December 6, 2020
SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Pointing to Christ
Mark’s gospel opens with fanfare: a herald announcing the good news that the Lord is on the way! It’s time to prepare for the Savior! The role model for this process of preparation is an unusual character. He lives in the wild, wears animal skins, and eats insects. Because of his extreme lifestyle, John the Baptist is often portrayed as a madman living on the fringes of society.
Yet, the text makes clear that John was a respected faith leader. People from all over the region were coming to him to be baptized. In John’s context, living in the desert and eating a foraged diet were signs of spiritual commitment, not lunacy. We might imagine John as a precursor to the Christian desert mothers and fathers who came after him, wise teachers who lived in voluntary isolation. People made a point to come hear what these teachers had to say.
John used his influence to point to Jesus. Although he had a popular ministry of his own, John understood that his call to prepare the way for Jesus involved humility and service. He told others he wasn’t even worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals, a sentiment that was meant to elevate Jesus, not to demean John. He wanted to communicate how transformative Jesus’ ministry would be. “I have baptized with water,” John proclaimed, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8).
As we declare in our baptismal rite, that same Holy Spirit calls us into baptism and seals us with the mark of Christ forever. We, like John, are called to humble service for the sake of God’s mission in the world, to use our unique gifts and vocations to point to Jesus. We become messengers proclaiming the good news: God has come to dwell with us.
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The Readings in the Bible
The Gospel of Mark begins the proclamation of Jesus not with any infancy narratives, but rather with the preaching of John the Baptist, whom Mark sees as the one Isaiah and Malachi had described. Mark invented the gospel genre, in which like Paul he applied to Christ a term that previously designated “good news” about the Roman emperor. At this time, Jews performed various kinds of ritual washings. By these baptisms in the Jordan, Mark connects Jesus with the ancient Israelites entering the Promised Land via the Jordan River. John’s attire likens him to the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8), whom Jews expected to return before the Messiah came, and he eats the kosher food of the wilderness (Lev. 11:5).
After the Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in 587 bce and deported the civic and religious leaders, a prophet we refer to as Second Isaiah proclaimed hope that God would bring the exile to an end. A road would be constructed for their return. Because Jewish monotheism, developing out of an earlier henotheism, recognized only one great divine power, even evil must somehow come from that God, and the prophets understood the exile as punishment for Israel’s sins. Evoking Israel’s nomadic history, the oracle contrasts the wilderness with the mountain city and likens God to a shepherd.
2 Peter, perhaps written as late as 125 ce, is cast as the final words of one who anticipates death and urges the community to faithfulness until the Day of the Lord arrives. The writer uses traditional apocalyptic imagery to describe the coming of God, who will bring an end to this world. But God promises a new world. “Heavens” means the sky, the stars, the topmost layer of the world.