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3rd December 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
1 December 2017

Readings

Isaiah 64: 1-9

This section of Isaiah comes from a very judgmental section which Maurice Andrew says is not typical of the whole Old Testament or even Isaiah.[1]  The idea that the people are being judged is an explanation for the misfortune they are suffering.  People in the United States expressed similar thoughts after the bombing of the twin towers.  However most of them blamed homosexuals and abortion in the United States rather that their nation’s neo-colonial policies and the corporate exploitation of vulnerable populations.

Andrew suggests that verses 8-12 express concern that, even when God’s own temple is destroyed, God did not intervene.[2]

That expectation existed in the first century Jewish war.  People sought sanctuary in the Temple, thereby seeking God’s protection, but the Romans built a big ramp up to the temple wall, slaughtered the occupants looted the valuables and set fire to everything that burned.

Mark 13: 24-37

We now begin the lectionary year of Mark, not at the beginning as we might expect but with the prediction of the destruction of the temple in AD70.  That event is used to date the Gospels on the basis that it is always easier to predict an event after it has happened.  What Mark and those who follow do with the reality of the destruction is find significance in the event through Jesus.  The old order has passed away and humankind has a new relationship with God through Jesus Christ

Morna Hooker says that this passage is an assurance for Mark’s readers that whatever sufferings they endure their faithfulness to Jesus will be rewarded.[3]

Bill Loader suggests that in Mark’s day ‘to watch’ was understood as living the life of a disciple with an eye to what is happening in the world.  There would have also been a strong expectation that history was approaching its climax but unfortunately that expectation has over time become a withdrawal from the events of the world so that not much watching really happens except watching one’s private footsteps and moral goodness. [4]

Sermon

There is little doubt that the world can be a terrifying and frustrating place.  I was brought up to believe that after two world wars a great evil had been defeated and humanity was on the way to a bright new future.  In our family war was never glorified and my conscientious objector uncle was held up as an example of someone prepared to put principles before popularity.  When he became my guardian I got to witness his passion for justice and concern for ordinary working people.  However I could not avoid the post war hype and imperial jingoism so I learned that the sun never sets on the British Empire, Britannia ruled the waves and a scout’s honour was to be trusted.  

I was assured that as long as I worked hard and passed all my exams I would have a great life.  I was also told that if I never learned to spell my life would be a total failure.  But I still can’t understand how my bad spelling could have affected my parent’s health, the changes in technology that put pressure on my business, or caused the Christchurch earthquakes.  Like my father I worked hard and made a modest income.  I also honoured the command that a scout’s honour was to be trusted but observed that directors of finance companies had a different code.

I had been assured that things follow neat lines of logic but learned the world is filled with random events both good and bad.  Mathematicians have made sense of the randomness with the chaos theory so we now that ‘a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a hurricane in Texas’.[5]  The world is not ordered but chaotic and even if mathematicians can find patterns in random events ordinary people don’t like our unpredictable and sometimes frightening world. 

In a desire to simplify their world people create a god in their own image and then build an expectation that such a god will come and sort it all out. 

Reading Isaiah’s poem it is easy to understand people, whose image of God is grounded on the Exodus, fail to understand why God is not visible in the way the divinity is experienced in their founding myths.  None of the people in Isaiah’s time experienced talking with God at a burning bush or even up a mountain.  

In a time of threat from a powerful empire, forced exile and enslavement, the first born of the Babylonians were not struck down.  Even though Isaiah writes about the highway in the desert for the returning exiles there is no mention of a pillar of cloud by day or a pillar of fire by night. 

It is no wonder therefore that we read:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so the mountains would quake at your presence. (Isaiah 64: 1)     

Here in Christchurch we are not all that keen on the mountains quaking at the divine presence.  I would imagine they are not that keen on that in Bali at the monument either. 

Furthermore the tension between the USA and North Korea has reached the point where an unsuspecting butterfly could start a nuclear war.  In that case most of us would be very happy if a divine hand reached out of the sky and snuffed out any destructive missiles.

We all like butterflies but we are not keen on tornados, hurricanes or other extreme natural events. We also find global warming terrifying yet the international community seems reluctant to do anything about it.

