Sermon – 01/12/2019 Hope
Mark 13:24-27, 32-37, Matt 24:36-44, Luke 21:25-28, 34- 36 and Mysteries by Mary Oliver
When I teach at Uni, I always tell a little about myself in the first tutorial. To keep it light it’s a quiz and the kids have to determine which of these things about me never happened.
Here is the list I use..
Which of these moments of glory never happened?
- Run over someone on a bike.
- Been caught up in a protest in Istanbul.
- Been lost in the West Bank of Israel for 5 hours.
- Had her entire wardrobe stolen from a washing line.
- Walked the Camino in Spain.
- Performed at the concert hall as a guest pianist.
As you might have guessed, most of the students, but not all, pick number 5. Yes, I have never performed at the concert hall, even as an usher!
But I dream of it. As I practise my piano playing, which I have been learning on and off since before I had the boys, I dream of becoming better.
In fact I practise in the hope that I might one day play really well, and even play at church, I know deep down in my heart I will not be a concert pianist. That is a bit of a pipe dream, a hope with little real substance. What is real is my attempts to master the simple pieces I have, the fun and enjoyment it brings and the relationship I have with my gorgeous slightly hippie teacher who I have known for a long time.
So there is hope, based in the here and now, concrete and earthy, like my piano playing, and there is pie in the sky hope.
This difference is the subject of today’s readings.
We come this week to the season of advent, traditionally seen as the time of waiting for Jesus. A time to prepare, a time to stay alert to the moving of the spirit.
Yet the early church did not understand it that way. They didn’t have any birth stories of Jesus to create any advent for. Christmas wasn’t celebrated until the 4thcentury. What the early church was preparing for was not Jesus’ birth but his return. They were hoping that Jesus would soon tear open the skies and come back down to earth on clouds of glory to gather up the elect, turn the tables on the existing social and political order and usher in a new age of God’s reign. But it didn’t happen that way, and still hasn’t and isn’t going to. Jesus is not hiding somewhere, ready to pounce.
So does that mean hope has gone for a better more just world? No it doesn’t. We put our faith and hope in God just as the ancient writers of the gospel did, just in a different way.
The reading today is filled with language and imagery that jars with the modern reader.
The passages from Matthew are based on similar passages in Luke and Mark’s gospel, which we heard, all written after the year 70. In that year, Jerusalem was recaptured by the Romans after a four-year Jewish revolt, and Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. For Jews, including those following Jesus – the loss of the temple and of Jerusalem felt like the end of everything.
The gospel writers’ in these passages have Jesus talk about false messiahs, wars and rumours of war, nation rising against nation, persecution, betrayal, and judgement, an even greater ending than the capture and destruction of Jerusalem, and finally what is now called ‘the second coming’ of Jesus when all will be made right.
This type of writing is termed apocalyptic and means an ‘unveiling’, or a ‘disclosure’. It is a style of literature where one or more visions are said to disclose or unveil the future. In apocalyptic literature, the time immediately before the coming of the new age is typically marked by intense suffering, and by natural and cosmic catastrophes and by warfare. There is then the appearance of a conquering hero, in early Christian apocalyptic texts, the Christ figure, who saves God’s people.
As David Clarke, a minister from NZ suggested,
“These biblical stories in both old and New Testaments are poetry, and have all the truth that comes not with alleged facts, but with the power of metaphor to touch people’s hearts and minds and souls. The biblical imagery is that what began in a garden will climax in a city; what began in the Garden of Eden will reach its fulfilment in the City of Jerusalem. They are hope-giving, vision-creating, and commitment-inducing poetry”
The problem is what to do with them in the 21stcentury. As Mary Oliver said in her poem, “Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers. Particularly people who use these texts to exclude and vilify others.
We need to read these texts with the understanding that has come from 2,000 of knowledge about the world and about who we are. They are time-specific. They reflect the writers’ expectation that Christ will return in their lifetime. They express encouragement to the fledgling Christian church in times of persecutions and fear, and maybe a bit of judgement for good measure, reflecting their Jewish heritage. And they are a call to remain faithful to the God whose purposes are love and who is revealed in Jesus. Poetry but not history, displaying a deep yearning in the people of Israel for something better.
So let’s leave these stories where they belong, in the 1stcentury and move to our story, one that has expanded to include all creation and the cosmos.
Who is God for us, today? Who is Jesus? And where lies our hope?
Relevant questions when there is so much pain and suffering in the world, and lack of love and justice. We are often led to believe that it is a hopeless situation, and that change is impossible.
