First Thoughts for a Sermon (homily) for Advent 1 B, 27 November 2011 (based on Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37)

Little of the following is entirely original, but rather much is based on the writings of Bill Loader, William Willimon, Fred Craddock and Hans Reudi Weber (ie I have had a hard week!)

If nations choose sports that go with national character, I have sometimes wondered why Israel does not show a preference for rowing. Rowing is of course the only sport where you move forward by looking back, and if Advent is meant to move towards Christmas, then I guess to be in line with a Jewish Messiah we must start at the end and look back. What then could be more appropriate than we consider Jesus on-coming appearance by starting with Jesus last will and Testament – in this case found in a New Testament.
Today’s readings are for the first Sunday of a new Church year. Year B and we call the Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent…and instead of starting this Church year with the story of the impending birth of Christ – here we are well into the gospel of Mark – and a speech from Jesus towards the very end of his teaching ministry, talking about his second coming and what it will mean for us in judgement (his last will and Testament).
Jesus talking of how he will come again is also specifically relevant for us because we already know Jesus came once before. That He came once is in our history, not our present and there is always the puzzle as to what he meant when he said he would come again for us in the present and more importantly the question as whether we might recognise him in the coming.
As we move deeper into studying this Bible of ours we find there are many interesting twists and turns to encounter. If for example we insist that the Bible is to be read and interpreted literally we would have to admit that the strange and vivid encounters with God of the Bible kind are a world away from what we encounter today in our real world. A God that speaks out of a mysterious burning bush, one that wrestles with Jacob…. A God that gives a personal warning to Noah who saves the world by building a boat, a God who helps Moses part the sea, stops the Sun from moving for Joshua, a God who orders Joshua to have his men blow their trumpets to bring down the walls of Jericho, one who protects Daniel’s mates in the fiery furnace, a God who appears in a blinding flash to talk to Paul on the road to Damascus. Putting it as directly as possible…this is not the sort of interaction with God typically experienced today. Indeed if God were to challenge us to a wrestling match or if we were to pause in our morning Church service like the young Isaiah in Chapter six of Isaiah who was interrupted in his devotions to look up and see God sitting on his Throne in the heavens – or for that matter if God really was to meet us in a blinding flash when we were walking down the road to the shops – or if He were to call down fire and pestilence on our enemies or zap those who sinned by turning them into pillars of salt we would hardly be in Church this morning reflecting on the mystery of how we might meet Christ.

There is a puzzle for the literalists in working out what Isaiah is up to in today’s reading. After all if he had been reported correctly as a young man looking up to actually see God present and sitting on a throne – why would he now be bewildered and looking for a sign of God’s presence. Remember in today’s reading Isaiah is now an old man. He has been in exile with his people and returned to a city in ruin and is standing in the rubble of a lost temple, feeling perhaps as though he has lost his faith. He calls” God, tear open the heavens and come down!” And this would be handy would it not? Yet realistically this is not how things happen no matter how unfair we consider the deal we have been given.
Perhaps there is a theological truth to be faced for Isaiah as well as ourselves because whatever we might dream up in the way we choose to worship and regardless of how Christian we appear to others, experience teaches us our faith does not protect us from the dangers and the dangers and difficulties of life. Not then – not now. The events of the last year, the Christchurch earthquake, the chaos in the Middle East with the so called Arab Spring and the Tsunami in Japan. None of these would be part of the equation if God was personally protecting us with the equivalent of Harry Potter magic.

In the real world some are lucky – but equally some are not. If Durham Street Methodist Church in Christchurch can fall on and kill three men trying to salvage the organ from a previous Earthquake, there is clearly no magic Talisman that protected Methodist interests in that tragedy. And yes of course for others as always there are mysterious miraculous escapes from tragedy. Those who arrive too late for the plane journey that ends with a fiery end, those like my Christchurch relatives who had just left their MacCormacks Bay house when the Earthquake caused the ceiling to fall in. The real world continues to be a curious mixture of the unexpected, the cruel and the miraculous wonder. For some just great – then for others just plain frightening…and there doesn’t seem to be any simple formula for what happens.

