Sermon - 27th November 2011
Advent Sunday - Looking for God
Scripture - Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Where do we look for God? It’s Advent again, we’re in church on a chilly Sunday evening, our society is preparing for Christmas which is all about God becoming one of us. So where do we look for God? What do we hope God will do in our world? Do we, like the Jewish people of old long for the Messiah to come and deliver the people? Do we long for the judge to return and bring justice which is so often long denied on earth? Do we long for the end of all things when there will be no more mourning, suffering, tears or pain?
We may look for God in church. We may look for God in worship – maybe those quiet moments or maybe in the exuberance of large church worship. We may look for God in others or in the Bible. We may not have a clear idea of what God might do if we found Him? Both our readings this evening are about looking for God and waiting for Him to do something but both readings warn of pitfalls. Where we look for God rather determines what we think we will find, and God is always more than we think or imagine.
In our reading from Isaiah we have part of a long lament from a group of Jewish people who had left exile in Babylon and returned home to Israel about 500 years before Jesus’ life. I say “home” but the Jews concerned were second generation inhabitants of Babylon – their parents, or even their grandparents had been deported there and those who returned had probably never seen it except in their imagination. The returning exiles had much to contend with – not least the journey. When they returned there were land battles, issues with those Jews who had remained in Israel, struggles as they tried to rebuild both a nation and a capital city not to mention the threats from both surrounding peoples and each other.
Against this context the people who are lamenting in our reading today are searching for God and demanding that he comes down to earth to do something! They are in pain, they have rebelled against God and they are troubled in how God should respond to human guilt. They ask God to turn back to them but they don’t take any responsibility for their sins – after all they say that it’s God’s fault they’ve sinned as God has ignored them. This is often a response we see and even one we may use – we blame the other for what we’ve done wrong.
The lament starts with a demand that God would appear on earth in spectacular glory and “tear open the heavens and come down”. No doubt this demonstration of divine power would lead to sinners repenting and turning back to the Lord – and, no doubt, making up with those who lament. But the mood of the lament shifts and instead of waiting eagerly to see how God will deal with the guilty the crowd gets into a self-justification mode as it seeks to blame God for the things that they have done wrong. They are in pain, but their pain is a consequence of their sin which is expressed not as sorrow or repentance but anger with and alienation from God.
One of the reasons the Bible is still read is the amazing ability it has to see human responses so clearly – and the interesting fact that human nature doesn’t change much! Anger and alienation are parts of the human condition – we see the anger that the anti-capitalist protestors, and many more, have around the way the economy has been managed by a range of people, we see alienation in so many people who don’t feel part of or accepted by society. In my years as a pastor I have encountered people who are angry with church or God and, at the same time, are alienated from both. It’s always difficult as by the time someone has got to that point it’s difficult to find a way in. Many of us have experienced that anger and alienation because of how we love or who we are and the reaction that many religious people may have to us; but I think this reaction is not just about a response to homophobia – it’s a reaction to bottling things up, to fear of being direct or it’s a reaction to the pain we have in our lives.
We can feel pain for many reasons – the state of our world, the way we’ve been treated, the fact we haven’t got a lover, or the fact we’ve got a bad lover! We can feel pain as we can’t cope with the fast pace of change in our world or in our church or in our lives. The people lamenting in Isaiah had turned their anger and pain towards God – it’s not such an uncommon experience.
The passage from St Mark is a little different, but it’s difficult. There is still the sense of looking for God – this time for the long-promised Messiah to return at the end of the age. But it’s a disturbing reading, the disciples had been looking at the Temple and having a Red Riding Hood moment “oh my look how big it is” “oh wow, look at the size of those stones” when Jesus bursts their bubble by saying that it would be destroyed, and destroyed soon.
Jesus foretells desolation, destruction and pain. The Temple won’t be the place where God is located but, when we read the next part of Mark’s Gospel we see that the location of God is the cross. God isn’t located in a building of stone but on the cross in pain, agony, desolation and despair.
We always want to avoid pain – Jesus warns us to avoid false messiahs and false prophets who promise much but deliver little. False teachers who tell us all will be well but whose message is offering false hope.
Christianity doesn’t promise us that we can avoid pain, instead it says that God is to be found in the midst of the pain. Yes relief will come but the central symbol of our faith is an instrument of pain and torture. We can’t avoid pain, we will experience bereavement, injustice, illness and sorrow in life. But if we seek to find God we have to realise that God is found in these uncomfortable sad, places.
So what’s this got to do with Advent? We are used to this time of year being all about preparation – preparation for Christmas, preparation for the birth of Christ, we reflect on Mary and Joseph and their journey to Bethlehem. Advent does have promise – it looks forward to the End when Jesus will come again and this age will pass away and our world will be renewed. But no one knows when that will happen, our task is to wait patiently for that blessed age to come and, in the meantime as we wait, as we confront injustice, as we work for a better world we realise that God is found in unlikely places and in the midst of pain.
That which is devastating, painful and full of defeat is God’s timing and victory. On the first Good Friday no one saw the cross in that way – yet now we talk about the victory of the cross.
Advent is about searching for God and reminding ourselves of the need to wait for His return. It’s also about finding God in the most difficult places in our lives, in the pain and sadness, in the anger and despair, in the gore of the Cross. As we find God there we find that we are changed and transformed and become the change and transformation that our world needs.