[The reading was from the Gospel of St Mark, chapter 13, verses 24-37. I’m reading from the New International UK translation. At the end, when I say, “For the word of the Lord”, I invite you to type in the comments section, “Thanks be to God.”
Listen now for the word of the Lord.
‘But in those days, following that distress,
‘“the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”
‘At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
‘Now learn this lesson from the fig-tree: as soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
‘But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: he leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
‘Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back – whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the cock crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!”’]
You can click on the link to a Youtube video of this sermon, or the text is below if you prefer to read it. (Apologies for the occasional flashing of my halo in the video!)
I’m sure you’ve heard before about the church that placed two posters beside each other, one saying ‘Jumble Sale on Saturday’ and the other ‘Jesus is coming!’ In this first week of Advent, the week that is for God’s people, we are preparing for the coming of Jesus, while conducting the business of life with even less certainty than usual about what the new year will bring.
For a little while, in my twenties, I worked and trained as an accountant. My manager, Kellie, had a saying about trying to balance accounts. “It always gets worse before it gets better.” She meant that when you find a small discrepancy, in trying to iron it out, you will find more and larger discrepancies before you are able to resolve it. She would encourage me not to be put off a right line of enquiry by its initially difficult results. That rule has stuck with me. “It always gets worse before it gets better.”
The church’s administrative year began in September, but the liturgical year begins now, at Advent. And what strikes me about that, is that this is the time of year when it’s beginning to get really dark – but it’s going to get darker. So we begin in darkness, and then it gets worse before it gets better.
In the reading we heard from Tony, Jesus quotes from two parts of Isaiah that are similar to each other, in which the prophet speaks about the lights of the heavens going dark and the heavens being like a rolled up scroll. This would have been understood figuratively by the Jews. It may have meant that preparing for events or gaining wisdom through usual means such as astrology – reading the heavens – would be difficult or impossible; but heavenly bodies were also often used in Jewish poetry as metaphors for kings and queens and other notable rulers.
Isaiah was speaking about the countries surrounding Israel, and the nations that are enemies to Israel. This perhaps suggests to Jesus’ hearers the thought of the whole Roman occupation being dissolved, and no one left to persecute the Jews. So Isaiah, and thus Jesus, is offering some comfort and hope to an oppressed people. Prophesy of a new world order is a threat to those who’ve held power, but not to those who’ve been under their heel. In a time when people will have come through great adversity – and now be leaderless and not know what to do next - God’s angels will gather up His people, Jesus says, and the Son of Man will at last be apparent to them.
But no one knows when these things will happen, only that change is inevitable, that empires will someday crumble, that the poor and oppressed will one day have their jubilee and be lifted back up by the Messiah who is for them and with them. So the idea Jesus puts forward is to consider how we live in the meantime; how to live as God’s children in times of darkness, without an end in sight. He gives the analogy of a man going away and leaving his servants in charge of the house.
It is the job of the porter not simply to stand at the door and watch, but to actively be ready for the return of the master. The other servants all have their jobs too; the porter mustn’t miss the signs of the master coming, he must alert all the others to ensure their work is done and make sure everything is prepared for the master’s arrival. It’s no good standing watch, seeing the master’s vanguard and doing nothing about it. Readiness involves action, not inertia.
We listened to a song just now from the musical ‘Big River’. If you don’t know the story of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, Huck is a working class white boy who has run away from home and ended up in the company of a runaway slave, named Jim, with whom he becomes friends. They care for each other and save each other’s lives during their exploits. Towards the end of the book, Huck is in a position to inform Jim’s owner of his whereabouts, and writes a letter to do so, before thinking better of it and tearing it up, despite living in a culture that teaches he will go to hell for knowingly depriving the slave-owner of their property. He holds the genuine conviction that this is a sinful act, but does it anyway.
“It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: "All right, then, I'll go to hell"- and tore it up.
It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.”
The late, and sorely missed Rachel Held Evans, referenced this when discussing her defiance of evangelical orthodoxy to celebrate communion with members of the LGBT community.
“I often think about Huck’s resolution when I am told by religious leaders that “the Bible is clear” on this or that, and that I’ve got to stop listening to those gut feelings that tell me maybe we’ve gotten a few things wrong, that maybe there’s more to the story than we’re ready to see.
“Your feelings don’t matter,” they say.
“Your feelings cannot be trusted,” they say.
“Once you start listening to your feelings, over and beyond the plain meaning of Scripture, it’s a slippery slope to hell,” they say.
A part of me agrees. I want to be faithful to the inspired words of the Bible, not bend them to fit my own desires and whims. Being a person of faith means trusting God’s revelation, even when the path it reveals is not comfortable.
But another part of me worries that a religious culture that asks its followers to silence their conscience is just the kind of religious culture that produces $200 rewards for runaway slaves. The Bible has been “clear” before, after all—in support of a flat and stationary earth, in support of wiping out entire people groups, in support of manifest destiny, in support of Indian removal, in support of anti-Semitism, in support of slavery, in support of “separate but equal,” in support of constitutional amendments banning interracial marriage.
In hindsight, it all seems so foolish, such an obvious abuse of Scripture.
...But at the time?
Sometimes true faithfulness requires something of a betrayal.”
I initially wanted to play you the song from Big River just because it talks about waiting in uncertainty for the light and not knowing when it will come. But it then struck me that the heart of the story of Huckleberry Finn is also the heart of the story of the incarnation. It is the choice not to forsake people. It is the story of a God who looks at his people in darkness and says himself, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”
In Pen’s book ‘The Hardest Thing To Do’, from The Hawk and the Dove series, the community debates whether they will accept Prior William de Bulmer into their midst. Brother Michael, the infirmarian, who had nursed William back from death’s door, had promised him that there would be a place for him in this community. As, with growing horror, he hears the discussion of the meeting and realises that this may not be true, he confesses to the community what he has said:
“It’s a complex thing. It’s not as simple as ‘He’s a sinner? Right then, let’s throw him away.’ Is it?...
And what I’m coming to – brothers, I’m so sorry, I think you might be angry with me for this – but what I said to him is that he would be safe here, that we would not turn him away or abandon him. Never. I told him we have a place for him here because we are not complete without him…
Suicide is grave sin, you say, Father Gilbert? Well, what’s the first thing you think he will do if we throw him out of here? Except, if we do, I shall go with him.”
Michael, who is beloved, whose work in the community is immensely important and whose vocation is secure, is willing to be cast adrift so that the unwanted will not have to go alone. And that is the heart of the gospel story – that, when we were still far off, God did not leave us in darkness, but the Word of God became flesh and lived among us. Christ is the Emmanuel, and that is the Good News that we are tasked with sharing with the world. In our lives, this is the Good News that should shine out from the way we live.
When we live in seasons of darkness, our work is to be grace in our time, by showing people that they are not forsaken. We cannot all do all the work that this poor, aching world needs, but we can, in some way, reach out in love – by saying a prayer for someone, by putting a tin in the food bank box, by feeding the ducks in the park, by writing a birthday message to your Facebook friend, by speaking kindly to ourselves when we screw up. (Yes, you are a person too, though you may not always be sure! And you are deserving of love and kindness too.) All these things alone may be tiny, but so is every atom in a star; and yet it shines brightly enough to be seen light-years away.
In misery, to have a friend is to find Christ. In abandonment, to be remembered is to find Christ. In pain, to be cared for is to find Christ. In hunger, to be fed is to find Christ. In ugliness, to be loved is to find Christ.
This is both our Advent calling and our Advent hope.