Reflection for the second Sunday of Advent

Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, o comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 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. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 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.

Reflection

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people says the Lord.” You might recognise these words as the opening lines of the oratorio, Messiah, by George Frederick Handel, which is usually performed in churches and concert halls in the approach to Christmas. Sadly for those who would normally attend the Messiah, they will not be able to see a live performance this year, but no doubt there will be a broadcast available somewhere. The music and its scriptural content continues to move and inspire people.

Those words of comfort by God for his people are the opening words of our Old Testament reading in Isaiah chapter 40, in which God speaks tenderly to the people of Judah. These are encouraging words addressed to a people who had suffered great devastation and loss. A generation or more before, a significant part of the population of Judah had been forcibly transported away to a foreign land when their country was overrun by the Babylonian empire – an event known as “the Exile”.

During the decades of captivity in Babylon, doubtless there was a huge sense of loss and even hopelessness among the exiles. They had lost their land, homes, livelihoods and even felt abandoned by their God. That loss is expressed in the voice that describes people as grass: “the grass withers, the flower fades”, just as the people’s hopes and dreams withered and faded.

It is into this sense of loss and despair that the prophet Isaiah spoke God’s words of comfort and hope, addressing them as “my people” says “your God”. He said that they had served their sentence and acknowledges that they had suffered greatly.

And then comes the promise of a dramatic intervention when a voice cries out: “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord”. God is coming to bring them home from captivity. G.F. Handel captured these words dramatically in his anthem: “Every valley shall be exalted”, with the imagery of a highway through the desert on which God will lead his people to freedom.

That imagery of preparing the way and making paths straight was later translated into a new setting by Mark to describe John the Baptiser’s mission as he announced the coming of one more powerful than he, Jesus, the Son of God. This was God’s intervention into the world, to redeem humanity. We look forward in expectation to celebrating the coming of Christ at Christmas, and these weeks of Advent have been set aside to prepare for that event.

There is understandably a lot of talk about this coming Christmas being like no other we have experienced. Certainly, we do well to listen to the cautious advice of our public health experts during this pandemic so that we do not risk our own health or that of anyone else. There is also a certain despondency abroad about the things we have forgone in 2020 and the way COVID-19 will impact on our Christmas celebrations. We cannot go and enjoy a live performance of the Messiah. We cannot sing our favourite carols with enthusiasm and our social interactions will be restricted – but in the grand scheme of things, these are a small price to pay for the greater good. We do have reason to be hopeful and we give thanks for the progress made in developing a vaccine against the virus.

Advent strikes a somewhat sombre mood as we contemplate the reasons for Christ’s coming into the world to deal with human sin and failing. By observing this season and contemplating our scripture readings each week, we will have a greater appreciation of what God has done for us in Jesus, which in turn will give us greater cause to celebrate his Nativity with joy.

A prayer as the second Advent candle is lit

Lord Jesus, light of the world,
the prophets said you would bring peace
and save your people in trouble.
Give peace in our hearts at Christmas
and show all the world God’s love. Amen.

The collect for the second Sunday of Advent

Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
Give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Prayers of intercession

Come Lord to your church and renew your people in faith and love.
Bless this diocese and Pat, our bishop.

Lord hear us, Lord graciously hear us.

Come Lord to your world,
Give wisdom to all world leaders and governments.
Guide them in your ways of justice and peace,

Lord hear us, Lord graciously hear us.

Come Lord to all who are in poverty or distress.
We pray for all who are homeless and in need.
We pray for refuges and all victims of oppression.

Lord hear us, Lord graciously hear us.

Come Lord to all who are ill or in pain.
Grant them your strength and healing.

Lord hear us, Lord graciously hear us.

Come Lord to all who grieve and sorrow.
Comfort them in their time of loss.

Lord hear us, Lord graciously hear us.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ
and the love of God
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit
be with us all evermore. Amen.

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