12/03/17 – Exile & Insomnia: What a Way to Start Advent!

EXILE AND INSOMNIA: WHAT A WAY TO START ADVENT!

December 3, 2017
First Sunday of Advent
Isa. 64:1-9, Ps.80; 1 Cor.1:3-9, Mark 13:24
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

We begin our Scripture readings for the first Sunday of Advent with some very “un-Christmasy” themes – sin, death, and destruction. No sugarplums dancing in our heads, instead what we get is a prescription for insomnia – ‘Keep Awake – or else!’ Jesus warns.

Although we might be ready for Christmas joy and celebration, the teaching foundation and trajectory of our Church’s Christian calendar recognizes we need to be reminded why we need a savior in the first place. We start the Advent season with reminders from scripture.

Isaiah is the Old Testament book that Christians have historically looked at as pointing to Jesus as the promised Messiah. Jesus himself quoted from Isaiah more than any of the other prophetic writings. Biblical scholars have referred to Isaiah as “the Fifth Gospel.” Listen to the words of Isaiah in one of its early chapters as the prophet speaks to Israel’s corporate sin:

“Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, 2to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that

widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! 3What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far

away? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth, 4so as not to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain?” (Isaiah 10:1-4)

 

These words lead me to wonder: how we would fare against this accusation? At this time when our country’s governing body has passed a tax reform bill that gives billions away to the very richest people, while, among other programs for the vulnerable, cutting the Children’s Health Insurance Program which provides health care for over 9 million sick children. I worry. Jesus said: ‘As you do to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do to me.’ This past week clergy congregated in the main hallway of the Senate building reading over 2000 verses from the Bible about taking care of the poor and doing justice. Over 2000 verses! If that doesn’t tell you God is serious about it, nothing will convince you!

Israel’s kings and wealthy class had led the nation away from God. It had nothing to do with their prayers or worship or any outward displays of religiosity, but it had everything to do with how the nation’s kings and privileged classes treated the less privileged and less powerful people.

If you think the Old Testament is filled with God’s judgment and anger and the New Testament provides comfort and assurance, today’s gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent does not fit that assumption. In our readings from Matthew in the past month, Jesus fervently warned his disciples about God’s judgment and urged them not to become complacent. Today’s reading from Mark is no different. The scriptures for this first Sunday of Advent hit hard – and they hit home. God sent us a savior because we so desperately needed one.

Until the Middle Ages, Advent was a season of penitence. This is also when the purple paraments were first replaced in England with blue, symbolizing the joy and anticipation of the season. It is important to note that Advent is both a celebration of Christ’s first and second coming. I remember reading somewhere, I can’t remember the author, that “our entire lifespan occurs in a brief period of the cosmic Advent.”  That is to say, we live in the in-between time between the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God on earth and its fulfillment. As Christians, people in the world, but not “of the world,” we are always waiting for the Kingdom of God; but, when we are faithful and alert, we recognize the revelations of God’s kingdom breaking into our ordinary lives.

Conversely, when we are living as ‘people of the world’ we are also waiting – waiting for the next thing that will fill the empty place in our souls. We wait for the next thing to buy or achieve that will fill that emptiness. The problem, of course, is that as soon as we have what we think we must fill the emptiness within us, another empty spot begins to form and grow.

It’s hard to escape the culture, which our consumer, market-driven society creates this time of year. Yet, as the prophets, such as Isaiah, pointed out, it was when the people of Israel had lost their land and their worldly goods and status in their exile that they rediscovered the great truths of their faith. Our Old Testament reading from Isaiah spoke to a people who, in their quest to have it all, had lost everything – their homes, their land, their nation, their temple. The people of Israel had been broken down and scattered. In fact, one could say that the crisis of the whole Old Testament is exile.

After the story of creation, we have the story of the first exile from humanity’s first home – the Garden of Eden. Then the Jews who immigrated from their homeland to Egypt during a period of devastating drought and famine eventually became exiles when they were scapegoated by the Pharaoh and forced into slavery. Then, conquered by neighboring nations, the Jews were once again exiled in the land of their conquerors. The theme of exile in the Old Testament repeats and reminds us that our true home is with God. Separated from God by sin we become like exiles. N.T. Wright, a current New Testament scholar, asserts that Jesus’ whole ministry can be described in terms of exile and a new exodus. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the cross, which is the context for our gospel reading, was made to accomplish a new return from exile.

Isaiah tells us that the people of Israel had to be deconstructed to be reconstructed, not as a nation, but as the covenant people God meant them to be. They had to allow themselves to be like clay in the hands of the Master Potter. When a clay pot has a flaw, the potter breaks the pot back down to clay dust, adds water and brings it back to the form of malleable clay to start over. When God sent us our Savior Jesus Christ we were given a human image of the divine Word. We are to make ourselves malleable that we may be reformed in Christ’s image.

The parable of the fig tree is a reminder that our time of waiting is an essential part of the fulfillment of that waiting. We wait, not passively, but actively. We wait, not as we wait through the winter going through our normal routines, knowing that spring will eventually come. To employ another sign of the season, we wait as a hunter might wait on the first day of deer season. Prepared for action in a variety of situations and conditions, waiting patiently, but watchfully, for signs that God is present and working in the world. Jesus told his disciples that only those who were awake to the possibility, who were watching for signs, dared to believe the long-awaited promise had been fulfilled. God’s first coming was revealed in a poor Middle-Eastern Jewish child whose crib was a feeding trough. If we had been there, would we have noticed? Probably not, unless we were looking carefully and expectantly.

Our world looks bleak today. Wars, violence, global warming, and economic instability. We have refugees fleeing starvation, war, and genocide with no nation wanting to take them in. We have terrorists killing and tyrants arming. In our own community, we see jobs lost, life-threatening illnesses diagnosed, domestic abuse injuring, and addictions destroying. Yet, God is present, reaching for us in steadfast love, shining holy light on a path for us to follow. In Advent, we follow the path to Bethlehem, to our Savior.

Advent is not simply marking the calendar until Christmas Day. Advent is a time of reawakening and refocusing our sights on what God has done through Jesus that gives us not just direction for our lives, but a reason for our lives. None of the gifts we purchase and place under the Christmas tree will transform our lives and brighten our future. Only the gift God has already given us will make our joy complete. Let us keep awake, be on the lookout for the signs that God is with us and for us. If we do, we may become that sign for someone else. May God bless your Advent journey!

Amen.

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2017, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois