Sunday, 30 November 2014

Advent Sunday: At the very gates

 Isaiah 64.1-9, 1 Cor 1.3-9, Mark13.24-37

I overheard a small child talking to her mother outside a shop last week. It must have been a hard day because mum sounded quite frazzled even before this exchange took place, but the little girl had seen the Christmas decorations on sale in the shop, and she was full of excitement. “Mum, can we put up our Christmas tree when we get home…” The thought of whatever that might involve was too much for her mum. She thought for a moment, and then, as if she was reading from some book of unbreakable laws, she announced . “No – I’m sorry - you can’t put Christmas trees up until it’s December…”  Well, I suppose  at least she bought herself a few days’ grace …

It was a fascinating little exchange because it illustrated what I think really was the perception of both mother and daughter. December was the month for putting up the Christmas decorations. The celebrations kicked off on December 1, and continued – probably quite frantically – until Boxing Day, at which point everyone collapsed in a heap of tinsel and leftover turkey to recover. At this point , though, that mum had it all ahead of her, and she wasn’t looking forward to it one bit.

Of course, here in Church things are rather different. As everyone else is putting up decorations we are taking them down, stripping the church of flowers, dressing it in sombre purples. And the readings we’ve heard today – well, they’re not exactly Christmassy either. There are no chestnuts roasting on an open fire, or reindeer with shiny noses. It all seems to be suffering and calamity. “In those days,” says Jesus ” the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the heaven and the powers of the heavens will be shaking…” Well, Season’s Greetings to you too, Jesus…!

It can be quite difficult explaining to people why the Church is so much at odds with the rest of the world during Advent, with readings full of doom and gloom and calls to repentance.   Are we just a bunch of kill-joys who are never happy unless we are miserable? That can certainly be the case, but it’s not really what is going on when we stubbornly cling to the penitential, reflective nature of these weeks leading up to Christmas.

The fact is that we need to start here, like this, with penitence, with sorrow, with longing, because Christian faith is about reality – my real life, your real life, the real lives of those around us, and real life is not all a bed of roses, or of tinsel either.

Earlier this week I heard an interview with someone who was talking about the introduction of the new Universal Credit system for paying benefits, which is proving very tricky to set up. The interviewee, who’d been brought in to try to sort things out, said that part of the problem was that the bodies responsible for it suffered from what he called “a culture of good news”. That sounded odd. I wondered if I had heard right, but that was what he’d said – a culture of good news. What he meant was that everyone was determined to say how wonderful everything was and how well everything was going, even when it wasn’t. The “good news” was really a lie, of course – the news wasn’t good at all - but it made people feel better in the short term to pretend it was. Perhaps it was a kindly instinct, wanting to sound encouraging. Perhaps it was just defensiveness, wanting to ward off criticism. But the relentless positivity meant that no one could ever admit that anything needed to change or improve, and so nothing did.

We all do this sometimes. I don’t think it is just pride – wanting to look good in the eyes of others. I don’t think it is just laziness either – not wanting to pull our fingers out and make the effort to change. I think it runs deeper than that.

It seems to me that we often take refuge in this false “culture of good news”, because we don’t believe that anything can really be done about the things that are wrong in our lives or in our world. The “culture of good news” masks a culture of despair. What’s the point of admitting things need to change if we can’t change them? So let’s pretend that everything is fine, talk ourselves up, talk each other up, even if there is no foundation for that, even it if means we come crashing down all the harder in the end.

So when the Bible goes all apocalyptic on us, proclaiming that the end of the world is nigh, it’s no wonder we’d rather skate quickly over it. The end of the world is about as bad as it gets, after all, and it certainly beyond any of our powers to sort out. We certainly don’t want to dwell on it with Christmas just around the corner. Let’s hurry on quickly to the baby in the manger, and the angels singing, and all that nice, cosy, tinselly stuff that makes us feel good. There’s a danger, though, that when we do that, we are simply buying into our own version of  that false “culture of good news” and that leaves us not just with a theological problem but with a personal one to, because Christian faith, as I said, is about reality, real lives, yours and mine.

It’s ironic, because the message of the Gospels is all about Good News  – that’s what the word “Gospel” means – but it’s genuine good news we are being offered, not something that’s just designed to shield us from the truth.

To understand the difference, to find Good News that is real, we need to spend time with these uncomfortable readings that say things which we’d rather not hear.
Most of us probably don’t take these apocalyptic words of Jesus literally, but you don’t have to take them literally to appreciate their power.
Jesus can see that disaster is looming. The Romans occupied the land and Israel was always on the brink of catastrophe. It eventually came in AD70, when the Romans lost patience and destroyed Jerusalem, sending its people into an exile which really only ended in the 20th Century.

Whether we take Jesus’ words about the sun and moon and stars failing as literal predictions or not, we can see that those who went through the events which were just around the corner would have felt as if this is what was happening. It wasn’t just a political event for them, but a cosmic one. It affected their whole world and that’s something we can all identify with at some level. Things happen that might as well be the end of the world for us, too, things that change our lives irrevocably. It feels as if the sun has gone out. It might be the diagnosis of serious illness, the end of a relationship or the loss of a job or home. It might be war, which destroys communities for ever, or epidemic diseases like Ebola or Aids, which take away lives and futures. It is International Aids day tomorrow, and a good time to remember that for many, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, this is still a massive scourge, which has wrecked families, wiping out whole generations and leaving children orphaned. Calamity can be just around the corner, and we have no idea it’s coming. And when it does come it can so easily feel as if there is no future left to look forward to.

But the Gospel says that the disaster is not the end of the story. It is the beginning. “When you see these things,” says Jesus, these disastrous things, “ you know that he is near” - the Son of Man, the one who represents God.  The time when things are at their bleakest, when we are faced by tragedy that seems cosmic in scale, as if the stars are falling, is the moment , he says, when God is “at the very gates” , the gates of our lives, the gates of our hearts. This is the moment, if we are prepared to acknowledge our need, if we are prepared to let him, that God can come into our lives anew, and who knows what can happen then?

That’s why Advent matters. These few weeks help us to own up to the fact that actually, we can’t do it; we can’t sort ourselves out, we can’t prevent bad things happening, we can’t, however superhuman our efforts, sort out all the pain of the world. It is the time when we allow ourselves to drop that false “culture of good news” for the truth that leads us to the real Good News, the news that we are eternally loved by the God who comes to us in Christ. When we do that, we find ourselves in a whole new world, with a whole new life ahead of us.
I’d like to finish with a poem by Jan Richardson, which really sums up this message far better than I can. It is called “Blessing when the World is Ending”.

Blessing When the World is Ending
Look, the world
is always ending

the sun has come
crashing down.

it has gone
completely dark.

it has ended
with the gun
the knife
the fist.

it has ended
with the slammed door
the shattered hope.

it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone
the television
the hospital room.

it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
your heart.

But, listen,
this blessing means
to be anything
but morose.
It has not come
to cause despair.

It is simply here
because there is nothing
a blessing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.

This blessing
will not fix you
will not mend you
will not give you
false comfort;
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.

It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
will come,
gathering itself
about you
as the world begins

– Jan Richardson

© Jan Richardson.

No comments:

Post a Comment