The Jewish way of making sense of the issues for the present is to find perspective in history. If Advent is meant to move us towards Christmas, then I guess it is appropriate that for the story of one who was a Jewish Messiah, we should take what happened in Jesus’ ministry for perspective from which we can look back on his birth. In this case the scholars who chose today’s gospel reading for Advent were at least following the Jewish approach to history by selecting what appears to be Jesus’ last will and testament as the way of introducing the significance of his coming.
Today’s readings are for the first Sunday of a new Church year and in this case what we call Year B with this particular Sunday being the first Sunday of Advent…and instead of starting this Church year with what we might expect from modern writers, the story of the impending birth of Christ, here we are, well into the gospel of Mark – we begin with a speech from Jesus towards the very end of his teaching ministry, talking about his second coming and despite the claims of the end time prophets, we notice that he is talking about a contemporary experience for his followers.
In a way, using the gospel history of Jesus should be specifically relevant for us because most of us are probably familiar with the general gist of Jesus’ life story. Like the Jews, that He came once is also in our history, not our present, and I guess we are therefore entitled to speculate as to what he meant when he said to his followers he would come again for them in their present, and if it comes to that, the implied question as to whether we might recognize 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 very different to what we encounter today in our real world. Bible-wise we appear to learn of 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’s future by building a boat, a God who helps Moses part the sea, stops the Sun from moving for Joshua, 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, and a God who appears in a blinding flash to talk to Paul on the road to Damascus.
Putting it as bluntly as possible…none of these are the sort of literal interaction with God typically experienced today. Indeed if some mysterious 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 were 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 some of our contemporaries who he judged as sinners 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 should be 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 ourselves as well as Isaiah because whatever we might dream up in the way we choose to worship and regardless of how Christian we hope to appear to others, experience teaches us our prayers do not protect us from the dangers and the dangers and difficulties of life. Not then – not now. The events of the last year, the recent snow storms in the US, the chaos in the Middle East including the ISIS uprising and the human tragedies of Ebola, of crop failure, and climate refugees all pose genuine dilemmas. 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 turn out to be 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, and those like my Christchurch in-laws 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 everything is 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 most experience what they 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 as 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 the equivalent of glorious 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 embarrassingly 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. Why do you think this miracle was not even noticed by other gospel writers and totally absent from contemporary historians of the day?
There is miracle in the encounter with Jesus but it is hardly likely to matter unless the encounter has something to do with the real world we inhabit. Jesus taught that the encounter is experienced in the way we interact with those in need and while the images of the first Christmas add immeasurably to our Christian experience it is worth remembering that Mark and John in their gospels and Paul in his letters left out the birth details altogether. Perhaps we too might shift our focus towards valuing Jesus for what he can become for each of us.
As we approach Advent we can enjoy the poetical imagery 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 in our interactions with people, especially when acts of compassion are offered or received. 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”
Rather than drifting perhaps our mental image should be that of rowing. Look back, yes, to give ourselves direction, but continue to strive for the goal.
This is why we will be encouraging our New Zealand Methodist congregations to give Christian World Service (or equivalent programs) a real priority this Christmas. For those who find themselves in the darkness of despair this Christmas, whatever we might offer by way of unexpected acts of kindness may be the only chance for some 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 portrayed as seeing the babe at Bethlehem saw only another poor baby. Think what they might have seen had they known what followed.
We are likely to be disappointed if we are holding out for a direct encounter with the infinite. 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 music of the spheres.
Some readers will find in the above, echoes of the writings of Bill Loader, William Willimon, Fred Craddock and Hans Reudi Weber (ie this was assembled at the end of a hard week!)