This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 3rd December 2017, the first Sunday in Advent.
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80 1-7, 17-19; Mark 13:24-37
Well, happy new year! As I indicated last week, today is the first day of a new year in the rolling calendar of the church. We have entered a new season of the lectionary: today is Advent Sunday, the first day in Advent and the season of purple which will take us up to the morning of Christmas Eve. Today is also the first day in the second year of our three-year perpetual cycle, we are now in the indescribably beautifully named “Year B”, better called “The Year of Mark”. This year the bulk of our gospel reading will come from the Gospel According to St Mark. Since Advent Sunday a year ago and until last week we were primarily interested in Matthew, and from this day in twelve months’ time we will be reading Luke. So, again, happy new year.
With the new liturgical year comes the opportunity to refresh ourselves in God, and to perhaps reconsider our patterns of engaging with God. One of the things which I have taken up as of today, with some preparation work in the last few weeks, is a new pattern of Bible reading. For the next twelve months or so, every Monday at 9:30 am before I sit down to work on my sermon for the following Sunday I will take the time to read a chapter from my new book. This book is designed to assist my spiritual formation for my development of faith as a Christian, and my development of depth as a minister. And this week’s reading, written to be read in the first week in Advent, has already born fruit.
Each of today’s prayers were drawn directly from scripture, indeed from today’s set Old Testament readings and from the Psalm. I read to you from Isaiah 64:1-5a, and then Isaiah 64:5-9, so, Isaiah 64:5a was read twice; it acts as a hinge between two thoughts.
In the second prayer, of adoration we heard the prophet’s heart-sung desire that God would split the heavens and descend in personal display of holy majesty. Let the name of God, the authority and reputation of God, be so well promoted in the Earth that it would be like fire under a kettle. Come down God and remind us of how awesome you are, remind us how awestruck we should be at the very thought of you.
In the third prayer, of confession, we heard the prophet’s heart-wrung sorrow that if God were to descend God would find a people broken by sin. God’s people no longer call on God’s name or celebrate God’s glory, not even one person. God’s chosen people are defiled, and to use Isaiah’s own image which is not made clear in English translation but which my commentator noted in Isaiah 64:6, they are “filthy cloth”, literally, a used tampon. Yuck eh? Certainly, this is less than what God deserves from us, far, far less. Yet God is the creator, the potter for whom we are clay, and we are assured that God has not forgotten us, and God will deliver us from the mess we have made of ourselves.
The writer of my new spiritual formation book said of the Israelite prophets that they were the custodians of Israel’s greatest hopes, desires and dreams. When the actions of the nation lead them away from these great thoughts the prophets spoke out to remind them of the picture of the future to call them back. God promises all that we adore God for, but if we ignore God or refuse God then all we are good for in the future is to put in the bin next to the toilet. I know which future I’d prefer. (And yeah, continuing thanks for that mental picture Isaiah: Yuck!)
You can perhaps see why Asaph, the writer of today’s psalm (and of our first prayer and call to worship today), felt the need to pray restore us God…God of hosts…LORD God of hosts, let your face shine that we may be saved in Psalm 80:3, 7, 19. This prayer for Israel’s restoration may well have been composed after the Kingdom of Israel, the one situated on Samaria, had been conquered and the people carried away. God’s patience had run out and the people had been overcome by their enemies. Like Isaiah, Asaph is calling upon God to come in might and power, specifically as Lord of Hosts which is to say supreme marshal of the armies of Heaven, and deliver the people with divine and military intervention. The nation has not heeded the word of the prophets, and now they’re in that bin and wrapped in tissues. What is to be done for them?
In Mark 13:24-37 which was read to us we find Jesus speaking about the day when the Son of Man will come in glory. Hear how the images presented by Jesus echo those presented by Isaiah, when the LORD comes the earth will be shaken and there will be a display of great power and glory. The signs of the times are there; God is always ready to come because the glory of God is not diminished in the time between epiphanies, there is no need for God to be girded up ready because God is never not God. Humankind, however, is not always ready and God’s action occurs more often than it should as a surprise to the Israelites. Be on your guard, says Jesus. As Jesus has taught us through Matthew 25 in these past three weeks the Master will return, and he will be displeased to find us sleeping like the five girls, or lazy like the man with the one talent, or ambivalent to the world like the goatish people.
The prophets have told you, God is close by and God is powerful and mighty.
Your own history has taught you that God is incredibly faithful to those who heed God, obey God, and serve God in loving worship and acts of justice.
And now the Son of Man, the messiah, is telling you in your hearing that the time of God’s appearing in fullness is very, very close. Wake up! Watch out! Repent because the Kingdom is at hand and the King Godself is just over the horizon! Can you not see the dawning glory already?
If you are awake and all of that then the work Jesus has for you is simple: tell others. What I say to you I say to you all says Jesus in Mark 13:37. In other words everyone needs to know this message, everyone needs to be awake when God comes in glory, even if it happens in the graveyard shift. If you are alert and alive to the possibilities tell others who are not, so that they will be. If you are a friend to someone don’t let your friend sleep through the coming of God, or let God find him or her sleeping, or lazy, or indifferent. When God comes for you to draw you into a loving relationship with the Father, don’t allow that your friends will instead go into that bin with all the other biohazardous things of the world.
Today is our New Year’s Day: let it be a fresh start in your relationship with God. Let it also be a fresh start in your relationship with the world within your reach. Perhaps today and on to this week is your chance to be a prophet to your own people; speaking to them as the custodian of your tribe’s greatest hopes, desires and dreams. Call your friends and their attention away from the actions and attitudes which inhibit this future. The child has come, the king is coming, the time is now.