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2nd Sunday of Advent

04 December 2023

Isaiah 40.1-11; Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3.8-15a; Mark 1.1-8

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IF WE take the first two readings for Advent 2 at face value, the Second Coming will not be welcoming or comforting, but terrifying. Even God’s breath is enough to wither us (Isaiah 40.7).

Until the first coming of Jesus, water baptism was able to cleanse people of their sin. But now, if we want to be freed from sin, we must steel ourselves for an encounter with God himself, by being baptised with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1.8).

Water and the Spirit, though, are not completely dissimilar things. God’s Holy Spirit has been associated with water from the very beginning of the Old Testament/ Hebrew Bible: “The Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1.3 RSV). Water and the Spirit behave in similar ways (John 3.5): in Isaiah, “the Spirit is poured upon us from on high”, like rain on to dry ground (32.15). In 1 Corinthians, we all “drink of one Spirit” (12.13).

So, the baptism that comes with Jesus does not cancel out the baptism of John. Instead, it builds on it. A valid Christian baptism still requires what it has always required: water, and the name of the triune God.

How encouraging it can be when God makes plain his way of working! There are things seen, and things unseen. Water belongs in the category of what is “seen”. It is a visible, physical stuff, which God graces with invisible power, to communicate salvation to the body and soul, which together constitute a single person.

When it comes to the Spirit, we should not regard the Spirit as somehow “superior” simply because unseen. In any case, even though we cannot see the Spirit, we can see what the Spirit effects (John 3.8).

It can be tempting to over-emphasise the spiritual dimension, and regard the actual water of baptism as unimportant; or the material of communion — bread and wine — as immaterial (a fine paradox . . .). Sometimes, though, the physical dimension insists on its right to be factored in, as we shall see.

So, we come to 2 Peter 3. Verse 10 is a problem — perhaps a small problem in the panoply of Advent scriptures, but an insistent one. The reason is simple. The Greek does not make sense. The final word of the sentence, heurethesetai, means “will be found”.

Different English translations find different solutions. The AV and RSV work on the assumption that the Greek text is mistaken. They follow an old Latin version, meaning “be burned up”. NIV says “be laid bare”, but gives “be burned up” in a footnote as an alternative. Other versions translate different but plausible words, which copyists substituted for that nonsensical Greek original.

When a Bible word is found that does not seem to make sense, translators have two basic options. They can extend the meaning of the word to include what they think the sense of the passage ought to be. Thus NRSV translates heurethesetai as “be disclosed”. This, and the NIV translation, depend on making the idea of “being found” a form of “disclosure”. The only problem is a lack of corroboration for such a usage of the problem word.

The other choice for a translator is more drastic, and requires a conclusion which most Greek scholars use only as a last resort. They can admit that, at an early stage in the writing and copying of the text — a stage before the earliest manuscripts we have were written — the text was miscopied. The translator misread the work from which he was copying. If heurethesetai is a simple mistake, we need no longer wrestle with its meaning at all.

That is still not a complete solution to the problem. For the scholar who decides that the word was miscopied must supply that lost word that could have been misread (or miscopied) as heurethesetai. That is not easy, either.

If this verse holds an Advent lesson for us, it is a straightforward one. The Bible contains many mysteries that are theological, but, sometimes, its mysteries are simply practical. Once upon a time, an unknown copyist lost concentration for a moment. This side of eternity, such mysteries as what the original word was may be insoluble. If that is not an encouragement to Christian humility — even (another paradox) Christian agnosticism — I do not know what is. There is so much to understand about the Bible that one lifetime cannot be enough.

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