Our God is coming. He is coming to save and redeem. The time of exile - the long separation of humankind from God and from one another and nature due to sin - is about to end. This is the good news proclaimed in today's liturgy.
The second Book of Isaiah begins at Chapter 40 and is known as the Book of Consolation. It was written at a time when Israel was still in exile in Babylon. Isaiah is speaking to a captive people. Israel’s Babylonian captors were conquered themselves by Cyrus of Persia. Cyrus celebrated his victory by releasing the peoples who had been conquered by the Babylonians. So when Isaiah spoke of comfort and the glory of the Lord being revealed, the captives celebrating their release could readily imagine a return to the better days of their history when God had felt closer. God had indeed come not to scatter but to gather as a shepherd gathers his sheep. Isaiah saw Cyrus as God’s instrument to release his people from captivity and allow them their freedom.
The Psalmist like Isaiah celebrates God’s initiative in redeeming his people and proclaiming peace upon them. He is confident that God’s initiative will result in the whole of creation bringing forth plenty.
This, however, was seen by the first Christian community as only one of many acts in a long line of saving acts that would culminate and find its fulfillment in the decisive act of sending his only Son. The Gospel of Mark begins by announcing this fact in the first verse itself. Mark’s Gospel is a Gospel not only about Jesus Christ the Son of God but also Jesus’ Gospel or good news. This good news is that in him God will save all peoples everywhere. This salvation will be not merely from the physical bondage of being oppressed by foreigners in a foreign land but will touch every aspect of life. It will be a kind of salvation never experienced before.
In order to prepare for this salvation, John the Baptist comes into the wilderness and begins his proclamation like Isaiah had done centuries before. In the Bible the desert or wilderness came to mean a place of encounter with God. It was in the desert that the people of Israel met God and learnt the ways of God. There they became God’s own people and the Lord became their God. Jesus, before beginning his public ministry, spent forty days and nights in the desert or wilderness. It was a time of discovering and deepening his personal relationship with God. By calling the people into the desert or wilderness, John was calling them to let go of their false hopes and securities and learn to hope and trust in God alone.
Isaiah and John did their task. They did what they were required to do. They have completed the mission entrusted to them. They prepared the way of the Lord, they made his paths straight.
The disciples of Jesus continued the mission of preparing the way of the Lord as is evident in the second reading of today in which Peter exhorts his readers to continue to prepare for the coming of the Lord. They must not be discouraged at the delay in the coming of the Lord. This delay is simply a gesture on the part of the Lord to give his people time to repent. As they look forward to the coming of the Lord it must not be a looking forward with fear or anxiety, because creation will be transformed in a 'new heaven and new earth', in which all the things that are held dear will be filled with the righteousness, or incomparable goodness, of God's ways. The Lord is patient and understanding and wants all to be saved.
These images of hope, promise, and renewal remind us that human obedience, walking in the way of the Law, is a proper response to God’s grace. We do not build the highway and then wait for God to come. God has already drawn near to us before we repent. Our repentance is not a condition but a consequence of God’s drawing near to us. The readings make it clear that we are preparing for no less than the coming of God’s son yet again into our world and our lives. We are preparing to make the kingdom that he inaugurated a reality even today. That is what we prepare for and work for, today, and every day, here, and wherever we are.
During this Advent season, we have our own sets of expectations, longing for a better world. While it is true that the reign of God has, in Jesus Christ, been established among us, it is likewise true that we humans have not responded to God’s offer, as we should. We long for peace. We cry out for justice. Security remains illusive. Dishonesty, corruption and greed still beset us. We lament the fact that the world in which we must live is in the condition that it is in. Yet, God continues to come into such a world much like he came two thousand years ago. He continues to challenge us to remain as positive as we can be. He continues to call us to selflessness, generosity, honesty and love even in the negatives of this life. He was not recognized by most of the people when he first came, will we recognize him when he comes now?