Is 40:1-5, 9-11; 2 Pt 3:8-14; Mk 1:1-8
Homily starter anecdote: Conversion of an IRA bomber: For 300 years the people in Ireland have lived in the past. For 350 years, really, all they have done is remember the past, taking revenge on one another. But slowly, one by one, on both sides, people have begun to repent, to look, not to the past, but to the future. One of the first to do so was a man named Shane O'Doherty. He was the first former IRA member to come out publicly for peace. Twenty years ago, he was sent to jail for mailing letter bombs. At his trial as a terrorist for the IRA, he had to sit and listen to people tell what it was like to open those letters. Fourteen people testified against him, all innocent victims, many of them mutilated because of what he had done. He said it was sitting in that court, face to face with people who had been harmed by his actions that his conversion began. But it was completed in prison, in his cell, as he was reading Scripture. First, he experienced Jesus' love for him. Then he experienced Jesus' requirement of him. He knew he had to change. When he got out of prison, O'Doherty started to talk about building a new future in Ireland, instead of just repeating the past. He found that his life was now being threatened by his former colleagues. But he continued to do it, because, he said, "I believe that one person is able to make a difference just by talking about peace, just by making his witness. It begins in any nation, in any community, with one person, then another, and then another, saying, ‘I'm going to accept the future that God is giving to us, rather than simply repeating the past.’" Every year in Advent they are there, both John and Jesus, challenging us, "Repent; for the time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom is at hand." God is offering us a new future. Let us choose it, turn away from the past, and accept what God is offering us. ( http://stjohngrandbay.org/wt/client/v2/story/WT_Story.cfm?SecKey=151)
Introduction: Advent means coming. During the Advent season we reflect on the past coming of Jesus into our world two thousand years ago as a little baby, the daily coming of Jesus through the Sacraments, through the Holy Bible and through the worshipping community and the future coming (Second Coming) of Jesus at the end of the world. Today’s readings remind us that the past, present and future comings of Jesus into the world are the fulfillment of the saving plan of God. Today’s Scripture readings deal with coming home – Babylonian exiles coming home, the shalom or perfect peace of coming home, our going home with Jesus at his Second Coming, and Jesus, the Savior, “coming home” into our lives during Advent.
Scripture lessons summarized: All three readings for Advent II Sunday focus on the absolute necessity of our readying ourselves by repentance and reparation for Christ’s coming. In the first reading, Isaiah assures his people that the Lord will restore their homeland to them and care for them as a shepherd cares for the sheep. Today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps 85) also speaks of the return of shalom (perfect peace), and pardon to the people. The second reading gives an answer to those who scoff at the expectation of the Second Coming of Christ, explaining that God’s way of reckoning time is different from ours and that God has His own reasons for delaying Christ’s second coming. Peter gives us the assurance that Jesus is sure to come again although we do not know when. Hence, while we wait, we should be leading lives of holiness and godliness. Finally, the Gospel tells us that the restoration of the fallen world has already begun, starting with the arrival of John the Baptist, the messenger and forerunner of the Messiah. John speaks of one, more powerful than he – Jesus Christ – who will baptize us with the Holy Spirit. Each of us has received the gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and now we live in the Spirit each day, waiting for the return of our Lord. Thus, we become John the Baptist's successors, preparing for Christ's return which will bring a new and perfect world.
The first reading: Is 40:1-5, 9-11 explained: Isaiah consoles the Jews in exile in Babylon, giving them Yahweh’s assurance that their 60 years of Babylonian captivity will end soon and that they will be going home as free people. He assures them that they will be brought back to Israel by the power of God. Isaiah is not shy about saying that the Exile was a punishment for sin. But Israel’s sins are forgiven now, and the exile is over. Isaiah wants the people to consider their return journey as their second Exodus, with Yahweh once more their loving Father and faithful Shepherd. He describes God's marvelous love for the undeserving. If Yahweh is now their Redeemer rather than their punisher, then their relationship with Yahweh also has to change. Isaiah instructs the exiles that they are to return home in a grand religious procession, with God leading them. To pave the way for this procession, valleys and mountains are to be leveled, and a highway is to be created in the wilderness. God will lead them to Judah and, within Judah, to the city of Jerusalem and, within Jerusalem, to Zion, the hill where their Temple had stood. Seeing the procession in his mind, the prophet exclaims with joy, “Here comes your God with power!" Then he presents the tender picture of God leading the exiles as a shepherd cradles lambs.
