November 27 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Advent Sunday
Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Theme: We're spoilt for choice on this wonderful Sunday. "Here we go Again!" "Starting Over"? But I'm going with "Yes, John, He is the One who is to Come". [Answering the question from John the Baptist in Matthew 11:2.]
Introduction. Advent Sunday is one of the great Sundays of the year, and it's important to make the most of it. We start with that blood-curdling cry from Isaiah to a silent and apparently absent God: "Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down"! It has the same heartfelt anguish that we hear in Christ's awful cry from the Cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Both capture perfectly the sense of divine absence or indifference when we are stuck, when prayer doesn't come at all or remains unanswered. Our next reading, of course, knows that Isaiah's prayer has been spectacularly answered (if a tad delayed!) in the Advent of Jesus. The mood is now completely different; it is one of joyful expectation. But even while Jesus was on earth it was not always obvious, even to spiritual giants like John the Baptist, that God really had come amongst us. Hence John's question from the dungeons of Herod's palace. And now in Mark's gospel the question turns to Christ's return. When will it be? What will it be like? What signs should we look out for to warn us that he's on his way? How should we live our lives in the meantime?
Background. I'm writing these notes the day before our General Election, so I am having to rely on the Opinion Polls to tell me what is likely to happen tomorrow. If they're right, about half of our people are satisfied enough with the present state of our country to re-elect our present Government, and the other half are not so sure. Who's right and who's wrong? Are these dark times and getting darker, or are we indeed on the pathway to a brighter future?
How do we read the signs of our times? How much attention should we give to financial indices and how much to social ones? Are the latest GDP figures a better guide to the state of our nation than those relating to hospital admissions of children? Is the promised payout to farmers by Fonterra more important or less important than the average price of milk in our supermarkets? Is it more important to increase the production and export of our large coal deposits or protect the atmosphere from further harm caused by the burning of fossil fuels? What are we to make of the increasing numbers of people on anti-depressants? Do we have a sense of God here with us, or are we with Isaiah desperately calling for divine intervention? And we can take that question at various levels, from our nation down to our families and even our own lives.
Isaiah. It is difficult to remain dry-eyed when you really hear the pathos in this cry, which is, of course, a prayer. As suggested above, the opening verse is the cry of a man who feels that God is, at the very least, far away, concealed in the heavenly realms, and refusing to "come down" to earth. He recalls occasions in the past when God did deign to come down: the imagery in verse 3 suggests Mount Sinai. In better times God had shown himself uniquely among the gods as one who cares enough to help those who wait for him. Notice how Isaiah does not accuse God of acting unjustly or capriciously: he acknowledges the fault is all on the peoples' side. They have turned away from God; indeed, they have given up on God (verse 7). It all sounds pretty desperate. Yet the fact that he is crying out to God shows that he has not given up hope; and that hope is ultimately based on their relationship with God. He is their Father (verse 8), and they are his people (verse 9).
Taking It Personally.
· Reflect on this passage as a format of prayer. Notice the key characteristics. Authenticity, for one: this is real stuff! How does your own prayer life match up to this?
· Have you had times when you felt that God was just not interested in you, not listening to you, or even absent from you? Did you call out all the more (Bartimaeus comes to mind), or did you give up on prayer? What got you started again?
· Ponder the phrase "those who wait for him [God]". Do you wait for God, or are you more inclined to expect instant answers?
· Do you call on his name and strive to lay hold of him (verse 7)? Ponder this verse and reflect on your own prayer in the light of it.
· This week address your prayer to "Father" [or better still, "Abba"] and add, "I come to you as one of your own children". Then pray within that relationship.
Corinthians. A classic prayer of thanksgiving from St Paul. As you read it, remind yourself that this is addressed to one of the most dysfunctional churches in Paul's collection! [Look what he says next in verses 10-17.] Yet, despite all their only-too-human failings, Paul is able to assure them that, through God's grace in Jesus Christ, they "have been enriched in every way", and that they "do not lack any spiritual gift". They are still awaiting Christ's imminent return; but God has already called them into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ.
Taking It Personally.
· This is one of those wonderful passages that need to be taken twice a day for at least a week – sentence by sentence. Read it out loud, addressed to yourself. Start with verse 3. It is all too familiar as a quick phrase in our liturgy. Now take it in slowly: God and Christ are sending YOU grace and peace. How wonderful is that!
· Now take in verse 5. You "have been enriched in every way", even though you may not know it, so that you do not lack for spiritual gifts. Ask God to lead you into the truth of that – to show you the gifts he has already given you.
· How important is Christ's return to you? Are you eagerly awaiting it, dreading it, or not really interested or convinced that it will never happen
· What does it mean to you to be called by God "into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ"?
· Finish with prayers of thanksgiving.
Mark. The first point to note is the change in time-span as we compare this passage with our second lesson. The Corinthians were still [c.48-50 A.D.] eagerly awaiting Christ's imminent return: by the time Mark's gospel is being written [c.65-70 A.D.] the focus is on the Son of Man coming in glory at the end of the age. There is considerable support among scholars for the idea that what Mark has in mind is the destruction of Jerusalem, including the Temple, which took place in 70 A.D. If the gospel was written shortly before that, then the author has read the signs of the times and seen the inevitability of a rebellion resulting in a Roman onslaught. If it was written after the event (as some scholars believe), then the author was writing with the benefit of hindsight. There are two key points for us to note. First, verse 32 should be memorise and recalled every time some self-styled prophet tells us that he (and come to think of it, it always is a man!) has cracked the code and knows when the end will come. Secondly, Jesus' teaching in this passage is about how we are to live our lives in the meantime. We are to live our lives awake! Alert to see God coming to us in every moment. At the very least, we are to accept our own physical mortality and be constantly prepared for it.
Taking It Personally.
· This passage is essentially about living with uncertainty at a very basic level. It could all end tomorrow – for you, for your city, or for everything. Reflect on the uncertainty of life. What lessons might there be for your life of faith?
· Are you inclined to procrastinate – to tell yourself there's plenty of time for that later on? What does this passage say to that attitude?
· Is there something specific that you having been putting off doing – visiting a friend, seeking reconciliation with someone, committing more time to prayer? Perhaps this passage is God's way of prompting you into action?
· This week practise being watchful and alert to see any sign of God's presence in your presence. Make a note of it, and give thanks for it. Pray a prayer of welcome whenever you feel God has come to you. After all, this is the Season of Advent!