"As I mused, the fire burned"

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Advent 1: Keep Watch

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Advent 1, November 27, 2011
Mark 13:24-37 False Hopes/False Prayers

Today is the day when we great each other with ‘happy new year’, as we stand on the first day of the Christian year, the first Sunday in Advent. Today is a day of contrasts, and we will see in the Scriptures how our faith is set against the things our culture holds up as gods – and this is no clearer in our calendars. The secular calendar ends its year with the birth of Christ, whereas the Christian calendar begins with the Saviour’s birth. As the secular world of business looks toward Christmas as their busiest sales of the year, as the tax year draws to a close, we Christians turn instead to the words from Isaiah, used by Jesus to describe John the Baptist, A voice that cries in the wilderness, prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40) Today we turn our hearts and minds to that preparation. Advent has been called the ‘little Lent’, and we are entering a period of preparation as significant as that we undertake prior to Easter each year, a time of reflection on the state of our lives, and our souls, as we prepare for the unmaking of the world.

It is important to realize that our Christian year does not just hinge on the birth of the Child, who was, and is, and is to come, for today we’re resting in a place outside of time. At one end we have the creation of the cosmos, and the birth of Christ; we also sit in the middle of the tale, with Christ in Jerusalem as he describes the coming tribulation; and that description does not end with tribulation, but with the coming of the Son of Man in glory to judge both the living and the dead. Amen. The watchwords for Advent are ones of preparation and waiting, as we’ve heard for several weeks now – Keep awake! Stay on guard! Be alert! Be prepared, lest the coming of the King catch you asleep!

It is almost as if Jesus is speaking to us from the office of emergency management Alberta, to prepare for a coming civil crisis…and there is a good reason for that parallel, for that is exactly what we are being told to prepare for. A voice that cries in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. It is an important message for us to grasp, for Jesus is not telling us to look backward, to focus on that small baby in a cradle in a Christmas nativity play, but rather to focus on the eternal promise He has given to all who believe. I was here, I am here…I am coming…be ready.

We began our reading with a chapter from Isaiah which presents to us in very blunt terms what our too-human approach to our lives ends up winning us: death and despair. We ‘melt in the hand of our sin’. In the chapter just prior to our reading from Isaiah today, God approaches Isaiah in a splendid robe stained crimson…and Isaiah asks (Isa 63:2-3), “Why are your robes red, and your garments like theirs who tread the wine press?”…and God answers…“I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their juice spattered on my garments, and stained all my robes. For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and the year for my redeeming work had come.” God’s robes are stained red with the blood of his people. A nice Christmas image, no? Something to think about as we sip our red wine this season perhaps?

The verse from Isaiah ends with a question of expectation and hope, but a fair amount of uncertainty as well, “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O LORD? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” The answer comes in Christ’s words, but before the description of the end, he catalogues a whole series of badness of what is to come: the destruction of the temple; many false messiahs; wars and rumours of wars; nation fighting nation; earthquakes and famines; torture; brother against brother; child against parents; hatred for Christ’s name; coming tribulation which no one would survive if God did not cut the days short…not the images our culture typically associated with this season of as a time of joy, gift exchanges and evenings of ‘a long winter’s night’s rest’, sugarplums dancing, decorations, family, mulled wine, Santa Claus…you get the picture. This all contrasts dramatically with what we are preparing for: an event that will essentially reorder all of creation, born to us in the City of David. No simple birth this, for the Christ child will come to redeem and reconcile all of creation past, present and future. And so we arrive at the first verse of the Gospel for today…”in those days, after that tribulation…”

This division of tribulation from the second coming is important to note, as Christ’s description of the times we now live in is separated cleanly from his coming again. The point? All these things are but the birth pangs of the coming of Christ, and are not Christ, or God’s action, but the impact of living in a broken world. It is a highly cautionary tale for us, as one of the idolatries we love to grasp is the belief that we will remake the world perfectly before God returns. The thought is almost if we do our jobs right, when Jesus returns there won’t be much for him to do, as we’ll have done most of the heavy lifting even before those clouds heralding the return of the Son of Man start to form. Even worse is the thought that God will achieve nothing but for our efforts. We hear a clear caution against that today, and a warning as to the fruits of idolatry, of any belief that we can remake the world in God’s image using only our human wiles. Remember that this is not the way of the world, and this is not what Christ is telling us to expect – which is a right royal mess.

