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Advent 2, Year B, St Mark’s, 8.12.02
Isaiah 40.1-11: Comfort, O comfort my people
Ps 85.1-2, 8-13: Show us your mercy, O Lord, and grant us your salvation
2 Pet 3.8-15a: delayed Parousia, 1 day = 1000; be patient and steadfast
Mark 1.1-8: Prologue up through John Baptist
Collect: Raise up your power & come among us, with great might succour us
Summary: Let us never forget to practice the presence of God in all things and at all times.
Today’s reading from Mark for the Second Sunday in Advent centres on John the Baptist, almost, one might say, in anticipation of next Sunday, when the Collect for the Third Sunday in Advent and the reading from John will centre on the witness of John the Baptist to the coming of Jesus as the Messiah.
In a similar forward-looking mode our Collect asks God to raise up his power, come among us, and with great might succour us, which, taken literally, implies that we do not sense that God is effectively with us right now.
With this as starting point, let us consider this morning’s NT reading from 2 Peter. Neither 1 Peter nor 2 Peter are written by the Apostle Peter. They are pseudonymous, that is, they are written in his name. This is done for either one or both of two reasons. That is, they are written in his name because the authors thought that this is the kind of thing that he would have written in their situation, or, they are written in his name to get a more attentive audience, that is, to cash in on the status of his name.
In our reading from 2 Peter we are hearing from the last writing in the NT to be written. One of the indicators of how early a writing was written is when it is quoted by another Christian writer. 2 Peter is picked up this way very late compared to most other writings in the NT. Furthermore, 2 Peter is a re-write of the letter of Jude. These are two reasons why 2 Peter is generally dated somewhere around 125 to 150 AD.
If John the Baptist is presented as looking forward with eagerness to the coming of the Messiah, then, once the Messiah has come, where do we go from there?
Many scholars have thought that the earliest Christians were eagerly awaiting a second coming of Christ. I doubt it. I am convinced by Paul’s own letters that initially there was a great sense of the presence of Christ, and this is maintained, for example, in the final words of Matthew’s gospel: “And lo, I am with you to the end of the age” (28.20).
I believe it is only once that this sense of the immediate presence began to fade that the emphasis began to shift toward a Coming, what we traditionally call the Second Coming, although the phrase “Second Coming” does not occur in any of the writings of the NT themselves. They rather speak of “The Coming”, using the Greek word parousia, which primarily means “presence” and only secondarily “coming” or “advent” as the first stage of presence.
The late Mgr Ronald Knox, a fine Roman Catholic scholar, wrote a book some years ago entitled Enthusiasm. In it he examined various movements within the Christian Church down through the centuries that included a large element of enthusiasm in their origins, such as, for example, the Shaker movement in the United States. He said that as he developed his studies of these movements, he moved from a highly sceptical view of them to a deep appreciation of what they intended. One of the aspects of many of them was what we might call, Parousia fever, that is, a potent sense of the imminent coming of Christ as judge at the end time. Over the centuries Parousia fever has hit the
Christian Church as various times, as witness the Christadelphians, who append D.V., standing for the Latin phrase deo volente, God willing, to any scheduled event, for the end may come before the next scheduled meeting or event.
Now, the community being addressed by the author of 2 Peter was one which had lost its initial head of steam, so to speak. It had then shifted into the mode of expecting Christ to come soon to judge and consummate all things. This expectation in turn appears to have waned, and there are those apparently who are denying that there ever will be a final judgement. Thus the two-fold problem faced by author of 2 Peter is both to reassure the congregation that there will be a final coming, no matter how long it God in his patience may delay it, and that they should not lose heart but be steadfast, peaceful and without spot or blemish.
Every year we try to whip up a sense of expectancy concerning the coming of Christ, while our actual Christian daily experience and that of every Sunday as we gather at the Lord’s Table, is that Christ is already and always here, as in “The Lord is here. His spirit is with us.”
There is a story about a little girl whose father was an atheist. Her father wrote in capital letters on a blackboard, “God is nowhere”. The little girl simply beamed with delight, for she read is as “God is now here.” I like the story, but I have a caveat. We often hear it said that God is everywhere, but if you teach that to a child, then eventually the child will wonder what God is doing under a chair, for example. Rather, teach that everywhere is with God, as the psalmist says, “If I go up to heaven, thou art there. If I go to the depths of sheol, thou art there also.”
Our children’s Godmother used to tell the story of a simple monastic lay brother who lovingly served his fellow monks by working in the priory kitchen. The angel of death came to escort him to heaven. The brother asked if the angel would mind coming back a bit later because he had the potatoes to peel for the community’s supper. The angel smiled gently and went away. The next time the angel came, the brother was in the midst of scrubbing the pots and pans, and the brother asked the angel if he would mind his delaying coming with him until after he had finished the washing-up. The angel smiled again and left him. The brother thought about this, and felt he was being very unkind to the angel, making him come back again and again, so when the angel came the third time, the brother said, “I am ready to go with you to heaven.” And the angel smiled, and said, “And where do you think you have been all this time?”
Many of you may know of a wonderful little spiritual classic by Brother Lawrence called The Practice of the Presence of God. The gist of the book is that it is in the little, everyday things that we do that we practice the presence of God. It is in all these things that we can be open to the presence and guidance and power of God’s Spirit which forms us in Christ and Christ in us.
By all means, let us look forward to celebrating the birth of our Lord as though it were a new event, and to hold onto the promise that ultimately all things are in God’s hands, but in the meantime, day by day, let us never forget to practice the presence of God in all things and at all times.