I don’t know about you but my experience of God is not one of continuous, dramatic miracles. That’s not the way it is with what we call the living God. I can accept that for some, sometimes perhaps, there is the equivalent of the blinding flash of light, perhaps even the sensation of the voice from above, but to quote William Willimon: “in my experience God speaks most often through whispers, not shouts. God is found in the shadows, rather than blinding light. And sometimes the whispers are very low whispers, and sometimes the shadows are very dark.” Miracles may be miracles to those who feel they experience them – but we should never assume they will be equally convincing to others who saw the same events with an entirely different viewpoint.

Even with the Bible miracles, when for example the resurrected Christ appeared to Paul on the Damascus Road (Acts 9), Paul clearly heard the voice of Christ, so clearly that his life was changed forever. But those who were with him heard nothing.
Fred Craddock suggests that the presence of God is so easily missed because what may have originally happened (as he puts it) in rather muted tones, is later reported in Technicolor in the Bible. Craddock gives the example that when Luke tells of the death of Herod, he says that God struck him instantly dead and he was eaten up with worms (Acts 12:20-23). However, the historical record has it that the original Herod died of the gout. There is another miracle so dramatic and so embarassingly unlikely that it rarely gets mentioned. Remember when at the time of the Crucifixion and resurrection Matthew says the tombs broke open and many dead people were seen walking, yet this miracle was not even noticed by other gospel writers and totally absent from contemporary historians of the day.

Again in the Exodus it says that God used the sea to inundate the chariots of the Egyptians. And yet the then contemporary Egyptian historians, who kept meticulous records of everything, fail to note such an event. Maybe to the casual onlooker it was simply a matter of the Egyptian chariots getting stuck in the mud so the Hebrews escaped. But in the eyes of the Jewish faithful as they recall the incident right through through to the present, God stepped in and dramatically saved their predecessors from slavery. The short answer to those who question whether or not these were truly miracles is to answer that truly we cannot be sure, yet we can know that the experiences whatever they were had a transforming effect on some of the people of the day and those that followed.

As we approach Advent we can enjoy the poetical descriptions in the gospels yet at the same time we need to guard against dealing with the approaching birth of Christ as a rigorous literal account and avoid presenting it as a separate religious package of other worldly events, so bizarrely different that it has nothing to do with the real world. And while none of us can escape encounters with the divine in that all of us live in this mysterious work of creation, for most of us, encounters with the love of God will come most often from the unexpected acts of love from our interactions with people, those in tune with His spirit. Nor should we forget where we are aiming to finish which is why we should listen thoughtfully to Jesus when he talks of what comes next. The German Theologian Jurgen Moltmann in his Theology of Hope uses a striking analogy. He says “We must not drift through history with our backs to the future
I earlier made reference to rowing. In rowing we may look back but rowing is not the same as drifting, there is a constant striving towards the goal.
This is why we are encouraging the people of the Central Parish to give Christian World Service a real priority this Christmas. For those who find themselves in the darkness of despair this Christmas, those unexpected acts of kindness may be the only chance of encountering what Christmas might mean.

Hans Reudi Weber as a staff member of the World Council of Churches once wrote that :
The message of the Bible does not support the common conviction that the Church’s only task to look after the” religious department of life”… Christians are called to share Christ’s concern for the whole world, with all its harsh realities. …..the first covenant the Bible speaks about is not the covenant with Abraham or Israel – or the Church, but the covenant with Noah and the whole living creation.

There is a danger that because we think we have seen it all before we will find ourselves getting right through the Christmas season without encountering or seriously sharing what Christmas is all about. Without recalling Jesus’ last Testament we might forget what Christmas can offer. Jesus message carries hope – but it is hope in a potentially grim setting… a real setting. If we are to glimpse the fragile light which dawns with Christ’s coming, we must sit awhile in the darkness. The songs of the angels will only be there for those who strain to listen. Which brings us to ask what we too might do? (Or, perhaps more to the point for us busy people, what might we find time to do?) The message in the gospel is very simple.

Use your eyes and ears. Stay awake.  Since few appear to have responded to Christ at the first Christmas we can only presume that those who saw the babe at Bethlehem saw only another poor baby. Think what they might have seen had they been truly attentive.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” pleads Isaiah. But the evidence is that whatever form God really has, God rarely is encountered in obvious form. More often the hint, the moving shadow, the glimpse is only perceived when we turn aside from the gloss and noise and shallow celebrations of our own making and are truly attentive to the fabric of the heavens.

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