The Sunday Eucharist readings, prayers and reflections are available below.
ADVENT II SUNDAY 6 DECEMBER
O Lord, raise up, we pray, your power and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness we are grievously hindered in running the race that is set before us, your bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.
II Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8.
May all Christians prepare in humility and love to celebrate the coming of Christ.
Make straight the crooked ways of the world and give light to the dark places.
Have mercy on the suffering and the sick, especially Mary Maxwell and Paul Evans.
Receive into your Kingdom those who have died. May they be granted forgiveness and peace.
“Comfort, O comfort my people.” That’s what God told the prophet Isaiah to do. Or as most of us know it, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people”. Every time we hear Handel’s oratorio Messiah, we hear those words, sung by a solo tenor to begin that great work. And there’s an interesting fact about it, though it’s not often noticed. The words for the Messiah were selected from the scriptures by a friend of Handel’s, a remarkable gentleman and scholar named Charles Jennens, and in choosing the words, he followed the pattern of the Church’s yearly calendar as found in the Book of Common Prayer. So those words about comfort are Advent words, words for the beginning of the new Church year; and then the oratorio moves through to Christmas, then Lent and Passiontide to Easter, and it ends with the anticipation of Christ’s coming in glory.
By beginning the oratorio with Advent words, Jennens wanted to make clear that the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the story of His life, death, resurrection and glorification, are above all else a message of Hope. From start to finish, the story of God’s work among us is meant to give us Comfort and Hope, even tidings of comfort and joy.
I imagine we’ll all agree that some comfort and hope are just what we need as this miserable year draws to a close; but the comfort which the prophet Isaiah speaks about isn’t the kind of comfort a parent might offer to a distressed child – “there, there, this will make it better.”
Isaiah is told to speak to a deeply distressed and suffering nation. So he asks God the perfectly reasonable question, “Comfort them? What am I supposed to say?” Or as our reading has it, “A voice says ‘Cry out!’ And I said, “What shall I cry?” The situation of the people is utterly unstable, so what can Isaiah say to them?
He says that in a hard time – a time when “the grass withers, the flower fades”, a time like this, when so much which is familiar and reassuring has vanished – in such a time God isn’t offering cosy comfort. Isaiah says that God is not going to transform things overnight, but despite appearances, God is active. In the midst of the troubles, “He will feed His flock like a shepherd.” Hearing that is a call to trust in the work of God among us, even when the evidence for it can be difficult to see. And it’s a reminder that the ways in which God works are always new, and usually unexpected.
And there’s another angle to Isaiah’s promise of God’s comfort. If people are to receive that comfort, they must be prepared to make changes in their lives, to renew their trust in God and start afresh. That comes across clearly today in the voice of another prophet, John the Baptist. There’s a clear link between him and Isaiah, because like Isaiah he comes to do what every prophet is told to do, “prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Charles Jennens made sure that those words are heard at very beginning of the Messiah.
Notice what our Gospel reading says. John the Baptist comes “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” That word “repentance” is very important, because it doesn’t mean just regretting our past sins. Instead it means “conversion” – literally, a turning round of our lives. Sorrow for past sins may well be part of that, but what matters is that we begin to say, “I need to view my life and the world from a shifted perspective. I must begin to see people and events in the way God sees them.”
Now, if the words of Isaiah and John the Baptist are to mean anything to us, they must say that a huge shift in our outlook is needed, our outlook as individuals, as a Church, as a nation, as a culture. Without that, we’re not going to have the comfort of glimpsing God at work, even in the most depressing situations.
Yet how do we make that shift? By ourselves, we can’t. We’ll need to turn to God for help. But there’s the comforting part of the Baptist’s message: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” There’s the surprise element in God’s work. At a time and in a place completely unexpected, the Saviour appears for us.
As I said, Advent is our New Year, and it’s a good reminder that as Christians we’re meant to live according to a calendar which is not society’s calendar. But Advent is also a reminder of one of the greatest gifts we have to offer to those round us, namely, reason to Hope. One of the most disturbing aspects of Western culture is the often unspoken but growing fear that, despite all our cleverness and material wealth, we will eventually face a dead end, so there is nothing finally to hope for.
Christian faith refuses absolutely to accept that path to despair. That is the Advent message for us to embrace and then share. God, who lived among us in the life of Christ, is always drawing near to us if we’re prepared to look, though His coming may well be in ways we may not recognize at first. The faith that God is with us is our reason for hope and trust, even in such an unhappy time as this. From the beginning, Christians have given to our Lord Jesus Christ the title Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” That is the faith for which we must pray. And what better New Year’s Resolution than to commit ourselves afresh to coming here, where Our Lord Jesus Christ meets us in our communion at the altar?