Sunday, November 30, 2008

Advent 1 - Year B

We begin at the end. We jump into the story near its conclusion. Not Jesus' story, but the world's story. We begin at the world's end. We begin this new church year with a reading describing the end of days.

Advent opens our new church year. We just finished “Year A” or the Year of Matthew, the first of a three year cycle. This year we're beginning what is known as “Year B” or the Year of Mark. This means that most of our gospel readings will be from Mark's gospel, with a little bit from John thrown in because Mark is comparatively short. It's about half the length of Matthew, Luke, and John, the other three gospels. Next year, we'll be in “Year C,” the Year of Luke. John doesn't get his own year. Don't ask why.

And today's reading from Mark 14 dubbed “the Little Apocalypse” (as if any apocalypse can be little) brings us face-to-face with the strange contradiction of Advent.

In Advent we wait for Jesus' arrival. Both as a baby in Bethlehem AND in a fiery cloud descending from the sky. The hope of new birth AND the terror of judgment sharing the same crib, fighting over the blankets. In Advent we get both stories as if they mean the same thing.

In Halifax, Rebekah and I got an earful from a church member who didn't like the judgment bit of Advent. Especially after hearing an apocalyptic sermon.

“Advent is like waiting for a baby!” she said, “What's judgment got to do with being pregnant?”

As I reflect on that, I realize that judgment has everything to do with waiting for a baby to arrive. But not in the condemning sort of way. But in a reflective, worrying-about-the-world's-future sort.

Having gone through it twice I know how it feels to wonder what kind of world this incubating little person will meet, what kind of life will he or she have.

Will she have the opportunity to explore old age? Or will she succumb to an illness or accident way too early?

Will he have a chance to use his gifts, finding meaningful work that makes a contribution to peoples' lives? Or will he find himself trapped in a life controlled by other peoples' expectations and agendas? Will he wake up at 65 and realize he sold out his life for a big house and fat wallet?

Will he continue down our path toward overheating the planet, and fighting over water and oil? Or will he be part of a solution to community or global problems?

Will she have hope for the future? Or will she despair for a world consumed by its own greed and self-interest?

The judgment that meets a child's birth is not so much a judgment of the past, as a judgment on the future. This judgment does not condemn. This judgment merely asks questions. But these are questions of hope. After all, isn't that what a birth really means, having hope for the future? Isn't that really what we're waiting for? Isn't hope at the heart of Advent?

Today's gospel reading is a response to Jesus' warning that the world will see terrible suffering. He despairs for those who are pregnant because he sees terrible pain waiting for both mother and child.

He sees abject powerlessness for fathers who can't protect their families.

He sees cities crumbling and people dying. He sees false preachers offering false hope, a delusional escape out of the destruction. He sees the end of the world.

And he asks his followers to “keep alert.” Sleep with one eye open.

“But in those days,” Jesus says, “After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken...Then they will see the Son of Man – Humanity's Child – coming in clouds with power and great glory. Then he will send out the angels to gather his people from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

That's quite the scene, isn't it?

Of course, this isn't a newspaper account of the final chapter of the earth's history. But Jesus IS talking about great change The sun and moon darkened, stars falling – a terrifying thought in an ancient world of dark night skies and very little non-solar light. In an astrological culture such a sight would be powerfully significant.

The Son of Man coming on the clouds? That's taken directly from the book of Daniel in the Old Testament. All of these were shorthand for signaling the world's transformation.

This may sound weird to us but it wouldn't have made first century folks bat an eyelash. The great change, though, is not so much the story's imagery.

It's instead that Jesus comes here. Bringing not condemnation, [contrast all the other apocalyptic literature of the time, as noted in Preaching in the New Creation: The Promise of New Testament Apocalyptic Texts, David Schnasa Jacobsen]– nothing is said of condemnation – but bringing mercy - transformation - to earth. And the Son of Man - Humanity's Child - stays here, transforming everything. Change is coming...and it's coming to a neighbourhood near you.

And your role? What are you supposed to do? You are to keep awake because change is coming, coming here, coming soon, and you're going to be ready to be part of it at the first sign. At the first inkling you're going to fling wide the door and get everything prepared for the big changes coming. You will be part of the change that's around the corner. You are part of God's change for the world.

We hear these stories and often we think of that its about Jesus rescuing us from a broken planet and lifting us up to the heavenly realm, an idea made popular by the “Left Behind” books. But we need to look closely at the text to see what Jesus is REALLY saying.

Jesus is saying he is coming down, not that we'll be lifted up. Jesus isn't saying that we'll be rescued FROM this world, but that we'll be change agents IN this world. Jesus isn't saying that he HATES this earthly realm, favouring it over the heavenly realm. He is saying that he LOVES this world so much that he's going to fix it.

And our job is to watch for him, to keep alert to what God is doing all around us. And when we do see God with sleeves rolled up and sweat on the brow, God asks that we join in, being part of the saving work that God is doing all around us.

And today, God is calling Brody into that work. Through the frigid waters of holy baptism, God is waking Brody, recruiting him to work alongside his sisters and brothers in Christ, being part of God's Big Solution for a broken world. Brody is being asked to live God's future today. Just as we all are called.

If we want to see what God has in mind for the world, just look at Brody, if we want to see God's future, watch him crawl, and see the possibilities resting in him, and witness the future that God has created in him.

So keep alert. Watch. Be part of the change that God is doing in the world. But always remember that it's God's mercy that transforms, God everlasting kindness that brings renewal.

May we all be part of God's Big Solution. Amen.


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