As the Waters Swell the Sea

The Second Sunday of Advent pulls us up short. No time now for any more dithering. We have Isaiah warning that the word of the Lord is ‘a rod to strike the ruthless’ and John the Baptist baptising with water but threatening fire to those who prove to be no more than chaff. Meanwhile we sit comfortably with our commentaries and talk complacently about the end times and the eschatalogical hope expressed in the Advent liturgy. We forget that ‘the end times’ are now, as everything the liturgy celebrates is now. We already tread the holy mountain that is the privileged meeting-place between God and human beings, for all the earth has been sanctified and every step we take is on holy ground. The winnowing-fan is already applied to us, to sift through the secret motives of our hearts and minds, and John’s urgent call to repentance has resounded again and again in our ears. But what is our response?

I think many of us would admit that our response is, at best, a little half-hearted. We read Isaiah and are enthusiastic about its messianic vision, but we are not quite so enthusiastic about doing what is necessary to realise it. When we pray for peace, we pray for the wolf to change, as though he could cease to be a meat-eater and somehow become a grass-nibbler; or, we’ll pray for the lamb to change, as though she could become a predator and instil fear in other animals. We forget that both must learn to live together, in mutual trust and respect. We like the idea of being ‘filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea’ but we shy away from too close a contact with this strange and terrible God who dwells in fire and flame and whose holiness is utterly other; and yet . . . and yet we are drawn by his tenderness and compassion and end up as confused as John’s hearers, whom he called a brood of vipers but who, far from turning an adder’s deaf ear, longed to hear more. We must prepare a way for the Lord in our hearts, but how?

The answer to that question is very simple. We answer it every night at Compline when we look back on the day’s doings and ask ourselves, ‘What have I wanted today? Where has my desire  been?’ The haunting beauty of the Advent liturgy, all its fine phrases, its plangent music, avails us nothing if it does not lead to that moment of choice, when we choose to be converted, to seek Christ — as he is, and not as we would like him to be. The reality of God must burst in upon us as the sea rushes into a cove. That is what it means to be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea, to be God’s pure wheat safely gathered into his barn.

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Forgiveness, Comfort, Joy: the Second Sunday of Advent

We are still in the wilderness, still confronting the depth of our sin and failure, but today, with Isaiah’s prophecy and the appearance of John the Baptist, a new note is sounded. We repent, not in order to win God’s forgiveness but because we have already been forgiven. That is the great comforting (= strengthening) that Isaiah proclaims in chapter 40; that John proclaims with such hope and joy when he announces the coming of the Messiah (cf Mark 1.1-8); that is what we look forward to eternally (2 Peter 3.8-14). It is the source of our Advent joy, but it is a joy we must share with others.

Very often our repentance is a bit piecemeal. We want to be at rights with God, but there are a few things we do not want to deal with just yet. Forgiveness of x or y may be one of them. We wish them well in a vague sort of way but, if we’re honest, we’ve not really forgiven: we’ve just put them on probation. That is not God’s way, and it ought not to be ours, either. True repentance means not only welcoming God’s forgiveness of ourselves but welcoming the forgiveness of others also, setting them free, and incidentally, setting ourselves free, too. Unforgiveness chains us to an imperfect past, whether as the one who refuses to forgive or as the one who is unforgiven. Forgiveness opens both parties up to the wonder of God’s love and holiness, making us just a little bit more like him. Isn’t that a comforting and joyful thought to inspire us on this Second Sunday of Advent?

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