Second Sunday of Advent, Year C
5 December 2021
Angels are essential to the celebration of Christmas, not only on top of our Christmas trees. The angel Gabriel announces the birth of the Saviour and angels sing for the shepherds in the fields. Heaven and earth are in close communication because God’s angels are about. Earlier the angel Gabriel had announced to Zechariah the birth of John who would be called the Baptist because John would baptize in the Jordan.
Our Gospel reading is about John’s ministry in the wilderness, many years after the angel’s announcement to Zechariah.
John too is an angel although he does not look anything like the way we imagine angels to look, shining and with wings, like those we use to decorate our homes and trees. We may prefer one of those but John is indeed an angel, a messenger from God, because the word angel comes from the Greek word ‘angelos’, which means messenger.
Angels are messengers from God for the world. And John is exactly that. Malachi in our first reading speaks of John, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.” (Malachi 3:1) And John finds his job description in the book of the prophet Isaiah,
A voice cries out:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain. (Isaiah 40:3-4)
John makes it clear that there are obstacles, obstacles between God and us. The obstacles are not on God’s side, nothing can keep God away from us. The obstacles are on our end. The mountains of which John speaks are of our creation, as are the valleys, which is why John is addressing the people.
What are the obstacles we create?
For me it would have to be my own busyness, my reluctance to sit down and listen for God, to enter into God’s presence. And being busy is always a good reason to keep things the way they are. Don’t we consider being busy a virtue, even when it keeps us from hearing the voice of God?
I can think of other obstacles too, our attachment to material things, our misplaced priorities, our judgment of others. But I think all those things go back to my inability to be still in God’s presence. Because when I consciously dwell in God’s presence, God changes me, because God lives in me.
That the season of Advent prescribes to us the simple and yet difficult task of waiting is the appropriate anti-dote to our activity, for in waiting we pay attention to the One we are waiting for and we realize that it is not us who bring about the Kingdom of God but God, as much as we may think that we do.
John’s preaching in the wilderness was not the first sermon those who came to him had heard. They may have been pilgrims on the way to the temple. Only two groups are named, soldiers and tax collectors. John exhorts them not to abuse their power. Not to abuse one’s power may seem simple. The problem is that those with power generally make the rules, and don’t see themselves as abusing power when they call on all others to play by the rules that they have created. When today we speak of recognizing our privilege, we recognize that we too can build obstacles and be deaf to John’s words. And if in some places the tables have turned and others are now those who hold the power, it applies there just the same, even if they speak in the name of justice.
If those to whom John is preaching are indeed pilgrims on their way to the temple, then John’s preaching reminds me of that of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24) Level the mountains and raise the valleys. Pay attention to God, pay attention to each other.
And when in Mark 10 Jesus answers a person who had called him ‘good,’ Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone, Jesus is not only including himself in the company of sinners since he will bear the sin of the world, but also models for us the humility that levels the mountains and lifts the valleys that stand not only between us and God but also between us and others.
In Eastern Orthodox iconography John the Baptist is depicted as an angel and yet at his feet (in the icon) lies his head that will later be severed from his body because John did not avoid the conflict with those in power. The same icon shows him keeping his eyes not on his severed head but on Jesus.
John is the angel, the messenger. And while John always comes off as a bit strange, as odd, we need angels. We need to be reminded that we can create obstacles between God and us, which always turn into obstacles between us and others.
The writer Flannery O’Connor once wrote that ‘you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.’
Knowing the truth is a gift, as is what follows. Not objecting to being odd is discipleship.
John is not the only angel. God invites us too to be messengers, angels, living in God’s presence, practising humility, paying attention to each other as God pays attention to us.
Waiting, preparing means to pay attention to God. Paying attention to God means to abandon our agendas and adopt God’s agenda.
May God grant us grace to be angels, to be messengers, not driven by our agendas but guided by the Spirit of God.