Advent Sunday 27 November 2011
Readings Isaiah 64: 1-9; 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9; Mark 13: 24-37
This time last week, the final Sunday of the church year, I gather my wife spoke to you about ‘endings’. I think she suggested that the seven days of this last week could be used as a hinge between the old and the new; a chance to lay down some burdens, make amends and heal rifts, so that today, Advent Sunday, can represent a new start.
I’m not going to ask you if you took her advice. If I did, you might ask me if I ever took it! But, as she implied, those of us who follow the rhythm of the church’s year are offered an astute gift.
For instance, festivals of great joy don’t just happen; they’re preceded by periods of preparation, precisely so that we may enjoy them to the full. Days of pain and loss are marked by naming the reality of what happened, not avoiding it. And after the breathless chase from Advent to Trinity, we’re offered a long spell of ordinary time in which to nourish our faith. Take this pattern into our lives and we should be healthier. Ignore it and we only have ourselves to blame if we feel unsettled.
And so we start with Advent - a time of waiting, a time of anticipation, above all a time of attentiveness. Advent gives us a space in which to look, to look for God, in anticipation of his arrival with us on earth. But we’re often not very skilled at looking for the divine. Take this story from the Benedictine tradition, quoted by Joan Chittester:
A monk comes to his abbot, seeking enlightenment. He questions the abbot eagerly and impatiently, firing questions at him. But the abbot says, “Just look.” The monk is very disappointed. “I’m always looking,” he says sulkily. “No, you’re not,” says the abbot. “In order to look at what is here, you have to be here, and you are mostly somewhere else.”
In the section from the end of Isaiah’s prophecy, which we read this morning, the people of Israel are searching for God. But they’re looking for God in the great interventions of their history - thunderstorms, earthquakes, bush fires. It’s only when they start looking at themselves that they begin to see that it’s the divine potter who’s come to help them work on their attitudes and behaviours.
So too, with the disciples: Immediately before today’s gospel, Jesus warns them that they are prey to false messiahs, people who come promising the earth but delivering only misery. Be alert, says Jesus. Keep awake.
Those injunctions are particularly pertinent, not just today, but today this year. For a greedy world has followed the messiah of financial credit and cheap money. It has found that this god is not only false, but is also extracting a terrible revenge. Even if this community did not succumb to its temptations, you have to live with the consequences, for the world does not stop at your front door.
So where do we look for God this Advent; and how do we know when we’ve found God and not someone masquerading as God? Let’s try a second story, this one from the Hasidic tradition, to which we’ve looked before for wisdom.
A man was going from village to village, from rabbi to rabbi, asking the same question, "Where can I find God?" Some of the rabbis told him, "Pray, my son, and you'll find God." Some replied, "Study, my child, and you shall find God." And some rabbis said, "Forget your quest, my child. God is within you." The man took all this advice but was never satisfied.
One day, he arrived, weary and discouraged, at a small village in the middle of a forest. He went up to a woman who was minding some chickens. She asked who he was looking for and did not seem surprised when he told her he was looking for God. So she finished her chores and escorted him to the rabbi's house.
When he went in, the rabbi was studying. The man was impatient to be off to the next village if he could not be satisfied. So, he interrupted: "Rabbi!” he said, “How do I find God?"
The rabbi paused, and said simply, "You've come to the right place, my child. God is in this village. Why don't you stay for a few days? You might meet God." The man did not understand what the rabbi could mean. But the answer intrigued him enough to stay.
For two or three days he explored every corner of the tiny village. He would ask the villagers where God was that day, but they would only smile and invite him to have a meal with them. Every now and then he would see the rabbi, and the rabbi would ask him, "Have you met God yet, my son?" And the man would smile and sometimes he understood, and sometimes he did not.
He stayed in the village for years and became part of village life. He went to the synagogue on Friday and prayed with the rest of the community. Sometimes he knew why he prayed and sometimes he did not. Sometimes he really said the prayers and sometimes he said only the words.
Each week, he would join one of the families for a Friday night meal. When they talked about God, he was always assured that God was in the village, though no one was quite sure where or when God could be found. Gradually, he too began to believe that God was in the village, though he wasn't quite sure where. He knew, though, that sometimes he had met God.
One day, for the first time, the rabbi sought him out, and said, "You have met God now, haven’t you?" And the man said, "Thank you, Rabbi, I think I have. But I'm not sure why I met God or how or when. And why God is only in this village?"
The rabbi replied, "God is not a person, my child, or a thing. You cannot meet God in that way. You were so caught up in the question that you could not hear the answers. Now that you can find God, return to your village, if you wish."
So the man went back to his town, and God went with him. And the man prayed and studied, and knew that God was within him and within other people. And others sensed that, and sometimes they would ask him, "Where can we find God?" And the man would always answer, "You have come to the right spot. God is in this place."
Be alert, stay awake, keep looking and have a very blessed Advent. Amen.
Chaplain at Ham