfort and security is approaching.
When we come to our Gospel, as so often is the case in the Gospel writers, St Mark re-reads the Old Testament scriptures and interprets the pent up hope and expectation present in them in the light of the experience of the arrival of the messiah in Jesus. The one hoped for in the Old Testament has been revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He fulfills the hopes and expectations of the Jewish people and in him, the word of God becomes flesh.
The coming fulfillment of this Word of God is prepared for by that great figure of the New Testament, John the Baptist. He is the one who preaches the imminent coming of the Messiah. The opening of the Gospel passage underlines the fact that the New Testament is a re-reading of the Old Testament in the light of the shared experience of Jesus by his disciples and early followers. The words quoted at the start of the Gospel are not straightforwardly from the prophet Isaiah. They are Mark’s use of a collection of Old Testament sayings created out of a combination of Exodus 23: 20, Malachi 3: 1 and the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) version of Isaiah 40. 3. The point that Mark is trying to make here is that Jesus is fulfilling the expectations of Israel. John is in this light the new Ezekiel, the final prophet who announces the coming of the Lord. He is the baptizer who signals that, just as the prophet Isaiah had announced the end of the Babylonian exile and the return to Israel, so too John is speaking of the new exodus out of the bondage of sin and into the new land of the kingdom of God. It is an announcement that the one whom John the Baptist had spoken of is to be identified with the return of the Lord to his people. In other words, Jesus is not simply another messenger who is to come but will be identified with God himself. God will once again dwell with his people: Emmanuel.
This narrative of the prophet Isaiah and of St Mark’s re-reading of the Old Testament tradition of awaiting the messiah to bring them home and to dwell with them again speaks to us on a number of levels. The obvious one is that for us as Christians Jesus represents the one who brings us out of the land of captivity and into the promised land of the kingdom of God. This journey also passes through the desert and the figure of John the Baptist reminds us that in order for us to go home we need purification. The way home is only through the desert because this is the place of purification from sin. Advent is the season which calls us to repentance; to “Prepare the way of the Lord and to make straight his paths.” The “way of the Lord” is the path that God makes for us through the desert, so that the exiles can return home. For Isaiah, this pathway is the return of the very presence of Yahweh to be with his people again after the time of separation. “The Lord God comes with might and his arm rules for him” (Is. 40. 10).
Such an image of separation and reuniting conveyed to us through the notion of homecoming should awaken us to the fact that we are estranged from God through sin. The rupture between us and God is perhaps all too easy for us to get used to. It can become a habit as with so many things in life, and this can make it difficult to be aware of. This is why the season of Advent is a good opportunity to review ourselves and to ask honestly, how am I estranged from God? Am I really aware of my estrangement or has it become so habitual that I do not even notice it?
I noticed the difficulty of doing something about our estrangement when I worked with drug addicts in Bilbao in the early 1990s. The entrapment of a person from alcohol and drug abuse is a terrible exile that far too many people live through in their lives. It is destructive, disempowering and separates people from their loved ones. Despite all of these negative attributes of addiction it is so seductive and powerful that it seems almost impossible to overcome. However, it is possible to overcome it, because whilst its pull may be strong, the attraction of coming home is even stronger.
We may not be drug addicts or alcoholics ourselves, but one thing that I learned from my time working with the rehabilitation service Proyecto Hombre is that all of us suffer from the same patterns of alienation in one form or another. These patterns of alienation are the many ways that we try to escape from who we really are by either exaggerating or underestimating ourselves.
We are no more and no less than sons and daughters of God. This reality means that we are only truly at home when, as St Augustine famously said, we rest in God. But to rest in God is not easy. It requires us to pass through the desert of repentance so that purified of sin, we can once again savour the delight of the Lord and to know God’s abode as our home sweet home.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.