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Readings: 2nd Sunday of Advent

28 November 2014


Isaiah 40.10-11; 2 Peter 3.8-15a; Mark 1.1-8

O Lord, raise up, we pray, your power and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness we are grievously hindered in running the race that is set before us, your bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honour and glory, now and for ever.

THE prologue to Mark's Gospel is made to be proclaimed, and I wonder whether a few of Sunday's Gospel readers will be bold enough to dispense with the usual "Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ" and get straight down to business. That would be completely true to Mark's project of delivering a message urgently and without superfluous content: Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and his story is good news. But the story does not begin with Jesus. The opening announcement is the climax of a history of expectation, confirming that what the prophets have promised is all true (Exodus 23.20; Isaiah 40.3; Malachi 3.1), and true in detail as well as in general terms.

Enter John the Baptist. John is not a warm-up act, but a character essential to the authentication of Jesus's identity as Son of God. He doesn't only step into the role of the lone figure Isaiah describes, crying out in the wilderness: he looks the part. The audience is meant to recognise, in his rough clothing and self-sufficient lifestyle, an Elijah figure - not only someone who knows the sayings of the prophets, but who is himself a real prophet.

The choreography of the passage commands admiration. John speaks from centre stage for long enough to announce the coming of one "more powerful" than himself, someone he feels hardly fit to serve as a slave (Mark 1.7), before moving aside for Jesus. In one sense, listeners have been given all the essential information: what they have longed for has happened. In another sense, this gives them very little to go on. What does it mean to be baptised in the Holy Spirit, and what happens after that? The Gospel ends still asking what happens next, with some frightened women at an empty tomb. Jesus will have fulfilled his own promise to rise again, but there are none of the reassuring post-resurrection appearances or consoling farewell blessings and injunctions supplied by the other Gospel-writers.

That unresolved question returns us to the business of waiting, which Advent Sunday foregrounded so emphatically. Waiting for God, as the Second Letter of Peter reminds its readers, happens in God's time. This promise-keeping God will come again, but not before there has been time for repentance; and then not with any great fanfares, but with the stealth of a thief (2 Peter 3.10). The first signs will be the last: cosmic destruction - the necessary preparation for the new heavens and new earth of a restored and reconciled creation. Until then, we are confronted once more with the need to discern the sort of people we are called to be. The answer is holy and godly people -- but is such holiness and godliness achieved most effectively by fear?

The apocalyptic imagery of the letter is a serious engagement with a serious context (as Mark 13.24-37 showed last week). It is not, however, the only picture; and the collect offers a different modulation of power, in praying for the help of a mighty God who hastens to help us with "grace and mercy" as we run the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12.1). Liturgical revisers have wisely preserved the old-fashioned word "succour", whose punning etymology (running to offer assistance) suggests that God also runs towards us. Ambrose of Milan, whose feast day will slip past under cover of Sunday this year, writes of this running, self-limiting God in "Come thou, redeemer of the earth". This paradoxical hymn imagines the longed-for Saviour emerging like a giant from Mary's womb, to lie as a baby in a starlit cradle.

Power comes most impressively, perhaps, in utter gentleness. The returning Lord, Isaiah promises, will "feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep" (Isaiah 40.11). It is impossible not to hear these words in Handel's setting, nor to forget that Messiah describes not only safely gathered sheep, but also straying sheep, whose redemption will be through one who suffers for them (Isaiah 53). Once more, we are hearing the end of the story before it unfolds, living the strange chronology of salvation which is both already and not yet.

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