There was a small boy playing at the foot of the stairs in his home. There, against the wall at the base of the stairs, towered a great old grandfather clock that had been in the family for generations. Like such clocks, it would chime on the quarter-hour and the half-hour and then on the quarter-hour again. Then, at the hour it would strike the chime for the number of hours. Now, on this particular day and at this particular hour, just as the moment it began to strike the chime, the mechanism in that old clock jammed. It started to count the hours: …ten, eleven, twelve. And then it continued: …thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. The boy listened. He had been following along, practicing his new skill of counting. As it moved to thirteen and then to fourteen, he looked up in amazement at the clock. Suddenly, he jumped up and ran excitedly into the next room where his mother and father were reading. He shouted, “Listen! It’s later than it’s ever been before! Come and see!”
“It’s later than it’s ever been before!” The readings today and the readings through all of Advent are about that marvelous and surprising reality. It’s later than it’s ever been before! Listen! Come and see!
The words of spoken to the prophet Isaiah spring from the tender regard of our God, creator and covenant-maker, redeemer and lover of souls. “Comfort, O comfort my people,” God says to Isaiah. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid…’” (Is 40:1-2b). Their service is at an end! What wonderful words of tenderness and mercy, a delightful and life-sustaining message to people in trouble. This is God’s promise coming true, the covenant promise being realized as only God can make it so. Its effect will be seen in the earth itself as “every valley shall be lifted up” and “every mountain and hill be made low” (Is 40:4). Yes, something new is happening – a shift, a shake-up, a change. It is time for a new hope and comfort to break into the world. And it is quite spectacular. Saint Augustine once wrote about God’s inbreaking goodness, “Lord, when I look upon mine own life it seems you have led me so carefully, so tenderly, you cannot have attended to none else; but, when I see how wonderfully you have led the world and are leading it, I am amazed that you have had time to attend to such as me.”
This is the time of the voice that cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The task is immediate. It is time NOW to prepare the way for God, to cry out: “Here is your God.” We are given a description of this God: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep” (Is 40:11). This is our God, who is closer now than ever to God’s own daughters and sons, holding them like a father and carrying them like a mother holding her own.
Psalm 85 gives a clearer description of what is happening and of what God has been doing. Here we see a description of the one who will let us see the kindness of our God and give us the gift of saving grace. “Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other,” wrote the Psalmist. Or as others have translated (perhaps more accurately): “love and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss. Truth will spring from the earthl justice will look down from heaven” (Ps 85:11-12). And again even the land will respond, yielding its produce as justice walk before the one who is to come.
This last reference to righteousness or justice reminds us of John the Baptist, who went before the face of Jesus, told the truth to everyone, and was bold in God’s cry for repentance. And this brings us to the beginning of Mark’s gospel, where the author borrows the words of the Prophet Isaiah and introduces the messenger of God. John the Baptist burst like a storm into Israel, appearing as though an apparition, a sign out of nowhere. He came forth from the Judean wilderness, out of the silence as a sort of revolution – the precursor to a shift in power and influence, a turning of the people again toward the covenant made in the desert.
“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mk 1:4-5)
It is a ritual purification, a cleansing, and a strengthening of what is to come. What happened then is what needs to happen today, in our age and in our nation. It is about repentance of individuals, but also the turning around of a people – the preparation leading to forgiveness and our entering into the embrace of God.
John comes wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt, the dress of a slave. The belt itself was the instrument of bondage, serving to hold the chains that were bound around the slave’s hands and connected to the ankles. John identifies as a slave – a slave to the Holy One of Israel. John knows that “one who is more powerful…is coming after” and, though he is a slave, he is not even “worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals” (Mark 1:7). But John is a slave to Christ, obeying freely and fervently, and alerting others to the nearness and power of the one who approaches: “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8).
Yes, the dream of God is coming true. It is coming true in fire and spirit and water, in servanthood, obedience, and a truth that bends before the one to come. Now, if the one to come is to be welcomed and embraced, we must be ready. This is the work of Advent – preparation, purification, and restoration of ourselves but not ourselves but the whole world. In Hebrew this is called tikkum olam, “the repairing of the world.” It is the true work of all disciples – the concrete expression of how “justice walks before him.”
This Advent we are invited to learn tikkum olam. On this Secod Sunday of Advent we are invited by John the Baptist to remember our own baptisms and our commitments to justice, peace, and righteousness. We are invited to know how to give comfort, to speak tenderly, to proclaim bondage at an end, and to prepare the way of the Lord and reveal the glory of God.
A journalist named Ann Medlock founded an award called the Giraffe Heroes Project to “find and honor “Giraffe Heroes” – men, women, and young people sticking their necks out to help solve significant public problems…” (giraffe.org/about-us). The idea was to tell the stories of amazing people so that others might hear them and be inspired. I think that we need to look around us, see who might be given that Giraffe Hero Award and encourage them and stand with them. People who speak up courageously on behalf of others who cannot speak up for themselves.
- People who work with immigrants caught in a static system of cold-hearted rules intent on keeping people out.
- People who advocate for children – children who are parentless, children on the streets, children who labor in fields and factories or who are forced into sex-trafficking.
- People who foster peace and insist on the abolition of nuclear weapons, land mines, and poison gases.
- People who work for the rights of farmworkers and laborers struggling with minimum wage.
- People who promote the dignity of every human being – no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, or age.
“Giraffes” are people who in their daily life and work remember the dream of love and truth, and justice and peace. They know that “truth will spring from the earth and justice will look down from heaven” (Ps 85:12). All of these people have a streak of John the Baptist in them and they use their portion of the Spirit to prepare the way for God in this world. We are invited this Advent to stand with those Giraffes.
Or, better yet, maybe we should become Giraffes ourselves, sticking our necks out for others. That what John the Baptist did as he prepared the way for the Lord.
Listen! It’s later than it’s ever been before! Come and see!