Forecasts, predictions, prophecies.  We can treat all of those words as basically the same things – telling us what will happen.  The meteorologist on the weather channel gives us the 7-day forecast of temperatures, the direction and strength of the wind, and what kind of conditions to expect outdoors.  Sportscasters will make predictions on who will win the game this weekend.  Financial speculators, like one called “Crypto-prophecies,” are sites where people can predict how much this new form of currency will be worth.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT – December 10, 2023.  I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim

But how much validity do we put in any of those?   Usually, it depends on how much we invest in what they are saying – how important their message is to us.  The other day, I was conversing with the person in charge of a massive outdoor event coming up this Monday.  When she shared that was what she was working on, she instantly saw the reaction on my face.  She said, “Don’t say it, Father, the weather is going to be fine!” two others who joined in the conversation at this point all whipped out our phones, comparing weather apps and their variations.  Those of us not invested in organizing, planning, and running the event didn’t see much difference between the hour-by-hour forecasts, but for her, seeing one that had a 60% chance of rain was a reason for optimism since the others were saying 70%.  When you’re listening to sportscasters making their predictions, it matters if you’re a fan of who knows the sport, the teams, the players, and following for a while to see if they are making valid assessments that are certainly possible as opposed to someone who is barely familiar with those things.  You can spot the difference if you ask someone if they want to make a bet on a game for this weekend, and they say: “Well, I heard the Jets are a lock this year.” The last time they listened to a sports reporter was in passing sometime this summer before Aaron Rodgers’s season ended 2 minutes into the first game of the season.  There are too many stories and examples of the mess created by individuals giving financial tips; they seem as reliable as picking lottery numbers.   Because we see how often these prognosticators may or may not be correct, misled -deliberately or not- we can lump all of them together into this category where we treat them skeptically.  Where we pay attention to them when we want to or where we can be selective in whom we pay attention to.

Sadly, that’s also spilled into how some can approach biblical prophets:

Looking for answers to questions we want answered.

Listening to predictions of doom only when they seem directed to those we’ve determined as enemies.

Wanting to hear forecasts that will speak of assurance to our fears.

That’s not new.  Throughout biblical history, when God’s prophets had a message about an enemy that would be defeated or how He would bring about a restoration, they would hang on to those words.   But many were less interested when a prophet was underscoring how the people had gone astray, how they had failed, and what they needed to do.

But God’s prophets are not ones we can pick and choose who to listen to or what parts of the message we wish to accept.  When God sends a prophet, they are not offering their opinions on things, consulting their history and experience to form their analysis.  They are God’s very messengers.  They are offering His word to His people.   Through visions, revelations, and other intense mystical experiences, God would lead the prophets to understand things occurring and how God was calling His to respond.   This gives them authority, relevance and importance that transcends those particular days and events and demands a seriousness that goes far beyond our experiences with the weatherman and the like.  This second Sunday of Advent, we encounter two prophets, and their words to us are essential in this season of hope, anticipation, and preparation to encounter Jesus Christ.

That first reading from the prophet Isaiah starts with the words, “Comfort, give comfort to my people.” They are words that transcend our Bibles and this scripture passage, as I only recently learned.  Over the years, I’ve only heard excerpts of the choral piece Handel’s Messiah.  I’ve always enjoyed the Christmas piece “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” and “The Hallelujah Chorus” is almost universally known, so honestly, that was all I knew of that work.  But when three biblical commentaries this week that I was praying with all mentioned the movement “Comfort ye” from The Messiah based on this reading, with one saying, “if you’ve never heard [it]…drop everything and listen.” Which, thanks to the internet, I did.  That writer (Peter Kreeft) was correct, and I agreed with his assessment that “it is almost impossible to invent music that does justice to those words, but Handel did it.” Whether sung or proclaimed, the boldness and directness of the word are striking: “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.” We can just get lost in that and tune in and out of the rest of the scripture and gravitate to those sentiments,  like “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed… glad tidings… good news…” Whatever we’re facing or dealing with, whatever tension there is around us, whatever is going on in the world – those words seem perfectly timed to answer.

But Isaiah wasn’t meant to be taken out and used like a balm for our personal wants and needs and then quickly put back on the shelf when the moment of discomfort passed.  Isaiah lived about 800 years before the birth of Christ, and this prophecy comes from the 40th chapter (out of 66).  At the time, the people of God experienced the collapse of their earthly kingdom: the promised land and their heritage were squandered as the people turned further and further away from God.  That wasn’t something Isaiah predicted; it was happening.  Isaiah was underlining for them – their sins had consequences.  People didn’t like hearing that then any more than people do today.  And so some tuned out, dismissing the prophet as a fear-monger, messenger of doom simply trying to make people feel bad.  But Isaiah wasn’t trying to manipulate them into the right actions by warning them like a divine sidewalk cop going, “don’t think about crossing the street on a red light.”  Isaiah was telling his fellow people now that they got run over by the car, they’d gotten what they’d chosen.  God isn’t passive-aggressive and petty, setting things up for their demise.    He had entered into a covenant with them.  He told them He would be their God, they told Him they would be His people, and He had given commands meant for happiness, flourishing, peace, and order.  Now that people had made compromises on those commandments and created loopholes for themselves, that they had been unfaithful and things had fallen apart, that wasn’t God getting even and exacting retribution.  It was a direct result of their free will and their choices.