Isaiah originally spoke these words in the 6th century BC. On one level they were fulfilled when Persia conquered Babylon, and those who had been exiled from Judah to Babylon were allowed to return home. God first accomplished the salvation proclaimed by Isaiah by leading the exiles back from Babylon. However, on a deeper level this word foretold the coming of Jesus. The words of Isaiah about the "voice of one crying out in the desert: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths,'" were a prediction of John the Baptist. He was calling upon people to prepare for the coming of the Lord. And the Lord was Jesus who brought about true liberation from the bondage of sin for all mankind. It is because of this deeper meaning of the prophet's words that this reading has been chosen for Advent.
Second Reading, 2 Peter 3:8-14 explained: Taken from the second letter of Peter, this reading makes it clear that the salvation promised by Isaiah was not completely accomplished even by the first coming of Jesus. It is only when Jesus comes again at the end of time that Isaiah's words will be entirely fulfilled. Hence, Peter warns against false teachers who have given up any expectation of Christ’s return because of its long delay. As the years rolled by, non-Christians began ridiculing those Christians who still expected Christ’s second coming. A few Christians, in fact, began to believe that it would never happen. They laughed at what they thought was error and delusion. So Peter reminds them that even though the Second Coming seems to be delayed, Christ will indeed come as promised. Peter also reminds them that God doesn't reckon time the way we do since, to Him “one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years are as a day” (Psalm 90). In other words, the risen Lord is eternal and infinite and so is not restricted or measured by time in fulfilling promises. Besides, God “is patient” with us, giving us more time to repent of our sins and renew our lives. The longer we are allowed to wait for Christ’s Second coming the more people will have an opportunity to be converted and take part in God’s glory. So Peter assures his people that Christ’s promise will be fulfilled. That is why we say in the Nicene Creed, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His Kingdom will have no end.” We, then, are expected to wait, leading lives of holiness and godliness. We should be holy in conduct and devotion, being "eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace."
Gospel exegesis: The context: While Matthew and Luke start their Gospels by giving us a brief account of the conception, birth, and early boyhood of Christ and John begins his Gospel by pointing to the eternal life of Christ as the Word of the Father, Mark opens his Gospel with the preparation for Christ's public life, in which the chief actor is John the Baptist. This wilderness prophet proclaims the "here-ness" of an event and person every Jew has been anticipating. "One more powerful than I," John announces, "is to come after me....I have baptized you in water; He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit." The essence of the Baptizer’s message is “repent and return to the ways of the Lord.” John preaches that the appropriate behavior for those preparing "the way of the Lord" is to be baptized "as they confess their sins."
Malachi’s view of the mission of the Messiah: “I send my messenger before you and he will prepare your road for you” Mark cites Isaiah as his source for the whole of the quotation with which his Gospel opens. This first sentence appeared originally in the prophecy of Malachi (Malachi 3:1). In its original context, it was a threat and warning from God to the Temple priests. In those days, the priests were living lazy lives and were failing in their duty by offering the blemished and the second-best as sacrifices to Yahweh. Hence, the messenger was to cleanse and purify the worship of the Temple before the Anointed One of God emerged upon the earth. Coupled with Isaiah’s “voice crying in the wilderness,” however, the prophecy becomes an invitation to all Israel to prepare for the coming of the Messiah whom John would announce. So Malachi anticipates the mission of John the Baptist as one of purification. John gives the them some down-to-earth advice on changing their lives for the better. He wants them (and us as well), to fill in the valleys of prejudice, level the mountains of pride and straighten out the crooked paths of injustice. Preparing a way for God in our hearts is a time-consuming and costly business. It demands our listening to what God is saying to us and then making changes in our behavior. Welcoming God also involves removing all blockages and obstacles which keep Him from coming close to us. “Although Mark attributes the prophecy to Isaiah, the text is a combination of Malachi 3:1; Isaiah 40:3; and Exodus 23:20 … this prophecy of Deutero-Isaiah concerning the end of the Babylonian exile is here applied to the coming of Jesus; John the Baptist is to prepare the way for him” (New American Bible footnotes).
