29 November 2020

St Dunstan's Anglican Church Camberwell

Advent 1 B 2020

Isaiah 64:1-9

Mark 13: 24-37

Welcome to Advent Sunday, the beginning of a new church year. We think of Advent as being the season when we remember with anticipation the first coming of the baby Jesus, and look forward to Christmas and at the same time look forward to the second coming. And this first Sunday in year B begins with an apocalyptic passage that points we think to the second coming, or even, perhaps, to the rapture! And what a year this has been for reading the apocalyptic literature.

We have felt that the year has been one long apocalypse, with fire and flood and plague, death stalking our land and indeed the whole world. And for those of us born post WWII it has been a year of revelation of just how vulnerable humankind is. And while you are going through it, it is very easy to forget that this apocalypse seems to repeat, like a constant theme, different in nature, but nonetheless a recurrent feature of human existence.

This becomes clear when we examine the biblical record. Repeatedly in the Old Testament, there are things that happen that make people think it is the end of the earth, or certainly of the end of their society. The passage that we read from Isaiah is one such example. It comes almost at the end of third Isaiah and reflects the Babylonian Exile. The nation had already endured in the recent past the Assyrian conquest  with the death and slaughter and dislocation of the people and then they had been dragged off into Babylon leaving a grieving remnant behind them. In this passage the prophet calls for God to tear open the heavens and come down. At these moments of human history we sometimes beg God to intervene regardless of how terrifying that might be. The prophet, at least is in no doubt about human sinfulness and wants God to reveal God’s-self rather than to ignore their plight. He describes them as people who have all become unclean and their deeds like a filthy cloth. Now, that has a very particular resonance for a society that is washing and sanitising, frightened to touch surfaces, to breath in other’s germs, doesn’t it? We have all become like one who is unclean, even if we have had no contact with COVID. And of course, Isaiah is more concerned with people’s moral failures, and failure to live by God’s law, which is also true of our society.

The big difference for us, is that we have a specific revelation of the Christ, in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, whose Advent we will soon be celebrating. Next week we will read the story of God tearing open the heavens at the baptism of Jesus, in order to give a message of love rather than to convict us of our sinfulness.

We so often see God as silent in these moments of terror, but the truth is that we are deaf to God’s voice.

And that is the message of Advent- that God has revealed God’s-self to us, through the person of the Christ both in a finite way in Bethlehem, and in an ongoing and infinite way through the constant revelation of the Holy Spirit. This passage from the little apocalypse of Mark rather than being seen as something in the future, should be viewed as our present state, we are constantly in this moment- the fig tree is always about to put forth its shoots, and the Christ is always at the gates. The Christ has come, it is not a case of waiting for some rapture when others will be punished, but rather a constant state of action. The Christ, as we saw last week is constantly present in the other- those who we can relate to, those that we can help. And we are constantly the Christ for somebody else. The generation won’t pass away while this state continues, because of the infinite nature of the Word. 

However, we don’t quite understand the complexity, I think, and are very easily lulled into a sense of false security. This is what Jesus is warning against, ‘Keep alert’ he says, ‘stay awake’. And for us in our wealthy first world nation it is easy to imagine that disaster is a long way off until we are confronted by something like COVID from which our wealth and security cannot insulate us. The other kind of stupor that we can be in, I think is a kind of hopelessness that paralyses us. This is equally dangerous because it makes us unable to be the Christ for others in our world.

We are like the servant of this little parable each of us with our work to do while we watch for the coming of the master. We don’t know when we are going to see someone who is in need, or a situation where our gifts are the ones needed, or a moment when the dollar that we can give will make all the difference. We need to be awake to the prompting of the Holy Spirit who will use us in the world. We have to be awake to recognise the Christ in the neighbour. We need to be awake to do our work of loving God and our neighbour as ourselves.

This raises a very interesting question for me personally. Through this pandemic people have reacted in different ways: for some people it has been a time of great creativity and responsiveness, but for many, myself included, it has been a time when our senses were dulled and responsiveness much more difficult. Jesus is calling to us, right now, to wake up and not to be found in some torpid state. 

There is another metaphor from the Isaiah passage which I think is very helpful to us, as presumably it was to the people that Isaiah was writing to. ‘Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.’ This beautiful image of us, human beings made from the dirt of the earth, and fashioned into a thing of beauty by God’s own hands, is consoling. We are God’s ongoing creation, constantly being moulded, if we allow ourselves to be, into something not just useful, but beautiful. I think that here again we have to stay awake to the work of God’s hands in our lives. We are being transformed, St Paul says, from one degree or glory to another, in the process of living our lives open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, to be Christ for others. The Christ, who we were reminded last week is the King, is constantly active in our world. We are all in a process of becoming.

This particular moment of apocalypse, one of so many in the history of our world, is the right time for us to call with the Psalmist, ‘Restore us again, O Lord of hosts: show us the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved!’

Therefore, keep awake!

Rev. Roberta Hamilton