First Sunday of Advent
Year B: Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37
November 30, 2008
Rev. Jean Clift,
In the name of the true and living God, who made us for love, who saved us by love, and who loves us still. Amen.
Once again it is a pleasure to be with you as we visit our family here in Scotts Valley, and I am again grateful to be invited to share the altar with your vicar. I still remember the first time we came—to the early service because we had a very small new baby with us in her carryall. The welcome that we all received on that occasion warmed all our hearts, and I have always experienced this church as welcoming to all who come.
Now, however, as we turn to the gospel lesson in Mark, that is something else! What in the world can it mean to us today? It really does sound like an immanent event in first century Israel, and here we are in the 21st century, and it hasn’t happened. Throughout Christian time, people have waited for it—as the first century Christians evidently did—any day, now. Some groups have even studied the symbolism in all the books of the New Testament, especially the Book of the Revelation of St. John, and decided on a particular day.
One such group are the folks in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. I had a friend who was a member of that church, and she spoke of the date they had selected when they all waited, and the Lord didn’t come from the shaken heavens. She spoke of the great sadness which remains at the core of her church since that great disappointment. As she told of it, it seems to me that some of the earliest Christians must have felt a similar sadness.
This “second coming,” as it is frequently called, is referred to in theology as the Parousia, a Greek word meaning literally “being by” or “being near,” hence “appearance.” Another term for this belief is like my friends church: “Adventism.”
So now we come the first Sunday of ADVENT, and we read about this early promise and expectation. What do WE mean by Advent?
We sing in the children’s teaching hymn, “Advent tells us Christ is near; Christmas tells us Christ is here.” In the collect we pray that we may “cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light” SO THAT when Jesus Christ comes to judge both the living and the dead, “we may rise to the life immortal” where he reigns.
We are to spend Advent, then, preparing for eternal life with God.
Now I fear most of us spend Advent preparing in quite another way.
A powerful Christmas poem by former English poet laureate John Betjeman comes to mind about the difference in how we usually “prepare.” Betjeman describes the typical Christmas rush of presents, lights, tinsel, food, and then suddenly the mood of his poem changes, and he asks himself (and us), “And is it true?” The question stops the reader with a sense of shock, and then the poet makes an assertion about what the truth of the story would mean.
And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No caroling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare—
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine. [A Few Late Chrysanthemums, 11-12]
There was an ironic joke told in Seminary when we were there: that the early Christians expected the Parousia—and got the church! As you say it, it sounds like quite a let down. Angels coming on clouds of glory from a shaken sky—compared to the church? What a shock!
And yet, and yet. The church is what we have, evidently what God meant us to have in response to that single truth that God actually became man in Palestine, and even closer to us, that God, the true and living God, lives today in bread and wine.
So then, in response to that great, incredible truth, what are we to be in the church? Advent is the perfect time to reflect on what that means in each one of our lives. What works of darkness do we cast away in each of our lives? How can we put on an armor of light? I’m going to suggest two ways of prayer by which we can work on that. I learned them from a Methodist lady who was invited by our Rector to form a women’s prayer and study group in the church where I was confirmed as an adult. She came to us once a week for six weeks, and taught us and shared various readings on prayer with us.
Yet I have come to believe that the most important thing she taught us was in the disciplines she asked us all to adopt, and it is to two of them that I want to point. Maybe they would be a way for you to prepare. One was that we write down in a notebook three things we wanted and three things we wanted taken away. Then we were to pray for those things every day, and she promised that we would either get them or our desire for them would be taken away—honestly taken away, not just pretending so to make God a success. Most of us were quite skeptical, I think, but not for long.
I remember clearly the first thing I put on my list of things I wanted—to buy a house. We had just married in January and lived in a small apartment, and my “nesting” longing was in full swing. I wanted a house. It may seem hard to remember, but in those days a wife’s earnings were not considered by lenders when assessing the amount of loan a couple could get—it was assumed that she might have a baby any time and, then, traditional wisdom said, her salary would stop. Since young attorneys began with modest salaries in those days, we needed both salaries to meet the loan requirements for the house we had fallen in love with. Within two weeks the builder of “our” house called us to say he would carry a second loan for enough to make us eligible for the house. I was overwhelmed with joy and surprise.
