Advent (2) The Coming Fire!

2nd Sunday of Advent (B) – December 6, 2020

St. Mary – Derby, KS

Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 85:9-14; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8

(1) Getting Stoked Out of Your Mind for Advent

I mentioned last week that Advent is far and away my favorite season of the year. I mean, yeah, Christmas is coming. But, at the same time, Advent is a tricky thing. Because we usually hone in on the “countdown to Christmas” part of Advent (which is true). But I would like to invite us to reframe or reimagine, perhaps, how we think about Advent.

When we’re young, of course Advent is only about Christmas. I mean, presents start getting wrapped, cookies are getting baked, Christmas trees go up, and on and on—what kid isn’t going to get stoked out of their mind for Christmas? And that’s how it should be! The arrival of the Lord—the “advent” of the Lord—should get us stoked out of our mind! Kids have the right attitude: Advent and Christmas evoke a sense of hope and joy and excitement. I have not met one kid who is worried about Christmas day.

But as we continue to get older and to mature in our faith, we need to make a subtle shift. We need to start shifting this sense of hope and joy and excitement we’ve had for Christmas all our life—we need to start shifting that hope and joy and excitement to the return of the King, to the day Jesus returns; to the “Day of the Lord” as it’s called in Scripture. Advent is reliving that long-await of the people of Israel for the Messiah. We are the people of God living that long-await for the coming of the Messiah, for his second coming.

His first coming, Christmas, was only to open the Way to salvation, so that when he comes again we who are watching for that “Day,” who are hoping and praying for that day, who are hopeful and joyful and excited for that day, will inherit the great promise (c.f., Preface I of Advent).

And we are hopeless and helpless without this coming of the Messiah. We are waiting for God to do through his Messiah what we can’t do ourselves.

(2) But Isn’t This Day Fire and Brimstone?

But this is usually where we start to fall back on our childhood, where we start to avoid wanting to mature in this part of our faith. We don’t like thinking about Jesus’ return. We’ve heard a lot of scary things, judgmental things, fire and brimstone things about the “Day” that Jesus returns.

Our second reading is a classic example of that. In the second letter of Peter it said, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief…the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out” (2 Peter 3:10). Yikes. The Old Testament isn’t much better. The Prophet Malachi that our Gospel references today—the Prophet Malachi talks about this day saying, “The day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire” (c.f., Malachi 3:1-19). Both Old and New Testaments seems to talk about this day with fear and trembling.

But then, you also have our first reading today. Isaiah, in our first reading, is also talking about this day. And what does he say? Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated” (Isaiah 40:1-2a). That reading goes on to talk about this “Day” in terms of comfort and hope and salvation. In fact, it goes so far as to say that this day is “good news” (Isaiah 40:9). Good news. As in “Gospel.”

So what gives? Is this “Day” that is coming a cause of fear or is it good news?

(3) “Good News” Only If You Know the Backstory (and Locate Yourself Within It)

The coming of this “Day” is good news! Good news as in something has happened as a result of which everything looks different, the world is now a different place, the future looks brighter, and now we all wait for that (NT Wright, Simply Good News). But unfortunately we usually stereotype this “Day” not as “good news” but as a cause for fear, and really only because we forget the backstory. We either don’t know the backstory, or we forgot it, or we know it but don’t really see ourselves as part of that story.

If I were to stand up here and tell you about the “good news” of the COVID vaccine, we would all be super excited, hopeful for the day, looking forward to the day! We all know the COVID story, we all see ourselves as intimately bound-up in that story, we can all “locate” ourselves in that story. And so yeah, we see this vaccine as “good news”! When the announcement was made that there was a viable vaccine, that it was coming soon, everything changed and started to look different, the world became a different place, the future looked brighter, and we began to wait with hope.

Do you see my point? “Good news” is only “good news” if you know the backstory and if you see yourself as intimately bound-up in that story, if you can “locate” yourself in that story.

