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Advent 1 December 3, 2017 - The Rev. Janet Campbell
ADVENT 1  Year B 
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7,16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, Washington
Sunday, December 3, 2017
The Rev. Janet Campbell
Today, the first Sunday of Advent,
we begin a new church year
and a new re-telling of the story of Christ
          and its meaning for us . . .
          as written down by Mark,
                   the earliest gospel writer.
We think of Advent
          as our season of preparation,
but unlike the secular world,
we are preparing for something more
          than just Christmas . . .
preparing for something
          that only began with Christmas,
when God entered the world
          at a moment in time
          in the birth of Jesus.

We begin our reading of Mark’s gospel,
          near its end . . .
for this first Sunday of Advent
directs our attention to the end . . .
. . . the end of all time,
the second coming of Christ
to “gather his elect from the four winds,
from the ends of the earth to
          the ends of heaven.”
Who could imagine what that would be like?
Who could tell it in words?
Mark uses imagery familiar
to his community of Christ followers
          from the prophetic books
                   of the Hebrew scriptures,
descriptions of the awe-some, dread-full,
          “Day of the Lord,”
          the final triumph of God’s Messiah,
                   come to redeem Israel.
A cosmic cataclysm,
the meltdown of the world:
sun and moon extinguished,
stars falling from the sky,
even the celestial powers
          weak with fear.

Early followers
of the crucified and risen Jesus,
including Mark’s small community,
expected Jesus’ promised return
          at any moment . . .
Theirs was a time of suffering,
wars and rumors of war:
the Jewish revolt against the Roman occupation,
and Rome’s brutal response . . .
          the destruction of the Jerusalem temple
                   and much of the city,
and increased persecution
          of Jews and Jewish Christians alike
                   throughout the Roman empire.
Mark wants to reassure his community
          that after the suffering,
“the Son of Man will indeed come,
riding on the wind,
appearing through the clouds,
          in great power and glory.”
For such suffering
must surely indicate
the end of all times.
We would not be here,
I suppose,
if it did . . .

But wars, famine, persecution,
fires, earthquakes . . .
and the desire for God
          to come to the rescue . . .
were not unique to Jesus’ time –
          or Mark’s,
are not unique to any particular time,
including our own.
Suffering is a given of living . . .
and much of it inflicted
by ourselves, the human race,
          on ourselves:
wars and rumors of war;
the brutality of economic inequities;
racial, religious, cultural animosity
          and persecution;
global warming, rising oceans,
          displaced peoples and endangered species . . .
These, too, are not signs
of the end-time,
but signs of our own times,
of our own particular collective sins and suffering  –
although it is surely safe to say
(irony intended)
that we are the greatest danger
          we have ever been
          to ourselves and the creation . . .

Has God had enough,
gone into hiding?
Our fear is the same as the prophet Isaiah’s,
our lament the same
as his plea to God
          some 2,500 years ago:
“O that you would tear open the heavens
and come down”
and help us, relieve us, save us from ourselves.
Where, cries Isaiah,
is the warrior God
whose awesome power
rescued us
from captivity in Egypt,
laid waste to Pharaoh’s army,
and brought us into a rich and fertile land
all our own?
Where is the God
who organized
our return from exile
in Babylon?
There’s even a hint
that in Isaiah’s mind,
Israel’s current lapse in faith 
          may actually be God’s fault:
“because you hid yourself,
          we transgressed . . .
you have hidden your face from us
and have delivered us
          into the hand of our iniquity . . .”
“Come on, God,” he scolds,
“you are our father,
you are the
potter whose hands
can yet shape and form
          the clay of our community
          into a vessel
                   worthy of yourself.”
“Do not be angry, O lord, 
consider, we are all your people.”
“Help us out here.”
The question for God’s people
has always been . . .
how do we live
          in the mess we have created . . .
and does God care?

Paul’s First Letter to the church in Corinth
is much concerned with
that question.
In the beginning of the letter,
which we heard today,
Paul gives thanks for the grace
given the Corinthians in Christ.
God has enriched them
with speech and knowledge
of every kind.
God has given them every spiritual gift
with which to build up their community.
God is daily giving them the strength
to persevere to the end
as they await the promised return of Christ.
If we are familiar with this letter of Paul’s,
we know the Corinthians
have been abusing those gifts,
wasting the life and the gifts
God has entrusted to them in Jesus,
and Paul is getting ready
to take them to task for it!

