A sermon on Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37 by Nathan Nettleton
Advent is not a season that breaks you in gently. It could – people generally have a kind of “feel good” reaction to the story of a nice girl from a little village expecting the birth of her first baby, but we don’t get that one till the last week of Advent. It’s probably just as well really, because with all the shops and the advertisers already into their full Consumer Christmas mode, it will be hard enough for us to hear the message of Christmas when it comes, let alone hear what God is calling us to hear during Advent. It is not just a get ready for Christmas time.
The lectionary writers, have done their best to hit us hard with the Advent message in this first week. Each year in this week we read a gospel account of Jesus speaking about the day he comes to fulfil God’s Dominion on earth. This day is the first day of the new church year, so you could say that we begin with the end – with what the theologians call eschatology, the knowledge of the last things. We start here by looking forward in anticipation to the day when our ancient destiny is fulfilled, the day when Christ brings all things to completion and the deepest longings of all creation are satisfied. Now you understand of course that if we really get a hold of this central Advent theme, then when we do listen to the story of Mary’s pregnancy in a few weeks time we will hear it as much more than just a story a girl expecting a baby. We will begin to understand Christ’s first coming in light of his final coming. We will see that pregnancy as a decisive move towards the ultimate establishment of God’s reign of justice and peace on the earth.
Now you have probably already noticed that not only does Advent begin by proclaiming the coming reign of God, but so does our worship every week. “Blessed is our God and blessed is the Dominion of our God, now and forever, to the ages of ages.” Although this theme is more dominant in our liturgy during this season, it is never absent, as you know. Every week we sing “Christ will come again.” Every day we pray, “Your Kingdom come on earth as in heaven.” Every time we come to this table we stand at the threshold of the new age and join our voices in the hymn of unending praise. In bread and wine we taste the first fruits of the Kingdom, we participate sacramentally in the coming fullness of God’s eternal reign.
We do not worship only in light of what God has done in the past. Our worship is always illuminated and shaped by what is to come, by what God has promised, by promises that find an echo with the ancient yearnings deep in our guts. This is always there in our worship, but in this season of Advent, God calls us to go more deeply into that experience, to listen to the hungers and hopes that well up within us and to stand on the tiptoes of our souls and crane our necks to peer over the horizon see if we can make out the source of the light that is drawing ever nearer.
The reading we heard from the prophet Isaiah is a classic expression of the yearning, the hungering for God’s coming that we are talking about. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” Isaiah speaks of the nagging sense of God’s absence, the feeling of being abandoned in a world sliding inexorably into chaos and destruction. It’s a surprisingly contemporary sounding cry. He remembers God’s saving deeds in the past and bemoans God’s apparent inactivity in the present. “Act again”, pleads Isaiah, “so that the nations might tremble at your presence.”
The Psalm picked up this theme. The refrain came three times: “Restore to us, God, the light of your presence and we shall be saved.” If only the light of God’s presence would come now, then we would be saved and our longings would be fulfilled.
Even when we can’t find the words to express it, that yearning is there. We long for the day when there will be no more abandonment, when every tear will be wiped from our eyes and there will be no more sorrow and no more pain and death will be swallowed up forever and all will be one as God is one. Our hope is in Christ who has promised us that the day is coming soon and who allows us to glimpse it every time we eat and drink at this table.
But I discovered in myself this week that there is a flip side to this fervent yearning and expectant hope. There is also a fear – an covert and disturbing fear. You can sense it in the gospel reading. When he speaks of the coming reign of God, Jesus speaks in heavy apocalyptic language of the sun being darkened, the moon refusing to shine and the stars falling from heaven. There are signs and wonders and terrors and traumas, angels gathering up the chosen ones and Christ coming on the clouds with great power and glory. There is a violence about these accounts, it’s like an earthquake heavy with threat and menace.
For me though this time round, it was not the scripture reading that made me face that fear in myself. It was one of the final lines in the creed that we will read together in a moment. It was a line suggested by a liturgical scholar whose comments I sought as the liturgy was being prepared. When I first saw it I thought, “Yeah that’s good,” and I popped it in. It was only a few days later when I read it again that the line hit me like a brick between the eyes and confronted me with some deep fears in myself. The line says, “For the coming of that day on this day, we work and pray.”
Suddenly I’d run into the outer edge of my own faith. I was confronted with my own lack of readiness. I find it easier enough to say “Come, Lord Jesus, Come” and to speak of the hope of Christ’s day of glory. But do I really want that day to come on this day? Am I ready for Christ to come now? Suddenly my language of hope and expectancy seems like a lot of hot air. Something inside me knots up in fear at the thought. I wish I could say it was just fear for those who are yet to embrace God’s grace, but I’d be lying. It was fear for me. It showed me the extent to which I’m over invested in the here and now. As glorious as the vision of creation brought to completion is, I will always fear it as long as I continue to invest in and profit from the present brokenness and lack of integrity in the world. I am like the rich young man who went away sad rather than pay the price of following Jesus. I am like the mining magnate who opposes environmental initiatives because he’s got too much to lose if we move to protect the fragile earth.
I found that line so personally confronting, I was almost tempted to leave it out. But were talking about it in our home group and Shelley, who reacted to it a bit like me, made the comment that once you’d seen it, the whole creed would feel wimpy if you took it out. And I think she’s right. That line is going to challenge me every week from now to Christmas. It is going to ask me every week whether my prayers are for real or whether I’m just mouthing cliches when I pray “Come Lord Jesus.”
And that’s as it should be. Every week when we gather to worship, and especially during Advent, the words we pray are by no means all true of us. But we pray them because the eschaton beckons us. The final fulfilment approaches us in our worship and we pray with the words that we know we need to grow into. And we keep praying them week after week so that we might stretch the envelope of our faith and push ourselves a little closer to actually living the words we pray. Our worship is not and should never be simply an expression of who we are now. It is also to be an expression of who we will become in Christ, for in worship, and this is all the more true during Advent, we stand with one foot in the present and the other in the completed Kingdom to come. And it is in that place of tension, and of eventual reconciliation that we know what Advent means and we can join our voices, hesitant though they may be, with the prayer of the church down through the centuries: “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus, Come!”