Advent 1 – December 3, 2017

Rev. Lyle McKenzie  Lutheran Church of the Cross of Victoria at Knox Presbyterian Church
Isaiah 64:1-9 Ps 80:1-7,17-19 1Corinthians 1:3-9 Mark 13:24-37

More than a few times, people have said to me, “With a name like McKenzie, what are you doing in the Lutheran Church? My typical answer is, “They would have me,” or “They needed help as much as anyone.” And quite often I’ve been told I should be a Presbyterian. So today, I can finally say, I’m home! Thank you

The ecumenical exchange that we are joining in this first Sunday of Advent is, I think, a good thing. You are welcome to reserve judgement for about 12 minutes or so when this sermon wraps up and then you can decide. But as Presbyterians and Lutherans, Anglicans and Roman Catholics, and as clergy exchanging places to be present with one another’s communities, Rev. Laura at St. Luke’s Anglican, Father William and Rev Dave at Lutheran Church of the Cross, and Rev. Daniel at Grace Lutheran, and me, home at Knox, is a good and important expression of greater cooperation and unity for us to experience and others to witness. Greater cooperation and unity is much needed in our time at every opportunity, including the divided house of the Church of Christ Jesus. So, thank you.

And by the way, Happy New Year! It is good to do this together on the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Church year for many of our traditions. To start out right, so to speak; to express the unity Jesus prays for and how much we share in common and can do in common, rather than holding up our differences – especially before the world comes to an end.

Sorry; that was a bit jarring. It is of course what we hear from Jesus in today’s gospel reading from Mark, our new gospel guide for this lectionary year. Mark who’s Gospel is short, sharp, and to the point. In this thirteenth chapter Jesus has stepped out of the Temple for the last time after watching a poor widow give all she had to the offering. And standing outside, Jesus tell his disciples not one Temple stone will be standing upon another. And from the Mount of Olives, Jesus goes on to answer the disciple’s question not about when, but how all of this will take place; from natural disasters to wars and persecution to fleeing and terrible suffering. And then! comes the beginning of the end.

In our reading for today Jesus’ picturing of that end is everything from the cosmic and apocalyptic to parables of a fig tree in bud and a man going on a journey. However we understand these images and stories about the end, the command of Jesus to his followers is clear and repeated. “Beware, keep alert; keep awake – what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake.”

It’s only the first morning of Advent, but how do you feel about this call of Jesus to spiritual insomnia?

One person I read this week connected it to the practise of meditation. Introduced to it at an early age, he spoke of the lengthy process of learning to release distractions and more carefully attend to the present which has developed over his life.  Mindfulness is the popular term these days, cited and even encouraged beyond spiritual traditions in a growing number of professions and areas of study, from environmental studies to health care to education to physical and recreation therapies. My son is studying occupational therapy and he called to say one of his assignments was leading a class in understanding and practising mindfulness. He went over his presentation and examples with me, recognizing there is a spiritual dimension to this. After his presentation he told me a student in the class came up to him and asked how long he had been practising and leading mediation. He answered, “Well, this morning.”

There’s always a place and time to begin. And maybe this morning is a beginning at Jesus’ invitation to practise and grow, individually and collectively, in living with greater mindfulness, awareness, awakened to all that is around us; as opposed to sleep walking through life and this world and the “things taking place” that God desires us and everyone to see.

Worship across our traditions has always had this dimension. Calling, invoking and inviting one another into the presence of God; singing for God’s mercy and to God’s praise; attending to God’s words to hear them anew; holding the world; those in need, ourselves and others in prayer, remembering together in bread and wine Jesus’ giving of himself for the forgiveness and new life of the world; being sent out in hope and courage to join Jesus in serving a world in need. This is a practise of wakefulness we begin again together this morning.

But what are “these things” Jesus speaks of that we are to beware of, alert and awake to?

Some suggest there are three ways of hearing this and other apocalyptic/end time readings: historically, existentially and eschatologically. Aren’t you glad I came? Before you roll your eyes too much, they may help us hear and be awakened to these words of Jesus in our own time and lives, and that’s good.

Historically, most suggest these words of Jesus are shared by the gospel writer in a time of war, turmoil and great suffering, in a conflict between rebel Jews fighting against Roman oppression and Roman forces determined to put down the revolt; and an impending collapse of all that foundational, in a temple system and ruling authority under siege. Maybe it is like what we have seen happening in Syria, or Yemen.

The signs of the end that Jesus speaks of are both terrifying and hold the promise of everything being torn open, that God’s ways would break in, bringing God’s justice and judgement, God’s healing and peace. It is the same spirit in the words from Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…” Only in a context of suffering and struggle, could this call for Jesus/God to break everything open, be good news.

That is the existential reality for many in our world and time, even if not for most of us. For millions of refugees, for the hungry and homeless in our own neighbourhoods, for the addicted and dying, for an earth depleted and suffering, are they not crying out, would we not cry out with and for them for the heavens to be torn open and for God’s radically different ways of compassion, justice, reconciliation, equity, forgiveness, mercy, peace, break into their and our lives and world as God desires. That cosmic shift, potential disaster for those invested in this world as it is – like us?, last hope for others who suffer in and by this world, envisioned by Jesus in good prophetic and apocalyptic tradition, is what Jesus wants all of us to be aware of, alert and awake to – God’s final end and purpose breaking into our world even now. Don’t we want to be aware, alert, awake to God’s advent, God’s arriving, in our world and lives, at any moment, and all the terrifying hope that holds? Being alert, awakened and mindful to “these things,” God’s end and purpose breaking into this world and our lives is Jesus’ hope for us.

Maybe it begins at home, with family, our neighbours. I preached at a memorial this week for a former member of the congregation I serve, who because of the direction our church took to fully include people of differing sexual orientations and gender identities left the congregation to go to a neighbouring church. We remained connected even as the differences also remained. Similar divisions were present in his family, over any number of issues of the past. I had a half-awake, half asleep dream the night before writing my sermon, with a vision of the gathering and even my words offering a chance for an end and new beginning, for healing to break in. In my sermon I spoke of his kindness and caring, and his abrasiveness and inflexibility that we all knew. I spoke of him in good Lutheran theology as 100 percent sinner, part of a broken humanity and fallen world, and 100 percent saint by God’s grace in Christ. And I reminded all of us, so are we! And I said, “we gather here, sinners and saints all of us, to entrust our friend and loved one in this grace of God forever. And to be embraced by this grace of God ourselves, in our own blessings and failings, love and hurt, thanksgivings and grief, to know God’s healing and hope; and to embrace one another and all others in these same gifts to living on in the everlasting life God offers each of us, now, and forever.” As in a dream, as I spoke to family and friends as they departed, the worship and words did seem to offer an end and a new beginning, and maybe the breaking in of God’s gracious healing and hope.

I want to be awakened, more alert and aware of God’s breaking into this world and our lives like this, for God’s good purpose and end to be realized for the sake of all in God’s creation. And I pray that for all of us. Blessed Advent.