And so when Mark starts writing a story about this “Jesus” guy, when he says, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God” (Mark 1:1), we need to be able to “locate” ourselves in the story. If this is going to be “good news” we need to see ourselves as intimately bound-up in the backstory.

And to see yourself as part of this story, you need only one thing: to see that you are hopeless and helpless without this coming of the Messiah. “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come” (Bonhoeffer). Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are persecuted (c.f., Matthew 6).

(4) Remember: The Bush Was On Fire but not Consumed

Do you see how when you reframe and reimagine Advent, you also reframe and reimagine our entire understanding of our faith? Gosh, even our very understanding of holiness!

God’s holiness is often represented in Scripture by fire. Think of Moses and the Burning Bush. God’s presence is revealed as a bush that is on fire. Moses sees this from afar and is attracted to it, drawn to it (Exodus 3:3). But when he draws close, Moses covers his face in fear! Yes! The burning presence of God causes fear. But also notice: the bush is on fire, but not consumed! This fiery presence, this holy presence of God is a source of fear, but it is a fear that attracts and draws us, and it’s a presence that burns not to destroy but to bring fully to life!

If we think about Advent purely as this time of me getting myself ready, me getting all “holy” and “perfectly pure” for God’s return…then we miss the whole point. We start to forget that backstory, we start to take ourself out of the story. We say, “I don’t need a vaccine, I don’t need anything. It’s fine! I’m fine!”

That’s not the story, though. The story is: I am hopeless and helpless without this coming of God’s Messiah. God’s coming is what we want and what we need!

In the Hebrew culture, there were all of those famous—or should I say infamous—laws and rules about holiness and purity. And these were not simply about matters of chastity, but they were all about the ways to keep oneself ritually pure so that they could approach God. There are all of those laws and rules—go to the book of Leviticus— all of those rules and laws about washings, and not touching dead animals, and bodily fluids, and so on and so forth. And those sound so strange and cultic and rigid to us! But why did they exist? So that people could be sure they were ritually pure and clean and “holy” so that they could approach God. All of these ways you can make yourself pure so that you can go to the holy place, approach God’s presence.

But when Jesus arrives!—when Jesus arrives everything gets turned upside down! When God arrives in Jesus Christ, everything changes. Jesus goes around touching all of these people: lepers, blind, the lame, the mute, hemorrhaging women, dead people. But instead of Jesus becoming impure, Jesus’ purity, Jesus’ holiness, God’s holiness is transferred to them!

Do you see what I’m getting at? It’s not about us getting all perfect and pure and holy so that God will deign to allow us to be close to him, no! It is about God drawing close to us, God’s holy presence drawing close to us. Why? To burn up us horrible sinners? No. God draws close, God comes to draw us into his holiness, into his own life. When God comes close, he isn’t expecting to find us perfectly pure and spotless and “holy,” no. When God comes close, he comes to give his life to those who seek it, to those awaiting it—to us who know ourselves to be part of the story of a people troubled in soul, poor and imperfect, looking forward to something greater to come.

(5) Advent: “Tidings of Comfort and Joy”

John Baptizes with water, the Gospel says. But this is only a baptism of repentance to prepare us, to awaken us to our need for God’s holy presence. The one coming after John? He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Mark 1:8, c.f., Matthew 3:11). This seemingly impossible thing is what John the Baptist announces, precisely because “nothing can save us that is possible” (Auden, For the Time Being). You can’t do it yourself.

The Advent darkness that we experience all throughout December is a “darkness where there is no human hope whatsoever and the only possibility is the impossibility of the intervention of God” (Rutledge). We are helpless and hopeless without the coming of God’s Messiah. The fire he brings is dangerous, it could consume us. But it is the fire of his own divine life, his own Holy Spirit—and he offers this Spirit to us, he wants this Spirit to dwell within us. 

So fear not, Isaiah tells us, “Comfort!” The Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ is coming. And when he does, God will do through him what we can’t do ourselves.

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