It is a good message to hear today, a day after the annual memorial of the Holodomor, the great famine of the Ukraine in 1932-1933. We have no idea how many people died in that period, the estimates run between 2 and 10 million people who perished through forced starvation as a part of the glorious rise of Communism in Russia. Followed by the Holocaust at 6 million dead, and the horrific Stalinist purges that happened in the Soviet Union thereafter add another 4 to 10 million deaths. The Holodomor, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, and many many other events just like them remind us that our dream of making a paradise on earth through our own sweat is a lie. As much as I would like to think Stalin, Hitler, the genocidaires of Rwanda were evil people, I suspect the harder truth is that they thought they were trying to sculpt a better world, and accepted that they had to undertake some nasty work to get to that point…the type of rational approach we humans love.

Our history is full of such efforts that end in nothing but death and despair…and it is almost a truism that every utopia has fallen due to human weakness. It is perhaps shocking to mention this in this season of cultural joy, but it is a necessary reminder to us that we live in a brutal world, made even more so when we act because we believe that our answer is the one that will finally bring peace and joy. Our choice, too often, is to replace Christ with the powers and principalities of this world, to embrace this way of doomed living in the hopes that this time we will find the path to a human-made utopia. We get tired of waiting and decide we’re going to do it on our own. Well, there is only one answer that will bring that peace and joy – and it is Jesus, when he returns to remake the broken world into paradise. Our job? Watch, keep awake, be on guard, and be about the Master’s business, lest we be caught sleeping when He returns.

That master’s business we spoke of two weeks ago – feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, freeing the prisoners, but not because we believe those actions will fix the broken world, but because we are called by Christ to act in his image, and to live out his legacy as we are awaiting his coming again. Jesus will not change the world with the tools of power and corruption and death that we humans rely on; and he will not bring about peace with wars or rumors of wars, as we’re the only ones who do that. We’re the only ones who undertake a mission, claim it as God’s work, and then seek to bend others to our will. The world will not be saved by us finally getting our act together, but only by admitting that the world has never gotten its act together. We can’t lose sight that the church’s real mission in all this is to proclaim one message: it is only through our death in faith that we will find the promised resurrection.

What Christ does is come to tell us His way, which is not the way of this world, demonstrated with shocking finality in the conclusion of his words: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” All that is, you and I, this building, this city, are all destined to pass away. All that is eternal is the Word of God, Jesus. In fact, what Christ tells us in this Gospel apocalypse is that the only way the world will be saved is to follow the same path as He – death and resurrection. It is only in death that the remaking of all creation will be able to receive God’s gift of new life. God saves us only in our death, and all of our efforts to prove that we are alive, and that our works are alive, brings us not one step closer to that resurrection. And so Jesus calls us into a state of alertness, of waiting and watching for the signs of his return.

This is the whole focus of Advent, this time of waiting in great expectation. The danger for us is that this time of waiting will become an extended visit to the Doctor’s office, or waiting for the next bus at -30 degrees in the dark…those times when time seems to stop and we seem to be waiting forever. In a culture that specializes in quick-fix solutions to everything, this is perhaps the hardest message of all. This waiting is not the waiting of this world, standing around listening to our iPods shuffle our favorite songs, but rather a state of active waiting, being about our Master’s business as He himself has commanded. Whether you consider this as using your God-given gifts as He has told you, bringing cold water to the thirsty, or acting as a prophetic witness that proclaims to a busy world, “Behold, for I bring you tidings of great joy…” our time of waiting is not rest, but of activity, of holy waiting. For we wait not as the world waits, but as Christ has taught us to wait.

We are not called to merely stand at this bus stop in a sometimes cold and frightening world waiting for the bus to come on some future day that no one but the Father knows. We are called into Holy Waiting, that state that is described in Mark (and many other places): “Watch, therefore, for you do not know when Jesus the Christ will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning, lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.” This is the waiting to which Jesus has called us, a waiting that requires us to be active…trimming wicks and filling our lamps with oil as with the 5 wise bridesmaids, waiting for the thief to arrive in the middle of the night, waiting for the return of the master of the house who will be most pleased if he finds us working. This active waiting, this Holy Waiting, is far from passive but is about doing God’s work every day even if we do not know what will come tomorrow.

