It may be a little difficult to realise that this first reading is really a continuation of the passage from Isaiah begun last week. The tone of the reading has startlingly changed.
Last week, the prophet Isaiah was writing to a people in slavery, in exile, cut off from every security, every consolation they had known.
But this week, Isaiah tells this broken people that even this is not too much to bear. Isaiah’s words turn from a judgement to an assurance that the promise is still theirs, that God still has great things in store for those who believe in God, that the goodness, the joy in their lives is far from over, and that all they have to do is once again become a people who can look beyond what is happening around them, and look ahead to what they are called to be.
So there is something in motion in the Universe, a motion toward newness, toward a wholeness, a perfection that we ourselves could not possibly imagine. And every set of circumstances, every situation in which we find ourselves – good, bad, pleasant, unpleasant – is meant to be a step forward in that movement toward wholeness.
The prophet Isaiah is the first of three voices that lead us through this Advent season. St Mark introduces John the Baptist very abruptly. He is the first figure in Mark’s Gospel, the bridge between the Old and New Testaments. Mark introduces him with a quote from Isaiah, to make precisely that point.
The repentance, the change of heart to which John calls us, is the means by which the comfort promised by Isaiah will be ours. With the Coming of Christ, the process of being made new has clearly begun within us. All we need to do is recognise it, accept it, and clear the way of anything within us that may block that re-creation of wholeness in our lives.
That is what repentance means. The word literally means ‘turn around’. See what is happening. Be aware of what Christ has begun within you, and be part of it.
The first line of the prophet Isaiah, console my people, console them, speak tenderly to my people, tell them their burdens will come to an end. So God charges the prophet Isaiah, and so God continues to charge the church today. We are called to live our lives faithfully, patiently, without undue anxiety, without fear. There will be burdens to be borne, certainly while we wait, but nothing that should terrify us, nothing that can possibly last more than a while.
There could be no better meditation for us this Advent than this: “What we await are a new heaven and a new earth, where according to his promise, the justice of God will reside”.