Of Judgment and Mercy

Of Judgment and Mercy

Homily for the Second Sunday in Advent

December 10, 2023

Of Judgment and Mercy

Homily for Sunday, December 10, 2023
The Second Sunday of Advent
Mark 1:1-8

When in this morning’s Gospel Mark writes “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare the way…’” Mark actually mis-cites Isaiah.  Isaiah said part of what Mark says Isaiah said, but not all.  And I want to get back to Mark’s missed citation, but first, a bird’s-eye view of the scriptures from last Sunday and this, the first two Sundays of Advent…

On one level, it is true that last Sunday’s scriptures were about Jesus’ second coming in judgment and that this Sunday’s scriptures are about God’s mercy.  For example, last Sunday we heard from Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and comedown, so that the mountains would quake at your presence” (64:1-2); and (by contrast) this Sunday we hear, “Comfort, O comfort, my people… Speak tenderly to Jerusalem… that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid”(40:1-2).  On one level, it is true that last Sunday’s scriptures were about judgment and that this Sunday’s are about mercy.  But to say that last Sunday’s scriptures were about judgment and this Sunday’s about mercy is to find a dichotomy where there isn’t one.  For both Sunday’s scriptures are part of one gesture, one movement, that offer healing and wholeness.  

John the Baptist, about whom we just heard in the opening of Mark’s Gospel, gathers together in his person this one gesture, one movement, of God’s healing and wholeness.  For John gathers in his person God’s judgment and God’s mercy.  He gathers in his person judgment:  “You brood of vipers,”John says to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt 3:7).  And John gathers mercy:  “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk1:4).  

Further – returning to Mark’s missed citation of the prophet Isaiah – John also gathers in his person the entirety of the Old Testament prophetic tradition and points to the future God offers us in Jesus.  John was, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” sent to “prepare the way of the Lord” and to “make his paths straight” – here Mark quotes Isaiah (40:3).  And, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you” – here he quotes the prophet Malachi (3:1).  And again, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”– here Mark quotes Moses (Ex 23:20). John gathers in his person these three prophets from three major stages of Israel’s history – the time of Moses, the time of the kings (Malachi), and the time after the exile (Isaiah) – and points to the future God offers in Jesus:  “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me,” John says. “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John is a prophet of judgment and mercy.  And in Mark’s account, John quotes from three prophets from three different times in Israel’s history.  John gathers together in his person all that is past – for Israel, their history; for us, our sinfulness – and he points to the future God offers in Christ, a future (John suggests) of forgiveness, that is power-filled and that is of the Holy Spirit. In a nutshell, the gist of John’s message is:  “Great things are about to unfold.”  

John is right – great things are about to unfold.  Which is why we always hear from John in Advent when we are reminded of Christ’s second coming and prepare to remember his first.  But – as Bernard of Clairvaux once famously pointed out – Advent celebrates not just these two but an additional third coming of Christ.  If at his first coming Christ came into our world at Christmas, and if at his second coming Christ will come again in great glory to judge the world, there is also a middle advent, says Bernard, in which Christ comes into our lives now.  And it is here – in our lives now – that, if we let them, great things are about to unfold.

John can help show us the way to these “great things” about to unfold. John – who brings together in himself the upbeat / downbeat rhythm of God’s judgment and mercy, and of the old and the new – [John] points us to Jesus.   As we repent – acknowledging that we have fallen short – as we lament (as we spoke about last Sunday), and as we turn toward God and ask for forgiveness, the One who is “more powerful than I,” John says – Jesus – can powerfully heal us and make us whole.  With what God offers in Jesus, it is as though the entirety of our lives, all that has gone before – like the entirety of Israel’s history that Mark sums up in his misquote from “the prophet Isaiah”– [with Jesus it is as though the entirety of our lives] is offered healing and wholeness. “Healing” in that we are “salved” with healing ointment, which has the same root as “salvation.”  “Wholeness”in that everything we have experienced or done before, God can use to heal us.  There is no experience in our life that has been wasted, and there is nothing we have done that God cannot use for our benefit.  God gathers up all of parts of us, all that is in our past and all that is in our present, and brings it to bear now for our healing.  

I wonder if this Advent you would like great things to unfold.  If so, John offers a way.  As “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him… confessing their sins,”so, too, could we confess our sins.  We all stand in need of healing; there is none who does not need forgiveness.  John reminds us that Advent’s upbeat / downbeat gesture of God’s judgment and mercy ultimately leads to our healing.  John reminds us,too – as he embodies the past of the prophets while pointing to the future in Jesus – [John reminds us, too,] that, no matter what has been in our past, God can use it to bring about our healing and wholeness.

“You have been gracious to your land, O Lord,” writes Isaiah, “you have restored the good fortune of Jacob.”  So has God been gracious to us; so can God restore our good fortune.  And perhaps this Advent will be the beginning of great things unfolding.  Not just in the Incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas, not just in Christ’s second coming “in power and great glory,” but even in our own lives now.  For, as Isaiah writes, God has “forgiven the iniquity of [God’s] people and blotted out all their sins.”  And with forgiveness, extraordinary things possible.

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