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ARE WE THERE YET?
2nd Sunday of Advent B
When they were much younger I would take my two nieces and two nephews on a summer day trip. Usually I would keep our destination a surprise. Inevitably, as anyone who has or had children knows, the big question from my little travelers was “are we there yet?” No amount of car games, quizzes or storytelling could suppress their curiosity and impatience.
The word Advent means arrival. The season began sometime in the fourth century and after December 25th was formally established as the birthdate of Jesus of Nazareth.  Originally Advent had nothing to do with the arrival of Christmas. It was a time of fasting and preparation for Epiphany, when new Christians were baptized and welcomed into the church community.
Sermons at that time focused on the wonder of the incarnation when Jesus revealed the face of God to humanity. People were excited about the possibilities and, perhaps, no longer worried if and when Christ would arrive or come again.
Keeping Christ in Christmas these days is a bygone campaign. I noticed a display of “Advent Calendars” in a local supermarket. Cartoon characters replaced the biblical ones. Culturally, a belief that Christ is really present in our midst has dissipated.
Sharing the eucharist is one way to experience Christ. For many it is the only substantial way. Forgotten is the connection between worshiping God and doing works of justice. That link is essential in order to realize how Christ works among us now. It is important part of our spiritual covenant with God.
No doubt we are distracted as we wait for the arrival of other things. We ask when will an effective vaccine be available to all of us? How long will it be before our republic returns to civility? Is health insurance for everyone a human right? No wonder it makes eminent sense to some that a Victorian-like Christmas is a rewarding diversion from the wasteland most of this planet is mired in.
The Book of Isaiah is a compilation of writings from different prophets during various time periods. Lines in today’s passage from Second Isaiah are familiar to most because George Frederic Handel used them in the opening stanzas of The Messiah. However, the unknown prophet, a voice crying in the wilderness, was not consciously anticipating the Christ-event even though our traditional prayers and hymns suggest the opposite.
Instead, according to biblical scholar Reginald Fuller, the author had in mind “the restoration of Israel from the Babylonian exile around 538 BCE. Cyrus of Persia had won his preliminary victories and the power of Babylon was waning.” The prophet calls out to the people, “Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!”
About 500 years later, as the gospel of Mark reports, John the baptizer also served as a voice crying from the wilderness. He claimed that someone greater than he was coming. Like the prophet in the Hebrew bible, John lamented: “Repent. Prepare the way.” We are not actually certain John was talking about his cousin Jesus. Maybe he was reiterating the salvation envisaged in the Isaiah prophecy.
What we have learned from these texts is that two prophetic voices, Isaiah and John, emerged from the wilderness and imagined a future when people will no longer suffer oppression. But, both of them also urged their listeners to get their own acts together. The key words echo last week’s gospel bulletin, “Be alert.” “Be on the watch.” “Be prepared.”
John paid a price for his brash preaching, his criticism of power and greed, and his call for repentance. He was imprisoned and decapitated. Many prophetic voices today also take risks for protesting against unfair wages, crowded prisons, production of nuclear weapons, and inhumane detention centers along national borders.
Our chronological sense of time tells us that the celebrations of Chanukah, Christmas and Kwanza are just ahead. Each commemoration, in its own way, is a reminder that courage and conviction can restore peace and justice.
Although we continue to investigate what the biblical authors may have been experiencing or what they were dreaming about, Dr. Fuller advises: “The hope of a new heaven and a new earth as the final goal of history is something that can never be surrendered.”
Barack Obama resonated with this aspiration. In his new book he writes about what winning the presidency in 2012 would signify. “… it would mean that I wasn’t alone in believing the world didn’t have to be a cold, unforgiving place, where the strong preyed on the weak and we inevitably fell back into clans and tribes, lashing out against the unknown and huddling against the darkness.” 
As my nieces and nephews would ask, “are we there yet?” Nope, we are not! We must continue to wait, watch, and work. We know what our calling is and what we must do. Let us listen again to the opening lines in Handel’s The Messiah: “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.”
1. Archeologists continue to explore two possibilities — Nazareth or Bethlehem — as the true birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth.
2. Obama, Barack. A Promised Land (p. 78). Kindle Edition.