Sunday, November 29, 2020

Advent I

 Mark 13

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert[c]! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans…

2020 has been remarkable for a number of reasons, with one of the primary reasons filed under “a change of plans.”  If we start with churchworld, you need look no further than the service we’re sharing at this moment.  Moving online for much of the year has forced us to find creative ways to celebrate God’s presence without the direct presence of one another.

Likewise, the rhythm of regular plans, from travel to time spent with others was disrupted.  The people and places we planned to see, around the corner or around the world, were set aside in the hope that next year will be better.  And there were larger life changes, retirements delayed or moves postponed, projects shelved or plans curtained.  COVID-19 left few stones unturned, and the turning continues.

Having reminded you of all this dislocation and loss, I should point to a couple of positives.  People have been more intentional about making the most of the times they did see others.  We learned to treasure what we may have formerly taken for granted.  Also, there was a lot of reassessing going on, people asking “why did we always do it that way?”  The pandemic gave us the opportunity to step away from old habits and patterns.  And then there is the need to be creative.  Finding new ways to meet, create, and manage—in all sorts of situations—has forced us to be creative.  

For the grammatically inclined, you will see that much of what I have said so far lives between past and present tense.  Changes have happened and changes continue, and we think we see the shape of the future—even as it remains uncertain.  This past and present tension is not new, and it finds an important parallel to today’s lesson.  The season of Advent, more than the others, lives in the past and in the not yet.  We are looking backward and forward all at once.

And our reading, the “little apocalypse” from Mark 13, illustrates this point.  Christ has come, and Christ will come again.  Advent looks forward to the birth of our Saviour, but Advent also reminds us that Christ will return in glory.  The form of this return is the subject of our reading, but the details are less important than the lesson to prepare.  More on that in a moment.  

If we had to create a summary, we might say that we are somewhere between First Advent and Second Advent.*  We know that Christ was born in Bethlehem, but we’re not planning a birthday party.  Advent rules are that we play it straight, preparing for the birth of Jesus like it has yet to happen.  We are called to prepare in our hearts some room for the incarnation of God.  First Advent is angels choirs, shepherd voices, and a poor couple looking for room at the inn.  

Second Advent takes the real-time preparation we are engaged in and says “now plan for him to come again.”  Take everything you know about his life, his message, his decision to reunite us with the Most High, and apply that to your season of preparation.  Take everything you know about love and mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation, and make that part of your Advent plan.  He will come again, either all at once or in eternity, so prepare.

There are a lot of things going on in our passage: quotes and references, predictions, and a sense of urgency.  One thing that is missing is certainty, the day and the hour unknown—even the angels don’t know!   Spare a thought for the angels, always visually appealing, always heralding something important, but on the matter of the Second Advent, completely in the dark.  So if the son doesn’t know, and the angels don’t know, who can fault us for making plans yet never knowing the hour or the day.  Hence the need to keep watch.

I’m going to take a big step back for a moment and talk about crisis and opportunity.  It is one of the primary tensions in this and every time.  Calamity comes, and some cannot see beyond the events themselves.  For them, a crisis is a crisis.  For others, every crisis is some sort of opportunity, if you can only see it.  Some are adept at making the most of a situation, and others see real opportunity.  

Having said all that, consider the reverse as well.  In every opportunity lies a potential crisis, things we may not see until we’re in the thick of it.  For Advent, consider that the birth of Jesus was always going to be a crisis for someone.  The man in Rome who enjoyed the title “Son of God” is one example.  Anyone who enjoyed the status quo is another example, anyone who wanted God to remain distant from us, or unattainable.  Anyone who seeks to control others by making God vengeful or unyielding will find a crisis in the incarnation, God’s desire to be with us in a new way.

There’s an old Yiddish adage that says, “Man plans, and God laughs” (Mann tracht, un Gott lacht).  It’s a wonderful expression that we take to mean that God is busy undoing our plans, or making other plans for us.  Instead, I think it fits in the existential file, meaning God finding humour in our earnest desire to control outcomes, organize everything, and set the plan we want.  But life doesn’t work that way, doesn’t conform to our agenda, as well-meaning as it may be.  

Rather, God is busy creating opportunities for some and crises for others.  God gives us ample opportunities to love and serve others, as an example.  Meanwhile, God finds humour in those who seek to control the world around them, or those who imagine they are completely self-made.  The future God is designing for us, in whatever form it comes, will be a future based on new beginnings, and a new way of being.  It will take all that we know and join it to all that we long for, the Advent of hope, peace, joy and love.  Amen.  

*Beverly Gaventa


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