Comfort Without Complacency

Comfort, comfort my people.

2nd Sunday in Advent, Year B

1 Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; Indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! 4 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; The rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all mankind shall see it together; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. 9 Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; Cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news! Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God! 10 Here comes with power the Lord GOD, who rules by his strong arm; Here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. 11 Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, Carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.

8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. 9 The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out. 11 Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought (you) to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire. 13 But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. 14 Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.

1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ (the Son of God). 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. 3 A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’ ” 4 John (the) Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. 6 John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey. 7 And this is what he proclaimed: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the holy Spirit.”

If Advent is a time of hopeful waiting, the readings for the second Sunday give a good indication of what kind of waiting it is. I dare say that it has little in common with the sentiment of cherub-faced children seen peering out of frosted windows in wondrous winter anticipation that is such common stock on the covers of catalogs that fill the mailbox at this time of year. The “comfort” called for (naham ) is that which is often offered to mourners. It is often used as a messianic promise as well, but not with the idea of making people feel better so much as to transform them. In fact, in certain forms, the word is widely translated as “repent.” We could say that this comforting refers to an act of being moved with pity or compassion.

The idea clearly is that the coming of God is for the purpose of saving His people from tangible distress. There’s no escaping that our waiting is a period of trial – at least if we take the Scriptures seriously. We see a sign of this in the lifestyle of John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the long-awaited Comfort, or Consolation, of Israel, as Simeon shows us in Luke’s Gospel (c.f. Lk 2:25).And yet, like Simeon, we too await the Consolation. Even though we live under the Seal of the Promise, we too await the Lord’s patient wish that “all should come to repentance” and consolation.

The picture Peter paints is one that seems to me to be quite thoroughly ignored – the picture of everything being dissolved by fire in the Lord’s return. There is a popular tendency to equate heaven with eternity, and to overlook the material aspect of the promise (a new earth). Scripture is quite clear that the end is a new heavens and a new earth; that “Heaven and earth shall pass away” (Mt 24:35).

And so I wonder exactly what it is that we await. On the one hand, it seems exciting, but then I recall that the Lord saw fit to call his followers to vigilance (Mt 25:13, Mk 13:33; Lk 12:37; etc.), which would hardly seem necessary if the waiting was just wide-eyed expectancy. Nor would it seem necessary if the outcome were a certainty. Advent is nothing if not an invitation to shed any complacency.