s092^96 Somerton Park 1/12/96 Advent 1 Year B
"In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light ... the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken ..." Mark 13.24
It is all a bit cataclysmic and apocalyptic and perhaps we might be tempted to think they were said to make us frightened. Perhaps this was Jesus' way to catch the attention of the crowds. Nothing like a bit of "fire and brimstone" to get people to sit up and take notice.
I was interested and somewhat saddened to read words of our Primate in the November 22nd issue of "Church Scene" in a three page article entitled "The Episcopate & the Australian Church in the 21st century" - these words: "...the reason the Church is not cutting the ice that it should in the world ... is that its life and message are not coming through to the world with impelling force. The gospel is not being proclaimed in a way that evokes responsive faith among people at large ..." (p10) I wonder what has provoked these words, and not knowing, I cannot pass comment on their appropriateness. I do know from other press reports that he has had a particularly difficult parochial situation to try to resolve in recent times.
I guess one of the problems being any Bishop, one that comes with the job, and not dependent on the particular person in the job, is that wherever he (and I guess one day the person may be a "she") goes, it is he himself that preaches. He rarely hears one of his priests preach, and if they do have an opportunity to do so, the poor priest is so petrified not to preach any form of heresy, he or she ends up saying nothing.
I sometimes tell the story of the time when I was priest at Crystal Brook. In those days we had "Willochra Sunday" rather than BHME Sunday - and I swapped with the priest at Jamestown. I was horrified to process into the Church of St James only to find the Bishop sitting in the congregation! I immediately thought: "What heresy was I preaching this morning!" As was, and is still, my wont, I prepared my sermon early in the week. I had a 50km journey to arrive at Jamestown at 7.30am. I hadn't read it again on the way. I knew as soon as I read the text, I would remember it, but I couldn't for the life of me, remember even the text! Still I managed to survive, and the Bishop was gracious enough to complement my words! Despite this one example, Bishops rarely see Churches operating on "normal" Sundays. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I don't know.
One of the excellent things which has come from my appointment as chaplain to the Mothers Union, is that for the first time I have experienced "peripatetic" preaching. "Peripatetic" preaching is what I call what the Wesleys used to do, and like Billy Graham - going from place to place, as a guest preacher, preaching the same sermon. I have realised that it is quite different from preaching weekly to essentially the same congregation.
It is also interesting, because for the first time in nearly twenty years, I have been judged by my peers. Since the beginning of 1980, I have been in sole charge of the usual succession of parishes, and rarely, if ever has a member of the clergy come to listen to what I have had to say in my sermon. So the opportunity to go to other parishes as a guest preacher, and to have clergy in the congregation, is quite a novel experience.
St Paul, in his greeting to the Church at Corinth, seems to exude a confidence in the situation there. "I give thanks to my God always for you because the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him ... so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift ... he will also strengthen you ... that you may be blameless ..." What a wonderful parish that must have been! I wonder who was the Rector there. Must have been a good preacher!
However we don't have to read too much further into the letter to find that the Church at Corinth was hardly a "plum" appointment. The Church there was wracked with divisions, incest, litigation in pagan courts, and those who questioned the resurrection from the dead. Perhaps the Rector's preaching wasn't that good after all! Perhaps he talked about giving money each week!
There is a confidence too in the later words of Jesus in the reading for today, which reflects an ancient themes of the Old Testament: "This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place". In the Old Testament, each generation was given an opportunity to respond to the call of God, and the Judges appointed by God came to save the people.
Despite this confidence, Jesus could not know what God would do at the Cross. Certainly Jesus told his disciples that he would be killed on a cross and after three days be raised to life. It is certain that this is what he understood as his mission and the faith he had in God to vindicate him. However there was always uncertainty. Uncertainty because it depended as much on the inclinations of the religious authorities, the governor and his wife. If Pontius Pilate had had a migraine that day, or couldn't be bothered with the rabble - the history of salvation may be somewhat different. God too might change his mind. With utter revulsion at the ultimate expression of humanity's inhumanity to one of their own, God may well have decided to call it a day. Within the personal experience of crucifixion, what happened to the world at large - to the sun, the moon, the stars and the powers of heaven, might well have accompanied it, even if Jesus himself was (not unnaturally) unaware of them. It may well have been that Jesus saw these things is those darkest of hours, when he had given up his spirit.
Jesus himself had to have faith. If he knew, to the extent that faith was unnecessary for him, then he was not truly human, as we proclaim in the Creed.
We might also look at the words that the sun, the moon, the stars might be done away with - with some anticipation rather than trepidation. How often do we complain about the weather, which is largely determined by the sun. I am interested to hear Catherine speak of the change of moods of hospital patients at the full moon. How often do we thing of our lives determined by the stars. When will we be free to live our lives without all these external constraints? We do not need to wait until the end of time!
"Keep awake" says Jesus, "Beware, keep alert", because I guess it is easy to miss seeing God at work either in the heavens or in the creation.
The prophet Isaiah, with his eyes firmly fixed on the clouds, straining to see the signs that God might be about to reveal himself, cries out in desperation: "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down ..." Jesus bids us look at the fig tree for guidance: "As soon as its branches become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near ..."
It is St Paul, despite all the horrendous things happening in the congregation at Corinth, who can see the Christ at work in this "motley crew".
The incarnation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, which we celebrate and proclaim this Christmass, is, if nothing else, a reminder that if we look to the skies to see God at work, that might be in vain.
At Christmass, in the incarnation, we find God at work in the birth of what can only be described as a very ordinary child. In the life and ministry of Jesus, we find God at work through Jesus visiting and accepting the hospitality of saint and sinner alike. "This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place". Jesus spent his time making sure that all of that generation had an opportunity to see him and hear him and make their contribution to him - saint and sinner alike.
Can we take our Lord's words to heart, and be awake to where God is at work in the world? Not in the fig trees, though certainly God is at work there too. Can we see God at work in other people? That is the real crunch question.
Let me be quite personal and specific. Here at St Philips, I see God at work in and amongst each and every one who worships here. I am in a very privileged position, because I know almost all of you reasonably personally. I have visited most, if not all, in your homes. I have talked with you and listened to what you have had to say. Without exception, I can see God at work in each and every one of you. I am sorry if I cause you any embarrassment, for that is not what I intend at all.
There are people who express their Christian faith in a quite different way to myself. What matters is not what way we express our faith, but that God calls us and empowers us to express our faith, in the only way that comes naturally to us. For some that will be the freedom to tell a dirty joke, for others something more usually recognised as sacred.
One of the last adjectives I would ever use of myself is "Protestant", for by using this word I would define my faith in God as something in protest to some aberration of or in another. If, as a Protestant, I got my way and the other ceased to be - the whole basis of my own faith would cease to be also.
The message of today's gospel is to be alert - to be alert to where God is at work in the world. Let us not look not to the heavens or to the trees and the rest of God's creation (wonderful though that is). Let us look for God where Jesus himself spent his time - sitting down, eating and so accepting the contribution of sinners.
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