Friday, December 1, 2017

Are we there yet? Advent 1

Are we there yet?: Mark 13.24-37 & Isaiah 64.1-9

Have you ever been on one of those very long car journeys with a very young child?  Clare and I once took our daughter on a three-day car journey to Romania, via Belgium, Germany, Austria and Hungary.  She was about five at the time, and we drove for around 14 hours each day.  So I’ll leave you to imagine how often she used the immortal words “Are we there yet?”!

Children have a way of revealing our true natures to us, don’t they?  Questions like ‘are we there yet’ remind us of our own impatience.  None of us like waiting, for anything.  We want what we want, and we want it now!

The Season of Advent is the beginning of the Church’s New Year, and it is designed specifically to be a time of waiting.  For the rest of our society, the New Year starts with a bang and fireworks…with a sense that we’ve ‘arrived’ at something important.  That’s odd, when you think about it.  Why should the simple turn of the Calendar be something to be celebrated with dancing in the street and all night parties?  But the Church, deliberately, counter-culturally , starts its new year with two important words…’Coming’ (which is what ‘Advent’ means)…and ‘Wait’.

In Advent, we celebrate the coming into this world of Jesus, Son of God – our Rescuer, our Teacher.  We look forward to the Christ Mass, when his first coming in poverty is our focus.  But in Advent, we look ahead with hope to his Second Coming, with ‘great power and glory’.  Christians can’t help looking forward, because we see the way the world is now.

This hope that God will one day put all things right is rooted in a long tradition.   The Hebrew Bible is full of longing for the day when God will transform society into something fair and just.  In today’s reading, Isaiah cries out to the Lord: ‘Oh’….he says ‘Oh’!  ‘Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!’  And then, a little later, ‘Consider us…we are all your people!’.

When will this happen?  Well according to Isaiah, peace will break out when all the peoples of the world say ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord…that he may teach us his ways’.  In other words, Isaiah says that the reign of God will begin when the peoples of the world finally accept that human ways of doing things don’t work.  Peace will reign when the peoples of the world turn away from their sin, and ask God to teach them his ways.

And what about Jesus?  What will his ‘second coming’ be like?  Well, Jesus himself is rather opaque on the subject, to be honest.  The language of Mark’s Gospel is all about the Son of Man coming in clouds…which is a pretty strange metaphor.  Could it mean that Jesus’ coming will be hidden – obscured in the way that clouds cover a mountain?  Then, Jesus says one of the most intriguing lines of the New Testament:  “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”.  Well, that’s odd…isn’t it?  Given that he said these words around 2,000 years ago.  Either he was mis-reported (which would mean that the Bible is clearly in error).   Or perhaps there are still some people alive, walking around in secret, who were alive in Jesus time – as some nuttier theologians have suggested.  (Sounds like an episode of Doctor Who, or Highlander, doesn’t it?).  There is another rather convoluted train of theology, which suggests that Jesus was referring to the new 'generation' of his followers - that is, the Church...but I tend to think that's stretching the plain meaning of the text rather too far.

Or perhaps – and this is what I personally believe – Jesus is, in fact, already come, stealthily, in clouds.  That by his Holy Spirit, he is already among us.  That he is even now, continually, gathering his elect – his followers – from the ends of the earth.  Gathering us into churches, love-factories, for the spreading of his message of Love.

As a parish priest, I am often asked how God could stand by and watch the world tearing itself apart.  I tell them this: God is not standing by!  Thousands of years ago he gave us a simple list of 10 rules by which to live – we call them the 10 Commandments.  They included some pretty simple stuff – “don’t kill each other, love God, love your neighbour, and don’t go lusting after things you don’t need or can’t have”.  But did we listen?

So he sent us a whole series of prophets, like Isaiah, who kept on reminding us that peace and justice will only reign when people listen to the teachings of God.  But did we listen?

So he sent us not just a prophet, but a Son of Man who was so much like God that people who knew him said ‘this man is God’.  And he repeated the message of thousands of years before.  Summarising the Law of God, he said, ‘Love God, and Love your Neighbour as Yourself’.  But did we listen?

God has done anything but stand by while the world ‘goes to hell in a hand-cart’. God is neither absent, nor idle, nor just passively waiting.  Having sent his Son, God established the Church – the Love-Factory - who would carry on calling the people of the world to live by God’s laws…and continuing to pray with their hearts and their hands those profound words, ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.

And that is what Jesus calls us to carry on doing…until the time that God’s reign is completely and definitively established.  In our Gospel reading, Jesus reminds us that we cannot know when that day will come. Only God knows when the Kingdom will be finally and fully established.  But, God gives us a sacred task to carry out until that day finally comes.  We are those who, in the words of the Gospel, are to ‘keep alert’.  We are to be constantly ready – like a man who goes on a journey, and commands his doorkeeper to be on the watch.  We are to be alert…alert to every sign of the Kingdom…alert for the moment when the master comes completely, in great power and glory.

But, while we wait for the completion of the Reign of God, there is a very real sense in which God is already among us, already coming – in fact already here.
  • Every time a war-monger lays down his weapons, Jesus comes.
  • Every time a family is raised up out of poverty by the Robert’s Centre, or out of fear by the Southern Domestic Abuse Service, Jesus comes.
  • Every time a lonely person finds a friend in our morning church-opening, Jesus comes.
  • Every time a family is fed by the Beacon Foodbank, Jesus comes.
  • Every time one of the homeless people sleeping all around our church is treated like the human being they truly are, Jesus comes.
  • Every time that an alcoholic, a gambler, a drug user turns up to one of our Pallant support groups, and says ‘NO!’ to their addiction, Jesus comes.  
  • Every time an exhausted and confused mother finds support and help in our Play Café, Jesus comes.
  • Every time a young person develops their human potential through Dynamo, or a person with learning difficulties grows in confidence through Creating Chaos, Jesus comes.

And so, we are entitled to ask, like every small child, ‘Are we there yet?’.  The answer, as every car-driving parent knows is ‘nearly’.    We are nearly there!  Signs of the kingdom are all around us.  Our task, like an alert house-owner, is to keep awake.  To see the signs of the kingdom with open eyes, and join in with the activity of God, wherever it is found. Amen.


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