Advent Sunday (Year B)
Isaiah 64:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37
Hymns: O Come O Come Emmanuel, Christ whose Glory fills the skies, Strengthen for service Lord those hands, The Servant King
What demanding readings usher in this new church year, its first month full with cosy sentiment towards family, friends and a domesticated baby Jesus! Neither Isaiah nor Mark imagined an Advent of extra kilos and diminishing bank balances when they wrote the texts we have just heard, but simply the direct and irreversible eruption of God into this world.
Did you hear the word ‘torn’ in Isaiah followed, as in Mark, by cosmic dramas? ‘Tearing’ the heavens in two means they, and thus the world they envelope, will never be the same again. Disassemble a wooden jig-saw carefully, and it can be reassembled in exactly the same way, unmarked by the process:’ rip apart a child’s first shape-jigsaw, and it too is undamaged. Tear cloth, or paper, and however carefully it is mended, the tear will show, just like the curtain in the Temple ‘torn in two from top to bottom’ as Jesus died. Thus asking God to ‘tear open the heavens’ and come is both irreversible demand and outcome, which is precisely what that Baby became.
Isaiah’s listeners were a stroppy lot, with plenty of ups and downs in their life of faith, yet they had confidence God still cared for, accepted and was with them: ‘we are the clay and you our potter: do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember our iniquity for ever.’ And Paul, despite clearly knowing that some in the Corinthian congregation had been involved in practices acceptable only among the then Egyptian elite, had no hesitation whatsoever in writing that God would remain faithful to them and, just as significant, insisting that his listeners ‘are not lacking in any spiritual gift.’ That makes clear that the grace of God, given through Christ in faith, will include, strengthen and save all who follow. Note that grace is not given with this or that proviso, rule or whatever: grace is freely given to those who are ready and willing to receive, repenting and renewing, failing and fulfilling.
And grace is given through God in Christ, ‘Christ the true the only light,’ in Wesley’s words, light for the darkness of winter, light for the gloom of grief, sin and failure, light to fill the skies and scatter uncertainty and put at naught those endless ‘what if and how and why’ questions which unbidden and quite reasonably pop up. But while such grace is freely given, it is not free just to use now and again, to be set aside when the associated expectations are inconvenient. Jesus was of God and, being the Word from the beginning, he knew his end would be serving all through death, and accepted it however unwelcome, however much as a human he might have wished to see the tiny figs on the tree in winter grow into fat juice-dripping fruit one more time.
And that is the crux of the Advent readings! The ineluctable crucifixion follows the irreversible eruption of God in Christ on earth as a baby – which goes badly with tinsel. Keeping the juxtaposition between birth and death at bay is like making up endlessly unravelling stories for why Grandpa, or the pet rabbit, are no longer around. The earthly end for the cute babe in the manger is indeed harsh and does not find its way onto even the best Christian Advent calendar.
One way of dealing with the fact of Jesus’ earthly end is to set Christmas aside completely on the rather bizarre grounds that because Jesus came to save such awful people as us, we should do penance throughout Christmas. That’s why as a family we avoided visiting my Plymouth Brethren grandfather at Christmas: it was grim. Yet I now realise that meant Grandma, his Methodist wife, shared his miserable Christmas alone.
But another way of dealing with the fact of the early and nasty death of this babe, a way of rational thankful faith, is to imitate Christ the Servant, to remember that through the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, God is still in us, with us, in the Holy Spirit, present through grace in all who would follow Christ, irrespective of knowledge or virtue. Remember Paul affirming those Corinthians? No provisos, no negatives: just affirmation of their faith along with but separate from condemning their sin. That being the case, the way in which we relate to each person who is living in the grace of Christ, or might be living in the grace of Christ, or might be toying with the idea of living in the grace of Christ, must be the way in which we would relate to Christ were Christ standing here in Heidelberg, or anywhere in the world. We should relate to all, as last week’s Gospel of Matthew made so clear, by serving and affirming, whether through listening, holding, supporting or helping, the needy in body and mind, the sad and lonely, or those imprisoned by bars or by life.
You may have noticed that only one hymn today has been directly for Advent, the ancient and almost unearthly ‘O come, O come Emmanuel.’ That is intentional, but be assured there are three more Sundays to enjoy twelve Advent favourites after setting the year’s direction today! Our next hymn by Ephraim the Syrian, an Orthodox priest in and Saint of the Syrian Church in South India, makes clear that the gifts of Christ are gifts to strengthen us to ‘Go out in peace to love and serve the Lord.’ But the final hymn ‘calls us now to follow him, to bring our lives as an offering to the Servant King.’ That means commitment, and a concerted balanced effort to learn more of God.
So as we enjoy the pleasures and stresses of Advent, that present buying, money-stretching, plaetchzen-eating, card-sending race, let us take time daily to reflect on how we are serving Christ through faithful care for our own life, our body and our mind; through our loving and hope-filled care for the minds and bodies of others; and through our faithful effort to listen to and learn from and of God. All three are crucial to Advent. If the resulting ‘time out’ of the Christmas rush means forgetting a card, wrapping a present ineptly, or buying and not making a cookie, so be it! Surely such feeble failings fade into insignificance compared with preparing properly for the irrevocable tearing of heaven to let God the Christ enter.
Revd DR Elizabeth Koepping