November 30, 2014
- Advent 1 Year B
- Donna G. Joy
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Today – the First Sunday in Advent - marks the beginning of a new liturgical year. As we launch into this New Year with this first Sunday in Advent, we are reminded that the season of Advent within the Christian tradition is a counter cultural experience. Advent within the Anglican tradition is certainly a counter cultural experience. What I mean by this is that the culture in which we live begins the season with glitter, extravagant decorations, lights and marketing strategies that are intended to manipulate. All that glitter and glitz is an attempt (all-too-often successful attempt) to convince us that our loved ones will feel so much more loved and fulfilled if we purchase for them the expensive gifts that will simply make their lives complete. It also covers up the depths of humanity’s sadness and brokenness, imposing a kind of superficial merriment. And, this all begins earlier and earlier each year. I read somewhere yesterday that one store in particular actually had Christmas decorations popping up in their store in August. So, the culture in which we live begins with decoration, glitter and the brightest of lights, while the Season of Advent within the life of the Church begins with places and images of darkness.
Our readings this morning speak out of the depths of human despair along with a sense of the absence of God and a longing for God to appear.
Today's reading from the prophet Isaiah sets the stage, as it speaks of a very dark time in the life of the Israelite people. Here in this passage Israel admits her sin and her guilt - recognizing that even her best actions are questionable (tainted): even when the Israelite people do the right thing they all-too-often do it for the wrong reason. This passage speaks of a deep, dark place where the people are dying in the trenches of their own sinfulness. And yet, within this darkest of places Israel sees a glimmer of light - a glimmer of hope - as she pleads that she is still in God's hands. Israel sees a glimmer of light and hope as she recognizes that she may be reformed by the God of Israel as a potter can reform (reshape) a piece of clay.
(Disclaimer . . . This week I’m not focusing on human sin, per se, but next Sunday this is the primary topic . . . I offer this with the misguided notion that this theme will actually draw crowds from far and wide …)
And today's Psalm repeats this theme of longing for God to appear and transform his people, where, again, the people have dug themselves into a deep, dark place and they plead, "Restore us, O God of Hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved."
Indeed, every year, the Season of Advent - within the life of the Anglican church - begins with places and images of darkness. I have long suspected that in any given Anglican congregation at this time of year, there will be two groups of people: one who embraces the reflective theme of Advent darkness and one who wants to rush immediately into the singing of Christmas carols. And, with this in mind, I would say that it takes some practice and perhaps a kind of acclimatizing to get used to this Season of Advent. Once you do, though, you may never want it any other way. The more the world outside lights its trees, and decorates with sparkle and glitter, the more it sings, "Have yourself a merry little Christmas," the more you may want to immerse yourself in the special mood of Advent which is found within the Anglican tradition.
As I mentioned earlier, the culture in which we live also tends to impose a state of happiness at this time of year, which is particularly painful if you are, in fact, feeling less than happy; if you're feeling sad, or anxious, or worried, or lonely the imposition of happiness will in all likelihood make you feel worse. Which is why, this year, St. Peter's is offering a service of worship that will offer comfort and hope to those for whom Christmas is a less than happy time.
And, again, overall, the intentional way in which Anglicans approach this Season of Advent is counter cultural. This approach to Advent teaches us to delay Christmas in order to experience it truly when it finally comes. Advent is designed to show that the meaning of Christmas is diminished to the point of vanishing if we are not willing to identify and take a fearless inventory of the darkness.
So, as the season outside gets more exuberantly festive, I believe that those who observe Advent within churches such as the Anglican tradition are called to become increasingly committed to a steadfast refusal of this cultural emphasis on what is often perceived as cheap comfort and sentimental good cheer.
Advent begins in the dark.
Isaiah speaks of this darkness as he conveys the silence and absence of God in today's reading: "You have hidden your face from us." To fear the absence of God is to enter into a very dark place.
This Advent, we need to reflect on events throughout the communities and world where we search for God's presence and God's voice. Just this past week we heard the news that prosecutors and defense attorneys had ultimately decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown who was unarmed. Based on the information we (the public) have been given, it is surprising (to say the least) and enormously painful and disappointing that this decision was made, and it has raised huge questions about justice and integrity and equality. As we enter into the darkness of this Advent season, we search for the Presence and the Voice of God. Where is God's voice in the midst of what appears to be such a travesty?
Also, this past week, we have been inundated with media coverage of Black Friday - a retail event that allows people to spend so little money on the items they purchase that they can afford to go out and buy more stuff - stuff that they possibly don't really need. Where is God's Presence and Voice in the midst of such rampant consumerism?
I'm not suggesting that I have the answer to these or any such questions; but Advent is a prime time to be asking the questions, exploring the dark places in which such situations exist, and searching for the light. As we ask ourselves such questions we do so with the realization that many people do not like to ponder such things at this time of year, when the culture in which we live is calling us (expecting us) to be happy and jolly and full of good cheer. And in many ways, this is understandable. T.S. Eliot famously said, "Human kind cannot bear very much reality." It seems that we would rather busy ourselves with lights and decorations and glitter. And this is precisely the sort of illusion that the church, in Advent, refuses to promote.