Repent and return to the Lord – the priorities set by John: There are two traditions from which John’s baptism could be derived: One is the ritual washings by which people cleansed themselves of spiritual impurity. Ritual bathing was especially important in the Qumran community with which John may have had some connection. The other tradition is proselyte baptism of Gentile converts to Judaism, an initiatory cleansing rite performed by immersion. It seems likely that John borrows from both traditions (ritual washings and proselyte baptism), but establishes his own baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John recommended a baptism of repentance in the river Jordan to the Jews who were familiar with ritual and symbolic washings (Lev.11-15). The Jews insisted that when a male Gentile became a Jew, he had to do three things: i) accept circumcision as the mark of the covenant people; ii) offer sacrifice because he stood in need of atonement, and iii) undergo baptism by immersion in water, which symbolized his cleansing from all pollution. The most amazing thing about John's baptism was that he, a Jew, was asking fellow-Jews to submit to that which only a Gentile was supposed to need. John was convinced of the truth that even the chosen people needed true repentance and renewal of life to receive their long-awaited Messiah. We tend to think of repentance as feeling guilty about our sins, but it is more—much more. The Greek word, metanoia, means a change of mind or direction. It is related to the Hebrew word tesubah, used by prophets to call Israel to abandon its sinful ways and to return to God. Both words (metanoia and tesubah) imply “a total change of spiritual direction.” The baptism of a Gentile was accompanied by a confession made to three different recipients as a sign of repentance for sin. (i) A man must make confession to himself because the first step in repentance is to admit his sin to himself. (ii) He must make confession to those whom he has wronged. This involves humiliation and is a test of real repentance since there can be no forgiveness without humiliation. (iii) He must make confession to God because it is when a man says, "I have sinned," that God gets the chance to say, "I forgive."
John's message calls us also to confront and confess our sins; to turn away from them in sincere repentance; to receive God's forgiveness; and most importantly, to look to Jesus. Do we need to receive God's forgiveness? There are basically two reasons why we fail to receive forgiveness. The first is that we fail to repent, and the second is that we fail to forgive. Jesus was very explicit about this second failure in Matthew 6:14-15. He says, "For if you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions." Is there someone we need to forgive today? Let us not allow what others have done destroy our life. We can't be forgiven unless we forgive. Let us let go of that bitterness and allow God to work healing in our life. Perhaps we need to draw closer to Him. Like the prodigal son’s father, God will run to meet us. He will throw His arms around us and He will forgive us and restore us. He will receive us as His sons and daughters. Let us draw close to Him today, and He will draw close to us.
The effectiveness of John’s ministry: John’s ministry was effective primarily because his life was his message: he lived what he preached. He was a man from the desert. In its solitude, he had heard the voice of God, and, hence, he had the courage of his convictions. His camel’s hair garment and leather belt resembled those of Elijah and other great prophets of Israel. His food, too, was very simple: wild locusts and honey. The Israelites had not had a prophet for four hundred years, and the people were waiting expectantly for one. John’s message was effective also because he was completely humble. His role was to serve Jesus and to serve the people. "He must increase, I must decrease," he says elsewhere (John 3:30). That is why he publicly confessed that he was not fit to be a slave before the Messiah. He frankly admitted that he was the Messiah’s humble and obedient messenger, preparing a straight way for the Messiah in the hearts and lives of the Jews. His message combined three Scriptural passages familiar to the Jews, namely, Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. That is why John's influence continued to live on after his death. When the apostle Paul went to Ephesus nearly 30 years later, he found a group of John's disciples (Acts 19:1-7).
Life messages: 1) We need to prepare for the rebirth of Jesus: We are invited by the Church to prepare for Christmas by repenting of our sins and renewing our lives so that Jesus may be reborn in us. Let us ask with Alexander Pope the challenging question, “What do I profit, if Jesus is born in thousands of cribs all over the world unless he is born in my heart and in my life?”
2) We need to allow Jesus to be reborn in our lives, radiating his presence all around us. People around us should recognize Jesus’ rebirth in our lives by our sharing love, unconditional forgiveness, compassionate and merciful heart and spirit of humble and committed service. Let us accept Jesus as our personal Savior and Lord during this Christmas season and remain, or become, true Christians in our daily conduct. Let us use these days of preparation for Christmas to ready ourselves for Christ’s daily coming and Second Coming, remembering that the Second Coming will occur for each one of us on the day of our death, or on the Day of the Lord, whichever comes first.
3) We need to accept the challenge of John the Baptist to turn this Advent season into a real spiritual “homecoming” by making the necessary preparations. John’s preaching reminds us also of our important task of announcing Christ to others through our lives at home and in the community. When we show real love, kindness, mercy and a spirit of forgiveness, we are announcing the truth that Christ is with us. Thus, our lives become a kind of Bible which others can read. John the Baptist invites us to turn this Advent season into a spiritual homecoming by making the necessary preparations. (Fr. Antony Kadavil).