Let me read something from Kari Jo Verhulst, who is a writer for the Sojourners magazine.
“I sometimes wake at 3am with a start, jolted by the certainty that we had made God up. Given the dispassionate nature of the world, and the banality of our cruelty and self-absorption, the idea of a loving, present God seemed overwhelmingly absurd, a feeling as sad as it was terrifying. Thus it has been a great and humbling relief to discover that I exist in the company of millennia of God lovers who also awaken to this dreadful sense of improbability. Those wiser than I, rabbis and poet, theologians and preachers, locate these midnight churnings squarely within the life of faith. I heard one say that if you are not convinced you are making it up at least a third of the time, you are spiritually dead. So, I now say to myself on nights like these, `this is what it is to be alive”.
Yes, I often experience that feeling, but then, just as mysteriously it disappears. My trust in something more universal and sacred returns.
For I, and many others, truly believe that God is not found somewhere else, remote from us, but is with us at all times and in all ways, a divine presence at the heart of life. A presence that drives us to be better than we are, more loving, more compassionate and more forgiving, even if sometimes we can’t name it. This God is the God of the evolutionary process, the God of the universe and stars. This God is not hiding somewhere waiting for things to get so bad before appearing.
Instead this God is calling for a new heaven and a new earth, if you like a New Jerusalem, a new kingdom of peace and love where no one shall go without and, everyone shall be included. The whole earth is full of God’s glory, not just a chosen group and the whole earth is our responsibility.
And what about Jesus? Who is Jesus for us at the start of Advent 2019?
We wait not for a supernatural saviour to rescue us, but a saviour called Jesus of Nazareth whose life was spent among the people and who showed us the way. In him the God of the universe is revealed and in him the hope of the world is found.
Jesus represents a watershed moment in time, but the process goes on. He points the way. God is still here working within all of creation and in you and me and in all people everywhere. We heard it passionately preached abut last week by Russ and Kerry.
As a young blog writer posted, which shows that I am not too old to read blogs,
“The Christian narrative of a heavenly home and eternal judgement is bankrupt. The better Christian narrative is the one that seems like it could never work.
“It’s the one that tells us that finding ourselves in corridors of power is the surest sign that we have taken a wrong turn.
It’s the one that tells us that if we will give up our lives we will find them in ways beyond our imagining.
It’s the one that tells us that not only our own souls but the whole creation itself discovers the flourishing for which it was created when we take our eyes off of our self-protection, self-righteousness, and self-rightness.
Life comes when we look to our friend and lay down our life on her behalf.
Life comes when we look to our neighbor and love him as we love ourselves.
Life comes when we take a good long look at what we want, more than anything, and give that as the gift–what we would want done for us.
I still believe. I still believe the story that tells me there is a God who honors this way of life which is, in its own way, the way of death. I believe that God honors it with life for the world. I believe that in its myriad micro-culminations it creates a more beautiful world than what we would create on our own.”
Our hope then is found in men and women who speak and act in love. Who work for justice and peace. Who are compassionate and forgiving and kind. Our hope lies in people touching and connecting to God’s spirit in ways that make a difference, both to themselves and to others. Who follow the human Jesus’s and his teachings.
Our hope lies in the transformation possible in the everyday moments of life by ordinary people. Moments that reveal God as ever present.
So while we share with our ancient biblical writers the constancy of God we believe the kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem Jesus spoke about has to happen here and now and with us. Our hope is grounded in this time, not some other time. Our hope is about commitment not wishful thinking or false promises.
We can find signs of this hope everyday if we look, in people transforming the way they live, transforming the way they love.
I had a whole pile of papers full of darkness but also full of light and hope from the last few weeks that culminated in the Kindness Factory we talked about earlier. Baby steps that can lead to transformation.
But I have also seen it in our own community, in the last few days and weeks, where good people support and love others. And commit to that love and support for the long term.
As David Clark says,
“We can sing the songs of Advent – the songs of yearning, the songs of hope, the songs of change and renewal and intervention – because they represent so much that is deep-rooted in the hearts and souls of so many women and men of all cultures and all faiths (and of none), including our own. But when we look for intervention, when we look for what makes the ultimate difference, we need not look to the skies but to ourselves, and to women and men like us, from all cultures and from all faiths (and none). Partners all, with the divine and with one another, in saving the world from itself.”
So in the end, we are to hope, and act on that hope every single day. With the constant assurance that the mystery we call God is by our side.
What else are we to do as faithful followers of Jesus.