Arguments, competition, quarrels:
          Fighting over whose spiritual gift is the best.
          Elevating themselves by putting others down.
          Fracturing their community.
          Perverting their witness.
In their boasting and divisions
they are behaving as the world does,
and not as a community set over against
the foolishness of the world
in order to reveal
          the wisdom of God in Christ.  
But Paul begins by
reminding them who it is
who has called them
into this fellowship –
the God who is generous and ever faithful.
He reminds them
of their unique identity
as the Body of Christ,
whose every member and spiritual gift
is of equal value and importance,
except for the gift of love,
          which is the greatest gift of all,
                   and is given to all.

They are to forget themselves
          and attend to one another,
live in harmony and peace
as fellow members
of the risen and living Christ,
cultivating humility and a spirit of service.
Just as individuals are not to be
pre-occupied with themselves,
the community is not to be
pre-occupied with itself.
Its vocation is to proclaim
and enact the gospel
          in a suffering world.
The grace God gives them
is an active force
that moves and empowers them,
sustains them and gives them hope.
In this way of life,
the risen Christ is daily found,
not coming down from above
          in power and great glory,
but emerging from within
          with compassion and mercy.

In Advent,
we wait to celebrate
God’s peculiar answer
to the sufferings of the world;
Jesus, born a vulnerable, helpless, powerless infant;
Jesus, grown into a man with the mission
to reveal the nearness of God’s Kingdom
with the same vulnerability, humility,
and, ultimately, on the cross,
the same powerlessness.
In Advent,
we wait for
Christ’s coming again,
with no idea
whether that might be tomorrow
or this century,
or ten thousand years from now.
In Advent,
we watch for
signs of God’s kingdom
in our suffering world today –
in our community,
in friend and stranger,
even as we ourselves
are called to be those signs.

It is like the parable
of the man who went on a journey.
His slaves didn’t have to know
          when he would be back;
in the meantime
they were to be faithful
to the work the master had given them to do,
and so to watch for his return.
The faithful prayers and practices
of God’s people in every age,
every culture and nation and religion,
are the channels
through which the Kingdom of God
is steadily permeating the world,
          even as we await its fulfillment.
The choices for Good of ordinary people
living commonplace lives
day in and day out –
choices for kindness, mercy, justice, peace –
are the channels
through which the kingdom of God
          is steadily permeating the world.

Above all, our choices for Love,
from which all the other choices spring.
When we keep alert
to the needs of others
                   near and far . . .
When we watch
for ways to ease their suffering . . .
When we pay attention
to how our actions
                   affect others for good or for ill . . .
When we stay awake
to look for Christ
in each and every moment,
we are bringing into being
the kingdom we await.
I wonder, when that kingdom comes,
if it will look at all
like the fearsome upheaval
of those Biblical descriptions.
Or will the God who sent a Baby
          to save the world
consume heaven and earth
not with destruction,
but with the blinding, cleansing,
healing radiance of divine love . . .

What if the coming of the kingdom
were like everyone gathered in a field
from near and far,
family, friend and stranger alike,
with picnic baskets and blankets
and lawn chairs and sleeping bags
to watch
the most spectacular and splendid
and beautiful and noisiest and
most overwhelming
fireworks ever . . .
sudden explosions of light in
combinations and colors
we’ve never seen before,
exotic flowers blooming
across the black night sky
and trailing to the ground in dying embers,
with bangs and crashes,
thumps and booms
shaking us to the very core . . .
and what if the final brilliant
burst of light never dies out,
and when the smoke dissipates,
we look around to see
          finally, with absolute clarity,
a world transformed and glorious, 

ourselves transformed,
          whole, healed, and at peace,
loving and being loved by
every person in that field,
every person we’ve ever known
          in our whole life,
and every person we’ve never known,
Then we would know that at last
all suffering is ended,
for after the long advent
of our faithful waiting and watching,
          Christ has come again
                   and the kingdom is fulfilled.
It might be like that . . . ?
To be caught sleeping,
is to be wasting the kingdom life,
the kingdom gifts,
          God is already giving us
                   in Christ.
So today,
let us heed
the Advent words of Jesus
to his disciples:
“. . . what I say to you
I say to all,
keep awake!”