This then is what we are all about for the next few weeks and indeed our entire lives as Christians…Holy waiting for this revealing. A Holy waiting that calls us to be very much about our Master’s business while we wait…to keep his household so that when he returns he “may find in us a mansion prepared for himself” (cf. an old prayer). And so we wait, not as the world waits, but as Christ has commanded us to wait. As we move through the season of Advent, may God again teach us how to stay awake and on guard for the coming of the Christ. Amen.

The Christian Year
by Blessed John Keble

AWAKE—again the Gospel-trump is blown—
From year to year it swells with louder tone,
From year to year the signs of wrath
Are gathering round the Judge’s path,
Strange words fulfill’d, and mighty works achiev’d,
And truth in all the world both hated and believ’d.
Awake! why linger in the gorgeous town,
Sworn liegemen of the Cross and thorny crown?
Up from your beds of sloth for shame,
Speed to the eastern mount like flame,
Nor wonder, should ye find your King in tears
Even with the loud Hosanna ringing in his ears.
Alas! no need to rouse them: long ago
They are gone forth, to swell Messiah’s show:
With glittering robes and garlands sweet
They strew the ground beneath his feet:
All but your hearts are there—O set to prove
True confessors in faith, worst hypocrites in love!
Meanwhile he paces through th’ adoring crowd,
Calm as the march of some majestic cloud,
That o’er wild scenes of ocean-war
Holds its still course in heaven afar:
Even so, heart-searching Lord, as years roll on,
Thou keepest silent watch from thy triumphal throne.
Even so, the world is thronging round to gaze
On the dread vision of the latter days,
Constrain’d to own Thee, but in heart
Prepared to take Barabbas’ part:
“Hosanna” now, to-morrow “Crucify,”
The changeful burden still of their rude lawless cry.
Yet in that throng of selfish hearts untrue
Thy sad eye rests upon thy faithful few,
Children and childlike souls are there,
Blind Bartimeus’ humble prayer,
And Lazarus waken’d from his four days’ sleep,
Enduring life again, that Passover to keep.
And fast beside the olive-border’d way
Stands the bless’d home, where Jesus deign’d to stay,
The peaceful home, to zeal sincere
And heavenly contemplation dear,
When Martha lov’d to wait with reverence meet,
And wiser Mary linger’d at thy sacred feet.
Still through decaying ages as they glide,
Thou lov’st thy chosen remnant to divide;
Sprinkled along the waste of years
Full many a soft green isle appears:
Pause where we may upon the desert road,
Some shelter is in sight, some sacred safe abode.
When withering blasts of error swept the sky,
And Love’s last flower seem’d fain to droop and die,
How sweet, how lone the ray benign
On shelter’d nooks of Palestine!
Then to his early home did Love repair,
And cheer’d his sickening heart with his own native air.
Years roll away: again the tide of crime
Has swept thy footsteps from the favour’d clime.
Where shall the holy Cross find rest?
On a crown’d monarch’s mailed breast:
Like some bright angel o’er the darkling scene,
Through court and camp he holds his heavenward course serene.
A fouler vision yet; an age of light,
Light without love, glares on the aching sight:
O who can tell how calm and sweet,
Meek Walton! shews thy green retreat,
When wearied with the tale thy times disclose,
The eye first finds thee out in thy secure repose?
Thus bad and good their several warnings give
Of His approach, whom none may see and live:
Faith’s ear, with awful still delight,
Counts them like minute bells at night,
Keeping the heart awake till dawn of morn,
While to her funeral pile this aged world is borne.
But what are heaven’s alarms to hearts that cower
In wilful slumber, deepening every hour,
That draw their curtains closer round,
The nearer swells the trumpet’s sound?
Lord, ere our trembling lamps sink down and die,
Touch us with chastening hand, and make us feel Thee nigh.


Written by sameo416

November 28, 2011 at 2:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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