2014-11-30 by Jeremy Clarke
Preacher: Veronica Zundel
30th November 2014
Readings: Psalm 80,
Micah 7.7-8 (referenced/quoted later in sermon)
1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
and come to save us!
3 Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
4 O Lord God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
6 You make us the scorn of our neighbours;
our enemies laugh among themselves.
7 Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
8 You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
9 You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.
12 Why then have you broken down its walls,
so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?2
13 The boar from the forest ravages it,
and all that move in the field feed on it.
14 Turn again, O God of hosts;
look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
15 the stock that your right hand planted.
16 They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down;
may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.
17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
the one whom you made strong for yourself.
18 Then we will never turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call on your name.
19 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Today is Advent Sunday, the first day of a new church year. It’s a time of waiting, not just for Christmas, but looking forward to a time when Jesus will come again to transform the world. It’s also a time when we look at Bible passages that int at God’s plan to come to us in Jesus. To put this in context, I thought I’d give you a brief overview of the whole Bible, in the form of a little drama – I admit I found this on Facebook.
The Entire Bible Explained in One Facebook Post:
That actually doesn’t have that much to do with today’s readings – I just couldn’t resist sharing it with you. But I want to lift one phrase from it as the title of this sermon: In the Meantime. Advent is a time to remember that we are living in the meantime. Yes, God has come to us in Jesus, God with us; he is, as Paul puts it, the first fruits of our salvation. If we look, we see hints and signs of God’s kingdom everywhere. Yet God is not yet all in all, and we don’t yet see the restoration of all things that is promised.
That “meantime’ was plaintively addressed in the Psalm we said together earlier; the desperate cry of a people in grief who want to know how long it will be before God blesses them again. For me that rings bells for our church: we’ve gone through many losses, we’ve needed to lament them, but now it’s time to look forward and ask God to lead us into something new.
What are we supposed to do in the meantime? According to The Entire Bible Explained, our job is just to avoid “doing the things’. Is that all? Some Christians appear to think so: their view of discipleship is largely that it’s about avoiding sin. Others would say our job is to major on evangelism so that as many individuals as possible can be saved before it’s too late. Personally I don’t believe we are all called to be evangelists, and I think a gospel that only consists of “Believe in Jesus so you won’t go to hell’, is a very thin and watered down gospel. Thirdly, I don’t believe it’s ever too late – if it is too late to choose Jesus after we die, then God is defeated by death, which denies the message of the Resurrection.
Then there’s another option: “Jesus is coming; look busy.” Is that the message of today’s gospel reading? Is it telling us, the Boss is on his way back – and we don’t know when he will come, so better look as though we’re doing something useful? Does “Redeem the time’ mean we should fill every moment with frantic activity? You might think that Jesus’ repeated words “Keep awake” mean just this: don’t ever rest, or you might be caught out when I return.
I’d like to suggest another possible interpretation: something I’ll call “active waiting’. In Jesus’ parable here, and several others similar to it, he tells his followers: “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come.”
I think the key phrase in these words is not so much “Keep awake” as “in charge.” As servants of Jesus, we have been put in charge of this physical world. And because we are in charge, that is we are stand-ins for Jesus, we are empowered. Not empowered to lord it over others, for Jesus has already said it shall not be so among us. No, we are empowered each to do his or her work; it’s clear that in this parable, we each have different work, for a man going on a journey would be stupid to assign the same work to each of his servants.
The doorkeeper’s job is to keep watch, but there will be at least two doorkeepers so that one can watch while the other is sleeping. Others will have the task of feeding their fellow servants, or keeping the house clean, or caring for the flocks, or building a new wing to the house. I don’t think it’s hard to work out what the spiritual parallels of these might be: feeding our fellow Christians with spiritual food, challenging the church to be peaceable and moral, addressing pastoral issues, planting new churches. But there are parallels in the general world too: promoting food justice, or meeting housing need, or supporting the vulnerable and the exploited, or developing fairer models of business and politics.
I call this “active waiting’, because it’s not a matter of withdrawing from the world to form a “pure’ community, as some Anabaptists have historically done. Rather, it’s like an act of preparation for a long-awaited guest, for whom we want to get the house tidy, clean, warm and welcoming – only in this case, the house is our whole world. Because “God so loved the world” – not a select group of people who avoid “doing the things’, but “the world’, which is after all God’s own world.
So “keeping alert” or “keeping awake” has nothing to do with reading the signs in the world and concluding, as many have done before us over two thousand years, that the end is nigh and Jesus will return soon. In fact he specifically warns us here and elsewhere not to do this, for “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” And so far everyone who has named the date has got it wrong. But just because we can’t know when, doesn’t mean it will never happen. I like Jesus’ reference to the fig tree here: we can’t make the tree blossom or predict what day its fruit will grow, but we know it will. It reminds me of Brother Lawrence, the subject of that great book ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’ who was converted by seeing a bare tree in winter and reflecting that it would grow leaves and flowers again and bear fruit, This gave him such an impression of God’s power and love that it never left him.
We can, however, cultivate and care for a fig tree. “Keeping awake” is about recognizing that there’s work to be done in this world, and doing it to the best of our ability. Not that if he doesn’t find us looking busy when he comes, he will cast us into outer darkness; but that a people of God which isn’t actively feeding the poor, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison, as Mike reminded us last week, cannot recognize Jesus in “the least of these.” And if we can’t recognize Jesus in the poor, hungry and sick, how do we expect to recognize him when he comes back?
We are not going to complete our task. In the end we are reliant on him to bring in the Kingdom of God. He could do it without involving us, but because we are his people, he doesn’t want to do it without us. We’re not working to make ourselves acceptable to God, because in Christ we are already accepted. That’s where our second reading comes in. Paul thanks God for the Corinthians – even though there is blatant sin amongst them, even though they are quarrelsome and disunited. Nevertheless, he tells them, “in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind – just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” They are learning, growing and relying on God’s Spirit to mould them into the image of Christ.
Advent, then, is an invitation to to dwell in Christ while we wait, to rely on his Spirit to make us into the kind of people who can do his work in the world. Because he loves us and lived, died and rose for us, we can respond by caring for the world he loves. And note that this is a communal enterprise: “by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord”. Community is central to our ability to work for a better world.
It’s not, then, about trying not to “do the things”; it’s not even about trying hard to “do the good things”; it’s about letting the Spirit change us into Jesus-like people, so that we will naturally “do the good things” without even thinking about it. Which is a lot more than just sitting and waiting. To give us hope in this enterprise, let’s end with a passage from Micah that I read this morning:
7 But as for me, I will watch expectantly for the LORD;
I will wait for the God of my salvation.
My God will hear me.
8 Do not rejoice over me, O my enemy.
Though I fall I will rise;
Though I dwell in darkness, the LORD is a light for me.…