We are also perplexed that after our parents and grandparents went through two world wars to end all wars there are more wars going on than ever before.

We might not use Isaiah’s words but many of us regularly cry out to God, ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down’.  With so much that seems wrong with our world we wonder why God doesn’t do something about it. 

I can’t remember where I read that question recently, but the suggested answer was that God has done something about the evil and disasters in the world by creating us.

That is not what we want to hear.  So if God is not going to tear open the heavens and come down, we would at least like a superhero.  Someone like superman who, with x-ray and telescopic vision, can deliver an evil doer straight to jail without the expense of a trial and countless costly appeals.  Or perhaps we could elect a high-profile property millionaire as the leader of the free world.

It is a timeless hope and our reading from Mark also builds the traditional image of the divine saviour and apocalyptic divine judgment.

The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.’ (Mark 13:24-26) 

Then the passage concludes with Mark’s Jesus urging the reader to keep awake, to watch, because no one knows when this will happen.  Bill Loader suggests that in Mark’s day ‘to watch’ was understood as living the life of a disciple with an eye to what is happening in the world. 

That backs up the idea that ordinary people are God’s plan for transforming this world.  But we must also recognise that by the time Mark wrote his Gospel the temple had been destroyed and many people would have experienced the horror similar to Mark’s brief apocalyptic passage.  It can therefore be fairly argued that some of the people who had experienced the destruction of all that represented their culture found new hope in the teaching of Jesus. 

The church began with people who saw themselves as Jesus’ disciples and lived the life that was modelled by Jesus.  In so doing they were transforming their world into God’s realm.   

Some two thousand years later in a time when it was becoming obvious that two world wars did not end all wars and acid rain and nuclear weapons were frightening realities Nobel Prise winning poet Bob Dylan wrote a song with an apocalyptic feel to it.

In ‘A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall’ the last verse echoes the idea that we are God’s plan for a better world and begins with a challenge.

And what'll you do now, my blue-eyed son?

And what'll you do now my darling young one?

The verse continues the symbolic language and then concludes with the words:

And I'll tell and speak it and think it and breathe it

And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it

And I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin'

But I'll know my song well before I start singing

And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard. 

It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall

The Jesus of our passage from Mark’s gospel says something very similar, ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’ (Mark 13:31) 

The reason Jesus’ words will not pass away is because the followers of Jesus pass his words from generation to generation.  It certainly helps that the gospel writers wrote those words down, filled them out into stories and recorded what people remembered about Jesus.  But as Dylan’s poetry instructs us we the followers of Jesus must tell and speak it and think it and breathe it and reflect from the mountain, so all souls can see it.  But above all we must know our song well before we start singing.   

Furthermore, the Gospels instruct us to learn our Christ song by living it.  We sing the Christ song by being Christ to others and meeting Christ in others.  Yes it is a hard, hard song but the rain that falls is not the acid rain that poisons the earth, it is the gentle sprinkle of a baby’s baptism, the warm spring rain that brings new life to parched soil.

There is plenty that happens in our world that prompts us to ask why God does not tear open the heavens and come down, destroy what is evil and restore and exonerate what is good.

But our Advent journey, like all gospel journeys, is about learning our song, about rediscovering that God acts in the world though God’s people. 

We begin that journey today by reflecting on the historic and timeless expectations of a super saviour, a messiah or Christ.  Someone or something that arrives with both terrible consequences and divine glory.  We then work through the four Sundays of Advent learning and relearning who was this Jesus we now worship as Christ. Then on Christmas day we recognise that the Christ who gives us our image of God was born like one of us.

God’s plan for a better world was born into our world and continues to be born into our world.  The birth of Christ informs us that God is with us, in us and around us.  That is our song we must learn well and keep singing.  It is the song that has, and will bring, the divine realm near.  It is far more terrifying than God tearing open the heavens and coming down, as the mountains quake at the divine presence.  It is frightening because, as our own poet Colin Gibson wrote, for the love, faith, hope and peace to go on, we must make it our song and you and I be the singers.

God’s plan for transforming our world is us, people who are born as Christ was born and who live as Christ to others.



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999) p.443

[2] ibid.

[3] Morna D Hooker The Gospel According To Mark (London: A&C Black1991), pp.318,319.

 

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