Mark 1.1-8 and 2 Peter 3.8-15a: Patient waiting
Upper Church, Community of the Resurrection
2nd Advent Sunday, 10th of December 2023
The Revd Dorothea H. Bertschmann
May I speak in the name of the living God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
“But in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home”.
It is a familiar scene at the College of the Resurrection in the refectory three minutes to one: Instead of lively conversations there is suddenly silence. Students and members of staff stand very upright and very attentively. All eyes are on the student in a white scapular who has the magical object in his hand. And then, there it is – the bell rings out and the familiar words of the grace sound forth.
Clearly an intriguing version of Pawlow’s experiment!
Advent is the season of waiting. But it is clearly not meant to be the season of waiting around. We are meant to sit up, to stand attentively. We are meant to focus, to be full of expectation.
Somebody has compared Advent to that moment in a concert when the conductor raises the baton. There is energy, focus, breathless expectation. And then, the music begins to play.
We are told about this kind of expectant sitting up in the familiar Gospel reading about John the Baptist.
We hear his voice and the voice of the prophet Isaiah crying out:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord.
Make his paths straight.’
Listen. Pay attention. And turn away from all that is harmful and fruitless.
Something is about to happen, something is about to change forever.
And it means that we, too, cannot remain the same anymore.
It won’t be long now. God is on the move. It is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” as Mark puts it.
And people are on the move, too, in the Gospel reading, people respond and immerse themselves in God’s forgiveness by being baptized in the Jordan river, confessing their sins.
But this is only the beginning, says John, the Baptist.
The greater one will come. The more powerful one.
Jesus, the Messiah.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. He will immerse you in his own power and love.
The liturgical year helps us to attune ourselves to this expectant waiting once more in this season of Advent.
Sit up. Open your eyes and hearts. It won’t be long now until we burst into Christmas joy. Get ready and prepare your hearts to meet the Lord.
But quite often we are familiar with a very different type of waiting. Not the excited waiting, which makes you sit up and listen, with something big just around the corner.
Instead we are waiting, and waiting, and waiting. And waiting some more. And it is really hard to keep up any expectations at all.
Because the waiting seems to be so endless. And nobody knows when it will be over. Nobody knows if it will be over at all any time soon.
This kind of endless waiting is the theme of our second and less familiar reading from 2 Peter.
Peter writes to a church where people got a bit fed up. They have shared in the excitement, they have heard the call for repentance.
And they sat up, they listened and responded by being baptized, in water and the spirit.
They know that this is only the beginning and much greater things are in store.
Their Lord will return visibly for all and bring his kingdom of justice and peace. And this will happen soon. Very soon.
We meet this excited waiting, this eager expectation in much of the gospels and in many of St Paul’s letters. Peter himself mentions Paul just after the end of our reading and says that Paul’s letters are sometimes a little hard to understand. Tell me about it…
The earliest Christians were convinced that Jesus’ coming in glory would happen in their lifetime.
But at the time of our letter many of the first generation have died, including many of the apostles.
What is going on? Are things still running to plan?
There are Christians who say a few verses before our reading:
“Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!” (2 Peter 3:4)
Where is the new thing, which has begun with the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
What happened to the promise given to us?
The author of the letter dismisses them as mere ‘scoffers’, who are just seeking trouble. But I am grateful that their voices are in our reading today and I think I can hear the pain in them: If God’s kingdom is near why the dreadful detours and spasms, this world seems to undergo time and again?
So much hope, so much patient bridge-building by so many known and unknown peace-makers in Israel-Palestine – and within days and weeks it all seems torn up and trampled upon.
What does it mean to wait in hope, when people are waiting in unimaginable agony – for their loved ones who are in the power of evil forces; for desperately needed food and drink and medical help for their children?
And what about you? Are you presently sitting up, waiting with confidence and excitement, like Mirfield students waiting for the bell, which announces their daily food?
Or do you share the frustration of the people in 2 Peter, the frustration that peace and righteousness will not always predictably follow our best efforts. The frustration that our own sitting up and wanting to change is often ridiculously short-lived?
‘But we wait for the new heavens and the new earth where righteousness is at home’.
St Peter for sure gets quite exasperated with his people, he certainly does not mince his words in his response to the frustrated believers. He does not just talk about fiery blasts in his short letter which are to melt the universe as we know it. The whole letter is such a fiery blast. But between the Apostolic explosions and expletives, between the fire and melt-down one sentence stands out and has caught my attention, makes me sit up and listen. And this is the phrase: “Regard the patience of our Lord as your salvation.” God is not delaying his salvation and God is not delaying his judgment because he has lost the plot or is powerless, says the author of the letter.
God’s reluctance to do away in one loud blast with everything, which is dark and un-redeemed is not a sign of weakness but of patience. God is waiting for more people to hear and heed the call to turn away from their sin and to catch up with God’s gospel of grace.
So here we are, having frustrated church members on the one hand and an exasperated apostle on the other. But there is also….a patient God. I have to admit that at first glance I curiously imagined God’s patience as being a kind of impatience. You know, the kind of situation in pre-COVID times when we still paid by cash and there is this awkward moment when you are searching your pockets and purse for the 1.50 you still need to pay your groceries and the shop assistant pretends to wait patiently, but you see that look on their face saying: ‘Come on, I don’t have all day!’
But what might it mean to think of God as a truly patient God?
In the Greek we have the word ‘makro-thymia’ for ‘patience’, which puts the word ‘makros’, long, together with a state of mind. The English word ‘long-suffering’ catches this quite well.
God suffers this world, God suffers us to remain under God’s care and provision. God suffers this his creation to remain under God’s promise.
I like to imagine that God’s patience is like the patience of a carer in a home for the elderly, who gently steers an old lady towards the dining room.
And as she takes small uncertain steps, standing still from time to time, not quite sure where she is and whether she has met this pleasant young man before he smiles at her and says: “Come now, Marjorie, we don’t want to be late for dinner.”
I like to imagine that God’s patience is reflected in a child who tries to ride a bicycle for the first time. It is hard to get the hang of it and not to lose your balance, but she tries. Again and again and again. With the greatest determination and endurance. Undefeated.
I imagine God’s patience to be like the patience of a skilled watchmaker.
He works for hours with full concentration, putting together the tiniest parts with nimble fingers and the greatest precision, until they become an artful work of stunning complexity and beauty.
I imagine God’s patience to be mirrored in a mother who gets up in the middle of the night to soothe her crying child who was startled out of his sleep. And as she carries the baby in her arms she walks up and down the corridor, calm, quiet, in no hurry, gently rocking her child and singing a lullaby under her breath.
I believe that God’s patience is like this, strong and gentle, determined and able, calm and skilful, enduring and undefeated.
I believe that God’s patience is like the love St Paul describes in 1 Corinthians, which “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. And which never ends” (1 Cor 13: 7-8a).
‘Regard the patience of our Lord as your salvation’.
And as long as God’s patience is keeping watch over us, as long as God’s love in Christ is gently steering us along in our frustrations and uncertainties there is hope for us and hope for the world.
May we time and again join in this hope, too, the Advent hope for a new creation “according to his promises, where righteousness is at home.”(2 Peter 3:13).
Because – this is just the beginning. Amen