Isaiah wasn’t telling them anything they didn’t already know (even if they didn’t want to know it).  But God was telling them it doesn’t have to be this way.  They could see His kindness and experience peace – that salvation was near.   Not in the ways previously experienced.  Not in the ways that they could imagine.  It’s not simply God coming to save them as He did in the past, where all that was required was their faith and belief.  Isaiah tells the people they need massive transformations to experience these promises when he says, “every valley shall be filled in…and every mountain and hill shall be made low,” that’s the people’s job, not God’s.

Such geographical transformations are massive.  Even more so are the spiritual ones.  Those finding themselves at the lowest point of their lives in valleys of sin, of failure;  Those at the mountain peaks of arrogance and pride;  it takes time, commitment, and perseverance to transform those realities.  But God had not forgotten them.  Even when they had turned from Him, He still loved them.  Even when they had been unfaithful, He remained faithful.  God sends Isaiah to be His voice and speak to the hearts of those feeling unfulfilled, unsatisfied, lost, and isolated, saying – yeah, this is not how things are supposed to be; that’s not how I intended them to be.  But listen to my voice, hear me calling, start filling those valleys, leveling those mountains, and you will begin to experience my comfort. 

By the time we get to the Gospel, we heard today, it had been over 400 years since the people of Israel had heard any prophetic word or utterance.  The cycle of sin, repent, restore, repeat had happened over and over and over, repeatedly, leading to these centuries of silence to where some anxiously worried that God had finally given up on His people.

St. Mark’s Gospel, which, beginning last Sunday, will be the Gospel we’ll be spending the most time with at Sunday Mass for the next year, is the written account of the preachings of St. Peter.  So, while we ascribe this to St. Mark, it is the eyewitness testimony and teaching offered by the one Jesus named “the rock” on which He would build the Church, our first Pope, Simon Peter.  And because of that, if you ever sat down and just read Mark from beginning to end (which is not as daunting or difficult as you might think, you could probably do it in an hour) you can hear the energy, and excitement of Simon Peter desperately telling you what happened, why it mattered to Him, why it matters – and should matter to you and I.

Peter’s life, as a Jew in that day and age, was marked by mountains and valleys – just because of the realities that affected God’s chosen people at that time and history and more than likely he had some of his own personal mountains and valleys as well.  Today we hear these opening words to this Gospel, and we hear him testifying to how dramatically all of that upended in meeting Jesus.  In fact, he doesn’t spend much time recounting John the Baptist’s ministry, because he’s racing to tell us about Jesus (it’s why he doesn’t get into Jesus’ birth like Matthew or Luke either) Peter’s feeling that urgency to share the Gospel.  Which is why I liked this other translation of this Gospel.  The words we heard made it sound like the title to what we were about to hear:  “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  This other translation has the opening words of this passage with Peter saying “This is how it began, the good news of Jesus, Anointed One of God, Son of God.” Peter is all about us coming to know Jesus and finding in Him but salvation Himself, salvation from sin, from death.

But as much as he doesn’t spend a lot of time with John, he doesn’t overlook him.   He tells us that everyone is going out to see John.  They’re coming from all areas; they’re coming from all walks of life.  After 400 years of seeming silence from God, this man named John the Baptist was in the desert, and his prophetic voice proclaimed a baptism of repentance.  This eccentric figure out in the wilderness draws people to him because they hear someone who knows of the storms and loneliness of the world and is confident and unafraid of it because he has encountered the Lord.  He has been sent by God to tell others to raise their hopes and expectations and help them prepare the way for them to meet Him as well.

That’s why these prophetic words greet us on this Second Sunday of Advent.  They remind us God’s story is not a bunch of events relegated to the past, and we treat the bible as a history book or, even worse, as myths.  It’s when people fall into those mistaken beliefs that they start picking and choosing verses and quotes that fit into their lives and plans – and we listen to simply what we want to hear.  When we recognize these scriptures as the living word of God, the voices of Isaiah, St John the Baptist, St Mark and St Peter call us to a living faith where we recognize this is our story.  God loved us into being and desires our fulfillment now and for all eternity.  Hear the prophetic voices calling us and calling us away from the noise and distractions of this world and pleading with us to repent of the sins and the vices that enslave and entrap.   The Lord sends this prophets to ask us to take some time and reflect on what’s going on in the world, what’s going on in my own world.  What mountains of arrogance and pride; what valleys of sin and failure have I ignored but are causing me distress, causing me anxiety, have left me feeling isolated from others and perhaps distant from God.   God’s messengers remind us it doesn’t have to be that way.  It’s not how He intends for us to live.  So maybe this means doing some personal reflection on how the Lord is inviting us to begin chipping away at those mountains, filling in those valleys.  Perhaps it is an invitation to reach out to family or friends with whom there’s been tension and try to reconcile.  Maybe it means making a thorough examination of conscience and going to confession before Christmas.  To each of us, these voices remind us of the nearness of our Lord.  Encouraging us to not delay in responding so that we too can experience the comfort, the glory of the Lord revealed in Jesus Christ, the son of God.

Thanks to everyone who contributed on #GivingTuesday and kicked off our Newman Catholic Center at Montclair State University (aka Red Hawk Catholic) Annual Christmas Appeal.  To our goal of $35,000, we’ve just topped $10,000.  We appreciate your considering to support us and our mission of bringing Christ’s light and life to the faculty, staff, administration and especially the students of MSU! To donate online, please click our PayPal Link here .  (If for some reason the link doesn’t work, you can get to the Donate link on REDHAWKCATHOLIC.COM the link is on the top to the right. Checks can be made out and mailed to Newman Catholic; 894 Valley Road, Montclair, NJ 07043.  Thanks so much for your generosity and support!  Father Jim