Another piece of news that has consumed much of our attention this past month involves Jian Ghomeshi. I can't imagine the pain that those women who came forward are feeling, or the brokenness that drives the kind of behaviour that Jian Ghomeshi is accused of. But still, I often marvel at humanity's obsessive fascination over such scandals, and it has often been said that this huge fascination with such cases has to do with our own displacement of our own dark impulses.
In other words we prefer to focus on the sinful and broken lives of people in the news rather than the dark impulses that exist within ourselves. It requires courage to look into the heart of darkness, especially when we are afraid we might see ourselves in that terrifying place. (Again, we will be exploring this more fully next week.)
Again, Advent begins here, in the dark.
I once heard of a Christmas card (received during Advent) which dares to enter into the darkness. Its first page was a brilliant orange-red with these words from the Christmas story in the Gospel of St. Luke printed on it: "The day will dawn on us from on high." Then you opened it and found yourself face to face with an image you were not expecting. On the inside, printed in somber black and white, was a photograph of a wretched slum dwelling. In the shadow of the wall sat a small child in tattered clothing, staring into space with enormous eyes that spoke of starvation at its worst. The inscription on the inside, completing the verse begun on the orange cover was this: "... to give light to those that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death." (Luke 1:79)
Apparently some who received this card were outraged by it because they said that Christmas was not the time or place for such images. But I disagree. I think it captures the true significance of Advent/Christmas. That is, it acknowledges the reality of darkness and death, along with the light that shines in the midst of it through the Presence of God's son. The authentically hopeful Christmas spirit has not looked away from the darkness, but straight into it. The true and victorious Christmas spirit does not look away from pain / suffering / death, but directly into it. Otherwise, the message is cheap and false. Instead of pointing to someone else's sin, we confess our own.
Advent begins in the dark.
Recently I was asked the questions, "If God has truly come in Jesus Christ, why do things remain as they are? Why do so many terrible things continue to happen? Where is God?" These are Advent questions. The Church has been asking them from the beginning, all the way back in the first century AD when the Gospel of Mark was being put together. The early Christians were facing a crisis. The long awaited Messiah as anticipated in our reading from Isaiah and our Psalm this morning had finally come – to reconcile the dreadfully sinful people with the God who created them. He came, not in worldly triumph as had been expected, but in defeat on the cross, risen from the tomb, and ascended with the promise of returning and making all things right.
Voices within and without the community were now saying, "Where is Jesus? Show us some evidence! He said he would return, but there is no sign of him. The world has not improved as we had hoped it would. Where is God?" Again, the people were convinced that God's voice had been silenced. And within this state of darkness and confusion, the young Church told and retold a story that they hoped would shed some light on this question, a story once told by Jesus of Nazareth - the parable of the doorkeeper: "It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. There, keep awake - for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."
It seems to me that the tension within this parable is palpable. Without the master, the household had no reason to exist; yet it does exist, and the master is away. The expectation of his return is the driving force behind all the household activity, yet often it seems that he will never come. Everybody has been told to be in a state of perpetual readiness, yet sometimes it seems as though it has all been a colossal mistake.
Strangely, however, in spite of all this, the Christian believer will experience the urgency and stress in this story as a sign of its continuing truth. The heartbeat of the parable remains strong, even accelerated, just as the drama of salvation accelerates in Advent. The atmosphere of crisis is the story of the life of the Christian community in The Time Between for over two thousand years.
If you were to say to me that I have not answered the Advent questions, I would have to say you are right. We do not know why Jesus' return has been delayed some two thousand years. We do not know why so often it feels as though God's face and voice are hidden from us. We do not know why so many have to suffer so much with so little apparent meaning. All we know is that there is this rumour, this hope, this expectation, that the Master of the house is coming back.
The first Sunday in Advent, as you can tell from the hymns, is not about the first coming of Jesus, incognito in the stable at Bethlehem. It is about the Second Coming, "in glory, to judge the quick and the dead." Remembering, of course, that God's judgement is made known to us through endless mercy made known in Jesus. The first Sunday of Advent is about the final breaking in of God upon our darkness. It is about the promise that, against all the evidence, there is a God who cares.
So: Where is God? Until he comes again, he is hidden among us - through his death on the cross he is woven into the fabric of all pain and suffering and offering hope that upon his return - all in the fullness of time all will be well. The church's life in Advent is hidden with Christ until he comes again, which explains why so much of what we do in this life appears to be failure, just as his life appeared to end in failure. If Jesus is the Son of God, he is also the One who identifies himself with 'the least, the last, and the lost.'
This is not the end of the story. It is the beginning of the end.
As many theologians have pointed out, the church lives in Advent: The Time Between. In a very deep sense, the entire Christian life in this world is lived in Advent, between the first and second comings of Jesus, in the midst of the tension between things the way they are and things the way they ought to be.
It is my hope and my prayer that together we may embrace a true Advent season as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the light which is born into the darkness. It is my hope and my prayer that we may all remember that all the glitter and consumerism of this season will not offer us any deep or lasting comfort. The human race cannot expect to receive any lasting comfort from this world.
To each and all on this first Sunday of Advent, we recall the Psalmist's plea: 'Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.' This plea has been answered through Jesus, who has come and who has promised to return: his justice will prevail, and he will destroy evil and pain in all its forms, once and forever. To be a Christian is, yes, to live in solidarity every day of our lives with those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, but also to live most truly in the unshakeable hope of those who expect the dawn and partner with God in working towards it.