Sermon - 30th November 2014
Scripture - Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37
Revd Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link on our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
A key theme of the Advent season in the readings we hear and liturgies we use is to stay awake or to wake up. This theme comes from some of the readings that are used over the three year cycle of readings where Jesus tells people not to fall asleep as he will return like a thief in the night. The problem with that theme for us is that the last thing we do during the Advent season is fall asleep. For many of us sleep deprivation is the order of the day with the million and one things are society seems to think we need to do in order to celebrate Christmas. The frenzy of shopping, the various Christmas meals and work based parties that many of us get roped into meant that by the time we get to Christmas we’re pretty exhausted. So the theme of stay awake seems a bit odd.
But the stay awake theme isn’t as odd as the two readings we’ve just heard.
This passage from Isaiah is a lament written when the Jewish people were in Exile in Babylon. It remembers the good things that God has done in the past and seems, at times, to berate God for not doing those things now. It concludes that God’s silence is because of the people’s sins. This passage, though written so long ago, has something to say to us now.
Many of us know the pain of living in Exile. Just like the Jews of old, many of us are strangers in a strange land. Getting used to a different culture, making sense of a new language, or the same language spoken in a different way. Making sense of different weather patterns, a different climate, and different ways of doing things. This was the experience of the Jews in Exile, is the experience of many of you but also, in a very real way, is the experience of the Church in the West.
Over the last 50 years or so the Church has declined. Despite lots of efforts to help the Church grow, despite various renewal movements the Church has declined – I suspect the decline would have been faster and quicker without the various things that have been done to try and encourage the Church to grow. But the Church in the West is in decline. The old answers don’t satisfy the hunger in the hearts of people in our society. We seem to have no good news to offer our contemporaries who have either left or simply see us as irrelevant; people are turning to other faiths and other spiritual traditions to make sense of their lives.
Advent isn’t just a time to think about the exile of the Jews so long ago and their sense of longing for better times. Advent characterises all our time. Like the Exiles of old, and current time, we live with our past in ruins, with no clear future, with many of the things with which we’re comfortable gone or broken. We may be tempted to make Isaiah’s lament our own as we think about the decline of the Church in these islands.
Advent, however, is also about hope. There was some hope in Isaiah’s lament but hope has also got to be realistic. We can be hopeful if we get to the point where we allow God to work through us. As Lawrence Moore, director of the Windermere Centre writes: If we have nothing other than our hope in the God of resurrection, return and new beginnings, we are in the best possible place. When we have got to the point when we have let everything go – or become prepared to – because there is nothing worth holding on to anymore, then we are waiting properly, because God is able to do something radically new with us and through us.
This radical new thing is highlighted in our rather scary reading from St Mark where Jesus foretells the End. The style of the passage is rather odd – technically it’s called Apocalyptic literature. This type of writing was popular with the Jewish people of Jesus’ time. They looked back to past disasters and applied what could be learnt to the current context. The message is to hold on despite all the awful things that are happening and trust in God.
The passage would have had a resonance to the people who first heard it read to them. Jesus is foretelling an event which is both glorious and frightening. Charles Wesley manages to sum up the sense of this passage in his great hymn Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending with which we started the service. Mark’s readers may have seen this passage as a commentary on the Jewish revolt against Rome in the year 70 and Jesus words are reminiscent of the style of the Book of Daniel – which was written when the Jews rebelled against the Greeks. From our standpoint the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple isn’t the catastrophe that it was for the Jews of that era but we can see that Jesus fortells wars and tumult which shall happen before he returns.
Jesus’ ministry, however, was a form of exile – he was exiled from God’s presence, he was in exile from the authorities and this sermon about the End was given outside the Temple. It was as if Jesus was saying the old order is going to fall, come with me for something new. Jesus calls us not just to Exile but to a new Exodus, a new journey to a promised land. At the start of the first Exodus the Jews left Egypt. To the Egyptians this seemed disastrous – the plagues, the death of the first born and the overturning of their economic system would have been horrifying. Yet the Exodus was the start of a new beginning, the formation of a new people in the wilderness. The Exile was in Egypt, the journey through the wilderness was actually about liberation.
The Church is in Exile but the decline in our numbers, power and influence in the West may be good news rather than bad. It maybe that God is stripping away from us all the trappings of power and influence that stopped us truly living for him. It maybe that what seems awful and cataclysmic is, instead, a sign of God doing something wonderful. Jesus’ vision of the end is both awful and glorious but I suspect those who see it will focus more on its horror. It’s easy to get depressed about the state of the Church in these islands – especially if you come from cultures where the Church thrives. Yet where the Church has power it also has the capacity to harm people. Maybe what appears cataclysmic and destructive will actually be redemptive.
Jesus words and the Advent season reminds us that the Kingdom is coming; a new order is just around the corner. If we have confidence in the way things are then our hope is misplaced. We need have that misplaced hope swept away so that we can more clearly wait on God. At the start I said that the message of staying awake is often a little ironic at this time of the year as we’re exhausted and have no time to rest. Yet, perhaps, the message isn’t so misplaced. We need to wake up to what the world, and the Church, is really like. We need to wake up and see that only the Kingdom is ultimate, only the Kingdom matters.
Isaiah recognised just how much was wrong with the nation. I’m sure he would have been seen as a pain by the ruling elite. He saw that God was angry with the nation and he understood Exile as punishment. Yet he also saw His people as clay in God’s hands that could be moulded and fashioned. The desolation of Jerusalem and the Jewish people was, as well as being a disaster, a sign of the coming salvation. The increasing decline of the Church seems to the world (and much of the Church) to be a disaster but may also be what God is doing as he moulds us into something new, something hopeful and something which proclaims the coming Kingdom.
The End is the Beginning
The experience of Exodus for the Jews was an end – an end to slavery, an end to exile, an end to oppression. It was catastrophic for the Egyptians and the Jews who had to leave their homes, possessions, security and journey into something new and unknown. The Exile in Babylon so many years later on was a catastrophe for the Jews as they lived in a new Exile with new persecution, new trauma and with the ruins of their lives but the Exile was the start of a new beginning and a new flowering of their national life. The End of time will be a catastrophe as well as a new beginning. Until then we wait, we wait to wake up and see our world as it really is, we wait for the justice that will come with the Kingdom. Just like in the Garden of Gethsemane this waiting is exhausting like the passage from Isaiah we want to shout at God and ask how long we will have to wait, just like in the Garden we have to find strength to get us through – strength from our faith that the Kingdom is coming, strength from our worship of God, strength from the Sacrament, strength from each other, and strength to believe that the Exile the Church is in now is the start of something new, wonderful and liberating.