1st Sunday of Advent 2023 

Readings for the day

Well – happy new year! That big event coming up where all the world watches a lighted globe drop atop a building at Times Square and fireworks at the V&A waterfront, or in various places (and, giving my ancestors their due) celebrates Hogmanay, is all an imposter. In the Church Year – the one that matters – the first Sunday of Advent is the beginning of a new year, the true new year… The church has no grand title for the year of our Lord 2024. It’s just humble year B… but a new year nonetheless… 

Now if we go hang about the Whale Coast Mall, everything will assure us that this season is all about getting ready for Christmas, the coming of Jesus into the world. I’m not sure our retailing brothers and sisters are all that clear about Jesus’ role in the season. But it is beautiful and comforting to have decorations and Christmas Trees strewn about, so I’m all for it. This world could use a little comfort. 

In that regard, this year is not much different than the year Jesus was born. The world was a mess back then. Violence was rife. Governments were horribly corrupt. The rich and powerful elite got to walk all over the widows and orphans, the poor and the powerless. Inequality and injustice were normal. This was true in Jesus’ day. It was true yesterday. And sadly, I suspect it will be true tomorrow… 

We have so much to do to get ready for Jesus to come into the world.  

Benjamin Britten wrote a Christmas song many years ago based on an anonymous poem. It starts with the question what we would do if Jesus should casually mention that he is planning to drop by our house… next week! The text supposes that we would fly into a panic of cleaning, tarting up, patching up paint and plaster, disposing of stuff that we meant to dispose of months or years ago, and lots and lots of scurrying this way and that.  

In fact, the text supposes, we’d get so bound up in preparations that when Jesus arrived, we be too busy to notice. And so, once again Jesus would wind up in a stable, or our modern equivalent, since we will be too busy getting ready to welcome Jesus to actually welcome Jesus, Emmanuel – God with us.  

The bad news is that human nature hasn’t changed much in a few thousand years. The good news is that God’s nature hasn’t changed much either – God is still a God of love and forgiveness.  

As far as we know, God’s love and God’s forgiveness are infinite. God’s patience, on the other hand, may not be. So, we may want to get on with the work which God has given us to do – feeding God’s sheep, defending those who cannot defend themselves, and being living embodiments of God’s love for all people, among other things. 

Advent is also meant to be a reflective season. In the good old days, it was even a penitential season – hence the color purple for the season. We were meant to recall and repent in order to prepare for the coming of God in the flesh. That notion does not reconcile easily with the number of shopping days until Christmas… 

Today’s readings give us some help in the process. Isaiah’s prophetic words: Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down… In Advent we often pray for the coming of Jesus, but we are typically a bit more genteel. “Come Lord Jesus” is a bit less disturbing than “tear open the heavens…” 

But Isaiah persists – he wants the earth to quake, fire to consume and water to boil, because when we did not see God, we transgressed. We have become like those who are unclean. But keep in mind the whole context of Isaiah. The call of Isaiah is not for punishment and suffering. Isaiah’s call is to repent. Isaiah tells us that the sacrifice that God desires is a broken heart and a contrite spirit. Isaiah warns us about fire and judgement and such because this does not have to be the way the story goes. We can repent.  

As the letter to the Corinthians tells us, we are not lacking in spiritual gifts. We are called into fellowship, the community of God’s people. But gifts often carry with them responsibilities – especially gifts from God. If God gives me the gift of music, then I better make some music. What kind of music? God doesn’t care. I suspect God’s playlist includes all music, including some that I might find horrible. If God gives me the gift of teaching, then I better teach. Teach what? Again, God does not care. All knowledge and wisdom come from God.  

All that God wants is that we do something with the gifts we are given. 

Well, that is all very nice, but then there is Mark’s perspective.  

This morning’s reading, selected for some reason to bring us into Advent, is all about apocalypse – in the same way the Isaiah started us off with apocalypse. We have the sun going dark and stars falling from the skies. Mark makes Isaiah sound like a walk in the park on a pleasant day. From Mark, all these bad things are coming, and nobody knows the day or time… so keep awake. To be honest, I’m not so sure I want to be awake for all that… 

Why this as the entrance into Advent?  

There is an important reminder in this reading from Mark that requires a little reading between the lines. It is easy to believe that this Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, who is born among cute little animals and with a choir of shepherds singing about peace on earth, is the True Jesus.  

But this meek and mild Jesus is a fraud. The Jesus who comes is a great disruptor. This Jesus who comes signals the end of the Roman Era. This God with Us stands the world on its end. We want Jesus to be all kinds of gentle and cuddly – like a little lamb. But Jesus tells us that he has brought a sword. That he has come to turn mother against daughter and father against son. As they say, we better fasten our seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride… 

That may be Mark’s message as we enter into Advent – it is going to be a bumpy ride.  

But this should be exactly what we want. The point of being a follower of Jesus is not to have a pleasant life. It is to build a world of justice and love. Living in a world of love seems like it should be simple and easy – but it isn’t. I remember The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s description of justice as God’s love in calculation. That is a calculation we must make again and again. A nice simple solution is not on offer.  

And if we think we can play it safe with a nice, dour, humorless, very serious approach to life, Jesus takes that option away as well. Jesus tells us that we must be joyful and celebrate while the bridegroom is with us. We know that Jesus is that bridegroom and we know that Jesus is coming to be with us. The problem is that Jesus is with us not only in the form of people we love, but also in the form of people we hate. We want to lock some people up and throw away the key and Jesus says no, we have to love our enemies… 

In the increasingly secular world of Europe and the UK it is interesting to see what traditions persist. The Advent Calendar seems to be one of the most persistent – especially among those who may never have gone to church in their entire lives. Christmas and Advent, it appears, are well loved even for those who have no notion of the coming of God to dwell among us.  

There is an old piece of advice – that we should be careful what we pray for, because God answers prayers… All those apparently secular folks who faithfully open the little doors on their Advent Calendars for the chocolate treat, or fine wine sampler, or high-end beauty products, or whatever else clever merchants may have slipped in, are in some mystical way, still praying for the coming of Christ.  

The Gospel of Mark might warn them that they are praying for the Apocalypse… I think that is a good thing. The old-world order that prevailed in Jesus’ day and that still prevails today, is an order built on a terrible blend of carelessness, selfishness, and injustice. Our secular friends may not really know what they are praying for in Advent, or even know that they are praying… but to be honest, we don’t really know what we are praying for either.  

We’ve had several hits of apocalypse this morning, so let’s spend a moment with the best known of apocalypses – the Book of Revelation. At the end of that book, Jesus tells us about the river flowing with the water of life from the throne of God. And Jesus says let everyone who is thirsty come. Let everyone who is thirsty take of the waters of life as a gift. And then Jesus assures us that he is coming soon. And we respond Amen, come lord Jesus. 

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