The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Isaiah 40.1-11; 2 Peter 3.8-15a; Mark 1.1-8
There are some books that are best known by the very first lines that we read
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..’
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."
“To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night.”
There’s something so powerful and familiar about the ways in which each of these great stories begins and encapsulates something of the story that will follow. I’m sure you were able to identify each of them – ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, ‘Rebecca’ and ‘David Copperfield’.
Last Sunday, as we began a new church year, we also began reading another gospel, St Mark’s Gospel, the shortest, most probably the oldest of the four gospels. And this morning, in this Eucharist we hear the very beginning of what Mark writes.
Mark isn’t at all interested in telling us, as in some 1st century ‘Who do you think you are?’ kind of way about the genealogy of Jesus as Matthew is. He isn’t interested in any of the stories that must have been circulating about how Jesus was born and the lead up to his birth, as Luke clearly was. Instead Mark dives straight in with an urgency that we find throughout his gospel account.
There’s a breathlessness to what Mark says; his favourite word is ‘immediately’ as one story follows on another in quick succession. This was a story that he needed to tell, this was good news that he needed to share, there was no time to waste, this was a life-changing, world-changing story that would allow for none of the story-telling niceties that other gospel writers might employ to get their readers on side.
And we contrast this urgency, this breathless haste, with the words that we heard from St Peter to the early church in our Second Reading.
Instead of immediately, Peter speaks of a thousand years, an expanse of time. Whereas Paul had told many of the communities that he cared for to be ready for the imminent coming of the Lord, Peter is reflecting on the fact that perhaps the Lord won’t come immediately and that, perhaps, this is a blessing for us.
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.
John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness and the people flock to him. Mark sees him as the fulfilment of the prophecy that we heard in our First Reading. John’s call was as urgent as Mark’s writing. People were rushing from the cities into the wild places to confess their sins, to be washed clean, to make themselves ready for the coming of the one who was promised. There was no time to waste, there was nothing to wait for.
For us, however, two thousand years later, we’ve embraced the concept of waiting and it has become the theme for this season, for these weeks leading up to Christmas. We’ve made a virtue of a necessity, we’ve theologised the waiting, we’ve found in it something of our understanding of God.
At the moment at our online service of Night Prayer each evening we’re reading the poems of the welsh poet R S Thomas and last week we read and thought about one that’s simply called ‘Kneeling’
Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great role. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.
It’s not the opening words but those powerful final words that strike home for me – ‘The meaning is in the waiting.’
We’ve learnt how to wait in these months of pandemic as never before. As a nation which prides itself on its ability to queue, we’ve had to take that willingness to stand in a line to new levels, to make of it an art form. I’ve queued, as I’m sure you have, at a distance, to get into the bank, a shop, a market stall, I’ve waited patiently in sunshine and in rain. I’ve learnt to wait as never before. And now we wait for the roll out of the vaccine, wait for something like normal life to return, wait for things to get better. Waiting has been what we’ve been doing.
And whilst it all makes sense to wait upon God, with eager expectation, yet we can’t lose that sense of urgency that Mark describes so powerfully.
The story that begins, ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ is the most important that one person has to share with another, this is the most important, urgent story that you and I have to share. And that one sentence, like those famous opening sentences I quoted, sets the scene for everything that will follow. This is good news, this is news to hear and welcome.
This, my sisters and brothers is news about a named man, Jesus, the new Joshua who will lead his people into a land of promise. This is news of the Christ, the one foretold, the one awaited who has now come. This is news of the son, the one in relationship, to another and to us. This is news of the divine entering and encountered in the world, in the now, in the here, in the immediate. Nothing we can tell each other is anything like this story that Mark is desperate to share with us, share with you, share with those who need to hear Good News, now, today, at this moment, in our anxious waiting.
‘We wait for new heavens and a new earth’ says Peter to his readers and it’s true but even with that waiting we’re given urgent glimpses, sightings of tomorrow in today.
And that, my friends is why we’re here.
The ‘meaning is in the waiting’ and this is part of what we have been waiting for. For in this Eucharist God is with us, and we glimpse that promise being fulfilled here, now. On this altar the new heavens and the new earth meet, as bread and wine take on a new meaning and a new reality. And with urgent patience we come forward, people who wait, people living as all around us the waiting is fulfilled.