Over the years I have tried to think what this means. Why would my little wishes be responded to by God? I have come to believe that the cumulative effect of the record-keeping about precisely what things we had prayed about was important to our growth of faith. We literally saw on paper all the things we had specifically prayed about over a period of time, and thus we saw what had happened about all those things. This very seldom happens, I think. Most of us are more like a story I once heard of the little boy who was up on the barn roof, nailing down a loose board, when he slipped and started to fall. He cried out, "Oh, God, help!" Just at that moment, his jeans caught on a protruding nail, and he stopped falling. He looked up and said, "Never mind, God, my pants caught on a nail."
I think most of us, even if we do pray, live a lot of our lives like that little boy. Whatever we have prayed for just enters into the daily-ness of our lives, and we forget about the prayer, saying in effect, "Never mind, God, I can handle my life."
The most important part, then, is that we experience that incredible beginning of belief that there is a God who cares about us and our simplest concerns. This comes through to us when the “coincidences” of our prayers and the resulting changes come to overwhelm skepticism. Archbishop William Temple in one of his books used the best phrase for this I have heard. When I stop praying, he commented, I notice that coincidences stop happening.
Sometimes, of course, your own desires get turned around. I remember back when I smoked cigarettes. The information about the connection between cigarettes and cancer had just begun to come out, and then my father in law, a heavy smoker, got lung cancer and had a lung removed. Like any sensible person, I began to be afraid, but like so many I didn’t want to give up my cigarettes.
So I worded my prayer very carefully. I prayed that my fear of cancer (which I had because I smoked) would be taken away. How’s that for trying to put God in a box? Well, it didn’t work. As I prayed, I saw how dumb that was, or, you could say, my common sense came to the fore. You might even want to go beyond that and say that the grace of God came to me to show me my own foolishness. I had opened up that area of my life to God, and then God could help me see reality. If you’re afraid of cancer because you smoke, the clearest way to get free of the fear of cancer is to stop smoking.
And that is one of the most important things about this kind of petitionary prayer—you are opening an area of your life to God. God never seems to force an entrance into our lives, but when we open the door, there God is, ready to show us the love that is always there. So I suggest that making such a list may be a good Advent discipline and may be a way to receive the grace to put away areas of darkness in our lives and open them to the light of God.
It’s not magic, of course. Sometimes the problems can’t be solved in this life, but even then, we can experience the love of God anew. We’ve never forgotten an experience when Wallace was in the parish. A telephone call came in the middle of the night that one of his parishioners, who had been quite ill in the hospital, had just died. The widow wanted Wallace to come over and tell their little boys that their father was gone. He went over, and when he came home, he had a very strange look on his face.
He told me that he had met with the little boys and tried to comfort them. Then he went in to see the widow. She had been quite frantic during the illness, but she was completely calm now. She told Wallace she had a dream that night before the call came from the hospital. In her dream she was sitting by her husband’s hospital bed, as she had been so much during those weeks. The door opened and Jesus walked in, going to the other side of the bed. He gave her the sweetest smile she had ever seen. Then he picked up her husband and carried him out. She said, “I knew then that Sam would die, but I knew it was all right.”
The second discipline we were taught and which I suggest for Advent is to have a DAILY quiet time, with a pencil and paper beside you. The length of time spent is less important than the regularity. You may want to read scripture, use the prayer book or some devotional work, but then be sure you save a few minutes for just being quiet and listening. What are you listening for? I like to call them nudges. When some thought comes to your mind, jot it down on the paper so you won’t forget it and go back to listening. You might begin the listening with some such prayer as, “God, what would you have me do today?” Some days there may be nothing. Some days your written list may just be other things you need to remember for the day.
But sometimes, we all found in the group, there is a suggestion. It may be to call someone of to write someone a letter. Then it is important to follow through on this nudge, and when you do you may be told by the person you call that it helped them so much to hear from you. Many of these nudges are small things, but sometimes, as you form the habit of listening, they can be much larger things. They can be about ways of reaching out to others, ways of living you life so that you and your fellow Christians can really become the church that Jesus left us with, and that kind of church can truly become like the Bible says, “See these Christians, how they love one another.” And from that kind of loving church, you can truly reach out to the world beyond and help God to help the world become a better place—a place that helps God in continuing creation—really to become a church and a people who walk in the light of God’s love to be ready for life immortal. God help us all. Amen.