Saturday, November 27, 2010

Advent Sunday

Well, it’s the season for making lists, and that is exactly what we have been doing this week in my household.  Letters to be written, cards sent, celebrations to attend, presents to buy, decorations and parties to plan, and just in case you’re thinking of putting it off for a week or two, the horrible piped Christmas carols in the shopping centre are winding up to full volume and the store Santas are looming.  It is of course the frantic season, followed by the shortest and most inaptly-named season on the secular Aussie calendar, the season to be jolly, before we plunge as a result of over-consumption and too much fun into the inevitable and rather blessed relief of January, silly season, and nothing much to do except listen to the cricket.

You make the mistake of coming to church, however, in the middle of all this commercialised holiness, and you might be forgiven for thinking you had arrived on a different planet.  Not only do we firmly resist the temptations of tinsel but the readings from the Bible focus our attention – not as you might think on the impending birth of an inoffensive little baby in a scruffy unimportant outpost of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago ... but on the end of all things, and on judgement, all the vaguely scary stuff that seems out of place in the countdown to Christmas. Perhaps the desire of many Christians is that this year, finally, the Church will let us get a bit earlier to the message of peace and goodwill and the general excitement of anticipation of the birth at Bethlehem.

Except, of course, that the sort of nostalgic anticipation that focuses on the birth of a baby two thousand years ago without noticing the connection between that event and the future promises of a God who continues to break into our lives and our world today, tomorrow and the next day – also misses the bigger and ultimately more helpful reality hinted at by Christmas – the claim that history itself is the story of God’s saving activity, and so has a shape, or a trajectory – that history is not random or meaningless because it is headed somewhere.  One thing I can’t help noticing about our Christmas celebrations – both the church kind and the secular kind – is how much they focus on the past, on a romanticised but not deeply thought-about memory of a birth in a stable that is emotionally satisfying because it affirms our own religious traditions - but is of little real help in connecting us with the realities of the world we live in.  Advent, however, forces us to think not backwards but forwards, toward the challenge and the fulfilment of all things, the hope that someday the world will be at peace, that one day, finally, creation will be as God wants it to be.

We live, as I may have suggested before, in an age of anxiety.  Probably every generation has its own unique things to worry about – as a university student in the late 70s I remember a general feeling of anxiety about the threat of nuclear oblivion – someone somewhere had a finger more or less permanently hovering over the button that would start the countdown to the end of the world as we knew it.  Today the end of the world comes in a variety of slower-motion scenarios – images of a planet that is drying out, running out of oil or heating up, losing its wealth of plant and animal species, running out of space and food as the human population continues to grow unsustainably; endemic levels of political and ideological conflict creating entire populations on the move and increasing our anxiety even further – and we have seen recently how politicians of all persuasions play on our general anxiety and sense of helplessness, re-focussing it as a fear of asylum seekers, re-branding our insecurity as a demand for stronger border protection.  Little wonder then that at this time of year we long for the familiar fairytale narrative of shopping, and decorations, and carols?

But the tradition of the Church suggests otherwise, and nudges our attention towards the future, as well as towards the long-ago story that helps us to remember who God is, and how God works in the world, in our lives – and the reason for this double-focus is so we can get a sense of where we are headed, and what the promises of God will bring. And so Advent calls us to remember and re-tell the story of people who, like us, were looking to the future, and waiting for the promises of God to be fulfilled, and striving to live faithfully as they waited. One part of faithfulness, of course, is repentance, turning away from the paths that have taken us away from God, turning off the things that have drowned out God's voice in our hearts and minds, and turning toward new ways of living that offer hope not just to us but to those we encounter, in our personal lives, and in the wider world that God loves.

Our Gospel reading this morning is Jesus’ response to his disciples’ anxiety – anxiety about history, and events yet to come, and how God’s purposes could possibly be fulfilled in a world that seems oblivious to them.  And this text is part of a longer passage in which Jesus talks about how we should live in the ‘in-between’ times – the times between Jesus’ historical life and death and resurrection and his return to make all things whole, and right, and good.  While most Bible scholars agree that the specific focus of this passage is the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Roman armies in 70AD – an event that for the writer of the Gospel was already past history – it is clear also that Jesus expected that God to break into human history in a way that would transform and fulfil the initial act of creation.  And he speaks over and over again about the agenda of God in human history – but notice that in today’s reading Jesus specifically tells us he doesn’t know God’s timing, he isn’t giving us a future blueprint of history, just the assurance that God is active within it.  As Christians of course we see the main evidence for this in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus himself.  That however much God’s purposes in history are hidden from us, we know that God’s priorities are the ones revealed in the life of Jesus.

And I think it is significant that in this passage the focus shifts from grand and cosmic images to the mundane and ordinary, from a vision of the sun and moon going dark and stars falling out of the sky to a picture of workers in the field and women in the kitchen.  It reminds us that we need to connect the great and remote-sounding statements of the Gospel to our own lives, and the mundane events of our own time.  Theologian Mary Shore points out though that where apocalyptic writings like Daniel and Revelation seem to be addressed to people living through great and terrible persecution, giving hope that God will break in from outside to restore and set things right, this passage from Matthew seems to be addressed to sleepy people, people who have lost focus or forgotten their original vision.  People – perhaps like us – who have been living with limited expectations for so long they no longer believe that anything much will ever change.  And she describes the passage as what we Aussies would call a “wake-up call” – a reminder to expect the unexpected, a reminder that the X-factor in human history is God, and that ultimately, human power and human plans are not the last word. [1]

Which in fact is deeply reassuring, especially for disciples like us who look around us at the world we live in and see – a seemingly endless parade of human suffering, cynicism and indifference.  It’s easy, for example, to see the deaths of 29 miners in Greymouth, New Zealand, as a great and arbitrary tragedy – less easy, however, to see the deaths of 10,000 underground miners every single year as anything other than the consequence of misplaced human priorities that place more value on coal and power and industry than on the lives of men and women.  And living in a world defined by human competitiveness and greed, the only way to preserve hope, the only way to maintain a willing sense of discipleship, is to trust that at any moment we may be surprised by the sudden presence of God.  Today’s reading reminds us that the living God waiting for us around the next bend is the wild card of our own lives and of history itself, the holy surprise that not only illuminates and makes sense of our lives, but that finally gathers the whole of human history into the extravagant mercy of God.

And Matthew gives us in the very next chapter a hint as to how we are supposed to live while we wait for God’s promises, or, to use the familiar imagery of Christian expectation, for Jesus’ return.  As writer David Bartlett puts it: ‘one day, perhaps, Jesus will reappear, suddenly, in the clouds or like a thief in the night, and we had better be prepared.  But before that – in fact every single day of our lives -  Jesus is going to appear just around the corner, suddenly, like a hungry person, or a neighbour ill-clothed, or someone sick or imprisoned’. And how we respond to Jesus in these situations is going to set the terms for how Jesus responds to us on the great day of judgement and fulfilment.

In other words, the focus for Christians waiting for the fulfilment of all things, in other words, needs to be on how we live our lives right now in ways that are pleasing to God and that demonstrate our trust in God’s goodness.  As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it: ‘resist the temptation to save your best self for tomorrow’.  Focus instead on how you live today.  Ours, Taylor reminds us, may very well be the generation that witnesses the triumphant return of Jesus in the clouds – or else we might meet him in the same way that all the generations before us have - one by one by one, as each of us closes our eyes for the last time. Either way, our lives are in God's hands, and that’s OK. [2]


[1] New Proclamation 2007

[2] "On the Clouds of Heaven" in The Seeds of Heaven