The second Sunday of Advent – the week we set fire to the Peace candle – has confused me for as long as I can remember.
The cluster of texts in Year B, our current cycle, sends mixed messages of comfort and dismay, restoration and destruction, and the hope for renewal against a grim backdrop of inevitable dissolution.
Isaiah 40 woos us with a crooked finger, cooing, “Comfort, O comfort my people” (Isaiah 40:1), only to follow with graphic images of a geologic catastrophe where valleys and mountaintops trade places in a violent display of raw power that the poem suggests restores a balance both spiritual and moral.
The transitory cycle of life, it seems, rests not in withering grass and fading flowers, but in the bosom of a shepherd who rescues vulnerable lambs and struggling ewes.
The reading from 2 Peter 3 delights and challenges 21st century readers who have not succumbed to the centuries-old false dichotomy of religion (which almost always means one version of Christianity) and science.
The writer of 2 Peter was mounting an argument against the Epicureans of the day who were fatalistic materialists. They embraced a worldview that denied any sense of a transcendent reality – a personal, engaged, loving God common to Jews and Christians of the era.
Some contemporary readers of 2 Peter find resonance with the ancient Epicurean image of a cosmic dissolution – accompanied by a fiery end to the material world – that is evocative of contemporary physics’ inferences that from the beginning our universe has been plodding toward a literal, inevitable burnout.
2 Peter makes room, however, for “new heavens and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13; the phrase only appears here and in Revelation 21:1 in the New Testament) that presses the reality of faith into a context of cosmic renewal. 2 Peter recommends “be found by [God] at peace” (2 Peter 3:15).
And then there is the intrusion of the Baptizer in Mark 1:1-8. Of all characters in the Bible, John the Baptizer is the least likely to be nominated for and receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He is unkempt, rustic, belligerent and confrontational. He is smug (I affirm his smugness but am hesitant to take him as a role model).
The Gospel of Mark is more generous toward the Baptizer than other accounts. Mark mutes the Baptizer’s rants and histrionics. I prefer Matthew’s portrayal, specifically the way Matthew later shows an introspective John who is eager to make peace with himself and his calling (Matthew 11:2-6).
We all need to make peace with ourselves and our callings.
In the tumult of 2020, and the rapid exhaustion of ways to adequately describe the unraveling of what we thought normal or ordinary, the psalmist (see Psalm 85:1-2 and 8-13) takes several steps back in order to grasp the sweep of God’s presence in a world tossed to-and-fro.
The psalmist is as honest as the Baptizer, but not as prickly. The poet writes of restoration, which is a reminder of rebellion and failure (Psalm 85:1-2).
What comes next might make some blush. I felt the heat on my cheeks as I read as-if-for-the-first-time, “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10). Read on through 13 for the climax of the embrace!
The intimacy of the psalm adds a needed depth and brightness to our task and celebration of setting afire the peace candle.
Blush if you must but heed the intimate crooked-finger wooing and cooing of the prophet, the psalm, the epistle and the gospel.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a weekly series for Advent 2020. One article will be published each week for the four Sundays of Advent, with a final article published on Christmas week. The previous article in the series is:
Bringing Your Crumpled Hope to Advent | Merianna Harrelson
Professor emeritus of religion in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He served as chair of the department of religion from 2000-2021.