The First Sunday of Advent
27 November 2011
A Sermon Preached by Philip H. Towner, Ph.D., Diocesan Intern
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13: 24-37
Advent always takes me by surprise. I should be ready, but I’ve never quite come far enough in the liturgical year just ending to think that I am; and there’s this slight sensation of wandering in the woods, looking for the path to take me home, only to find I’ve gone in a circle. Considering this together, we know that turning the page of the calendar does not change our situation, but it does give us a fresh set of lenses, a different vantage point—an Advent orientation; and another chance to figure out this time and space we inhabit, as we reenter the story of our spiritual ancestors who lived in a great darkness and longed for God’s light. We’re not so very different. We’ll come eventually to Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, and we are taken back into a time of darkness, when Israel waited for God to return; He said he would, but there was not much evidence round about to keep the flame of hope burning. These were people caught between promise and fulfillment, where the nights can be very long. They hoped God was near, but the time was not yet. They watched and waited. And though we are on the other side of the resurrection, we too are in between. We watch and wait.
Our readings today place us on a map, and though the language may seem strange, the place they describe is familiar—a place of incompleteness, and God seems to be absent. Isaiah, in a voice haunted by the memory of God, describes a people aching for the return of God: “because you hid yourself … O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” The Psalmist takes up the same theme, imagining God a great distance away, pleading with God to shine light upon the people that they might be saved. Paul with less emotion depicts the Corinthian church as waiting for the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the Gospel reading, from Mark’s “Little Apocalypse,” as Chapter 13 is called, belongs to the larger story of tribulation and chaos that characterizes the world in which Jesus is not present, and in which believers, aware of his absence and longing for his return must confront the reality of “not yet.” Given our location in this grand redemption drama, the Little Apocalypse is a good place to take a compass reading as we head into Advent.
First of all, let’s not get all worked up by the descriptive language of this discourse of judgment, woe, and eventual salvation. It is literary, apocalyptic flourish (bizarre cosmic events; the tearing open of the heavens; the stars falling from the sky; the Son of Man riding on clouds, and so on), but not to be taken literally. It has a function, and that function is to consider events that from all appearances seem to be routinely mundane and ordinary and interpret them from a divine perspective. The whole of the chapter in Mark is descriptive of what would become “the time in-between,” bounded by the destruction of the temple and the grand divine finale when salvation is finished—the apostles’ time, our time. The in-between time sometimes seems to stand still; if God is present, he is well hidden. But the language of hope and anticipation of Isaiah and the apocalyptic description of Jesus, in each case, argue that it is God who creates the space in-between, that God inhabits that space even if invisibly, and defines a people in that space.
The lesson of the fig tree, then, is that the real nature of the times in-between can be perceived. And the lesson from the brief parable of the householder who goes on a journey is to look for God even though God seems to be absent. The disciples’ first opportunity to do this, and in fact the next time that verb “to watch” (or “to stay awake”) occurs, would be in Gethsemane when they completely miss Jesus in his Jacob moment—his wrestling with God—and they would spend the rest of their lives trying to get their minds around what that moment (and moments like it) meant for human existence: God among us in utter human weakness; veiled; visibly invisible; God incarnate; God caught in-between.
Advent means arrival. We anticipate the birth of the savior Messiah, remembering the past. We anticipate the Second Advent of Christ, remembering into the future. But the texts we read bring awareness of times in-between, and define us as people who are in-between.
Our own location in this redemption storyline is in that house, doorkeepers, watchers. We watch, we wait, but on our side of the cross, we do not do so passively. We stand at that door, but search actively; and we keep our lights bright, so that other travelers might see the light and join us. And the light that seems dim when we are alone gathers strength as others add their single, feeble lights to ours. Outside of the parable, we are Corinthians, we inhabit the same space they did: waiting for the revelation of Christ. Doorkeeper, Christian: always looking but never quite seeing fully. This is the way of faith. Yet the watching of faith is not a watching for what is not there, but it is a straining to see and understand what already is; to better understand it; to better grasp the shape of God’s presence in human existence, in human community, and in our midst. It is a veiled presence that we cannot take for granted, even though our worship and our liturgy may seem to “routine-ize” the fact. It is better to think that the mystery of God’s presence is so deep that we must return to celebrate it as often as we can, trusting each time to gain some small additional clarity. This is why we come back to Advent, a story we already know well, over and over again. It is not that we’ve missed something last year or the year before, but rather that the arrival of the Messiah, God in the flesh, God with us, is so profound, we can never come to the end of understanding it. And we have not come to the end of understanding ourselves in our time in between. The fig tree teaches its lesson every year, not just once, but over and over again. Our watching and waiting, our straining for clarity and for another glimpse of God’s presence, is a full time job. And we discover he has entrusted his presence through his Son to us.We remember backwards the God who arrived and shared our space in between; and we remember forwards his coming again.
© 2011 Philip H. Towner