Sermon for Williamstown
30th of November 2014
Happy New Year!
Today, the first Sunday in Advent, the church begins a new liturgical year. I hope you noticed that today we started to read a new gospel; we’re now in the year of Mark, rather than the year of Matthew. We’ve also changed liturgical colours. Today and for two of the following three Sundays, the Sundays of Advent, our liturgical colour is purple. Except on the Third Sunday of Advent, when it’s pink – and unlike the last time I preached a sermon on the first Sunday of Advent, this year I can proudly say that I do have a pink stole which I will be wearing on Gaudete Sunday. As I said last year, the only other time we use purple is in Lent, and this gives us a clue as to what Advent is about. Both Advent and Lent, our purple seasons, are times of preparation.
In Advent we’re preparing to celebrate and remember the first coming of Christ, but even more importantly we’re preparing for his second coming. The Gospel reading today talks about that second coming, the parousia. Last week we heard a parable from Matthew about it, the time when the Son of Man will come in glory to judge the nations on the basis of how they have treated the least. That parable ended with the accursed going away into eternal punishment, while the righteous entered into eternal life. The Gospel of Mark doesn’t tell us on what basis the Son of Man will distinguish between the elect and others, but we are told that when the Son of Man comes in clouds with great power and glory, he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. Mark’s version is as challenging and uncompromising as Matthew’s; Mark’s Jesus quotes from a prophecy of Isaiah about the day of the Lord in which Isaiah described it as a ‘cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger’. (Isaiah 13:9) ‘In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.’ This description of the parousia, the Second Coming, seems to be as far as possible from the coming of Christ as a baby, the Little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay about whom we sing at Christmas.
Our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures this morning comes from the third prophet to be called ‘Isaiah’ and it’s as uncompromising as the gospel reading. To understand it, we need to know that context in which Third Isaiah was prophesying. While First Isaiah warned of God’s impending judgment on Israel, and Second Isaiah spoke words to comfort God’s people during their captivity in Babylon, Third Isaiah addressed the situation of the Babylonian Exiles after they’d returned from Babylon to Jerusalem. They had looked forward to returning to the country, the city, the people and the way of life that they had known before their exile, but that’s not what had happened. Return, after all, is not the same as restoration, as anyone who has had to rebuild after flood or bushfire knows. The Temple was still destroyed, and would not be built again for decades. More than that, the spiritual infrastructure of their society, as well as the physical infrastructure, had collapsed, and everyone felt crushed. The nation was now divided between the descendants of those who had gone into exile and the descendants of those who had stayed. It was to this divided community, still surrounded by ruins, that Third Isaiah spoke.
‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!’ Isaiah speaks of the coming of the Lord as a terrifying judgment – God is like a fire that kindles dry brushwood and boils water. God’s judgement will be on the nations, those who exiled and oppressed Israel, but it is not just those who will be affected. The people of Israel have also ‘become like one who is unclean’ with all their righteous deeds ‘like a filthy cloth’. The coming of the Lord sounds terrifying for both the Lord’s adversaries and for the Lord’s faithful people. If this is what the coming of the Lord, the focus of Advent, is like, is it really something to look forward to?
Third Isaiah says it is. In fact, Isaiah says that one of the reasons the people have gone wrong is because God has hidden Godself. ‘You were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.’ It is because of the absence of God that people have sinned, and it is because of their sin that they have faded like leaves. If God was to come down, Isaiah tells God, this cycle of sin and absence and punishment would end. As the psalms of lament show us, the people of Israel were never afraid to call God out if they felt that God had failed to hold up God’s part in the covenant. When they believed that part of the problem in the relationship between God and the people of Israel was God’s fault the people of Israel were happy to express their unhappiness about the situation. And so, in the disappointment that the return from exile engendered, Third Isaiah pleads for and demands God’s appearance.
Third Isaiah ends his call by reminding God of who God is: ‘Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.’ God cannot turn God’s back on the people of Israel: ‘Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity for ever. Now consider, we are all your people.’ The people need God, their Father, the potter who moulds them like clay. They cannot live without God’s presence. God’s absence hurts them; without God they are delivered into the hands of their own iniquity. Third Isaiah was writing in a very particular context, Israel’s post-exilic period, but his cry is one with which we can all join. Where is God? Why does God not tear open the heavens and come down? If God once led the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and exile in Babylon, why does God not now rescue the oppressed, the enslaved, the refugees of today? Why does God not help us when we are in desperate need of help?
Advent is the time of preparation; the time to prepare ourselves for the coming of God that will come at a day or hour no one knows. But Advent is also a time to stay awake, to notice the signs of God’s presence with us. After all, when God became incarnate in Jesus, the event that we remember at Christmas, God did not tear open the heavens and make the mountains quake. God entered the world as every single human being enters it, through birth as a baby. God came not as the mighty doer of awesome deeds who made the nations tremble, but hidden in human form, powerless and pitiful. God entered the world as a baby who needed human care simply to survive, and in this way revealed God’s astounding love for us. Advent is our time to look for the ways in which God breaks into our daily life. It may not be in ways that we expect or want, but we can trust that it does happen. At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Emmanuel, God-with-us, the gift of God’s presence we have been given in Jesus. As we journey towards Christmas this Advent let us look for the ways in which God is with us, here and now. Amen.