And count the forbearance of our Lord as salvation. -- II Peter 3:15
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The message of Advent is that we are not ready to “greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.” At least not yet. It’s actually a good thing that we have to wait for the coming of the Lord, as it gives us the time we need to follow St. Peter’s instruction to “be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.” We are no doubt covered in countless spots and blemishes at the moment, and we are hardly at peace. We still engage in the works of darkness and our sins are many. Were our Lord to come and survey us as we presently are, it would likely be a terrible experience; hardly the joyous greeting we long for in today’s Collect. Further, as the Prophet Isaiah says today: “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it.” For all of its order and stability, creation is defined by weakness and the lives we live within it are mortal lives. Death comes to us all, not only in the final sense when return to the dust from which we came, but in the daily sense of each passing moment.
There are also all the little “deaths” that we experience when things we had counted on and taken for granted are suddenly taken away. Who could have imagined this time last year that something as predictable and permanent as simply gathering here together to sing our hymns and enjoy some coffee in the parish hall would depart from our lives for months on end? Not to mention the countless thousands of our neighbors who have lost things far more essential than even these: jobs have been cut; homes have lost to eviction or foreclosure; and worst of all, the beloved friends and family members who have died from the pandemic and who would almost absolutely still be here were it not for this pestilence. Something on the scale of COVID-19 makes it so painfully easy to imagine what would have been the case right now if we had just been allowed to go along as normal.
Maybe you’ve been fortunate enough to remain among those for whom this whole ordeal has mostly been little more than a prolonged inconvenience -- not to discount how demoralizing even that has been. Maybe you can look at your own life and neatly separate the effects of the pandemic and the normal life that has persisted in spite of them. Maybe there’s still some degree of stability and predictability that you can rely on. Maybe the foundation of your life is still mostly secure. If that’s more like the situation you find yourself in, don’t worry! The force of this season and our readings today still falls upon you just the same, for no one is exempted from the scope of the Gospel; there is no one for whom it does not apply.
Because it turns out that when life in the world strikes most people as basically agreeable and predictable -- when everything is in its right place -- that is the time when Prophets emerge and God calls the holy ones into the wilderness. It’s in the wilderness that the way of the Lord is prepared; it’s in the desert that the highway is made straight for our God. It seems that the city is already too crowded for this highway: too distracting and too deceptive. Remember that every human city is potentially a Tower of Babel: after all, why bother with preparing the way of the Lord out there in the desert when we could just build our own highway to God right here next to Walmart?
As the holy monks and nuns of the Church have known from the beginning, there is something about the wilderness that puts things into proper perspective. St. Anthony flees to the desert for contemplation; St. Benedict lives alone in a cave for a few years to get his bearings before establishing the monastic community that bears his name to this day. But they weren’t the ones who came up with the idea. Old Testament prophets like Elijah also communed with God in the wilderness; and closer to our readings today, there is St. John the Baptist -- the iconic prophet who cries out in the wilderness and prepares the way of the Lord. The point of the wilderness is that it provides the faithful with a view of the world as it really is -- it’s in the wilderness, “in the fringes of society,” says one modern-day monk, that “the satanic world is therefore all the more present” . Which is why it’s no coincidence that, perhaps most significant of all, when our Lord himself retreats into the wilderness immediately after his baptism and is tempted by the devil, he is taken “to a very high mountain” where the devil shows him “all the kingdoms of the world” and their glory. It is from that mountain in the wilderness that Christ can both experience the fiercest temptation of worldly power and likewise renounce it altogether.
But for us who are far from the wilderness and who live in the comforts of the earthly city, our perspective on things is not nearly so clear. The devil doesn’t have to go so far as to offer us the kingdoms of the world if he wants to tempt us; any little old thing will usually do the trick. When we are identified with the world -- when we bend and build the world around our wants, the product that we end up with gives us a false sense of security. And within that false sense of security, we soon lose sight of the urgent need “to heed their warnings [the warnings of the Prophets] and forsake our sins.” We no longer bother to prepare ourselves to greet the coming of Jesus Christ at all, let alone to greet his coming with joy. This makes the devil and his demons’ job a whole lot easier.
But the call of the wilderness will always reach those who desire to go to prepare themselves for God. In our Gospel today, we read that:
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
All of this happens during a kind of Advent for the people. This is the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark; Jesus has not yet revealed himself and started his earthly ministry. But already, there is a preparation underway that is led chiefly by John the Baptist. Out in the wilderness, he leads the people in repentance and confession as he baptizes them. The scene probably had all the marks of a religious revival -- indeed, it was -- and, accordingly, we know from elsewhere in the Gospels that at least some of the people wondered if this was it; if this was the event of God’s redemption of Israel with John the Baptist as the Messiah. But John quickly rejects that assumption. Everything about his mission and this gathering in the wilderness is a preparation for something better: “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” The Messiah has not yet been revealed and even John the Baptist has to wait for the coming of Jesus Christ the Redeemer.
I think that one of the best ways to navigate this mess of the pandemic from a spiritual point of view is to think of it like an exile into a wilderness. Of course, unlike the people of Judea and Jerusalem, it wasn’t exactly our choice to retreat to the margins of our solitary homes and away from all the lively experiences of social life. But we’ve been pushed into this wilderness nonetheless. And as we would expect from the witness of Scripture and the Church, many of our sins -- both personal and social -- have become more pronounced to us in this year of our exile from the normal. COVID has been an exposure -- it has examined us in detail and shown us who we really are. We have seen firsthand our idolatry of convenience; the depth of our perverse investment in a so-called “individual freedom” that willfully disregards the moral responsibility to our neighbors in favor of some token gesture of control. And this is just to name one example of many, all of which were well-entrenched before COVID arrived. But this is ultimately what Advent is about as well: when the way of salvation is prepared before us, it reveals the bitter contrast between salvation and ourselves. The Prophets don’t invent our sins; they merely point out what should already be obvious. And so does the season of Advent.
But despite the discomfort of this wilderness, the final consolation of Advent and of the Gospel itself is that there is still time to wait. It’s a great relief that we can “count the forbearance of our Lord as salvation.” Because if we heed the warnings of the Prophets and humble ourselves in light of what has been exposed -- if we confess our sins and plead for the mercy of God -- God will give us the time we need to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” We may not yet be ready for the coming of the Lord, but the way is being prepared for him even now; the paths are being made straight as we speak. And so we can continue on into Advent and through this pandemic on a more hopeful note than even those gathered around John the Baptist today. We who have been baptized into Christ Jesus are those who “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” and the evil of this world no longer has any dominion over us. We have been liberated from all the things that tempt us away from our zeal to present ourselves before the judgment of God “without spot or blemish.” We have already been placed on the straight paths of salvation, where we are forever secure. All that remains is that we continue to cast away the works of darkness whenever they entice us, with the full confidence that they have already been vanquished by the victory of our Lord over the powers of death. The path has already been made straight by the cross and the resurrection -- indeed, the cross is that straight path. May God give us the grace we need to follow it for the rest of our days, until we “greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.”
 Gabriel Bunge. Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius of Pontus.