What a way to begin a new year with images of endings and destruction! This is not the way most of us celebrate the calendar new year. “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil ...” (Advent One. Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37.)
Most of us begin our new years by sleeping in after a party, resolving to eat healthier after we finish the last of the Christmas ham and pudding, being nicer to our loved ones, maybe mastering a new skill. We associate new beginnings with the desire for things to be better – physically, emotionally, socially, financially, even spiritually – and we may resolve to do our bit and try harder but few of us in the comfortable west actually want a new world order. We want things to get incrementally better but not radically so. And yet that is what we are being invited into in Advent. And this first set of readings suggests that it does not come easily. The existing world order needs to be torn, shaken, set on fire to make room for the new creation.
The prophet Isaiah, who we listen to during Advent, is telling a story of how God wanted (and still wants) to gather Israel back to his bosom, to deliver the chosen people from the righteous judgment coming their way and that this will only come about by shaking apart the old order and enabling the new creation to come forth. If we were to quickly flick through Isaiah in a bible with chapter headings we would see at a glance that there is a sense of promise and admonishment, of encouragement and challenge to hope and follow God into a new world order. In my old New Revised Standard Version of Isaiah the headings include: “The Good News of Deliverance” (chapter 61); then “God’s Mercy Remembered” (chapter 63); and then the portion we just heard is part of "A Prayer of Penitence”; and then on to chapter 65 and “The Glorious New Creation”. This tearing open of the heavens is not punishment or an end in itself it is creation, it is the travail of birth, it is the eruption of the kingdom in the midst of the current order of things. We are being shaken awake because there is good news even yet, even at this late hour there is hope of the promised kingdom.
And this is an important understanding to bring to our gospel reading. This is Mark’s account of Jesus’ last words or teachings to his disciples. The words at first hearing sound very ominous. But I think that when heard beside Isaiah they are words that are urgent but also intended to provoke life and new creation. For in the midst of the words about destruction is the assurance that those who are the servants of the Master, or the disciples, know how to observe the signs and know to keep awake and take good care of the house while the master is absent.
Too often these words are heard as exclusively relating to an external terrible reality and end of all planet scale time. And who can really blame us at the moment when the evening news and our social media feed delivers such harrowing images and statistics of destruction and despair. However that is too narrow and really not what the text is speaking about directly. Firstly there is the problem that Jesus said that his current generation would not all pass away before these things happened and yet the world did not end in the first century of the Common Era. Although of course Jerusalem was raised to the ground a few decades after the death of Jesus.
Maybe more importantly the Greek word for time here is not chronus, the word that means chronological or historical time, but rather kairos, or uncommon time, the right time or the opportune time, in which uncommon things can come together, to pass. Which suggests that these images belong more in the spiritual realm than in historical time which further suggests that these truths pertain to the inner world as much if not more than out there in the evening news.
Most of us are of an age when we know something about heavens being torn apart, the world shifting beneath our feet. Tragedy of many kinds can bring it – a life threatening diagnosis, the loss of a loved one through death or separation, the loss of a much valued role or job, the existential rupture when deeply held truths become stretched beyond breaking. Or even unexpected joy, excitement or wonderment can unseat us. So life in all its random events and consequences can leave us shaken to the core.
But Advent in not simply some spiritual accident that jolts us. It is the stirring and disturbing of us so that we awaken. And now awake we are to wait and prepare and make ourselves available for what is the new thing that God is wanting to do in the world. Advent is not simply psychological trauma and suffering, although suffering may bring us into this state of waiting. Advent requires that we participate in the disruption of our well ordered lives and allow a new order to be created, to allow that we are clay in the potter’s hands. Something bigger, better, more truly needed is waiting for us than the small safe wishes we have for ourselves and our world.
And so we wait. Not passively with our hands in our laps. We wait in an awakened active state for like the servants in the parable we know what is needed to maintain the masters house. We wait while in the midst of life, busy with the good works of life and the demands of life. This sort of waiting requires that we hold in one hand the responsibilities of living and loving in this world, and hold in the other hand an openness for radical change so that a new creation can come about. I often wish, probably as you do, that we could have a quieter more reflective Advent, but of course we are busier than ever at this time of year. And maybe that is how it always is – being busy with the works of this day while waiting for, being awake and alert to the signs of the new day coming, the emerging of the new creation.
So in the moments you do have note the places where the branch is tender and the buds of new growth in your own souls, in your loved ones – especially the ones you fear for and worry over, the notes of hope in our community and world. Be patient, be tender, and be attentive to what is coming, to what is trying to be born. Pray often – not telling God what to do for we are in danger of asking for too little, too late – ask only to be awake and open to the gift. When we allow ourselves to be awake: listening, watching, waiting for the new creations, when we are attentive the small and not so small signs all around us - even with all our limitations of hope and imagination - we begin to see the possibility of what could be.
My journey to priesthood began with a most unsettling mystical experience that I needed to grapple with for some 15 months before I could see what it meant and assent to it. And then the real work began of course. But I remember that first of all I had to decide if I was going to take the experience seriously or just dismiss it as an interesting moment and put it in a separate compartment and keep it safe. During all the time I pursued this line of enquiry I was busy with the demands of work, my young family, and my church community. On the outside life as usual, on the inside everything up for grabs, for change. During this time I found a prayer in the Australian Anglican Prayer Book, page 110, that gave me courage and encouragement, that kept me awake even while busy with life as usual.
“Christ, whose insistent call disturbs our settled lives: give us discernment to hear your word
grace to relinquish our tasks, and courage to follow empty handed wherever you may lead,
so that the voice of your gospel may reach to the ends of the earth. Amen.”
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come shake us awake so that we might be ready for your kingdom.